Why identity politics and class politics can’t be separated

Some liberals are eager to detach identity politics from economic populism. But economic justice is social justice

09.23.20173:00 AM
During last year’s Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the disagreements between the two candidates were most apparent when it came to the economy. While Sanders built his campaign around economic issues like income and wealth inequality, campaign finance and free trade, Clinton often downplayed the importance of economic issues and even tried to characterize Sanders’ focus on things like inequality and Wall Street corruption as an unhealthy obsession.

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” said Clinton at one point during a speech to her supporters. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

“No!” replied the triumphant crowd, as if their candidate had just delivered a devastating coup de grâce to her opponent.

Of course, no one — not least Sanders — had ever made the absurd claim that breaking up big banks or addressing any other economic problem would magically end racism or sexism or any other kind of bigotry. This was a deliberate attempt by Clinton to smear her opponent — who had much more credibility on economic justice than she did — as being out of touch with the concerns of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. More importantly, though, it was an attempt to separate the economic realm from the social and cultural realms, which made it easier for Clinton to prove her progressive bona fides.

As an economic centrist who had long taken big donations (or speaking fees) from Wall Street and corporate America, Clinton lacked credibility with progressives when it came to economic issues. Thus she tried to discredit Sanders as an “angry white male” who couldn’t grasp the real concerns of women and people of color (even though Sanders is a Jew who grew up in 1940s America and has an equal if not better record than Clinton on social issues like LGBTQ equality).

Ultimately, Clinton and other corporate Democrats were trying to muddy the waters with these disingenuous arguments in order to create a false tension between economic populism and social liberalism. Only a straight white male like Sanders, the logic went, could become so fixated on economic issues like income and wealth inequality, because he did not experience racism, sexism or homophobia on a daily basis. This argument was based not only on a cynical version of identity politics that gave greater importance to a candidate’s race or gender than his or her politics, but on a false dilemma between class politics and identity politics. Furthermore, it implied that the social democratic policies advocated by Sanders — e.g., Medicare for All, raising taxes on the wealthy, increasing the minimum wage, strengthening Social Security, defending labor unions, etc. — would disproportionately benefit white males.

This implication is, as many progressives pointed out at the time, utterly untrue. In fact, women and people of color would almost certainly benefit more from Sanders’ populist economic agenda, as they are disproportionately affected by the economic injustices it was designed to counteract. Sanders made this point during his campaign last year when he observed that African-Americans were hit the hardest during the financial crisis, losing half their collective wealth after being unfairly targeted by the big banks (along with other minority groups) with subprime mortgages during the buildup of the housing bubble.

That economic justice and racial justice are deeply intertwined was given further credence last week when a new study was released by the Institute for Policy Studies revealing that median black household wealth in the United States will fall to zero by 2053 if current trends continue, while the median white household wealth is on path to climb to $137,000.

“By 2020 median Black and Latino households stand to lose nearly 18% and 12% of the wealth they held in 2013, respectively, while median White household wealth increases 3%,” write the authors. “At that point — just three years from now — White households are projected to own 85 times more wealth than Black households and 68 times more wealth than Latino households.”

These stunning numbers display how much the economic problems that Sanders highlighted during his campaign impact the very people he was unfairly accused of ignoring. They also demonstrate how class politics and identity politics are closely linked, and that the dichotomy or binary opposition between them, as created or perceived by certain liberals, is spurious.

After Clinton lost to Donald Trump last November, Sanders argued that the Democratic Party must adopt a populist economic agenda in order to come back strong from 2016. This predictably set off a backlash from neoliberals, who accused Sanders of being a “white male brogressive” who wanted to put women, minorities and LGBTQ people “on the backburner for economic populism.” One critic even opined that Sanders wanted to “defend white male supremacy.”

