9/11: It’s a different world, ain’t it? Shocked and stunned. And it took that for white folks to realize we’re human beings. Because they were so worried about us. America is so worried about black folks. They were so worried about the land niggers they forgot about the sand niggers. -– Paul Mooney
The question of fascism in the U.S. is being raised fervently, but not by the radical Left. In a sudden reversal, old-fashioned liberals are now throwing the alarm switch. Having fallen deep into the culture trap set up by the religious Right, an energy-sucking void in which cultural values and personal identity are saturated with political meaning and history is purged of politics, the radical Left is no longer a player on the national scene.
Consider that Barack Obama has yet to even contact Jesse Jackson much less invite him to join the campaign, and that the only viable candidate with more than a symbolic link to the Left, John Edwards, long since disappeared from the race. It’s true that the Edwards campaign shifted significantly to the Left the debate over the war, the economy, healthcare, and education, yet his actual platform makes the Jesse Jackson of 1988 look like Malcolm X.
It is a peculiar state of affairs. Whereas in the 1930s and in the 1960s the American Left was at the forefront of both consciousness-raising and grassroots organized resistance against the Right -– on all fronts, from battling the police state and U.S military adventurism abroad to free-market ideology and white supremacy –- the Left today has no counter to the Right other than the notion that everything is actually a social construct. In response to the Right’s tightly organized and thuggish realpolitik, the American cultural Left has offered what Jean Baudrillard termed aptly “the new sentimental order,” an order “of disaffection, repentance and the ‘victim society.’” Timothy Brennan argues convincingly, along American lines, that the new Left order has not merely abandoned politics, but trivialized and disabled protest during the Right’s march to state power. In this Left organizational vacuum, traditional liberals have dusted themselves off and reemerged whole, and appear today to be the only sane people left in the society.
Nonetheless, the liberal bourgeois clarion call about the coming of an American fascism is a great miscomprehension of U.S. history and society, loaded as it is with the same anti-socialist ideology once used in its attacks on the radical Left during the Cold War. For all the parallels being drawn are to the rise of the German and Italian fascist movements during the interwar period, as if James Dobson, Oliver North, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Robertson, Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, John Ashcroft, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and George W. himself were, in a rare moment of foresightedness, cloned by Hitler and the Nazi Party and then frozen in a time machine for future use.
The American Right clearly has its own distinctive features. Critics like Thomas Frank and Chris Hedges have focused careful attention on them and provided nuanced and convincing accounts of where the Right came from. All the same, their recent bestsellers on the ascendancy of American fascism go back no farther than the immediate postwar period. The origins of “movement conservatism” are in the 1950s, we are told, when organizers of the evangelical Christian Right and Goldwater Republicans began preparing their counterrevolution against the twin evils of communism abroad and liberal humanism at home. With the landslide victory of Reagan in 1980, the Right’s long march through the institutions was felt by its theorists and organizers to be nearly complete. All the horrors to follow –- from the genocidal U.S. military campaigns in Central America, direct collaboration with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the attack on women’s reproductive rights and Affirmative Action, down to the construction of a massive prison industrial complex, the financialization of the economy, Clinton’s savage sanctions policy against the people of Iraq, and one blank check after another to Israel, for more illegal settlement building and to finance its ethnic cleansing program in the West Bank and Gaza -– supposedly have their beginnings here, in the 1950s.
The articles in this volume aim to deepen the analysis of fascism in the U.S. from new perspectives. In part, this involves taking a much longer view of the American Right, going back to the genocide of the American Indians and the establishment in the late 17th century of African American lifetime hereditary bond-servitude in the Virginia and Maryland colonies – that is, to the originary establishment of a monopoly capitalist white social order, one impossible to maintain without the class collaboration of poor and propertyless European Americans.
