Hey everybody! Its your old pal, “Dr. Nick” here (Simpsons heads will get that reference pretty easily). This episode features the return of Chairman Moe, your favorite Fully Automated regular guests. Last we heard from them, they were interviewing Keir Milburn on his book Generation Left (see Episode 19). This episode sees them returning to Fully Automated, for a long chat on Adam Curtis’s recent documentary, Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Yes, true enough, this is hardly the first time you’ll have heard a discussion about this documentary in a podcast. But it is the first time you’ll have heard it discussed quite like this. Here, we adopt a unique take on Curtis, reading him through the lens of an eclectic group of texts drawn from our own readings, over the last year or so. These include, tho by no means exclusively, Gilles Dauvé’s Crisis and Communization, Thomas Frank’s The People, No, and Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology.
Our goal, as one quick whip put it on Twitter, is to “figure out what in the hell Curtis’s politics are in 2021.” In the end, we conclude that Curtis is an important and necessary commentator, but that he comes to some unhelpful conclusions. This, we think, can be attributed to his tendency to ignore the lessons of materialism and blame idealism for the flaws of the left. For us, Marx, Frank, and Dauvé can each bring something unique to the task of patching up the missing parts of Curtis’s framework. Dauvé, despite his weird normative focus on localism and simplistic low-tech authenticity, provides perhaps the greatest insight into why only a materialist critique can work in our effort to assess the flaws of the contemporary left. Whereas, perhaps more controversially, Frank provides the antidote to Curtis’s occasional tendency to fall into anti-populist cynicism.
I want to thank Chairman Moe (who are, in real life, Columbus OH-based independent scholars Charlie Umland and Jim Calder) for sharing his valuable time with us, and also Darren Latanick for so patiently indulging the Chairman’s antics, and producing a great show for us.
We’ll be back quite soon, with an interview with Sebastian Kaempf on MOOCs in Higher Ed. And then we have a number of other guests lined up, between now and the end of the year. Thanks for listening!
This episode is coming to you on Wednesday, November 11, 2020, just a few days after the media called the 2020 US presidential election for Joe Biden. Its an unusual episode for this show, insofar as it doesn’t feature an interview (we have a great interview coming very soon, with Vanesa Bilancetti, on Foucault and Marx). Instead, its just going to be me, offering a few remarks on the election results, and what they mean for American academia. In the below, I’m going to focus on two key aspects of the discussion. The first is the strange prevalence of the so-called K-Hive, in American academia. The second concerns the role of racial essentialism in early academic analysis of the election.
Just a caveat here. I want to make it clear from the outset that I think on balance its probably a good thing that Donald Trump is no longer going to the president. The problem is that I’m not sure how much better the Biden presidency will be. Now I agree, I think, that there are probably real and important positives to a Biden administration, such as the likelihood that Biden will put more labor-friendly appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. Equally, Biden will probably do a better job with the coronavirus. Yet, as many good faith leftists will point out, the Biden administration will likely do very little to address the core rot at the heart of the pandemic-stricken neoliberal hellscape that is America today. Similarly, these good faith critics will point out, there are real and extremely worrying indications that, from a foreign policy perspective, the Biden administration will be loaded with neoconservative ghouls left over from the Bush “W” administration. As Derek Davison and Daniel Bessner discussed on Monday’s paywall episode of Chapo Trap House yesterday, Trump didn’t do much to challenge the national security blob. But neither was he a competent whip for US empire. Biden, on the other hand, looks set to present a far more vicious and bloodthirsty face of the American war machine to the world.
In the end, the fact remains that Trump is an insufferable narcissist and, while perhaps he is too dumb to ever deserve the accusation of fascism often thrown at him by academics and the liberal left, its probably just better on balance not to have a shameless used car salesman in the White House. As Matt Taibbi put it in a recent Substack post:
Donald Trump is so unlike most people, and so especially unlike anyone raised under a conventional moral framework, that he’s perpetually misdiagnosed. The words we see slapped on him most often, like “fascist” and “authoritarian,” nowhere near describe what he really is, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s been proven across four years that Trump lacks the attention span or ambition required to implement a true dictatorial regime. He might not have a moral problem with the idea, but two minutes into the plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch himself on Fox and Friends over a cheeseburger.
