Monday, 13 February 2017

Reed & Dudzic - "The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States" in Socialist Register 2015

Below is an excerpt from a piece written by at-the-time American Labor Party executive members Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed Jr. In particular, Reed, a professor of history, is someone who I often cite in my own work. He is notable as an African-American critic of identity politics and the 'new diverse elite' - things I have run into trouble critiquing myself. 

This short excerpt, published in the 2015 edition of Socialist Register, is about the impasse the Left faces in the US because it generally does not understand class politics or indeed how to organise in an effective way. The argument is essentially that the Left is stuck either repeating past organisational mistakes or reducing itself to a politics of ascriptive identity categories that is able to be completely absorbed by neoliberalism, not challenging it at all. This is where the critiques of the 'new diverse elite' come in. 

Despite the claims identity liberals make that they also support class politics, they often do not in practice, or have an extremely inadequate conception of what class is. They 'ontologise' (Reed's word) injustice into constructs such as 'institutional racism', a term which is essentially meaningless without the knowledge of what human actors are doing. Because identity liberals are not interested in class unity or class politics, only symbolically recognising the need for it, or more interested in undermining it, nothing they organise will ever be efficacious in combating it - that is, assuming they even wanted to.    

The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States (excerpt)

…[W]hat we see today is a left devoid of agency and power. To some degree, this reflects the social experience of a working class that has been largely decollectivized. The catastrophic decline in union density means that in some sections of the US entire working-class communities have no organic relationship to labour organizations. But decimated unions are not the only nexus of decollectivized social experience. From flipping houses to accessing benefits under the Affordable Care Act, workers have been conditioned increasingly to believe that public goods and security are not the outcomes of collective struggle and are inferior to individual initiative and responsibility. This tendency has become more pronounced as bipartisan attacks have sharpened on the public sector, which is also among the last bastions of decent social-wage benefits like defined-benefit pensions.

The left has exhibited two dysfunctional responses to this new reality. One is to persist in the old forms of struggle with the hope that doing so will bear different fruit this time around. This mode assumes that there is still a terrain where assorted interest groups compete for power and resources within the framework of postwar pluralist liberalism. It hinges on an inside strategy of elite negotiation and an outside strategy of mobilizing popular forces to influence negotiations. This strategic approach assumes: 1) that all parties have a vested interest in maintaining the core relationships at the centre of the model; 2) therefore, that threats to walk away from the table carry significant weight; and 3) that elites purporting to speak on behalf of the popular forces actually have the capacity to foment social disruption if their concerns are not taken into account. Although clearly obsolescent since the beginning of the 1980s and the defeat of the PATCO strike, this model persists both as a cynical pageantry of protest as prelude to defeat and its mirror image in the magical thinking that produces the rank-and-file fetishism and ‘activistist’ fantasies that this or that spontaneous action will spark a mass movement. This approach persists despite the failure of massive worldwide mobilizations to prevent the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Occupy is its most flamboyant, if not its most desperate, expression to date.

The other mode openly accommodates neoliberalism. This is the version of a left that Clintonism, currently represented in the White House by Barack Obama, enables and cultivates within the Democratic Party; it is a left whose political horizon is limited to making the neoliberal order more equitable on its own terms. This is the left for which disparity and diversity have replaced inequality as the animating normative concern. This accommodation ultimately preempts confronting capitalist class relations and power. If the core value of the labour-left was solidarity, the core value of this sort of left in the neoliberal era is diversity. Thus, for example, issues of structural unemployment become framed as problems of racial or gender justice, and low wages are problematic because they disproportionately affect women and people of colour. In naturalizing categories of ascriptive identity as the fundamental units of political life, this politics simultaneously naturalizes the social structures of capitalist reproduction by displacing contradictions rooted in those structural dynamics from political economy into the realm of culture – exactly as did postwar interest-group pluralism.