If the hallmark of fascism is the imposition on the laboring classes, by force, of an antidemocratic regime of social control, then the reactionary movement of 1950s is not the beginnings of American fascism but rather the logical outcome of more than three centuries of white male supremacism. Without this historical understanding of how the system of “white fascism” came into existence and how it has been able to reproduce itself as successfully as it has, through one crippling economic crisis after the next, many false conclusions about the American Right can be advanced –- for instance, in the Left’s preoccupation with the militia movement, as well as with Christian fundamentalism and the anti-abortion cause. The latter obsession in particular has played directly into the hands of the Right, treating the abortion issue, as the liberal-left has, as a litmus test for who can be politically worked with and who can’t be, when abortion is at bottom a complex socioeconomic question, a problem with roots in the fact American families lack a single-payer healthcare system, and in the harsh psychological and emotional stresses of ongoing job-loss, widespread underemployment and unemployment -– of changeless boredom and unspeakable despair, of a life with no future.
Chris Hedges in his popular account of the Right, American Fascists, calls these movements “Christofascism,” and we are encouraged to see in it the essence of the Right’s seizure of state power. Thomas Frank’s story of the Right in What’s the Matter with Kansas? is much more savvy, pointing to its cunning co-optation of the Left discourse of cultural revolution as the main means by which it has gained hegemony. Many on the Left understand all this through the euphemism “neocons.” Appealing as a clever double entendre, it is nonetheless an empty vessel politically speaking. As Ishamel Reed has noted wisely in his book Another Day at the Front, the more accurate description is “neoconfederates,” since the neocons’ platform is indistinguishable from that of the well-heeled late 19th-century masterminds of the Jim Crow regime.
Neither Hedges’ account of the American Right nor Frank’s has anything to say about the persistence of white racial oppression. It is a baffling blindspot considering the immense force of Dr. King’s moral critique of racial oppression and the undeniable staying power of the African American civil rights movement in everyday life, evidenced clearly by the reversal of black labor’s enduring marginalization -- for example, in the AFL’s strong focus on developing new and far-reaching organizational strategies in African American, Latino, and Asian communities. The other side of the civil rights movement’s successful march through the institutions is the systematic objectification and radical de-familiarization (or making strange) of the white identity, seen in the rapid growth of whiteness studies programs at colleges and universities across the country, and in the popularity among white Americans of the brilliant antiracist African American comedians Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Many other examples could be cited, one of the most compelling being the towering moral and intellectual authority held by Oprah Winfrey in white female America, a phenomenon scarcely thinkable in the 1960s and 1970s.
Several of the articles here propose the thesis that the real social glue holding together the Right is not Christofascism but white male supremacy –- that the intellectual architects of the “New Right” are merely scrubbed up dirty old white supremacists. This raises a different set of questions. For instance, is it not the case that many of the white people pledging allegiance to the Right or to movement conservatism (estimates range from 40 million to 80 million) are precisely those who have been, along with everyone else, morally transformed by Dr. King and the forward-marching civil rights struggle? If the masses of whites are still dyed in the wool white supremacists, it is a fact unbeknownst to them. Also, what is the difference between the rightwing ideological monolith “White America” and Euro-American workers themselves, whose real thoughts and feelings are as opaque to the Right as they are to the Left? Hence the ubiquitous opinion polls, usually miscomprehending, at any rate hardly ever comprehending, those whose opinions they claim to be voicing. Their sole purpose: to freeze and then classify the socially unclassifiable - to absorb into the artificial monolith everything naturally against it, everything with normal human instincts. To cite one salient example, when the racist rightwing term “racial quotas” is dropped from questions about racial discrimination and equal opportunity, a large majority of whites say they favor Affirmative Action.
A main theme of this special issue is that while the white American monolith is demonstrably fascist in origin and ruling-class social function, white workers are its polar opposite, a symmetrical relationship peculiar above all for its transparent artificiality. Thus to see these two poles extinguish one another is our most devoutly wished for goal, because from it will emerge, for the first time in U.S. society, an American working class which is no longer racial in national consciousness. It is already happening, this splitting and breaking of the monolith, and has been all the time surfacing, in many ways magically, during the past thirty years, at a rate of speed greatly accelerated by the African American civil rights movement. The Right’s unrelenting viciousness toward African Americans should therefore be seen in direct proportion to the white monolith’s melting away. Crucially, the monolith’s melting away has nothing to do with the so-called “browning of America,” a facile notion from pop sociology that completely eludes, deliberately, the hallmark of whiteness: that it has no reference to skin color. Just as the Irish Catholic immigrants of the early 19th century were at first considered “black” (or decidedly not-white at any rate), and this was also true of Polish, Hungarian, Sicilian and Jewish immigrants decades later, so too is it possible for today’s not-white immigrants (Mexican, Chinese, Dominican, Ecuadorian, East Indian, and so on) to make a push for entrance into the “white race,” to secure a place for themselves in the corral.