The elite misread of Trump is egregious because he’s an easily familiar type to the rest of America. We’re a sales culture and Trump is a salesman. Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself. He’s up to his eyes in balls, and the parts of the brain that hold most people back from selling schlock online degrees or tchotchkes door-to-door are absent. He has no shame, will say anything, and experiences morality the way the rest of us deal with indigestion.
So, good riddance to the used car salesman! Even if the evidence is flimsy, its certainly hard to dismiss the argument that a Biden White House will be at least marginally better. Yet, in a way, that’s precisely the point. It will be only a marginally improvement. Certainly nowhere near a major improvement, and certainly nowhere near the sort of level of improvement as would warrant the totally fawning reaction of many otherwise sensible and intelligent people, including a number of academics (and even friends of this show!), to the election of Kamala Harris to the Eisenhower Building.
In the last few days, usually sensible people — people who I would usually regard to be quite sober-minded and intelligent — have been posting memes lavishing praise on Harris, as not only the first female VP in US history, but also the first woman of color VP in US history. This double whammy of specialness is supposedly a ‘big deal.’ Harris is going to be an inspirational figure, the memes declare, for a whole generation of young women of color.
And you might say at this point, well, where are you going with this, Kiersey? Its no small thing, after all, given America’s problematic racial and gendered history, for a woman of color to be in the White House. But honestly, I genuinely don’t understand the impulse. To pick perhaps an obvious example, few of us would look back and celebrate the election of Margaret Thatcher, who despite being the first female British Prime Minister, hardly elevated the cause of women’s emancipation. Well, same here. There’s a non-trivial amount of evidence that Kamala Harris is an awful human being and that, on balance, she deserves to be called out much more than she deserves to be celebrated.
In the course of her career as a prosecutor in California, Harris did very little to deserve the admiration of anyone on the left, let alone that of young black women. In a 2019 piece in the NYT, Prof. Lara Bazelon of the University of San Francisco School of Law offers just a few highlights of Harris’s shameful career: she withheld information about police misconduct; she championed an an anti-truancy initiative that criminalized noncompliant parents and threatened them with jail time; she appealed a judge in a case who ruled against the death penalty on constitutional grounds; she opposed marijuana legalization (and then laughed about smoking up, on the debate stage in 2020); she opposed the use of body-worn cameras by police officers; and, finally, and perhaps most worryingly, she is associated with a string of wrongful conviction cases. From this review, its not hard to make an argument that Harris made a practice of throwing innocent people under the bus to build up a “tough on crime” brand, and cultivate her political career. She failed to prosecute “foreclosure king,” Steve Mnuchin. She also arrived in the White House with a fat rolodex of Silicon Valley donor names (some speculate her post-primary largess towards the Biden campaign to be one of the key reasons she got the VP nod, in the first place).
Despite the weight of evidence, however, the last 3 days we’ve seen numerous self-identifying serious critical theory types blowing up on social media over criticism directed at Kamala Harris. So what’s going on here? What’s with the cognitive dissonance? The only theory I can come up with is that the rage serves a sort of displacement function. Let me explain. The results of this election were actually pretty unambiguous. They clarified certain trends that were seen as ambiguous and contestable, in 2016. One of the more famous analyses put forward in 2016, was the so-called deplorables hypothesis. This was a controversial idea, as former guest Lee Jones explained in a blog post at the time. But the basic gist is that was the poor, white racists in flyover states who put Trump over the edge.