Attempts to combine identitarian and political-economic perspectives – e.g., via constructs like institutional or structural racism – demonstrate the primary commitment to the former. They effectively ontologize racism (or sexism or xenophobia) by vesting it with historical agency that rests on a ‘takes on a life of its own’ reification and acknowledges capitalist class dynamics only gesturally. Despite occasional, pro forma acknowledgments that it is important to oppose capitalism, this politics is strikingly dismissive of Marxism, when not viscerally anti-Marxist. Defences of this view typically rest on appeals to realpolitik and claims that whites’ racism and/or males’ sexism have historically overwhelmed efforts to mobilize working-class unity. This perhaps explains the spasmodic recurrence of reparations talk in black American elite discourse since 2000; it reinforces assertion of the primacy of race and racial identity as the determinative force in American politics. Similarly, arguments that contemporary racial inequality is best understood via analogy to slavery or the southern segregationist regime that held sway in the first half of the twentieth century serve more to insist on the primacy of racism than to shed light on the reproduction of contemporary patterns of inequality. Michelle Alexander’s popular book, The New Jim Crow, is a prime instance of this phenomenon. The analogy’s appeal to Alexander is precisely that it asserts the ongoing and overriding causal power of racism by means of a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, yet even she finally acknowledges that it does not work because mass incarceration today is not significantly like the segregationist order.

The assertion of a fundamentally antagonistic history between labour and social movements, particularly those based on ascriptive identities like race, gender or sexual orientation, is a reflex in the discourse of the identitarian left fuelled by liberal stereotypes of the organized working class as definitively white, male and conservative. This political lore, despite having some basis in historical fact, has hardened into unexamined folk knowledge among many activists. The labour movement has hardly been immune – either institutionally or as individual union members – from racist, sexist, homophobic or nativist currents in American political culture. The story of labour’s inadequacies in that regard has been well told. But labour hardly stands out from federal, state and local government, the academy, industry, organized religion or any other social institutions in generating and sustaining that framework of inequality or the hierarchies that constituted it. Moreover, the lore depends on denying or devaluing the significant connections between labour and other egalitarian social movements in the past as well as the present.

No matter what post-class self-images those who embrace identitarian politics may cherish, it is a politics rooted in neoliberal class dynamics. Its effacement of class as both an analytic and a strategic category dissolves working people’s interests as working people – which have no place in neoliberalism – into populations defined by ascription or affinity rather than by location in the system of capitalist reproduction. The groupist discourse of diversity and opposition to disparity enables harmonizing the left’s aspirational commitment to equality with neoliberalism’s imperatives. From that perspective, the society would be just if one per cent of the population controlled ninety-five percent of the resources so long as significant identity groups were represented proportionately among the one per cent. This is, after all, the goal of liberal equality of opportunity in the market, as articulated historically by both elements of progressive social movements (e.g., a strain of the black civil rights movement and bourgeois feminism) and Becker’s neoclassical brief against racial discrimination. It is also the only standard of social justice that neoliberalism recognizes.

Unsurprisingly, the impulse of this politics is not to organize and unify a single constituency defined by its broad relation to capitalism’s class dynamics. Insofar as its notion of social justice centres on group parity and recognition, it is inclined toward courses of action that undermine the core unity necessary to build a movement strong enough to attack the roots of structural inequalities. Instead of unions, parties and civic organizations with living, breathing memberships whose financial support and votes bind leadership to some measure of accountability, much of the left’s model in the neoliberal era is founded on the image of an NGO that is accountable only to its funders. In ventriloquizing population categories reified as groups or ‘communities’, the left is like NGOs that define their bases as helpless victims and/or abstract groups without real agency of their own. Other left-oriented tendencies that embrace broader social objectives continue to frame issues in those terms out of either pietistic habit or failure of political imagination. They substantively, and often enough explicitly, reject class politics.

