Flags in an Alley

There’s an image I cannot shake from my head.

I came across many years ago, when I was in elementary school, in the Upland Public Library, in one of those Time-Life picture books, I think it was photos with a narrative by decades of the 20th century.

The one in my head was from Germany, and it was 1930 or 1931, and it was the alley of a working-class neighborhood in Berlin, row houses packed tightly together, facing each other across a narrow alley. On one side of the alley, all of the houses, or nearly all, flew the red, black, and white swastika flag of the Nazi Party. On the other side of the alley, each home (or nearly all) flew the hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union, the flag of the German Communist Party.

The caption told, something to the effect, about the street battles between communist and Nazi thugs, about the battle for allegiance among working-class Germans, and about the fear that violence inspired among the German bourgeois (I think the text used the phrase “middle class”).

That photo has haunted me since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

I have always believed that the bourgeois, when given an obvious choice between real socialism and thuggish nationalism, will always choose thuggish nationalism. Always. I have looked through history to find some counter examples. Salvador Allende’s 1970 election as president of Chile seems a clear example of a contrary democratic choice, at least at first glance. But Allende only got 35 percent of the popular vote, and according to Chile’s constitution, the winner had to be decided by the country’s congress, which voted for Allende decisively. However, the center left withdrew their support, and spent the summer of 1973 trying to get Allende ousted prior to the September 11 coup that brought the Chilean army to power.

Perhaps the victory of the Labour Party in Britain’s 1945 elections is a good example. And there may be some other example in the chaos that was post-war European politics — Italy, Greece, France — where the United States intervened heavily to ensure communist and sympathetic parties could not achieve electoral majorities that prove this wrong.

But I’m thinking those are special cases, in which the very real rightist thuggery Europe had just spent nearly 25 years living under and then combating was simply not an option.

So no, I’m not sure real socialists — real Marxists — have ever been elected if there are alternatives. Bourgeois folks are simply too scared of what socialism means. Or what they think socialism means. Middle class Germans had a decade of Soviet governance to watch and consider, and while Stalin’s outlook culturally and socially was about as bourgeois as it gets, the taking of property, the destruction of the churches, the chaos of civil war, meant that bourgeois folks were not going to vote willingly for any party promising that kind of order.

I don’t know about America today. I really don’t. On the one hand, socialism (or what calls itself socialism) has a tremendous appeal given the failure of capitalism and the state over the last at least 18 years — the Iraq War, the 2008 Financial Collapse, austerity budgets. I take it as a given the elites who have run the Western world for the last 25 have failed spectacularly and been unwilling to admit or learn from that failure, which is why we are politically where we are. It is little wonder capitalism has lost its appeal among many of the bourgeois who believe they were promised comfort, purpose, and success as the managers of society only to be handed debt and austerity. It is little wonder they believe there can and should be something better.

On the other hand, socialism is an ugly term in the United States. A term of derision, one used to create fear. It seems to mean little except economic and social arrangements that are “un-American” or “anti-American.” What the folks above seem to want is a welfare state of some sort, and not real socialism, which I’m guessing few really understand. (If socialism means the collective ownership of the means of production, then I think we can assume no nation with a stock market is meaningfully socialist. Heavily regulated, corrupt, crony-capitalist, welfarist, highly taxed maybe — but if you can buy and sell shares in companies, even if the state owns a portion of those shares, then you don’t have socialism.)

Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher is working on his next book about the “cultural Marxism” that has engulfed our society, the high ground that cultural leftists — those who believe in both maximum personal autonomy and maximum personal “liberation” — have been imposed thanks to their long march through the institutions. I’m not sure its fair, or proper, to call any of this Marxism, but one of the promises of post-war Marxism has been “liberation,” and I think the spirit of Frantz Fanon is more alive and at work in the world than we can possibly imagine. So maybe the word is fair, and right. Who knows.