The new “non-white Hispanic” category on the 2000 U.S. Census is an illuminating case of this logic, for the U.S. sociologists and political scientists who came up with it appear never to have considered the transparent irrationality of permitting only Latinos to define themselves as non-racial –- that is, as neither black nor white. If Latinos can now be non-racial, why can’t the rest of us? In this way, the new non-white Hispanic category is an astonishingly lucid revelation of the Right’s worst political nightmare becoming real, namely, that the white monolith is really breaking apart. Most of this of course has to do with the massive loss of white manufacturing jobs and the steady decline of white male income, which the subprime mortgage scandal is now making much more severe.
Yet whereas the Right always perceives correctly in crises like this a potential catastrophic political defection of white workers from the monolith (at the present moment, from apathy and the Republican Party to Barack Obama), the radical Left seems to have little clue about what is really at stake, seeing rather in the Obama movement a mere “Black Hillary,” or worse a well-polished co-optation of Leftist ideals for the sake of Senator Obama’s personal ambition and fame. In a provocative critique of those on the radical Left reflexively hostile to Obama’s candidacy, Amiri Baraka has put it sharply, referring to them as “the Super Left,” those who sport “the mask of the foolish juvenile delinquent left” which “sees no progress in doing anything but name calling.” They are “anarchist-minded folks who are so militant they opt for passivity.” As a consequence, he argues, they miss completely what the Obama movement has come to signify
a stage of struggle for a People’s Democracy, a Revolutionary Democracy, where our maximum accomplishment at this stage of struggle would be a United Front Government, based on an alliance of multinational workers, the progressive petty bourgeoisie, farmers, all democratic forces and even with the shaky national bourgeoisie. Such an accomplishment would still be a transitional stage, but an incrementally closer step toward socialism.
As Frank states correctly, the Right has mobilized poor whites not by the specter of racial integrationism and racial intermarriage, both of which they no longer oppose, nor through the illegal immigration issue, but rather by the fear of big government and a bitter hatred of all its repressive state bureaucracies. Accordingly, in Frank’s judgment, for the American Left to get back into the game it needs to detach the discourse of bad big government from its association with African Americans, the working poor, single mothers, and all the public institutions that benefit everyday people (from libraries, parks, and health clinics to schools and colleges), and link it instead with what economist Dean Baker has shrewdly called “the conservative nanny state,” i.e. with corporate welfare. For the genius of the Right is to have linked big government with liberal social welfare programs -– this alone has enabled its easy success in transferring enormous amounts of wealth to the top. That is, it could never have happened without re-deployment by the business class of the ideology of white supremacy, without the notion whipped up in the corporate media every day that the liberals in government do nothing but hand out tax dollars left and right to all the “special interests,” i.e. African Americans, Latinos, unions, single working women, and so on. They didn’t play a Christofascist card. They played the white race card, the most reliable one in the deck.
Here the “poststructuralist” or postmodernist Left is just as guilty as the Right, seeing in the state as it does an undifferentiated entity -– an unchanging force of undemocratic repression and totalitarianism regardless of who is in command of it, whether socialists or fascists. This is a very complicated problem with few straightforward answers, yet certain aspects of it have become clear enough. First, the cultural Left’s theory of the state is no different than the religious Right’s: both are Eurocentric, or racist, in the way they understand the relations between civil society and the state. For those who never have to worry about facing racial discrimination in civil society (in employment, healthcare, housing, education, and so on), use of the state to protect basic civil liberties and social privileges, that is, to enforce civil rights and labor laws, can be easily written off as immaterial to the discussion. In fact, for the cultural Left the “State” is immaterial, not material. Second, and directly related, is the excellent opportunity today for treating the American state on its own specific terms. While the bursting of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and all the corporate scandals that followed (Worldcom, Enron, and so on) delivered a strong blow to the Right’s claim that completely deregulated markets will bring prosperity to everyone, the massive credit crisis of 2008 is going much further, proving every day that it is not state power which is diffuse and vaporous but rather the neoliberal and postmodernist concept of it. To put it another way, without direct involvement in the state by the Left, in the manner of fundamental policy changes in taxation, social spending, etc., as well as in the creation of new solutions to the subprime mortgage crisis, the materiality of the American state will come to the surface in the form of white fascism. To achieve this kind of social democratic intervention through the state, the American Left will have to re-enter the national debate with an American concept of state power, not a European (Foucauldian) one. The aim of the articles in this special volume is to advance this process.
