Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Poverty of the New Left.

"Like ideology, the concept of the proletariat, so prominent in The Communist Manifesto, could also be jettisoned. (…) By the 1980s, the center of radical activity had moved away from working-class organizations and toward what came to be called the ‘new social movements.' Problems of race, gender, and sexuality were generating the most self-conscious, committed, and consequential political subjects". (Bruce Robbins explaining the wisdom of √Čtienne Balibar's New Left-style idiosyncratic "Marxism")

To say that since 2015 there have been many ruffled feathers among the American trendy Left is an understatement. Feathers weren't just ruffled, they have flown.

I'm talking about one of those debates which not for surreal are less heated. Outrage, hissy fits galore: heroic revolutionary battles fought online. Precisely the kind of thing the upper-middle class New Age-leftish intellectuals find irresistible. It seemingly dies out, just to reignite spontaneously a little later. Its details are unimportant here, suffice it to say it involves the words "transgender" and "transracialism", plus a TV celebrity. I quickly add that I have no dog in that hunt, as they say. Instead I adopt Crooked Timber's cautious approach in the latest round of the Fight of the Century.

This is an early contribution to that debate (we'll return to it soon). It appeared a year and a half before the 2016 US elections. A general summation of the latest brouhaha, which began last April

Adolph Reed Jr wrote that early article. It seems to be a last-ditch attempt to inject some sanity into the discussion our "comrades" were having. Two years later, it's evident he utterly failed; worse, from what I've read, since then the marginal product of the discussion fell steeply. Reed's article contributed, as far as I can tell, the only valuable insight in that debate:
"[I]s ever clearer and ever more important to note, race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do. As I have argued, following Walter Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion in, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class."
A quibble: neoliberalism, whatever it might be, may have adopted race politics, but race politics is not its child, it's the New Left's. The New Left did not cause the decline of the Left, but it makes its recovery impossible. It's not just that you make of yourselves a laughing stock, is that the enemies of the people take advantage of that.

I never met Marx, but -- against your hopes -- I suspect that if he rose from his grave and saw the New Left travesty, he wouldn't last long. I won't spell out the critique to Balibar and Robbins implicit in this story. A simple term is enough: herding cats.

In order to be even-handed, however, I shall acknowledge the merit I found in the New Left's position: Robbins was right on two accounts. First, these new social movements are indeed committed; a two year commitment to psychotic meaninglessness is something. Second, it's time to commit the New Left to oblivion.


Speaking of herding cats,


It seems the Australian Muslim community has learned how easy it is to cross the New Left and wisely decided to keep a low profile. The whole point behind the Coalition's insistence on having a public debate on same-sex marriage was precisely to isolate the Muslim community.

The question now is should a community's inclusion in society be contingent upon it not crossing the New Left's line?


  1. Try as I might, I don't give a toss about bickering academics.

    Herding cats is another story:

    1. That's the problem, Bob. They can't do anything beyond navel-gazing. They're frozen in the 1950s-60s. But that has consequences and those consequences affect the rest of us. This is the point.

      To give a better answer would require a really long digression and this is neither the place nor the time for it. I'll have to take a serious shortcut. The key is this sentence: It's not just that you make of yourselves a laughing stock, is that the enemies of the people take advantage of that. Check that link.

      Since the 19th century the focus of the Left had been the working class. Some parties were more consequential, some others were much less so, but the bottom line is that all of them would at least attempt to pay lip service to the working class.

      By mid-20th century, however, leftish intellectuals decided that that focus was misplaced. I won't give a complete list of names, but a leading one was Herbert Marcuse (one of Wolff's heroes). It was the time of the civil rights movement in the US, the independence movement in many European colonies, Latin American guerrillas -- you might remember an exchange we had about that somewhere else -- the counterculture and the protest against the Viet Nam War. The intellectuals were also very unhappy with the USSR and not without reason, I'd add.

      Bottom line, they decided that the Left, instead of focusing on the working class, had to focus on those "new social movements": students, independence, ethnic minorities' rights, women's liberation, gay rights. That's where, they thought, political agitation was more promising. Somehow, they concluded, capitalism had changed in some fundamental way. When Robbins wrote those things in the first quote, he wasn't being original. That wasn't Balibar's big idea, either. To paraphrase Ron Reagan: the working class is not the solution, it's the problem. They were seriously disappointed in the working class.

      Those same ideas fed what people now call "neoliberalism" (you might have seen Eric Hobsbawm being called Neil Kinnock's favourite Marxist; well, it refers to that). Fast forward to the present. That's how you see HRC claiming the mantle of the Left because she makes gestures (mostly merely symbolic) towards blacks, women, and gay rights; when she called "deplorable" half the US voting population (much like Romney did, btw) she was expressing openly what those intellectuals think, but wouldn't normally say.

      It's not just that "neoliberals" seized upon that (which is already bad enough) is that the neo-Nazis, too, didn't fail to notice and take advantage of it. You've seen their emphasis on SJWs, don't you? Call them what you will, dummies they aren't.

    2. Incidentally, the "herding cats" thing refers to what those geniuses think they can do: they think they can somehow forge a coherent movement out of those "new social movements".

      That's precisely what the link to the same-sex marriage debate in Australia shows they cannot do.

    3. Intellectuals, particularly academics, have no business conceiving or attempting to lead political movements. Their role within society, which few of them take seriously, is to ask difficult questions and to INFORM the public.

      I hope these intellectual 'vanguardists' get crushed. Workers will be harmed by reactionary movements, but that outcome is inevitable. With the decline of unions, the power of workers to keep the forces of capital in check has been eroded. The "plan" put forth by these intellectuals is no substitute for the loss of the union movement. There was a time when unions were radical and willing to fight for change. Those days are over. In that regard, I'm disappointed in the working class. They let their most effective vehicle for defending their interests go to pot.

    4. First time writer, but long time reader. Good article but I have question to ask. All thise new movement had reasons to protest. Civil rights because black people no have rights. Woman liberations because patriarchy. So on.

      Why did working class no protest?

    5. Thanks for your comment/question, Anonymous. It's a very good one and I'm happy you asked it.

      A complete answer, however, would really be too long for a comment thread. If possible, keep an eye because I would like to go into this subject in the near future.

      But I don't want you to leave entirely empty-handed. So I'd like to advance briefly that the period starting in the late 1940s and extending well into the 1950s was characterised by at least two things, none of which was conducive to working class unrest. I'm not talking only about the US, by the way, but about all the developed nations.

      One was the beginning of the Cold War and the Red Scare, or McCarthyism, as this episode is known in the US. There was a lot of political and police repression against left wing militants.

      The other thing was the so-called Treinte Glorieuses, the period after WW2 characterised by relatively low unemployment and fast economic growth, low income and wealth inequalities. Those conditions, in effect, were premised precisely on the idea of maintaining a low level of political conflict.

  2. Any thoughts on developments in France?

    1. I'm afraid I haven't been following that closely, Bob.

      But I think one could see that coming (both what Macron is doing and the reaction among the French). I wouldn't be surprised that's why Le Pen did so well.

      Any thoughts?

    2. Le Pen did not do well. The vote was split in the first round between 4 candidates. The leftist candidate, Melanchon, did surprisingly well. In the second round, Le Pen was defeated by Macron. Voter turn out for both rounds was low.,_2017

      Macron is doing what Sarkosy and Hollande tried to do, but backed away in the face of street protests. A historical class battle may be in the works.