Which leaves me with the photo I cannot shake. (And which I could not find online.) The cultural revolution that has overtaken this country has been a very bourgeois one, however. My thesis is this: in American modernity, since the middle of the 19th century, the main role of the church was to be the guardian of citizenship. To be a citizen, one had to be a Christian, and that meant a certain moral uprightness, probity, frugality, industriousness, and a commitment to charity and uplift. By the late 19th century, citizenship was synonymous with being a white, bourgeois Protestant. Even the liberal churches, with their preaching and living of the social gospel, accepted this understanding of citizenship and nation.

For the first half of the 20th century, that conception of White Protestantism as the norm of what it meant to be a “good American” was stretched from the Methodist/Episcopalian/Congregationalist/Baptist core to rather fitfully include Lutherans, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews. Never easily, and never quickly.

The civil rights movement was an attempt to expand notions of good citizenship past the white part of White Protestantism.

It both succeeded wildly and failed miserably. It succeeded because many white Americans were willing, in fits and starts, to accept the changes to the racial order. It failed because enough of a white minority hunkered down and equated changes in that racial order to communism. They weren’t many, and they always lingered at the edges. But they were enough. They were motivated and networked, and they organized and voted.

Conservatism as a political project owes these folks far more than it is willing to admit.

At any rate, the church as the keeper of bourgeois citizenship began to break down in the late 1950s, a product largely of the core liberal churches embracing the civil rights movement. Changing the racial order of second-class or non-citizenship for black Americans was too much for many whites. Into that breach stepped the conservative churches, which kept an increasingly shabby pretense of defining citizenship going for three decades. But since the middle of the 1990s, the churches are no longer the keepers of bourgeois citizenship. The declining liberal mainline likes to think it is, and is trying hard to reclaim that spot, and they just may.

Rather, the very liberal and progressive social institutions that now run our society have become the de facto managers of bourgeois citizenship.

So the fight over gay marriage, and now transgenderism, and about sex in general, is not really about morality or right and wrong. It’s about what gets to be called ordinary, middle-class life, and who can be a bourgeois citizen in good standing. (“Can you be queer, something formerly disreputable, marginal, transgressive, and even punishable, and now be a respectable bourgeois citizen with a managerial job and a family and a mortgage? Why yes, now you can!”) And so far, the cultural revolutionaries have won just about everything they have fought for over the last 50 years.

Does this look like chaos to those who aren’t invested in that revolution? I don’t know. There’s grumbling, but little real agitation against it. But that’s why the alley picture haunts me. If given the choice between people who call themselves socialists, who aren’t ashamed of the name, and what it means, and the (right now potential) mob Donald J. Trump could probably organize, what will the millions of suburb dwellers and townhome owners and farmers and businesspeople who are invested in “order-as-it-is” choose? We didn’t face that real choice in 2016, and we don’t face it now. Trump may aspire to being an authoritarian, but so far, he’s been very bad at it, and we have his lack of discipline and focus, and the sheer corrupt incompetence of his minions, to thank for that.

But Trump is good at finding just the right exposed nerve and working it until it’s red and sore and bloody. He’s threatened to call out thugs, but could he actually do that? Americans don’t know much about socialism, and — at least from what I’ve seen online — conversations about socialism tend to collapse into arguments about free health care and high minimum wages on the one hand, and famines and gulags on the other.

We are a deeply unserious people — I think we in the West have been deeply unserious since the Blair/Clinton era. And that will likely save us. Because, I think, it’s impossible for as unserious a people as us to organize mass murder. (Mass suffering is another matter; that can be done carelessly, without thought, or even by accident.) But it doesn’t take much fear of chaos and disorder to push people to act, and we may be unserious, but we are a very frightened unserious people. If you think “The Year Zero” and “The Killing Fields” (or “The Nuremberg Laws” and “Auschwitz”) await if the wrong people win the next election, then you’re not going to simply sit by for the end. You will organize, and you will fight. Because survival is on the line.

And then we could very quickly become a deadly serious people.

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