Thus the purpose in tracing American fascism’s historical origins is to prepare better for the fight ahead, but not in the usual sense. To know one’s class enemy is always necessary, but even when everybody already knows this enemy –- as one can hardly fail to do in the midst of the greatest corporate fraud of all time, the subprime mortgage swindle1 –- it remains essential to understand the infrastructure on which the enemy’s strength is built.
In this light, Steve Martinot’s article, “The Question of Fascism in the United States,” takes us back to the early days of the white identity’s social and political formation -- to the shell-shocked late seventeenth century, a period unique for the large number of multiethnic (English, West African, Irish, and Scottish) laboring-class uprisings against the monopoly capitalist regime (the tobacco bourgeoisie), crystallized momentously in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 -- to prove the thesis that “the idea of a US fascism is not new.” Basing his analysis of Bacon’s Rebellion on Allen’s original research and class struggle-centered presentation in The Invention of the White Race, he nonetheless draws a conclusion sharply divergent from Allen’s, arguing that the white identity is not a privileged social status set up by the ruling class but, rather, a “self-generating cycle.” This cycle has produced a “white cultural identity,” one that “has racialized itself as white through its racialization of people of color.” American racialization is inherently fascist, he says, because of its structural dependence on the rule of police terror on African American and Latino communities.
Likewise, Holly Martis offers a perceptive new reading of Margaret Walker’s classic 1966 work of epic fiction Jubilee. Martis argues that white fascism’s lineage can be traced to the bloody days of Reconstruction’s violent overthrow, carried out blindly by poor whites on behalf of the defeated Southern slaveowning class. Her interest is in how the “White Restoration” immediately following the overthrow of Reconstruction produced all the basic features of American fascism today, in particular the confection of a toxic anti-black female ideological discourse.
In terms of the present, I argue in my article “Why Fascism When They Have Supremacy?” that the blind alley down which the American Cultural Left has gone during the past thirty years, where Du Bois and the whole revolutionary African American tradition’s critique of white capitalist society was replaced by apolitical and anti-Marxist Foucauldian “poststructuralism” and Derridean deconstruction, is part and parcel of a new historic compromise with white supremacism or the “white backlash,” as it is known euphemistically in the media.
Douglas Greene’s contribution, “The Bourgeois Origins of Fascist Repression,” revisits the moment of fascism’s ascendancy in continental Europe to shed fuller light on the triangular relationship between imperialism, the capitalist ruling class and rightwing economic populism, and how these relations work in the U.S.
Matthew Lyons proposes in his article, “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism,” that the narrow focus on big business’s role in the rise of fascist movements has come at the expense of a nuanced understanding of fascism’s appeal to the popular classes. In his view, “Fascism doesn’t just terrorize and repress” -– “it uses twisted versions of radical politics” in an attempt to outmaneuver the Left.
In “Fascism and the Crisis of Pax Americana,” Greg Meyerson and Michael Roberto offer a challenge to Lyons’s thesis. They argue that the implosion of late U.S. capitalism is the force responsible for putting into motion “an intensification of fascist processes.” Implicit in both articles is the idea that a clear theory of American fascism will go a long way towards developing in the U.S. a new culture of antifascist resistance.
Economist Mike Whitney gives a brief history of the housing market crash in his article “Global Train-Wreck.” He argues provocatively, based on the empirical record, that “the bursting of the housing bubble was perfectly timed to correspond with the finishing touches on Bush’s nascent police state.” This insight, he suggests, can be used now as a rallying point for struggles over control of the economy.
