So much of our political discourse focuses on cultural issues like race, sex and identity, rather than on class. Why is that?
Maybe the ongoing culture war is designed to obscure an enormous asset price bubble fueled by two years of stimulus money, that exists uneasily with an incredibly tenuous, pandemic-wracked real economy? Maybe it’s because both political parties remain incapable of providing tangible material benefits to the average American, while instead showering largess on the wealthy and the rapacious, monopolistic corporations who control them?
A functional nation would end gerrymandering, pass campaign finance reform, end the filibuster, abolish the undemocratic U.S. Senate, tax great wealth, institute public healthcare and build a social safety net to ensure that no one in our very wealthy country slipped all the way through the financial cracks of life and was ruined.
But that’s not the American way. The American way is to cheer on the few lucky ultra-rich people, and fete them as heroes, and aggressively encourage all Americans to emulate them, although such a thing is mathematically impossible. Since the 1970’s the wealthy and corporations they own have waged a vicious class war against American workers. America has de-industrialized as a deliberate policy of slashing production costs as its multinationals have sought low-wage labor abroad, most notably in China. This shift was not a rivalry with China, but was viewed as mutual gain. The rivalry was between U.S. employers and U.S. labor, and the class-war weapon was offshoring and, in the process, cutting back government social spending. This policy had the affect of deterring U.S. wages from rising by providing a source of low-priced labor to enable American manufacturers to offshore and outsource their production.
Meanwhile, you know that saying “They got you fighting a culture war to stop you fighting a class war” is something we’ve got to take seriously. You can’t just dismiss it. Because if any of this is true then the liberal identity politics is completely fucked and ultimately power-serving. Of course you can’t reduce everything to class. Racial and sexual power dynamics are very real. The issue would be if those in power kept everyone focused on culture war dynamics instead of class, and kept the discourse from threatening real power.
It seems to me that a majority of our political process concerns endless cultural issues designed to obscure the enormously important political and economic issues of the day while pitting American workers against each other so that they’re not able to focus their anger against the real villains–US bi-partisan elite.
In fact the Democrats–ostensibly the party of labor–were just as gung-ho for the cultural war as the Republicans, once they kicked workers to the curb for Wall Street. Hence the PR problem from hell. After all, if the Democrats are not for the little guy then what the hell good are they? The truth is that the Democrats are just fine with the results of their betrayal. The new constituents in finance, who provide them with millions in donations, are cool with cultural liberalism as long as Democrats don’t take away their carried interest loophole.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, have been perfecting their version of the cultural war since Richard Nixon ran on the Southern Strategy, where he used race to peel away Southern white voters from their traditional Democratic party. After Trump, the GOP has transformed into a proto-fascist, reactionary movement that stands against the institutions of our democratic society. This has been effective, ironically, because the sort of healthy institutions that would prevent culture war politics from being so powerful are the very institutions that are withering away or were deliberately jettisoned. Technological changes and the atomization of mainstream media have intensified our division into warring political camps, identity-based tribes that further radicalize electoral politics, and are in turn radicalized by it in a non-virtuous cycle.
The foundation of everything happening now is a sort of late capitalist nihilistic politics fueled purely by culture wars–an almost primitive flight from rationality driven by a half century of rising inequality and crumbling faith in ineffective public institutions. The US has become a “predator state” in which finance has gained the upper hand and co-opted democratic institutions to forward its narrow interests. The American dream is dead: Children no longer do reliably better than their parents. The dream of a one-income supported household is over. In its place have sprouted the gig economy, crushing student debt, the death of unions and generalized precarity. The rich are unimaginably richer, and everyone else is spinning their wheels.
This political/economic reality has left us vulnerable to right ring agitation in ways we really weren’t in the past, because the social contract has been broken. And with liberals solidly neoliberal and primarily concerned with identity politics, the hard-core of the left’s old power: people like truckers and miners and farmers have slipped over to the right, even though their material interests, at least, largely aren’t served there. The right panders to them culturally and not materially, while liberals despise them as uneducated and deplorable.
This has brought about a dynamic where the right is able to protest more effectively, (with the obvious example the ongoing truckers strike in Canada), while the left remains obsessed with identity politics.
Ian Welsh explains–“One of the reasons I didn’t condemn the strategy used by the truckers is simple: for a couple decades now I’ve been saying that this general sort of thing is what the left should do. Change happens only when you inflict real pain. In fact, the trucker protests aren’t that new, this sort of thing happens in France all the time. Truckers have big vehicles they can use to block roads in a way that’s harder to stop than a bunch of people just lining up or even chaining themselves up…In the neoliberal world order the right is legitimate, and so are neoliberals (our “center”) but the left and unions aren’t. It is OK to mess other people up in the name of right wing values, but not in the name of the left wing (economic, not social) values. There’s some tolerance for cultural left-wingism, since neoliberal elites are more than good with it, but not for economic left-wing populism.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, we’re starting to see a lot more left-wing labor agitation, but if American workers want change they too will have to inflict real pain on their corporate and political overlords.
That’s a topic for another time.