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.