The Real Class Struggle

Anthony Gregory does yoeman’s work in a recent piece for The American Conservative about the Tea Party and class consciousness in America:

The Tea Party’s rhetoric of defending the little guy against the powerful has always seemed discordant to the left, which regards such class consciousness as its own domain. The left has long identified itself with the idea of two classes in society—the common people and the power elite—each with its own, usually conflicting, interests. When left-wingers speak this way, conservatives like Limbaugh accuse them of “class warfare.” But neither side grasps the full picture: in fact, it was the classical liberal tradition that first employed the class analysis that has survived to this day in altered forms.

The piece got me to thinking. One of the reasons class arguments no longer really resonate with the American Left (or with the Western Left, for that matter) is that class no longer really matters. The Left no longer talks about class, and hasn’t done so since the 1960s, when the New Left was ascendant in at least the English-speaking world. Today, the Left speaks of identities — race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation.

I think most of this can be laid at the feet of the Frankfurt School and their Italian friend Antonio Gramsci. These Marxist thinkers focused on the “social discourse,” on language and how language is used by ruling elites to maintain social control and perpetuate certain ideas. This notion of “hegemony,” as I understand it, was Gramsci’s answer in the 1920s to the “persistence of capitalism” (!!!) at a time when, by all rights, at least according to good Marxists, capitalism should have disappeared in a puff of revolutionary smoke. Capture the tools of hegemony — the institutions that control the “social discourse” — and you can change the language of hegemony, and thus change how a society thinks.

No doubt some useful ways of thinking about and critiquing power came out of the Frankfurt School. But mostly, in taking the command to engage in a “long march through the institutions” (Gramsci’s words), the world-be Marxist revolutionaries of the West became convinced — or deluded, depending on how you want to look at things — that the revolution was indeed a dinner party. That capital could be challenged, and defeated, by clever semiotics.

Whether the New Leftists of the 1960s actively believed this or not I do not know. They did, however, live like this. They wrote and published and taught and organized within the institutions they found, hoping to change them. And change them they did.

But you simply cannot be a real revolutionary if you have a mortgage. Of if you have tenure and a pension to protect. Real revolutionaries don’t have health insurance either.

And so something very interesting happened. These cultural revolutionaries, who took up teaching jobs in universities and seminaries (especially Roman Catholic and Liberal Protestant seminaries), who worked in government, think tanks, to a lesser extent in the media, and founded consultancies to help corporations learn another “discourse,” became an incredibly conservative group of revolutionaries. They were not truly challenging power. Instead, they demanded its expansion and the inclusion of the formerly excluded, just as they broadened the “social discourse” to include discussion of many people who had formerly not been talked about in polite on intellectual company (save as the subjects of medical or sociological investigation). And in many ways, I suppose this is a good thing, since it allows people to be honest and true to themselves and yet participate meaningfully in communal life.

But at the same time, the focus on discourse ignored many real things, such as war, economic policies (in particular the deliberate deindustrialization of the United States, a process begun in the early 1950s) and even the elite and popular self-conception of the United States. Eventually (I think sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s), the only question the thing that had once been the Left in the US could ask of a social act, process or institution is “does it discriminate?” or “is it properly inclusive?” That became the breadth and width of its moral judgments. It was as if the actual organization of working people, the actually changing of the state and society became an icky thing, an untouchable thing, something that belonged to another era. Bygone days. Old promises.

(Thankfully, this also means, for the most part, America’s cultural revolutionaries aren’t busy shooting people and setting up internment camps to eradicate class enemies. They may wish to deprive opponents of social space in which to speak and even language in which to think, but that is nowhere near the same thing as organizing firing squads. And yes, organizing firing squads is what real revolutionaries do.)

More importantly, the Left overestimated the power of language. All capital cares much about is profitability, and if it can profit from “diversity” and “inclusion,” if it can produce an acceptable rate of return on a new discourse (and all the ways consumer capitalism markets goods and services), then capital does not ideologically care how it’s bread is buttered. So long as there is always more, or the chance for more. So, in many ways, these dinner party revolutionaries not only failed to challenge capital, they enabled it. This “social discourse” of diversity is so embedded in our culture now that there’s nothing really subversive about it. The long march through the institutions is mostly done, and the marchers have mostly won. Now, they have become a clique of elderly politburo gerontocrats defending their “revolution.” Champaign for everyone!

So back to Gregory’s piece on the Tea Party. In many ways, the cultural conservatism that has, in part, fed the Tea Party is an intellectually hollow mirror-image of this “leftish” cultural marxism. If social discourse and identity matter, then opponents would create their own social discourse and identity politics! And so the ache felt across the country because of industrial and trade policies deeply embedded in elite governance cannot be adequately spoken of anymore because the Left no longer speaks the language of economics and the Right can no longer do so coherently. The Tea Party’s rage in inchoate, like the rioters in the UK several weeks ago. The people who are the Tea Party know something is wrong but they cannot think their way into seeing clearly, and there are almost no elites in the US capable of leading or organizing them well. The Tea Party knows elites when it sees them (looking at the people who successfully long marched through institutions to effectively control them), but it also fails to see the economic elites whose policies continue to contribute to the intense insecurity and unease they feel.

I’m not sure there are answers. I have become increasingly convinced that we are living in a post-ideological and perhaps even post-political age. Politics in Modernity made some huge promise about the ultimate meaning of human existence, promises made most fervently around a century ago and to a great extent promises renewed and somewhat expanded upon in the decade or so following the Second World War. What people seemed to realize, though, is that while the state might promise something akin to earthly salvation, what it delivers best is suffering, deprivation and death. The state might promise to be the ultimate meaning to human existence, but what it delivers best is meaninglessness. I think people seem to realize this. It doesn’t stop conflict, nor does it end trust in government or the state.

But human beings want meaning, as individuals and as a community. We sense the state does a horrible job of that, but we also remember the promises. And they are enticing and beguiling promises. We don’t trust ideologies anymore because we know what they are capable of prompting human beings to do, but without those same ideologies, human beings cannot coherently organize the state in any positive way to accomplish any good. And so, people rage.

This is a dangerous place to put people. They want to state to work to secure their lives, livelihoods and the shot at a decent wellbeing for their children, but people no longer know how to do this. They no longer know how to organize, or even think about organizing, any any models or ideas we have of mass politics can always be logically linked to mass murder at worst, and exactly where we are at best. The liberal democratic state, for its part, is no longer up to the task, and barring a renewal I don’t expect will come, will only get worse at this. Elites in the West increasingly are incapable of governing because they cannot think very well anymore, and they certainly cannot challenge the economic power that is diminishing the lives of so many (but enriching theirs). And I think the people they govern know that. But the governed have no idea what to do either.

I have no answers. I have no proposal for a program. I only have observations. Something is happening. There is no telling what people will do when they hold on to the promises of Modernity in the face of their slow but constant evaporation. God help us all if they suddenly get a language to articulate their real fears and desires.