Labour organizations often feel obliged to frame their issues using the language of disparity in pursuit of broader acceptance or do so in expression of the dominant normative reflex. The national AFL-CIO conspicuously celebrates labour’s diversity along lines of race, gender, age and sexual orientation. This is certainly defensible as union membership is, and has been, far more diverse along those lines than any other Democratic constituency. Celebrating labour’s diversity is a useful affirmation directed toward both members and a general public steadily bombarded with antiunion propaganda, but that celebratory rhetoric also is embedded in and reinforces an implicitly penitent narrative of ‘progress’ from a benighted past of union bigotry. Popular catch phrases like ‘this is not your father’s labour movement’ may cede too much to the discourse that disparages unions as backward-looking bastions of male, white and/or nativist privilege. Defense of trade unionism through celebrating its diversity rather than through asserting its challenge to capital also marks the labour movement’s acquiescence to neoliberal hegemony.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The New Divide in Māori Politics Amidst the Demise of the Parliamentary Anti-Capitalists

I have never understood where this idea of Māori politics as being inherently ‘conservative’ comes from. It seems to come from this idea, present in other places in the Pacific such as Fiji and Samoa, where voters in isolated rural areas administered by tribal structures are essentially told who to vote for by chiefs. So many Māori do not belong to a tribe that this thesis is simply untenable in the first place by association. I think it is an imaginary made up by many people to justify other ridiculous ideas about ostensible ‘Māori opinions’ – do we remember the junk produced in the media about Māori and Pacific Island communities in South Auckland as somehow being a regressive bulwark against gay marriage? And how then-Prime Minister John Key pandered to this apparent tendency? Of course, it was absolute nonsense. My partner gleefully tells me that of all the Anglican parishes, it was the Pākehā in Nelson that constituted the sole vote barring Anglican celebrants from being able to service same-sex marriages. The Māori and Islander parishes uniformly supported lifting the ban.

This idea that Māori are ‘conservative’ persists in idle talk about the voting intentions in Māori electorates. I know, however, that of all people in this country the marginalised Māori population can spot when they are being deceived. They have had a track record of dealing with governmental deception in the first place. The poor communities will ditch a party that is seen not to be helping them or prolonging their immiseration. Hence when, at the time, the radically emergent Winston Peters split from National and took every single Māori seat from Labour with his new party, New Zealand First. Despite the popular view that Peters is ‘anti-Māori’ (or, in a reprehensible riposte from Gareth Morgan, an ‘Uncle Tom’), New Zealand First was essentially a ‘Māori party’ that sought to compete primarily with Labour in the Māori seats. Ron Mark, Pita Paraone, Tuariki Delamere and Tau Henare were each powerful forces in Māori politics when they were members of that party. Labour’s stasis and inability to move on from its neoliberal surprise of the 1980s led to a desertion of the party by long-time Māori supporters. It has largely carried this stasis today without the transformative power of Helen Clark – only just starting to shake this off. When Labour was in government, and implemented the divisive foreshore and seabed legislation in 2004, Māori consciously ditched them again – to vote for a splinter, the interestingly named ‘Māori Party’.

This dissent against the liberal capitalist elite is now rife in politics the world over. John Moore refers to it as “the anti-Establishment zeitgeist”. Māori have again reflected this dissent, but this time is different. The reaction comes from conflicts within the Māori voter constituency rather than ‘Māori against Pākehā’. The biggest and most egregious habit of political commentators that has persisted like an annoying gnat has been to refer to Māori as a kind of homogeneous community who all think in the same way and do the same things. They are all tribal-oriented, family-oriented (this stereotype promoted by separatist huckster academics that brown people care about their whakapapa and white people don’t!) and, the view of some Pākehā, politically radical, ‘outside’ of Pākehā society which is conceived by contrast as not that radical. This is a long-standing media trope as well as one that Māori, mostly the elite, have promoted about themselves. The promotion of the ‘indigenous perspective’ in academic discourse has been a convenient way to disguise those indigenous people who have been absorbed into the political-economic elite. The Māori Party, despite not appearing as such from the outset, has increasingly come to resemble a project of this new capitalist elite. The Kingitanga, Tuku Morgan, Mark Solomon, Naida Glavish, and of course many others in and out of the Iwi Leaders Group, work for and support this party. Its alignment with the National government coalition since 2008 has thus moulded into the party’s natural home. This is why one rebel inside the party, Hone Harawira, could no longer bear to represent it as an MP, which was hostile to him anyway. He was eventually ousted by a complaint from Te Ururoa Flavell (who became a co-leader). With Flavell’s tactical move that removed his greatest challenge from the Left to the co-leadership vacated by Pita Sharples, finally the Māori Party was free of the burden of left-wing radicalism.

