We the Left and Them-the Ruling Class
There has been a growing call for the Left to become more adversarial in its approach to politics. A number of authors claim that the Left has been overly beholden to its liberal elements, favouring an agnostic approach to social reform and more or less ceding vast ground to the Right. This can be traced back to the 80s and 90s, when the Left-wing push for real social change began to dissolve under the pressure of Thatcherism/Reaganism. In the aftermath of this right wing push back, the Left evolved into a quiet opposition, politely trying to fight for what remained of a welfare state being steadily dismantled by the rich, while sheepishly invoking Third Way pieties. The result is that many of the traditionally working-class supporters of Left wing movements became disillusioned and decided to abandon politics. Or worse, they began to support right wing nationalists who promised the world and only delivered a novel post-modern form of xenophobic authoritarianism. This has led to calls for us to regain some of the vigour of classical Left-wing movements, organizing in the streets and being attentive to the concerns of the poor and dispossessed, while we seek to develop concrete alternatives to the unacceptable status quo. This call is both inspiring and timely.
I have no problem with claims along these lines. Much of it is a useful tonic to those still convinced that staying the course is the only way to push back against the vulgar politics that has emerged in the White House. But I take considerable issue with the more militaristic dimensions of such an approach to politics. Doing so would mean constituting a political opposition of “us” through opposition to a “them”-which one expects would simplistically to be drawn as the “ruling class” of the rich, including bakers, CEOs, and real estate developer; an enemy to be confronted if we are to achieve a more “just” world.
The Dangers of Adversarial Politics
There are doubtless many good reasons to be very angry at the people and groups mentioned. But I ultimately think this adversarial approach to Left wing politics is not only strategically misguided, but also morally wrong. This is because we must hope that any just society will ultimately include and incorporate those we once regarded as adversaries. The only way to achieve this, I suspect, is in no small part by engaging in consensus building and dialogue. How to do this without being co-opted by the powers that be is a crucial question.
Some believe that politics is fundamentally an adversarial contest. It is defined by an us framed in opposition to a them. But politics is not any one thing or another. As Roberto Unger teaches us, it is a deliberate human activity and therefore in no small part the creation of those who participate within it. A confrontational climate, like the one we live within now, will beget an adversarial politics. But I do not think this is something to be welcomed. Many of the individuals who would fall on the opposite side of that adversarial line are the very working-class people the Left supports. They may have been co-opted by the institutions and cultural products of post-modern capitalism, and there is good critical work to be done analysing how this is so. Perhaps it may be time to modernize the old Marxist idea of “false consciousness” for the Trump era. But there is no doubt that many of these working-class people who support the right believe in what they are doing, and will no doubt fight for it if given the choice. It would be a strategic misstep to either ignore the beliefs of these people on the gamble that they’ll eventually come around, or to simply bite the bullet and place them on the other side of that adversarial line. Since politics is in no small part the creation of those who participate in it, I believe there is every good reason to push for this more inclusive approach rather than feeling that the necessity of confrontation must push us to be more adversarial.
This points to one of the strategic mistakes I feel the Left has made in the past, and that some are pushing us to repeat. I think the more militant authors are entirely right that we need to be more concerned with concrete issues and listening to workplace woes. This is crucial to advancing a more progressive agenda. But we also need to realize that many working-class people affiliate with the Right, that they have done so for generations, and that it is deeply hubristic to claim to speak for such people while dismissing or becoming antagonistic towards most of their concrete commitments. Many working-class people embraced alt-right conservatism, and the best the Left has ever been able to come up with it that we think they are misguided. This isn’t good enough. Many working-class people feel that the left has little to offer them, not just because it says little about inequality and working conditions, but because the left says little to working class anxieties about the changing makeup of American society. Indeed, many feel that the Left simply denigrates and dismisses those who have such worries, which fuels the popularity of anti-PC pundits peddling lies and hypocrisy.
The Left and Identity Politics
An excellent example of this is the contemporary approach to identity politics. Identity politics is a necessary means of achieving a more equal distribution of power in our society, and ameliorate the long history of racism, sexism, and phobia towards LGBTQ peoples. While there has been some success on these fronts, there remains a long way to go, ensuring that identity politics will be necessary for a long time. But while engaging in identity politics, I think the Left needs to be increasingly cautious about the both optics and the consequences.
For non-Leftists, identity politics is increasingly associated with images of intolerance and exclusivity. More often than not, it conjures images of censoring conservative pundits like Anne Coulter or Sean Hannity by pointing out features of their identity that make them unable to appreciate the status of marginalized peoples. Undoubtedly this is often true; just look at Donald Trump, a serial misogynist who seems utterly incapable of recognizing his own prejudice and despises being called out for it. But we win ourselves few allies by being especially militant in pointing out features of opponent’s identities which, after all, they are not to blame for even if they profit from them. And we run to the risk of entrenching negative opinions further.