The fact that Sanders’ economic populism would help the very people he is accused of putting on the “backburner” demonstrates the sheer lunacy of these attacks. If Sanders were advocating completely jettisoning identity politics for economic populism, of course, it would be another story. But only confused liberals see class politics and identity politics as incompatible and invariably at odds with each other. The senator was actually making the opposite point: “To think of diversity purely in racial and gender terms is not sufficient,” wrote Sanders. “Our rights and economic lives are intertwined.” Rather than calling for the Democratic Party to drop identity politics, he was making the point that race, gender and class are interconnected, and that economic justice is social justice.

Sanders was, however, rejecting the cynical form of identity politics that — as Briahna Joy Gray puts it in her excellent Current Affairs essay “How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left” — wields identity to “neutralize political pushback.” The kind of identity politics, in other words, that Clinton frequently deployed during her campaign to counter legitimate criticisms — exemplified by the time she suggested that she couldn’t be a part of the “establishment” because she is a woman.

Over the past few decades, as economic inequality has skyrocketed to pre-Great Depression levels and communities of color have seen their wealth decline, the economic and corporate elite have co-opted the language of diversity and weaponized identity to defend the economic status quo. But the same people neoliberals claim to represent are the ones who suffer most under the status quo. As the authors of the aforementioned study write, “without a serious change in course, the country is heading towards a racial and economic apartheid state.” Economic populism offers an alternative, and a politics of class solidarity is the way to achieve this alternative.

CONOR LYNCH
Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

Will the Trumpian nightmare lead to a real “political revolution” after all?

Out of darkness, light:

Slavoj Žižek argued Trump would be better for the left than Clinton — and if we survive this, he might be right

Out of darkness, light: Will the Trumpian nightmare lead to a real "political revolution" after all?
(Credit: Getty/Win McNamee/Andrew Harrer)

Last November, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek turned a lot of heads when he announced shortly before the 2016 presidential election that if he were American, he would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton — not because he thought Trump was the lesser evil, but precisely because he was the greater evil.

The Slovenian intellectual’s hope was that the election of a vulgar, right-wing extremist like Trump would “be a kind of big awakening” that would trigger “new political processes” in America. In other words, with a reactionary demagogue as transparently abhorrent and dangerous as Trump in the White House, a popular movement on the left would emerge to challenge not only Trump’s reactionary populism, but the neoliberal status quo that had long prevailed in Washington. Clinton, argued Žižek, stood for an “absolute inertia” that would stifle a populist movement on the left, and while there was great danger in a Trump presidency, there was also great danger in electing Clinton — especially in the long run.

This was obviously a controversial — and very Žižekian — opinion that most on the left did not espouse. One of the most prominent leftist intellectuals of our time, Noam Chomsky, called it a “terrible point,” remarking that “it was the same point that people like him said about Hitler in the early ’30s.” Chomsky means the German Communists, who in the early 1930s were more critical of the reformist Social Democratic Party — which they preposterously labeled a “social fascist” party — than they were of the Nazis.

“The left could have been organized to keeping [Clinton’s] feet to the fire,” noted  Chomsky in an interview with Al Jazeera. “What it will be doing now is trying to protect rights … gains that have been achieved, from being destroyed. That’s completely regressive.”

While Chomsky is absolutely correct — the Trump administration’s assault on civil liberties, democracy and the Constitution has only just begun, and the left will be on the political defensive for the next four years — Žižek’s point was perhaps not quite as far off as as Chomsky believed.

Shortly before the election, many people wondered what would become of the far-right populist movement that had been energized under Trump after the election, which most assumed he would lose. It is doubtful that it would have just withered away, as many liberals no doubt hoped. With Clinton in the White House, the Democrats would have been at a clear disadvantage in both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 elections (think of the Obama backlash during the 2010 midterm elections, and then consider how much more well-liked Obama was than Clinton).

This is particularly important when you consider that 2020 is a census year, which means that the party that comes out on top will have greater control of redrawing district lines across the country. The GOP has been able to maintain control of the House since 2010 in large part because of the extreme gerrymandering that was implemented after the 2010 Obama backlash — and in four years the winning party will have similar power (currently, Republicans control state legislatures in 24 states, while Democrats only control five).