Harawira’s genesis of a new party, Mana, brought the increasing class divides among Māori into the light more than ever before. Left-wingers from Alliance, the New Labour Party, Mana Motuhake and such joined the party. Although it became a confusing mess of socialism and Māori nationalism (some representatives of whom were ostensibly not left-wing), it represented a stark contrast from the elite edifice of the Māori Party. Mana hung on to the Te Tai Tokerau seat in the 2011 election but was defeated in 2014 due to the further confusion wrought from an alliance with the dubious Kim Dotcom and his stitched-together ‘direct democracy’ movement that included an obviously cosmetic choice of a new-look Laila Harre, former leader of the left-wing Alliance, as leader. This strange pact failed drastically and Harawira lost the seat to Labour’s Kelvin Davis. Now wiped from Parliament, the far-Left in Aotearoa continues to be hopelessly lost, engaged in agenda confusion between class politics, Māori nationalism, and now, of course, the stupefying forms of identity politics that has occupied a great and increasing quotient of the Left’s attention since the 1980s. Māori nationalism, as the Left seem to be blissfully unaware of, is not automatically politically progressive. Neither is identity politics. The Māori Party demonstrate this increasingly as arbiters of the Māori capitalist elite, snidely redeploying the power of tino rangatiratanga as a slogan in favour of neoliberal policies. Class politics focused on the abolition of class and capital, however, is the basis of the ‘Left’ label. Yet it is perhaps no wonder that hardly anyone on the Left voices this concern with identity politics as it is, of course, a great offence to criticise in the gambit of identity essentialism, whether you belong to the ‘identity’ or not.

With the far-Left struggling against itself, repeatedly failing to capture the spirit of the political moment (often encased in the fatalism of identity essentialism) – and being more out of step with unifying the working classes than ever before, Mana, perhaps out of desperation, has apparently abandoned its socialist roots and formed a new pact with the Māori Party. At the time this seemed confusing to me, but in any case dealt a serious blow to the idea that Mana represented the Māori working class. Harawira signalled the idea of working with the Māori Party early on in the formation of Mana, but I wrote this off as unity rhetoric that would never be acted upon. It seems desperate times call for desperate measures. However, this alliance has itself been dealt a real blow with the defection of Willie Jackson – and presumably with him John Tamihere – to the Labour Party. Jackson and Tamihere were a vital force in Labour and on the radio; while at times controversial, at least they were able to rouse the working classes out of political apathy. It is interesting that this switch to Labour has happened. What is most hilarious about it is the reaction of the elusive Dover Samuels, a former MP in Helen Clark’s Labour government and recently ousted Far North councillor. The threat of his life membership resignation is probably welcomed by Labour itself – Samuels did not even vote for the party in 2014 because of – and this is unbelievable – its opposition to the Puhoi-Wellsford motorway. This was happily reported on and covered by the irritating right-wing blogger David Farrar. Samuels is no great casualty for Labour’s evolving image.  

Mana again has been caught in a bind, as well as, perhaps, Māori voters themselves who are unwilling to support the Māori Party. Mana has already thrown its lot in with the Māori Party and cannot realistically back down now. Even, perhaps, Harawira’s comeback is in doubt now that this new alliance will inevitably be portrayed by Jackson as a marriage of convenience. Although it is not unlike the Labour-Greens pact, that pact will be seen as one that can govern in its own right with at least some Left concern. The Māori-Mana pact leaves us increasingly unsure of their leanings. We can only go by their track record, which is, of course, adding extra votes to crucial National Party legislation – which has set about destroying the economic ability of impoverished Māori and entrenching inequality. The gentrification projects in Glen Innes and Point England, the reluctance of local councils to seal roads in Pipiwai that give off toxic dust clouds, the acceding poverty in South Auckland suburbia, the bypassing of Huntly and Ngaruawahia (wait for the collapse of those towns), the unemployment in cities like Whangarei and Wanganui and towns like Murupara and Kawerau; these are just some of the concerns Māori voters have had thrown at them since 2008. Housing affordability has dropped dramatically in the Far North and Auckland as the government, including the Māori Party, does their best to avoid the problem. This has worsened overcrowding in often inadequately built homes, and the ability of Māori to afford rents. The prison population has increased drastically – Māori are over-represented in prisons. ‘Māori issues’ are now class issues as the Waitangi Tribunal treaty settlement process, which is one of the only things touted as a genuine ‘Māori issue,’ has now, frankly, been exposed as largely a fraud entrenching the economic power of tribal elites.