If this theory sounded dodgy in 2016, the 2020 election results really smashed it to bits. As Matt Breunig noted in a Tweet on November 4, Trump “did better in 2020 with every race and gender except white men.” To flesh that out a bit, Trump gained 4 points from black men (who already trended red, in 2016) and black women (a doubling of his 2016 performance), gained 3 points among Latino Men, and gained 3 points among other non-whites. He lost support from white male voters by 5 points. Now, white male voters were still his main support group, followed closely by white females, but there’s no doubt that the non-white vote confounded expectations. Given how close the election was, these are not trivial numbers; overall, as Bruenig further noted, “women and people of color make up the majority (59.6%) of the Trump coalition again in 2020.” And Trump made serious inroads in the non-white vote, increasing his share from 21% in 2016, to 25% in 2020. Given these figures, and the crazy tight margins in many contested states, the notable decline in white male support is arguably the only thing that saved Biden’s campaign. But all of this just begs the even bigger question: how could Trump, the ignoramus, racist, fascist, misogynistic, Cheeto-faced science denier, increase his votes among non-whites, in the highest turnout election in US since 1900?!
This is a fascinating question, to be sure, but its actually not the one I want to focus on, in this commentary. Instead, I want to go a little deeper into what I referred to earlier as the displacement function. As we’ve talked about on this show before, a lot of Critical Theory types engage in racial essentialism. Arguably, many don’t know they are doing it. But they do it. And what is racial essentialism? Simply put, its the expectation that demographics are a kind of moral destiny. Its the belief that non-white voters have fixed political preferences, which remain the same no matter what other variables beyond racial experience might be effecting their lives. Black Marxists have long lamented this kind of analysis, common among liberals, as condescending towards people of color. As scholars like Touré Reed and Cedric Johnson note, racial essentialism tends to instill in the mind heroic stereotypes about black subjectivity, and the moral clarity of black voices. In the same breath, it also papers over the fact in the decades since the civil rights struggles, economic mobilization has decreased black poverty from 60% to 25%. Thus it occludes how black voting preferences are being distributed increasingly along class lines (see 1:15 mark, in this video).
Now you can understand why this narrative might not fit well with the worldview of critical-liberal academics, who have built their entire careers upon the idea that whiteness is the original sin of modernity, and that the only real way to create political change is through a purging of so-called white logocentrism.For a particularly fascinating example of this mindset, we can look at an interview that was posted on Novara Media this week, with the economic historian Adam Tooze. Pondering the racial politics of the 2020 election cycle, Tooze noted that the exit polls might not be a good indicator in a coronavirus year because the numbers would not factor the preferences of the unusually high number of mail-in early ballots in this election. The early ballots, Tooze claimed, would likely tend to skew progressive in the 2020 cycle because, in the months leading up to the vote, Trump had repeatedly warned his supporters away from trusting postal ballots. Yet, while this might seem a reasonable point, the NYT reports that the poll in question, which is the Edison Poll (the gold standard exit poll for US politics), did actually account for mail-in votes.
But, even forgetting the polls for a minute, its hard to imagine someone like Tooze would not have already looked deeper into the actual results. Its unlikely, for example, that he would have been unaware, that Trump had radically increased his margin in the near-homogeneously hispanic border counties of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), in Texas, where he even flipped Zapata County from blue to red by 30 points — the first time the county voted Republican in 100 years! Granted, of course, that Hispanic voters are not a homogenous bloc — the Cuban vote in Miami, for example, has long been conservative. Yet the Mexican vote in the RGV was solid blue for Hillary, in 2016. Considering the tight results in many states, and the very high national turnout, the significance of these voting patterns for the final result is clear. Equally clear, however, is the fact that these patterns refuse explanation in racial terms. Allegedly the Latino note was instrumental in handing Biden a thorough shellacking in Florida, for example, yet the same state also passed a referendum to institute a minimum wage! (Similar examples of local “socialist” ballot initiatives could be seen in “near miss” states like Nevada and Arizona, too, as this tweet by Bernie Sanders attests).
So, what does this all mean? Well, on the one hand, its important not to overstate the case. As the data presented in the NYT shows, white voters were still Trump’s number one supporters. Nevertheless, the results undermine a key assumption which seems to underpin the analysis of folks like Tooze. Namely, that racism plays an unambiguously massive determining role in US electoral politics.