Of course, this is still some distance away, and a lot can happen in the interim. Though we are just one month into Trump’s term, his presidency has already surpassed all recent predecessors in scandal and controversy, and the dysfunction is palpable. At times it is hard to imagine how the United States can survive another 47 weeks of this unhinged and extremist administration. While many had hoped that Trump would curb his divisive rhetoric as president and take a more pragmatic approach to governing, the exact opposite has occurred, and it is now clear that fanatics like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are running the show (and that Trump’s erratic, impulsive and thin-skinned personality cannot be controlled).

Thus, Chomsky’s pessimism was well-founded when he said that the government is now in the hands of the “most dangerous organization in world history.”

At the same time, it appears that some of Žižek’s hopes are materializing as well. The clearest example of this was the massive Women’s March in Washington — along with hundreds of sister marches across the country — the day after Trump’s inauguration. According to various political scientists, it was the single largest day of protests in American history — and peaceful demonstrations have continued ever since.

Trump’s controversial executive orders and cabinet picks have led to a sustained grassroots resistance in the first month of his presidency, and it is unlikely to die down anytime soon. Moumita Ahmed, who founded the Facebook group “Millennials for Revolution” (originally “Millennials for Bernie”), recently told CNN that she believes this is “not just the beginning of the ‘tea party of the left’ but a larger movement for civil rights that could make history,” and that the protests will “continue and get bigger and bigger.”

As long as Trump is in the White House, the demonstrations are likely to grow. What remains unclear is whether this grassroots resistance will be as effective in shaping electoral politics as the Tea Party was back in 2010 — and whether the Democratic Party will be as welcoming to the populist left as the GOP was to the populist right.

The current tension between progressive activists protesting on the street and the Democratic establishment was displayed by an interesting exchange last week between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and an NYU student at a CNN town hall. After pointing out that a majority of millennials no longer support the capitalist system, the young student asked Pelosi whether she felt that the Democratic Party could “move farther left to a more populist message, the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right wing,” and if the Democrats “could make a more stark contrast to right-wing economics?” The question — or, more explicitly, the statement that young people are rejecting capitalism — made Pelosi visibly uncomfortable, and the congresswoman felt it necessary to emphasize the Democratic Party’s loyalty: “I have to say, we’re capitalist ― and that’s just the way it is.”

This is understandable — after all, the Democratic Party does support capitalist party, and the House minority leader can’t be expected to make radical pronouncements. But Pelosi was so concerned with defending the sanctity of capitalism that she failed to answer whether the Democrats could or should espouse a more populist economic message, akin to the social-democratic platform that nearly carried Bernie Sanders to victory over Clinton.

That kind of Democratic resistance to economic populism is making many progressives question whether the party is ready to lead a viable resistance against right-wing populism. Some progressives are starting to join other left-wing organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Of course, it is a truism in American politics that third parties are not viable alternatives if the goal is to succeed in electoral politics — and as long as there is a winner-takes-all system in place, this will obstinately remain true. The pragmatic approach for the populist left is to work to transform the Democratic Party itself, as groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats have set out to do, while sustaining a popular movement on the ground.

Likewise, the pragmatic approach for the Democratic leadership is to embrace the growing grassroots left and combat Trump-style populism with their own anti-establishment message. With a historically low approval rating, Trump is already the most unpopular president in modern history, and his party is now the “establishment.” That means the Democrats will have the perfect opportunity to lead a popular and successful resistance in 2018 and 2020 if they can adopt a compelling populist message of their own.

With the many profound crises that currently face humanity, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future. The worst-case scenario is that the Trump presidency could sound a “death knell for the human species,” as Chomsky put it last year. But if we are lucky enough to avoid World War III, this nightmare could also bring about the “big awakening” that Žižek imagines — and could trigger a popular movement to reverse the damage that has been done over the past 50 years.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.