This defection by Jackson has created an odd scenario in Māori politics. Labour, which was seen as the obvious go-to for Māori, is now likely the radical, left-wing option this coming election. Although Labour Māori MPs are quite right-wing by comparison to predecessors – Peeni Henare, Nanaia Mahuta, and Kelvin Davis are all either quite conservative or neoliberal – there are others, like Rino Tirikatene and Meka Whaitiri, that have a distinct radical edge to them. Perhaps this is why the Greens are wanting to stand in Māori seats with increased vigour – they see a potentially fertile climate of interest in the party’s agenda as the Māori-Mana edifice backs itself into a corner. Incidentally, the far-Left has all but abandoned Mana for new projects ostensibly on the way. Matt McCarten and Laila Harre have since signed up to help Labour get elected, others like Sue Bradford are working behind-the-scenes in other quarters. And, additionally, I consider it a victory that the Māori Party potentially faces being utterly wiped out. They have been exposed, in my view, for the charlatans that they are. The ‘Kaupapa Māori’ ideology they followed was a sham that merged revisions of the powerful concepts of tikanga with neotribalism and neoliberal ideas of individual autonomy, personal responsibility, and the accumulation of capital as the great aspiration – a most highly toxic and contradictory combination. I have still not gotten over Marama Fox yelling at me at a university debate for objecting to and ‘disrespecting’ her lack of care for rife tax evasion (millions of dollars of fraud that the government simply allows to happen) and her want to concentrate on ‘funding the solutions to issues in her communities’ – of course, not noticing the fundamental connection between the two. That sort of extreme uncaring incompetence should be enough to invalidate any prospective parliamentarian.

Anyhow, perhaps the demise of the parliamentary anti-capitalists represents a new ‘desert’ of choice for Māori voters. I certainly think this is so. But what we do know is poor Māori are in fact politically conscious and will switch to whoever is best set to lend support to helping them and their whanau out of poverty. Additionally, this new concentration on Labour from all facets of the Left could potentially be another force that drags Labour to adopt increasingly left-wing positions. It is highly unlike me to have a little faith in the Labour Party, as it has been so utterly disappointing and drab over the last few decades, and still is, and perhaps it will not drop the careerist pretentions to reinvigorate itself enough – but in a time of relative inaction on the far-Left (although watch this space!), we have to put our faith in something this election – even if it is parliamentary.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hermeneutic Deficiency in Cultural Criticism: The New ‘Horseshoe Theory’

The discipline of cultural studies in its popular reception has seemed to move far beyond the themes it was concerned with in its academic inception (Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies he directed for a substantial time from the late 1960s is essentially the birthplace of the field). Nowadays, criticism of popular culture has been democratised and takes forms of, among others, popular blogs and magazines. This is also part and parcel of criticism’s incorporation into the capitalist world of mechanised production of writing. Academics must now produce a certain amount of journal articles every year in order to keep funding commitments afloat and thus, it seems, their jobs. In the same vein these often armchair ‘cultural critics’ are obliged to publish what are increasingly trite pieces of criticism of the latest books, movies, television shows, or whatever is intended to keep the interested classes entertained, shall we say. It can only be a good thing that such criticism is democratised – I hope people are now taking an interest in the work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, etc.

