I spent last weekend anxiously following three breaking stories: the French presidential election, the unraveling of Paul Wolfowitz, and Tiger Woods' successful run for his fifty-seventh tournament victory. Measured purely by the intensity of my psychic engagement in these three stories, Tiger ranks first, the French election second, and Wolfowitz third. The Tiger story fed my fantasies of effortless mastery; the French election evoked my Marxist leanings, intensified by my ownership of a pied-a-terre in the 5th arrondisement; and the Wolfowitz story, illuminated by insider communiques from my sister, who worked for many years at the World Bank, gratified my ever-present penchant for schadenfreude.
Once again, I was reminded of a fact that has troubled me for many years: My life is so affluent, so secure, so protected from the effects of even the most horrific tragedies or the most egregious buffoonery in public office, that it is impossible for me to make a connection between my deeply held political beliefs and my quotidien existence. I earn an extremely fat salary [somewhere in the neighborhood of $175,000 a year], I have had tenure since 1964, and as a public employee in Massachusetts, I have excellent health insurance and a secure pension. In short, nothing that has happened in the larger world in the past forty years has in any real way threatened my comfort or security, let alone my safety or life, or indeed that of my children.
My politics are therefore a spectator sport, indistinguishable in a fundamental way from my rooting for Tiger. I vigorously opposed Ronald Reagan and his right-wing spawn, but the simple truth is that I benefited from the tax cuts that they enacted. I raised money for the NAACP Voter Registration Fund to defeat George W. Bush in Florida in 2004, and included maybe eight thousand dollars of my own in the packet; I am in despair at the carnage in Iraq; I weep for the evisceration of civil liberities in America -- but I cannot point to a single way in which these disasters have changed my daily life.
I do not think I am alone in thus experiencing a disconnect between my politics and my life. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men and women in America who have managed to secure for themselves and their families comfortable, secure lives protected from the evils against which they march, protest, and campaign.
My colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts, by way of contrast, themselves have experienced the insults and assaults against which they have spent their lives struggling. For my entire adult life, I have believed that fundamental change in my society would only come about through the organized efforts of those directly injured by the injustice on which America is founded. I have resisted the pressure to substitute identity politics for class conflict, convinced that Marx's fundamental insight is right -- that capitalism rests on exploitation. But like so many upper middle class old lefties, I find myself longing nostalgically for a working class movement to which I can attach myself. I am reminded of the lament of my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, in the preface to One Dimensional Man, that his analysis is necessarily abstract because there is no movement on the ground in which it can be rooted.
It is a part of the genius of late capitalism [as we old socialists longingly, hopefully describe the current stage of economoc development] that it quite succesfully fragments the forces opposed to it and so eviscerates them.