Elan Abrell argues in his article “Making Enemies” that the U.S. Right’s “reification” of Orientalism, as he terms it, seen in the Bush regime’s attempt to legalize torture, follows a crude yet very peculiar logic. He suggests that, in pillaging the Cultural Left’s “poststructuralist” discourse of cultural difference to legitimize its neo-imperial projects in the Arab world, the Right has illuminated for the American anti-imperialist Left a fundamental conceptual error: conflating culture (or what Mahmood Mamdani calls “Culture Talk”) with politics (or what Timothy Brennan and Keya Ganguly call “Matchpolitik”).
Kam Hei Tsuei provides an original interpretation of the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, a new and critically acclaimed movie about fascism. While many films about fascism have been made, the best have come from outside the United States. As Tsuei argues, del Toro’s stunning visual narrative of fascism subverts the dominant tendency of the Hollywood aesthetic, which is to confine fascism to Germany, Italy and Spain. Rather than a “true story” about fascism à la Steven Spielberg, del Toro gives us a new myth of fascism, one that animates the deep structure of antifeminism inherent in all fascist movements.
Tsuei’s contribution raises a good question: What do we lose by always thinking of fascism in terms of Europe and the 20th-century European experience of both fascist oppression and resistance to it? There are several obvious answers, most transparent of which is the persistent delusion that although the U.S. has its problems, fascism has never been one of them. But there are other consequences as well. The intention of this volume on American fascism is to foreground these consequences so that we can be in a better position, theoretically and organizationally, in our coming confrontations with the U.S. Right. While no easy answers are forthcoming, the fact remains that the current state of the U.S. economy, along with the mass depoliticization of Americans over the past thirty years, helped along by the Cultural Left, has created conditions ripe for a much broader expansion of the white fascist tendencies already built into American society as a whole.
The main fascist tendency is what historian Theodore Allen termed in his masterwork The Invention of the White Race the white working-class majority’s “class-collaborationism,” which is discussed in several of the articles here. While critics and commentators cram to understand how it all could have turned out this way, and the complexity of the current conjuncture is clearly overdetermined, still not many are looking at the nation’s oldest social formation, the “white race,” for solutions. If, as Paul Krugman has argued persuasively in his new book The Conscience of a Liberal, the appeal to “white solidarity” is what gives “movement conservatism” its power and coherence as a convincing ideological force, then fighting back the Right will have to come through the African American civil rights struggle, which means putting the fight against white supremacy back on to center stage.
In this respect, a vital link is offered by Allen’s central thesis: that the white identity is not biological or psychocultural or even socioeconomic but rather an ideological monolith, consciously and deliberately created by the Anglo-American bourgeoisie as a means of national social control. For the U.S. ruling class, the white monolith has a dual purpose: (1) to keep working-class whites from ever aligning themselves politically with their African American counterparts; and (2) to function as a “buffer social control stratum” between capital and labor, so that capitalist profit-making can be maximized while big U.S businesses never have to worry about the high costs of organized working-class resistance to exploitation and oppression. The white monolith is maintained through regular capitalist mechanisms of social control; that is, there is no cultural or psychological structure to it, nothing beyond the everyday business of making sure working people don’t deviate from the capitalist-worker social relation. What makes it, and not black slavery, the nation’s true “Peculiar Institution,” Allen proves, is the way the Anglo-American ruling class has held the white monolith together, by conferring to European American workers anomalous “white-skin privileges,” such as the right to vote, the right to bear arms, the right to a jury trial by one’s peers, the right to move freely, and so on.
None of these special white racial privileges is an economic privilege, nor did any come from deep-rooted cultural tendencies or some transcendental racialization process. Instead, they offer to white workers only those rights and social privileges denied to every African American, acceptance of which is conditional on their keeping black labor under the business class’s iron heel. It is fascism in its purest form and, as such, a historically relative social formation: it can always be turned into its opposite – from blind attack on African Americans and other not-whites to a clear and direct assault on the capitalist ruling class. Accordingly, the best way to break the monolith is by proving to radical-minded working-class whites the political emptiness of the white identity, in terms of class struggle, as well as its self-destructive and psychotic character: to show them that their real sanity and happiness is to be found completely outside of it, someplace else.