As the NYT data shows, 40% of 2020 voters belonged to the $50-100K middle income bracket. Of these, 57% voted for Biden, thus constituting the highest concentration of support for any candidate among any income bracket (see image below). Numbers from CNN add some further nuance, suggesting the possible emergence of a new battle: middle-class, urban and college-educated on the one side, with poor, rural and non-college on the other. The former largely went into the 2020 election believing the primary issues were identity and the handling of the coronavirus, while the latter appear to have voted primarily on the basis of economic concerns. Further confirmation of this analysis is provided by Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic. And, indeed, all of this merely confirms what was already indicated in the 2018 midterm cycle: the real divide in the data is the one between the middle class and college-educated, on the one hand, and a sizable cohort of rural and non-college educated, on the other.
Hence the displacement function. We are beginning now to get a hint as to why supposedly progressive thinkers appear to be so incapable of handling any criticism of Kamala Harris, and why they so frequently demand that white leftist critics “stay in their lane.” Similarly, we are beginning to get a sense of how it is that an expert figure like Adam Tooze can so casually overlook already widely available data on racial electoral preferences, and hand-wave what are in fact obvious patterns in these election results. Indeed, we might even be beginning to get a sense of how it was exactly that the Biden campaign managed to fritter away what was supposed to be one of its key strengths: its innate appeal to black voters.
The focus on race as the overarching determinant of American politics belies I think a major issue facing progressive and academic thought, as we head into a new era of coronavirus-driven economic crisis and austerity. Simply put, its a class problem. Matt Christman has been commenting on this in some of his recent video blogs, on YouTube. We are living, he says, through a period of major political realignment. The Democratic Party — the traditional party of the working class in the US — has been studiously working to reorient itself as a party of the college educated urban elite. The Republican Party, on the other hand, appears yet unaware of what Trump and Bannon perhaps intuitively grasped: there is a gap in the market for a real working class party.
And its worth pondering what this realignment might mean for academia — or, at least, those in the humanities and social sciences. Because academics are not people who are used to seeing themselves as anything other than the unbiased servants of truth, and the advancement of the Enlightenment project. Even in their more post-structural and Frankfurt School iterations, the identity of the college professor remains that of the iconoclast, seeking in the classroom those “teachable moments” that would challenge the student to engage in self-critique, so that any political instinct they might have towards class solidarity might be purged in favor of more constructivist intuitions.
Let’s be absolutely clear here. This is a political project! To understand this, one need only reflect on the stakes of the project for Marxism, for example, which teaches that there are real and fundamental material structures at work in our world, that these structures have massive pressuring effects on our political outcomes, and that these structures can be overcome only by means of the organization of the working class. The fawning over Harris, and the refusal to see how class is increasingly overriding race as a force in American politics, is instructive in this sense. It points to a blindspot not just among the college-educated elite in America, but among those responsible for their intellectual formation. The awful paradox here is that the critical-constructivist college professor is generally unaware of their own moral exceptionalism. This is why they get so offended when their role in class politics is pointed out to them. This is why they prefer to prescribe the existence of lanes, and urge us to stay in them, rather than call attention to the facts of Kamala Harris’s problematic career. To be fair, they seem to mean well. But functional outcome of their intellectual blindspot is the continued fetishization of the heroic epistemological standpoint of racial minorities — something that functions necessarily to judge in advance any solidarity that might emerge among the multiracial, non-college educated voters that compose the American proletariat, today.