To provide a singular example; I remember a time when Anne Coulter was to give a speech at a major university. A number of centrist colleagues of mine were going to criticize her, but were extremely upset to learn that the event had been cancelled due to student protest from groups who didn’t want her to talk given her racist opinions. While this was understandable from my perspective, my colleagues did not take it the same way, and all of them moved notably to the right as a result of this experience.
But there is a more important example of this with respect to identity politics. Leftists engage in antagonistic identity politics without recognizing the important role that capitalism plays in establishing various types of alienated identities. This was recognized a long time ago by Marx, when he claimed that capitalism is a system in which all old values were upended and “everything that is solid melts into the air.” Capital continuously seeks to create new values, and either connect antecedent identities or establish entirely new ones, which are affiliated with these values. This is where the social conservative alliance with the forces of money is highly self-defeating. What Schumpeter called capital’s creative destruction ensures that all old social values will gradually be pulled down and replaced with new ones affiliated with various identities who are expected to consume the commodities associated with that identity. It is why being a bohemian hipster means wearing certain clothes and drinking a certain type of coffee, or why Forbes thinks being an “empowered woman” means being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a private jet and the latest technology. Capital tears down the old system of values affiliated with these identities and constantly creates new ones. Engaging in a highly antagonistic identity politics risks reifying many of these identities, and can blind us to the way capital positions individuals of all social groups according to its own insidious logic.
We cannot get around these problems through adopting a more antagonistic approach to politics. Indeed, we’ve seen that this is simply the road to failure. If the Left is to push foreword, we need to become more sensitive to these anxieties; cautiously finding ways to ameliorate them without ceding ground to their prejudicial dimensions. No doubt this will be a difficult and nuanced task, but it is the only way to truly get the whole working class on board. And it will likely look a lot more like consensus building and dialogue than an adversarial politics of confrontation.
Moral Reasons to Avoid Adversarial Politics
In this brief essay, I have suggested that the Left should avoid antagonistic approaches to politics and develop a more inclusive approach. To avoid charges of hypocrisy, I’ve refrained from singling out any groups in particular. It is understandable given the current climate that many of us would want to adopt a more antagonistic approach. All I’ve done here is try to suggest why this may not be the wisest course.
In conclusion, many the reasons I’ve presented here have been strategic. They relate to various dangers associated with engaging in a more antagonistic politics. In this conclusion, I’d like to suggest that there are moral reasons not to adopt such an adversarial approach to politics in addition to the strategic ones I gave in the section above I’ve always found such an approach politics, while attractive for its principled force and binary clarity, to be unhelpful. The moral and political world is too complex to be captured by the binary of us and them. Indeed, it is dangerous to go down that road. Left wing thinkers like Chantel Mouffe are not the only thinkers to promote such an adversarial conception of politics. The originator of this approach was Carl Schmitt, the great fascist philosopher of the Nazi regime. He famously declared that all politics is about making a choice between “friends” and “enemies” which defined the parameters within which confrontation was engaged. The result of this philosophy was a society that tore itself apart and gave in to its worst impulses. We are heading down that road again. One need only look at the war like zealotry of the alt-right for evidence. We on the Left should aim for better.
Marx famously declared that in his communist society the “expropriators would be expropriated” and we would move towards a classless society in which real equality and freedom would emerge for the first time. This has often been taken as indicating an adversarial approach to politics of the type supported by the most adversarial Leftists, but I think this is a misconception. While Marx had no doubt of the need to confront the forces of capital, he did not blame the capitalist class and their supporters for supporting a deficient social form. He recognized that rich and poor alike were equally products of a historical process, and hoped that in the society to come, there would neither be those compelled to exploit nor those doomed to be exploited. Buried in this is a recognition that capitalism, while working largely to the benefit and at the behest of capitalists rather than workers, ultimately degrades us all because it operates to alienate our fundamental humanity. The better society to come would rectify this for all.
I believe that much the same approach should be taken in our case. The Left must confront the powers that be, and this will no doubt be a long and difficult fight. But we should not give in to the temptation to see “them” as fundamentally distinct from “us,” since all persons are ultimately demeaned by living in a society as unequal and unjust as ours. One of the tasks of the left should be convincing as many people as possible of this sad moral reality and pushing them to believe that a better one is possible. I do not believe that can be achieved if we see politics as fundamentally adversarial, since that would mean condemning not only the rich and the powerful but the millions of people who support them rightly or wrongly. We should be trying to get as many of them onside as possible, while staying true to the radical project of redistributing power and wealth in society in a more equitable and just manner. Doing so will not be easy, and will involve many complex dialogues and political choices. But that is what democracy and equality are all about.
Edited by Sarie Khalid