Allen referred to this way of thinking as “defection from the ‘white race.’” A magisterial insight, it continues to be one of the most persuasive theses of U.S. society ever advanced. It works at the level of imminent resurrection: that American society has always been boisterously, irreducibly multicultural: what stands in its way is simply the white monolith. He was following the lead of Du Bois and many other African American intellectuals whose emphasis has always been on the inherent fascism of the U.S. system of racial oppression, where one class of workers (whites) oppresses another class of workers (blacks) in the service of those at the top. Importantly, in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s, this was not an outlandish idea, nor was it considered impossible in the 1880s and 1890s, during the height of the populist movement, this idea of defecting from the worker-bamboozling corporate monolith White America. The critical breakthrough of Allen’s original critique, and the reason his scholarship on U.S. society is essential for an understanding the American fascism question, is the proof he provides that even a small defection of white workers from the monolith has always rocked the whole reactionary edifice of the American Right. He argues that a defection of one-third of whites from it would result in white fascism’s total collapse, and then the struggle for American social and economic democracy can really and finally begin.
Allen’s “one-third defection” concept is premised on the only valid theory of race that there is, the socioeconomic theory: that race is not biological or psychocultural but a reactionary social status or “social corral,” as Allen frequently describes it, which has been deliberately and consciously engineered by the U.S. capitalist ruling class for the purpose of controlling American workers, for keeping them politically apart so that any class solidarity among them would always be impossible. All the same, those adopted into any such racial social control stratum were never “white” or “racial” to begin with, and therefore they can always decide to opt out of it, to go back to what they were before. Or they can join an emergent “race-free” or non-racial social group, wherever one exists. If they find that one doesn’t exist, they can begin making it.
That there have been only three moments in more than three hundred years of U.S. history in which such an emergent radically non-racial social group was available for poor whites to join -– the late 19th-century Populist movement, the 1930s communist movement, and the 1960s African American civil rights movement –- is, according to Allen, no reason to despair. Rather, the success of these movements in attracting large numbers of poor whites to fight side-by-side with African Americans, and, more important, to fight against white supremacy in their own communities and workplaces, is the only proof you need that escaping the “white corral” is not only always a realistic possibility but much closer at hand than it has ever been before.
Here Allen’s optimism was based on another side of the problem, where the seed of his radical defection theory has flowered: that the socioeconomic theory is only partially correct. As he proved in The Invention of the White Race, it was not for the sake cheaper labor that the Anglo-American ruling-class engineers of white supremacism designed their racial social control system. In fact the costs of maintaining a privileged white racial group have been exorbitant, for example, in significantly higher wages and salaries to white workers. In Allen’s provocative metaphor, however, white Americans are like well-fed house pets – well worth the cost when set against the rise of a defiantly combative and unified bloc of multiethnic working-class Americans whose central demand is economic democracy.
So the gloomy notion that nothing good will happen unless a majority of whites stands up for fundamental social change is wrong, as is its corollary, the notion popular on the anarchist far Left that for the American class struggle to be successful it must be initiated by those most victimized by white oppression -– an approach which sees in African Americans, Latinos, and Asians mere shock troops in their forever upcoming big assault on the state. Allen’s argument is that not until an authentically radical group of Euro-American political leaders –- radical not in the sense of mere opposition to corporate America and the capitalist exploitation of labor and the environment, but radical in their comprehension of the white monolith and how to make it fall –- emerges on the scene and takes decisive and organized action against white supremacy will anything in America change. The idea is that the U.S. doesn’t need another MLK, it needs is a white MLK, and where this white MLK will come from is the true secret in overthrowing the Right and replacing it with a radical popular-democratic movement from below. In this light, one can then say that, in lieu of our long awaited white MLK, we have Barack Obama, and he is close enough.
This not-white someplace else, simultaneously always on the horizon just ahead of and inside all equalitarian-minded Americans, is still the question of the day. Aware of this reality, the Right during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s invented a new political discourse – what they called “the culture war” –- to block all these not-white someplace elses from coming into view. Seizing on the white majority’s disgust with business as usual in Washington and the bureaucratic sell-out pro-business Democratic Party political machine, it was a brilliant stratagem, and it successfully displaced white working-class anger over the sudden loss of manufacturing jobs and the apocalyptic effects on their communities of this rapid capital flight offshore. By now everybody knows how the Right did it: through a coded, symbolic language in which liberalism was made inseparable from so-called “welfare queens,” “racial quotas,” preferential treatment given to new immigrants, government handouts to people who refuse to work, and atheistic public educators wickedly indoctrinating their children in the ways of nihilistic cultural relativism.