It is worth recalling that Critical Theory mega-stars like Judith Butler and Donna Harraway were both donors to Kamala Harris’s primary campaign. When this information first surfaced in December 2019, it didn’t seem like much more than a mildly instructive piece of “silly gossip.” Looking back on it now, however, it seems far more ominous. Because it speaks to the ideological function both of a college education, and of the progressive, identitarian college professor who’s job it is to offer that education. And here, ultimately, is where you get in trouble. This is where you’ve said the unspeakable thing that the college professor must not hear. This is where they put their head in their hands and say, “you just don’t understand.” “I am a Marxist!,” they might even say. “I teach Deleuze, for God’s sake!” But it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that the primary function of their job is to teach upwardly-bound bourgeois and lumpen students that THOUGHT is the central axis of politics. So, they say, if you want politics to change, you have to change thought. But again, what goes unspoken here is the stake of the claim. If we accept that thought is the central axis of politics, then the very possibility that material interests motivate power at all, or that the real and decisive events in human history have not come about through discursive engagements, but through eruptions of materially-motivated groups, becomes nothing more than a curious historical thought artifact; an antique idea, to be entertained, but only as a somehow vulgar or less than fully sophisticated world world view, when it comes time in the syllabus to discuss The Communist Manifesto.
Whatever people like Adam Tooze, or his interlocutors on Novara Media like Dalia Gabriel, or Ash Sarkar, or Judith Butler, or any of the legion of other American K-Hive critical academics, might tell you, the election results are devastating news for the left. We have just seen the victory on a razor thin margin of a Democratic candidate fully married to the politics of identity performance, and with no economic message to speak of. All Biden offered was the promise of return to civility, and the possibility of a less buffoonish management of the coronavirus. Equally, it seems clear that no small measure of Trump’s surprising success in this election should be attributed his explicitly economic messaging, and the resulting inroads made among a poor, rural and anxious multiracial working class.
This sounds like heresy. And I admit its genuinely hard even for me to accept. But the facts speak for themselves. Identitarian academics clearly have a selection bias when it comes to analyzing increased minority support for Trump, in the 2020 election cycle. Yet their error is only symptomatic of the deeper issue, which is their own complicity with a class project that is actively undermining the very possibility of economic liberation in America, today. This is what I mean when I say that identity politics has a displacement function. Whether in its neoliberal or left guise, identity politics is the perfect shield to any kind of class-based criticism. “Stay in your lane,” is a disavowal of class privilege disguised as a critique of identity privilege.
Turning this around will be hard. And there’s no magic bullet, except the slow, patient work of class-based organizing. Academics will need to reflect on their role in this, and recognize that they are partisans in the emerging new class conflict. Except right now, they are partisans for the wrong side. And its not clear what can be done about it but it is my hope that, with commentaries like this one, we can at least begin a conversation about class and higher education.
Greetings! Welcome to Part Two of Episode 26, where we continue our interview with Adam Proctor. As I noted last time, while this is a long interview, it was also a long overdue interview. There was so much good stuff to talk about, it seemed wasteful to try to cram it all into one episode.
In Part One, we spent some time looking back over the main themes and controversies of four years of DPS (freedom of speech issues, cancel culture, race essentialism, etc.). We also talked socialist strategy, and the application of work by Sam Ginden and Leo Pantich to the Grexit question.
In Part Two, we turn our gaze more to the present, and to future. We join the conversation mid-flow, debating the post-Bernie moment, and the question of whether or not we should swallow, as it is sometimes termed, “the black pill.” Here, I push Adam on his latest slogan. That is, a warning that we should eschew taking up residence in “the basement of the vampire’s castle.” This of course is a modification of Mark Fisher’s ‘Vampire Castle’ hypothesis. In a well-known 2013 essay, Exiting the Vampire Castle, Fisher noted how in Late Capitalism the left confronts obstacles emanating not only from its foes on the other side of the ideological equation, but also from its own tendency for self-destructive behavior. Part of the problem, he wrote, is that the hyper-individuation of social life under the neoliberal cultural project has been so successful that even the left has forgotten the importance of collective power for politics. Hence its paradoxical descent into culture war and performativity.
Addressing this critique, we discuss first the importance of Angela Nagle’s stance on sub-culture, and its tendency to compete for the accumulation of cultural capital, before then moving on to address what we might call “the black pill” question. The key, Adam notes, is to take measure of the goals you want the left to accomplish, and then envision what the left would have to look like, in order for these goals to be achieved.
