Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Saturday, December 11, 2010

IDENTITY AND LEFT-WING POLITICS

Amato makes, and then develops, an interesting and important point about the need to attend to identity as well as ideology in the development of a left-wing politics. He references the Pan-African movement [quite interestingly], but I should like to address the point with regard to American politics.

In contemporary America, there are very sharp class lines that are deeply rooted in conceptions of self-identity rather than merely in wealth or one's relationship to the social relations of production. Three-quarters of Americans do not have college degrees, and most of the quarter who do have earned them at what might reasonably be called declasse institutions. The roster of colleges and universities that confer status on their graduates is rather long, but in a country with four thousand or more tertiary institutions, they are very much a minority. Like it or not, people are extremely conscious, and self-conscious, about their educational attainments and the associated stigmata [the sort of coffee they drink, the television shows they watch, their relationship to organized religion, and so forth].

The fact is that there are two economies in America -- one with generous rewards and, in the old phrase, a "career open to talents," the other full of dead end jobs, limited prospects, and grave economic uncertainty.

A fundamental problem those of us on the left have is that even, or perhaps especially, the most radical of us tend to have educational and other identity markers that sharply distinguish us from the people with whom we wish to make common cause. They know that as well as we do, and fancy education or no, can smell someone from the other America at a hundred paces.

This divide fuels resentment that finds expression in the demagoguery of the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs. When the Republicans smeared John Kerry by pointing to the fact that he windsurfs and knows French, we all protested loudly, but we knew perfectly well what they meant, and they were of course right. The only politician in recent American public life who has successfully bridged that gap in pursuit of at least nominally progressive politics is Bill Clinton. [Jack Kennedy, oddly enough, also managed that.]

The divide between the two Americas places obstacles in the way of serious left-wing organizing. This is why the labor movement is so important. The Civil Rights Movement bridged that divide as well, since race trumps even class in America.

What to do? I confess that I do not know. Pretending to be someone you are not is a total loser. Americans can smell a phony a mile off [which may be one reason why Palin, despite her media success, has extraordinarily low approval ratings among Americans.]

I thank Amato for raising the question, and look forward to comments.

4 comments:

Cobb said...

Many things.

First, identity politics is a bad idea. It is corrosive of democracy and runs afowl of the principle of meritocracy.

Secondly, I think the Left, if is to be relevant in the future needs to abandon its conceptions about organized labor in an urban, industrial society. We are not that any longer, and in many ways occupying a niche in the global economy. Left academics have a clue about the irrelevance of the internationalism of labor as the global south emerges and develops, but they have no idea of what to replace that with in their political narrative. Most people on the Left still don't even recognize the fact that the majority of African Americans are middle class and NOT in poverty.

Identity politics is corrosive, and fixed 20th century identity, is a losing scenario. No wonder people are waking up.

The problem is that the liberal agenda assumes a kind of all-enveloping and progressive agenda beyond what A) our economy supports, B) our government can honestly deliver. What the Left should have done instead of working collective and international progressive schemes, is opted for a bit more radical independence. In other words, instead of the big neoliberal place we are now, represented by that massive too-big-to-fail corporate, green, diversity machine, the Left should have co-opted libertarianism.

Because it didn't and shoved the old idea of collective bargaining, union membership and identity in the way it did, it missed out completely on some of the most radical transformations of business and society - as represented by the new open source movements in software.

Apple is not a union shop, nor is Google, and everybody wants to work there. Apple, a corporation, has more ties to labor in China than any Left politician. Do you see Steve Jobs fretting about his identity? He has made common cause with the ordinary Joe, but he has not undermined meritocracy.

The American labor movement is dead, and more people are connecting through Facebook than ever did through the Wobblies. I think there's just going to have to be a die off in left academia.

Cobb said...

Many things.

First, identity politics is a bad idea. It is corrosive of democracy and runs afowl of the principle of meritocracy.

Secondly, I think the Left, if is to be relevant in the future needs to abandon its conceptions about organized labor in an urban, industrial society. We are not that any longer, and in many ways occupying a niche in the global economy. Left academics have a clue about the irrelevance of the internationalism of labor as the global south emerges and develops, but they have no idea of what to replace that with in their political narrative. Most people on the Left still don't even recognize the fact that the majority of African Americans are middle class and NOT in poverty.

Identity politics is corrosive, and fixed 20th century identity, is a losing scenario. No wonder people are waking up.

The problem is that the liberal agenda assumes a kind of all-enveloping and progressive agenda beyond what A) our economy supports, B) our government can honestly deliver. What the Left should have done instead of working collective and international progressive schemes, is opted for a bit more radical independence. In other words, instead of the big neoliberal place we are now, represented by that massive too-big-to-fail corporate, green, diversity machine, the Left should have co-opted libertarianism.

Because it didn't and shoved the old idea of collective bargaining, union membership and identity in the way it did, it missed out completely on some of the most radical transformations of business and society - as represented by the new open source movements in software.

Apple is not a union shop, nor is Google, and everybody wants to work there. Apple, a corporation, has more ties to labor in China than any Left politician. Do you see Steve Jobs fretting about his identity? He has made common cause with the ordinary Joe, but he has not undermined meritocracy.

The American labor movement is dead, and more people are connecting through Facebook than ever did through the Wobblies. I think there's just going to have to be a die off in left academia.

Amato said...

Are you saying the left has no choice but to become libertarians? I don't think I like that plan so much.

coherentsheaf said...

This is an interesting post. A few comments:

Like Cobb, I really object to the idea of identity politics. I don't agree with everything Paul Graham says, but I think that his essay Keep your identity small hits the nail on the head. (In any case, when trying to mobilize half the nation, it's probably hard to use any common identity.)

Is it bad that the people who run for office are likely to be better educated than most voter? I really hope not. If someone like me (with, say, no formal training outside of high school in history or law) were a leading contender for president, I'd be worried sick! If most people don't feel the same way, then we really have a problem.

I know what is basically a similar point came up in a secular discussion group a while back: we were talking about how many people had been strongly brainwashed by their parents to believe in their religion, and how to empathize with them (and deal with some of the scars such brainwashing might have inflicted). Some suggested that it is condescending to talk like that -- since, after all, their beliefs were as sincere as our (lack of) belief.

Perhaps it's the same deal when a wealthy, graduate-educated liberal proclaims that she will try to make it easier on the poor by, say, not cutting unemployment benefits. I guess maybe the thing to say is to emphasize that the well-educated liberal didn't make it to her position because she's necessarily smarter than everyone else, but because she had the right combination of lucky opportunities and hard work. If she emphasized that she was trying to increase the chances that more people will get the lucky breaks that she did, perhaps it'd be seen as less condescending.