Saturday, January 30, 2016

What's the Matter With Kansas, Neoliberal Multiculturalism and what's left of an American Left

  In the past few days, I've become increasingly interested in what seems to be an internal discussion among Democratic Party supporters, and those further to the left who are energized by the seeming viability of the Bernie Sanders campaign and may wind up voting for Democrats for the first time in several years.
Late Update: Because of a few people who have communicated questions to me about this in other venues I want to be clear. The point of this post is not to attack Sanders, whose candidacy I see as important and valuable because he is bringing meaningful proposals for economic justice into mainstream electoral politics for the first time in recent memory. That said, I think it is wrong to characterize the current primary contest as a referendum on class vs. 'identity politics" as the way forward politically, as some Sanders supporters have done.
   I will say more about this in a subsequent post on the meaning of what it means to build an electoral coalition on broadly unifying demands as opposed to what the priorities within the left are when we talk about movement building and organizing outside the electoral process, which I believe must remain central regardless of who is elected.

 Here's what I'm seeing.

 Sanders has been running his campaign with the strategy that Tom Frank advocated in his book What's the Matter with Kansas. In it, Frank argues that the far right has captured white working class men, winning elections by playing culture war issues (guns, gays and abortion) and targeting class antagonism at "entitled" racial minorities. There are problems with Frank's book, and Frank's politics, in that they play to that "class first" argument that downgrades racism, sexism and homophobia into "cultural" issues that have divided an otherwise grand coalition The argument's flaw is that it is not race or gender neutral  It sets up a class coalition dominated by the interests of white working class men and then invites everyone else in the working class to get behind their banner as if all people in the working class had identical interests. I've noticed that some white socialist organizations who make these class-first arguments tend to be slightly better on gender and sexuality in this regard than they are on race, which most likely has to do with the fact that these socialist organizations include white women who have forced them to consider the seriousness of their positions, but very, very few Black people who have been able to do the same.
    To me, this not an economic prioritizing, but a way of thinking about class issues that is based on white working-class male experience. It misses the fact that white working class people have received privileges and "psychological wages" that W.E.B Du Bois explained many years ago and which many subsequent historians have drawn upon and explained some more.
   In terms of agenda-setting, this way of understanding economic populism ignores the fact that for Black working class people, police violence and incarceration may be more immediately pressing working-class issues even than access to decent health care. The same was true for anti-lynching politics which were wrongly interpreted as "merely symbolic" by white leftists and labor activists until they themselves started getting mobbed by vigilantes during WWI. The point is, you can't protest if you can be killed on the street without a trial. It's a basic issue of democracy. While we would like to have better access to health care, the criminal justice system has targeted enough Black people that incarceration could be considered a genuine state of emergency for working class Blacks. That is, even if you are broke, sick, and can't afford health care, you might be more worried about prison than healthcare if you know someone in prison, especially if that person is a member of your family.
    Ta-Nehisi Coates was naming this white economic populist blindspot as it is manifested in the Sanders campaign in his article on Sanders and reparations that has gotten so much attention over the last week.
    In a similar vein, feminism has often been described on the left as a "bourgeois" movement, merely interested in getting women to the same place in the ruling-class as "their husbands" as if working-class women did not exist, or more importantly, as if women's interests were identical with men's, thus white women have the same rights as white men, black women have the same interests as black men, etc. This would ignore all interests that are particular to women as women, regardless of class and race: such as rights to have or not have children, status in relation to men in the workplace, rights in relation to husbands within marriage, and vulnerability to sexual violence. Gender is not symbolic if you're in a state where "marital rape" is a legal impossibility or where you cannot get an abortion no matter what your class status is. Of course, poor and working class people are much more vulnerable to racism and sexism than rich people in the same race and class. When Henry Louis Gates is arrested at his own front door, he gets a meeting with the president. When a white woman is raped in Central Park it's a national issue. On slightly less exemplary level, rich women who get beaten by their husbands might have alternatives beyond domestic violence shelters,.but even rich women can be financially dependent on their husbands because of the way that many domestic abusers control their wives' access to property.