Later in the episode, we look at the post-2008 de-linking of the financial economy from the productive economy, the threat of a return of austerity (did it ever go?) in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, and the question of what the left is, today. And we wrap up with a sympathetically critical discussion of the state of left media in general, and the “Patreon” model of left podcasting in particular.
This episode comes to you on February 6, 2020, just six days after so-called “Brexit Day.” That is, the day Britain legally departed from the European Union. In honor of this occasion, in this episode we talk to another returned guest, Owen Worth, of the University of Limerick. You may remember Owen from Episode 4, where we talked with him about the 2017 British General Election, and the surprising performance of Jeremy Corbyn, and the British Labour Party. In this episode, Owen is going to help us try to get our heads around not only some of the implications of Brexit but, more importantly, the implications of the 2019 election for the British left.
Now, as you know, in our last episode, we had Lee Jones of the Full Brexit blog on, giving his take on the election. And Lee’s views on the election are complex, but the basic idea I think is that he sees the election as effectively a second referendum on Brexit, and an underlining of the desire of the British electorate to leave the European Union. In this sense, taking his cues from scholars like Peter Mair, Lee sees the election as a kind of revenge of those who feel themselves materially abandoned by mainstream liberal democracy. Continue reading Episode 21: Morbid Symptoms on Brexit Day, with Owen Worth→
Welcome back, friends! For this episode, we’re hooking up with our old friends in Columbus, OH, Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction, to discuss last week’s “mega debate” in Toronto, between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek, on “Happiness; Capitalism vs. Marxism.” Regular listeners to the show might remember we had Charlie Umland and Jim Calder as guests last year, in Episode 11, to talk about Situationism. That was probably one of the most fun shows we’ve ever done on this podcast and, given the spectacle of such an eagerly anticipated intellectual debate, I thought it would be a good idea to invite them on again, for a deep dive not only into the debate, but also what it means for the state of intellectual discourse today.
Just to provide some context for this particular episode: I’m lucky to be part of an occasional reading group with Charlie and Jim, and I think I speak for us all that we were all pretty excited when we heard this debate was going to be taking place. We knew there would probably be a pretty intense online reaction to it, especially from elements of the left that are already antagonistic to Žižek’s style and brand of Marxism (see here and here, for just two examples). So we thought we’d do this show, as a way of thinking our way through some of that likely response, and also to explore some of the disagreements we have among ourselves on some of the issues arising from the debate, including the political priority of identity politics for the left.
Special thanks to Darren Latanick, who graciously offered to step in as producer of the episode, on the Columbus side. Thanks for listening and, as ever, you can leave us a review on iTunes or reach out to us with feedback on Twitter @occupyirtheory.
Its become almost cliche to say that we are now somehow living in an age of identity politics. Controversies ostensibly belonging to that term seem to be piling up at a ferocious rate. Whether it be to do with toxic masculinity in online gaming communities, the tearing down of confederate statues in southern American states, the campaign access to transgender bathrooms, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign to recognize that gender is not a category that excludes the working class, or the right to freedom of speech of members of the so-called ‘intellectual dark web,’ it seems we’re just awash with this intense and rapidly proliferating series of disputes over how we regulate speech and symbolic acts, in the public sphere. Clearly, we do think these debates are important — after all, as any politically-active user on Twitter and Facebook will tell you — we can spend vast amounts of time in arguments about these issues. And we continue to engage in them, even tho they don’t seem to change anyone’s minds (and reports suggest they are actually not very good for our mental health!).
But how did we get here? What made us suddenly so aware of identity, and why do we feel the need to argue about it? Is there anything redeeming about identity politics, and how — or to what extent — should the left be engaging in it? To discuss these questions and more, our guest for this episode is Marie Moran. Marie is a lecturer in Equality Studies at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, in UCD, in Dublin, and she has a piece in the latest issue of Historical Materialism, called ‘Identity and Identity Politics’. Based on some pretty compelling research, she lays out an argument in the piece that identity is actually a very new concept in the analysis of social life, and that we need to exercise much greater care in our approach to distinguishing what it is, and what isn’t.