But cultural studies has an in-built idealism that makes it at times almost difficult to take seriously. Although questions of materialism and production dominated the field at its beginning (Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘culture industry’ thesis was salient, as well as excellent works by Stuart Hall, Benedict Anderson, and later Homi Bhabha on race and nationalism at this time, among other interests too numerous to note – most works by feminists, I have to say, were at this time – the second wave – inadequate) it is increasingly concerned with a ‘liberal’ (although increasingly illiberal) politics of representation that co-occurs with a shift on the Left (as those on the political Left dominate this field of study and have largely been able to set its parameters) from class politics to essentialist identity politics. As identity politics has crystallised into its various forms over time (privilege theory, moralist virtue-signalling, the oft-named ‘regressive Left,’ reactionary Right) we see the emergence of its fundamentally illiberal character protrude from what we thought were progressive beginnings. Indeed, movements for emancipation being claimed retrospectively by identity politics were in fact progressive and largely based on ideas of unity, solidarity, and mutual respect for other human beings – ideas we should all share amongst each other.

Liberal anti-communists like to proclaim the existence of the infamous ‘horseshoe theory’: that communism and fascism are linked in their ideas of organic, exclusionary communities. This theory is of course false and derisive in the usual, armchair-inspired way. However a real ‘horseshoe theory’ has arisen recently and manifested itself: the increasing authoritarian convergence of the regressive Left’s postmodernism and identity politics, and the reactionary Right’s own identity politics of organic nationalist identities. This new ‘horseshoe theory’ was made apparent in the rise of what has been termed the ‘alt-Right’ from academic areas that the critics of this term probably are not aware of. The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, run out of the University of Warwick, which produced ‘theory-fiction,’ with members ranging from the late Mark Fisher, to philosophers Sadie Plant, Reza Negarestani and Ray Brassier, was run from 1997 by philosopher Nick Land. He was deeply influenced by Deleuzian theory, particularly Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘deterritorialisation’ – destroying the boundaries, through a kind of ‘nomadic’ writing, between disciplines which seem to be far apart. This is why Land’s writing, along with his colleagues, meshed philosophy and the natural sciences, however well – nestled with hints of the psychedelic, drug-fuelled rave scene of contemporary London. Land and co.’s accelerationism was a reaction to what they saw as the inert, complacent state of Left thought. They saw in ‘cybernetic theory’ and science studies – inflected with ‘Deleuzianisms’ – a celebration of the acceleration towards capital’s supposed teleological destruction, for better or worse. But for Land, this nihilism quickly turned reactionary. As Fisher increasingly distanced himself from this scene towards the distressing end of his life, Land embraced its apocalyptic tones. His essay, ‘The Dark Enlightenment’, sought the birth of forces of neoreaction compelled to indefinitely extend the power of capital, understood mostly in terms of its technological force and supposed creative ability, and crush democracy in its dystopic wake. The ‘alt-Right’ was formed out of this fascistic ‘deterritorialisation,’ if you like, of the original Deleuzian-Left position.

Influenced by the obsessive focus on individual subject-positions by the new poststructuralists and postmodernists, identity politics in cultural criticism is beginning to make advances in the opposite direction to its progressive practitioners. The idea of ‘culture’ in cultural studies, of course, is becoming increasingly ethnicised by race hucksters and postmodern rip-off artists. Increasingly, as a consequence, the arguments of identity are premised on evermore essentialist claims about race, gender, sexuality and culture. I have already critiqued this imperative in my piece on the Moana criticism through the notion of ‘Polynesian exceptionalism’ – through making recourse to false rehashes of postcolonial theory and the idea that ‘our’ narratives have been erased (without, of course, inquiring about who this ‘our’ actually is and how this ‘our’ might actually be subject to enormous division within the primordial group presupposed), a claim was stoked upon Moana that it represented a continuation of cultural theft by the West, understood as nostalgic for the colonial era. What a ridiculously dramatic assertion that was, and the reasons for why I have already outlined. Now, it seems, it is the turn of the jazz film La La Land to be placed under the microscope of tedium and pedantry that this new school of chattering cultural bloggers subject every facet of popular culture to increasingly.