Sanders appears to be trying to win the election by creating a working class coalition based on those economic issues that unify working class voters as working class people regardless of race and class (health care, minimum wage, education access, environmental safety) , rather than playing to explicitly racist and sexist "culture war" voters (as the Republicans are doing) or by attacking those aspects of working class experience that are unique to Black people (Reparations). He's obviously doing this in order to keep racist white voters with similar class interests in the fold,  His strategy on gun-control, which is an anti-racist issue as far as I'm concerned, as well as an economic one, is a case in point of seeing these voters as a crucial constituency:
Coming from a rural state, which has almost no gun control, I think I can get beyond the noise and all of these arguments and people shouting at each other and come up with real constructive gun control legislation, which most significantly gets guns out of the hands of people who should not have them."
 The New Democrats, as led by the Clintons and now Obama, have dealt with the problem of the white working class voter in a different way, by mixing hard right positions against working class people of color with appeals to the liberal side of the culture wars. re-branding itself as the party that can be counted to cater to suburbanite and gentrifying urbanite wishes on crime, guns, immigrants, terror, welfare.while simultaneously supporting limited affirmative action, abortion with qualifications, and increasing support for Gay rights as public opinion has shifted.  Republicans have ever since been crying about Clinton's triangulation as "stealing our issues," a policy that has continued in the Obama presidency and with most congressional democrats.

What these democrats represent is not the limit of anti-racism or left cultural politics of any stripe.  They are not calling for a working-class agenda that DOES understand gender and race. They are arguing for an integrated capitalist class that does away with glass ceilings for professional women and includes non-white representation in corporate, state and military leadership, but that retains all the class inequality of the current system. This defines the limits of what some cultural studies scholars describe as "neoliberal multiculturalism." As a recent summary of Jodi Melamed's excellent book on the subject explains:

By severing race from material conditions, official antiracisms make it possible to seem antiracist while furthering neoliberal capitalism, which is reliant on racialized bodies that fall outside of neoliberalism’s ideal subject.  This dematerialization of anti-racist discourse enables the negation of social movement efforts (particularly those of formations like women of color feminism) and legitimizes grossly asymmetrical material conditions, all while appearing antiracist.

That is, while appearing officially anti-racist on certain noticeable issues that are dividing points between parties, but also supporting bipartisan policies such as "welfare reform" anti-sex trafficking legislation (which disproportionately affects immigrants) and wars, the modern day Democratic party has kept minority voters and women of all races in the fold based on advocacy of an integrated ruling class and the fear of a victory by explicitly racist and sexist whack jobs who run on the other side.

 Or, as Tom Frank put it in a 2014 article:
 These days, the big thinkers of the Democratic Party have concluded that they can safely ignore the things I described. They’ve got a new bunch of voters these days — the famous “coalition of the ascendant,” made up of professionals, minorities and “millennials” — and it pleases them to imagine that with this unstoppable army at their back they will win elections from here to eternity. There is no need to resolve the dilemmas I outlined in “Kansas,” no need to win back working-class voters or solve wrenching economic problems. In fact, there is no need to lift a finger to do much of anything, since vast, impersonal demographic forces are what rescued them from the trap I identified. They now have the luxury of saying, asPaul Krugman did on the day after the 2012 election, “Who cares what’s the matter with Kansas?”
Sanders' campaign is trying to switch the neoliberal multicultural discourse of the Democrats out for an an attack on Wall St. and Student loan debt in the wake of Occupy, perhaps with the belief, that as with gun control, big, unifying economic reforms that help the entire working class will create space to negotiate for more controversial arguments where interests are different within the working class. One could argue that this was the case with the New Deal, which was remedied by extensions of state support as won by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Black Lives Matter has fairly successfully pushed both Clinton and Sanders to more significant criminal justice reform positions - although both campaigns appear to me to fall within neoliberal limits.
    And this is telling. Sanders may be rallying for unifying economic reforms, but he's not actually a revolutionary in the broader sense. Not everyone on the left sees a ray of hope in Sanders' campaign but instead, view his current surge in popularity as the bamboozlement of starry-eyed white liberals who see him as more different from the Democratic establishment candidates than he really is. The key to his similarity to Clinton is his continued support for U.S. militarism and empire building, which Melamed's book, mentioned above, identifies as the anchor of  neoliberal multicultural policy-making. As Noam Chonsky once said in response to a question about what he'd do if elected to the U.S. presidency, "have myself arrested as a war criminal."