As you’ll hear in the interview, Marie isn’t necessarily opposed to identity politics. Not by any means. But she does believe that we may have taken a wrong turn in our grasp of its political significance. Thus, while we might find it hard not to be put off by the toxicity of today’s “call out culture,” Moran would remind us that the Black Power Movements who first embraced the concept of identity in the 1960s, did not have an essentializing approach to it. That is, that they didn’t see their struggle to secure recognition for their groups in the public sphere as an end in itself (EDIT: Marie has since written me an email asking me to clarify that her position is that identity is “invariably” essentializing “and by definition does” essentialize. I hope the listener/reader will understand my point here, however, which is to follow Marie’s own argument that not all identity struggles are carried out for the sake of identity, only). So, this is going to be one of the big topics in the interview you’re about to hear — what it means to essentialize identity, and the linkages between today’s identity mania, and capitalism’s culture of self. Towards the end, we get into a good discussion of the similarities and differences between Marie’s approach to the topic, and those presented by Asad Haider in his new book, ‘Mistaken Identity’ (we posted on this, last week). There’s been a lot of controversy about the book online, but I think you’ll find Marie’s take to be pretty thoughtful.
On a final note, I just want to apologize for the poor audio quality in this interview — due to unforeseen circumstances, we ended up having to record this interview in Skype. I’ve done my best to clean it up, but you’ll definitely hear some echo on the line. Its a shame, but stick with us – this is a really fascinating interview. Marie is a very careful and precise scholar. And I think you’ll agree that she’s making an important contribution to this debate.
Given the recent opprobrium over Melissa Naschek’s piece in Jacobin, and the fact that it certainly has a few errors, it would be foolish to make it the hill upon which one might want to make any kind of stand. (Certainly, the editors should have been able to spot the bizarre misreading of the pullout quote from Haider, about the “banal truism” — in the text, Haider is clearly replying to “identitarian liberals” who disavow class positionality altogether. He is explicitly saying we need to reserve a place in our critique for strategies of structural change. Whereas for Naschek, Haider here is somehow disavowing “class centrality”?). But the presence of errors doesn’t mean that the message is entirely off base — or, at least, that there might not be some sort of productive point to be gained from engaging with it.
To be upfront tho, unlike Naschek, I tend to think Haider’s politics are basically fine. I’ll offer some defense of that in a minute. But equally, I also have the feeling that if I could sit down with Naschek sometime, I might just be able to persuade her that there’s a lot in the book that she could work with, too. For me, a rough and ready ‘test’ for whether or not one is relying too hard on the category of identity is whether or not one can accept that identity per se is an insufficient basis upon which to erect either a critique of capitalism, or a strategic program. Borrowing from Hardt and Negri, identity might bequeath us emancipation, but only the defeat of capitalism can give us liberation. Identity in the end is a form of property, and like other forms of property, it can bind us and immobilize us in the development of our being. True human unfolding requires that we go beyond the need to ‘perform’ according to any kind of script, and that we have access to the material abundance necessary to make that possible.
Does Haider pass that test? To me, I think he does. Consider for example how Haider poses humanity as “a multitude of people irreducible to any single description” without any “default” common interest. Now, insofar as this claim might be interpreted to suggest the absence of an empirical basis for class politics, we might be alarmed to read that line. But when was class ever about the existence of an extra-historical common interest? For Marx himself, the whole point of the concept of the proletariat was to figure out how it might finally be abolished. Similarly, for Haider, anticapitalist politics is a contingent proposition, rooted in a democratic self-composition of the multitude, founded in whatever common interests it can muster, here and now, as it seeks to become something else entirely.