A friend of mine pointed me to two pieces in particular that were published about this movie. The first is Catalogue Magazine’s “La La Land Is Everything That’s Wrong With Sexist, Boring ‘Cool Guy’ Culture”. The author, Kat Patrick (after having cited notorious anti-Leftist Hadley Freeman, fellow Guardian-ite liberal) begins the piece – I say begin because the first two paragraphs are surplus material and ad hominem – by saying “La La Land, in effect, is about a troubled handsome white man becoming an owner-operator of a bar.” I presume she says ‘in effect’ because this is not what the movie is about. It is in fact about a man, Sebastian, and a woman, Mia, who both are in precarious circumstances – he wants to be a jazz musician, she an actor. Patrick’s and Freeman’s pieces were about how Sebastian’s desire to make Mia like jazz involved ‘mansplaining.’ Freeman described Sebastian as an archetypal ‘jazz snob,’ arguing “you must respect their childish obsession with (insert name of sports team) while they make fun of your interest in fashion/romantic comedies/80s music”. Yet this is just one scene near the film’s beginning. Had they watched the film any further – and I suspect they have yet they are deliberately focusing on this one scene – they would have seen that Sebastian, who is in love with Mia, makes compromises for her (by joining a jazz-rock band he hardly cares for to look as if he has a stable career) and takes interest in her acting aspiration, ensuring she attends an audition that proves vital for beginning her career at the end of the film. Sebastian and Mia do not actually work out – Mia is happily married to another man in the epilogue scene – hardly a victory for the ‘Cool Guy’, then. Hardly what Patrick describes, then, either.

The second piece is Out Magazine’s “La La Land Is Not Gay Enough,” and is equally unconcerned with the movie itself; its argument is albeit slightly harder to argue against. It stakes a claim on behalf of gay people to movie-musicals on the basis of their camp appeal. The argument is that the music and movie choices cited and alluded to in the movie do not meet the author’s standards of what is camp – assuming, of course, the movie actually had to do that. This is what makes the movie ‘not gay enough.’ The key implication made is that heterosexuality is dreary whilst gayness is fun, buzzy, indeed ‘queer.’ While this may be borne out by historical evidence, does it then follow that a movie musical is dreary simply because it does not possess this elusive ‘camp’ element. Then there is the question of how ‘gayness’ is understood and represented, whether it be of this canonical campness or otherwise, and the further question of why. Is it contextually appropriate for this movie to have ‘gay’ elements? Would it be simply tokenising if this movie included a gay character? How would we know such a character is gay – through overacting their gender-opposed masculinity/femininity (stereotype) or being told after the fact in some post-mortem (a kind of retconning – the J.K. Rowling way), both of which can be equally faulted for aberrant tokenisation? This is the same spinning we saw with Moana. Because that film was inclusive as could possibly be of so-called ‘Polynesian stories’ (again with commitment to that primordial idea of universality), those critics seemed to hit all the wrong notes when they criticised the movie for not having done that.

Cultural studies in its popular bitesize armchair blog-form is thus converging on a state of hermeneutic deficiency. Critics are pulling analyses out of a hat based on historical claims made with very little reference to their actual objects of criticism. Moana has very little to do with colonial representations and nothing to do with colonial nostalgia. It is tone deaf to criticise La La Land for being heteronormative, and the feminist criticisms are equally answerable as they did not draw on the movie well enough. But the implication of the politics of representation is that things have to be represented properly. All movies must have diversity. All movies must represent all things. These claims should not be stuck to as much as identity politics practitioners claim. While including actors and actresses of different skin tones is encouraging and good, it is not a strong political concern, especially when in Hollywood we are simply shoring up a more diverse celebrity elite. Movies cannot represent all things. They have to by their nature be selective in what they show. Read Barthes’ Camera Lucida, the work of Lacanian film theorists such as Joan Copjec and Todd McGowan, or indeed any respectable film theorist, who will tell you this. Identity politics is fast showing its illiberal core, and it is high time the Left – who must be committed to a system of healthy participation in reason free of the destructive forces of capitalism and ascriptive inequality – abandons it as a political programme.

Links to mentioned pieces: