Well, Brian Leiter's link to my old essay about Macros and PCs produced a flood of visits to this blog -- 2500+ in a day, rather than the usual 1000 -- and several lengthy comments. [D. Ghirlandaio, who appears to have adopted, as a handle, the name of a famous Renaissance Italian painter, is pretty clearly angry with me, though I confess I do not quite understand why.] But reflecting on the essay and the responses got me thinking about something that has long interested me, so I thought I would follow up with a few extended remarks about the difference between identity politics [as it is sometimes called] and old-fashioned radical politics.
Marx observed correctly that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever loosed upon the world. It destroyed feudalism, transformed the law, politics, and even the religion of the old order, eliminated the age-old division between the city and the countryside, ate away at the most intimate relations of the family, and, of course, produced an explosion of production and innovation. Marx may have been overly optimistic that capitalism would substitute the cash nexus for ethnic, religious, national, and other divisions among men and women, thereby preparing the way for a naked clash between labor and capital, but he was not wrong about capitalism's tendency in this direction.
To the capitalist, unencumbered by traditional loyalties and identifications, all that matters is keeping production costs low and finding a market for output. To the true capitalist, national borders are merely impediments to trade; the family wage is an irrational and unacceptable obstacle to lowering the price of labor; racial or sexual obstacles in the labor market drive up wages; and any social constraints on the largest possible pool of job-seeking workers is to be resisted as a restraint on profits.
The true capitalist cannot afford to turn up his nose at a customer or an investor of a different nationality, religion, ethnicity, or race, because a competitor of a less delicate sensibility will step in and take away his business.
To be sure, although this is the inner logic of capitalism, the reality often can be quite other. For example, in the later nineteenth century, some white northern workers made a devil's bargain with their employers, accepting lower wages in return for the exclusion of the newly freed ex-slaves from good industrial jobs.
The real threat to capitalism has always been not women or Blacks or Jews or Catholics or foreigners in the labor market, but organized workers using their collective power to compel higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours, all of which threatened profits. Thus it was that capitalists, calling on the organized military might of the state, did everything in their power to crush unions, often in bloody pitched battles. And more recently, when affirmative action at America's universities has been challenged in the courts, multi-national corporations have filed amicus briefs defending such programs, quite correctly judging that any program that increases the availability of well-trained workers of all races and ethnicities will help to drive down wages.
For more than a century now, America has seen a series of Liberation movements -- Women's Liberation, the Civil Rights Movement, LGBT Liberation -- all of which, fundamentally, express the demand that a portion of the population excluded from full and fair participation in the labor market, be freed from the restrictions denying them jobs and wages as well as the education they need to compete successfully for those jobs.
These movements, although they use the language and evoke the emotions of revolutionary change, are in reality demands not for the overthrow of capitalism but for its perfection. It is contrary to the inner logic of capitalism to exclude the female half of the population from the workplace, because the smaller the pool of workers, the stronger the upward pressure on wages. From the point of the view of the industrialist, the so-called "family wage" -- a salary for industrial workers sufficient to support a wife and children -- is an irrational expense deducted from profits. Far better a multi-worker household making essentially the same total wage but offering in return many more hours of labor.
For someone my age and of my ideological leanings, it has been fascinating to watch the ease with which the corporate world has co-opted the symbols of protest and reduced them to advertising images and gimmicks. Time was when you could tell the politics of a young man at fifty paces by the length of his hair, when artificially amped up music devoid of aesthetic merit was the sound of protest against "the system," when body piercings were a dagger in the heart of The Establishment. All of this was brilliantly anatomized by my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, under the provocative heading "repressive desublimation."
Despite its ephemeral nature and lack of an agenda for action, the most serious thrust at the established order in recent years has been the Occupy Movement. Income and wealth inequality is a consequence of capitalism, not a cause, but it is the right target for the early stages of a serious movement for fundamental change. Yesterday, a protest against Wall Street. Today a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist as a respectable challenger to the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee. Tomorrow, dare I hope for a modern revival and transformation of the union movement, that, in the words of the bumper sticker, gave us the weekend?