Does race belong as a necessary category in the struggle against capitalism? Ellen Woods was surely correct in claiming that “capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions.” But in Haider’s mind, race has been central to the composition of American capitalism. It didn’t necessarily start out that way (Haider here discusses the work of Barbara Fields), but in the seventeenth century it became useful for the ruling class to divide their slaves along racial lines. And this set in motion a whole series of historical developments, many of which we are living with still today.
Its not my place to recapitulate the entirety of Haider’s argument. But there’s sufficient grounds in the above already to demonstrate that one of Naschek’s key claims may be overblown — namely, the idea that Haider reduces anticapitalist politics to a “numbers game” of connecting “movements of movements,” and striving endlessly for a “requisite number of signatories.” Now, critically, I would have no problem using Naschek’s accusation against, say, Laclau and Mouffe. So convinced are they of the merits of radical populism, the word capitalism seems to sit in their mouths like an unswallowable frog. If Haider’s was indeed one of those kinds of arguments, Naschek would be quite right in calling him out for his refusal to impute “any common objective interests of workers.” But I don’t see any evidence that Haider is advocating ‘that’ kind of hegemony. Of course, an interesting debate can be had, from this launch point, on the role of the mass party, and the extent to which it can and should be embedded in the movements (see Hardt and Negri’s Assembly, as just one take on this). This is a rich and useful debate. But the point right now, I think, is that Naschek is shoving a square peg in a round hole suggesting that somehow these concerns are incompatible with those of Haider’s book.
Which leads perhaps to the thing that I think Naschek gets right. There is an awful lot of leftist politics today that does succumb to the radical pluralistic style that Laclau and Mouffe exemplify. Naschek is thus correct when she declares “identity politics and class politics understand capitalist power structures in distinct ways and therefore lead to distinct political strategies.” Of course! And we could even amplify this point, turning to scholars like Marie Moran and Martijn Konings, who demonstrate concretely (albeit via different arguments) the linkages between contemporary “identity speak” and the sickness of capitalism’s culture of self. But equally, as Moran and people like Roger Lancaster will quickly point out, we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions on the basis of that observation, in isolation: many of the movements to which the term “identity politics” is regularly ascribed aren’t in fact identity movements at all! To the contrary, their demands have often been articulated less in terms of a desire for recognition, and more frequently in the pursuit of material resources. Identity for them has been a means to an end, and nothing more. That’s a really important point!
Naschek ends, claiming that “we can’t do both.” I might agree, but we need to be careful what we mean. Yes, there would seem to be an abundance of examples to attest to her claim that the “do both” strategy can paralyze the left, if by “do both” we are referring to the cynical mode of identity-for-its-own-sake politics that seems to inspire any number of contemporary phenomena, from campus safe spaces to Hillary Clinton’s claim that breaking up the big banks won’t solve racism to, well, pick your own DeRay Mckesson Tweet. These surely are examples of the pursuit of “identity-based particularism” that has self-evidently come at the “expense of class-based universalism.” Personally, however, I struggle to read any of those examples in “do both” terms. A real “do both” strategy would do what it says on the tin: recognize that the ‘emancipation’ question has its own proper place, alongside that of liberation.
Naschek will agree with me, I am certain, if I say that fulfillment of the promise of emancipation is impossible, so long as anti-capitalist liberation awaits. When she says the goal isn’t “synthesis” of the “best of” identity politics, and the “best of” universalist anti-capitalism, as if they should both have the same strategic priority, she is quite correct. But that is not to suggest that identity struggles are necessarily any less of a moral priority. So, to our above agreement, I would request the addition of another: callout culture will likely continue to have a place, even in our most ideal socialist utopia. To be sure, the movements we need cannot be built unless our organizations can demonstrate the capacity to offer “a real possibility” to change people’s lives for the better, and there is certainly such a thing as “the zombie new left.” But even if those two issues could be satisfactorily addressed, human beings are so diverse in their ambitions and aesthetic commitments, its hard to imagine that material equality could finally close the need for a supplemental politics based on something like identity.