This was to be expected from the Right, but the American Left’s embarrassing failure to counter the Right’s “culture war” has been difficult to comprehend.2 Clearly, the Left was not prepared for it. This can be seen in how quickly it jumped in on the religious Right’s carefully set up identity politics game, which the “Born Again” Christian evangelical movement had perfected in the 1950s and 1960s. On the margins during the high period of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Christian Right’s idea of making change one consciousness at a time -– the original micro-politics -– was in the 1980s appropriated by the new Cultural Left in a historic compromise with U.S. elites. Instead of the establishment of new working-class studies programs, we got middle-class anti-Marxist cultural studies and a jargon-laden theory of “hybridic multiple subject positions.” Instead of an emphasis on new forms of anti-bourgeois national-popular culture and a critique of American empire, we got a tepid, whitewashed version of multiculturalism and a sectarian postcolonial identity politics. Instead of strategies of short-circuiting the corporate mass media, we got theories of how consumers of advertising and capitalist commodity culture are actually being empowered by the media to create for themselves new “transgressive” micro-identities. Instead of understanding the logic of commodification, we were told of its inevitability yet at the same time encouraged to take heart, for you can always refuse to participate. Instead of the politics of engagement and creative organized resistance, we got the politics of refusal and withdrawal. The class struggle concept of a white MLK was consequently banished from Left politics.
In a nutshell, all the horrors of the U.S. nation-state’s violent repression of the 1960s popular antiwar struggle and the black, brown, and red power movements have been visited upon the next generation in the form of a theoretically sophisticated political escapism. Now leading the way on the Left is a generation raised not on the writings of Hegel, Marx, Veblen, Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Adorno, Dewey, de Beauvoir, and James Baldwin but instead on those of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, and Foucault. In fact, the new Cultural Left has attacked the intellectual authorities of the Old Left with a passion and intensity equal to the anticommunist Cold War assaults on the radical Left during the 1950s and 1960s. In its approach to culture and politics, the Old Left is said to be guilty of “homogenization,” “reductionism,” “crude economism,” “vulgar Marxism,” and “top-down” theorizing.
This self-serving caricature of the Old Left by the new Cultural Left, which is taught widely in U.S. colleges and universities, should not be underestimated in our current battle against the Right.3 Because the Cultural Left has purged from its discourse the concept of labor (treating the theory of class struggle, like everything else, as a discursively produced social construct transcendent of history and lived experience), the danger for the Left now lies in being forced to deal with a re-invention of the “white race,” where the liberal bourgeois call for “unity” and “change” is really an argument for fixing up an old monolith in bad disrepair. In this sense, Barack Obama’s appeal to middle-class white men, Democrat and Republican alike, comes mainly from a rhetoric of “unity” and “change” that features not a single reference to enduring racial inequalities, U.S. imperialism, corporate greed, or the need for proletarian class war.
All the same, beneath the usual empty rhetoric is a bombastic spirit of popular-democratic social transformation generating a power of its own. Dave Lindorff put the matter nicely when he wrote recently that, “While Senator Obama may well be part of the party Establishment –- with a record as a safe backer of the status quo -– if he succeeds in winning the nomination, and especially if he goes on and wins the White House, it will be because he has aroused a huge pool of voters in this country who had until now been cynically staying away from politics. It will be because he has transcended the racial divide that has stymied real political change for so long.”
The articles in this volume do not pretend that the solutions will be easy to come by. There is a great deal of Left organizing to be done. Still the tone is consistently optimistic, because in all events the Right’s long march through the institutions has come to a disgusting and disgraceful end. Their culture war, like their war in Iraq, their school vouchers, their deregulation of financial institutions, their claim that racial discrimination is over, their insistent claim that the nation is being overrun by satanic secularists, has exposed itself as a ridiculous fraud.
Still, as old-fashioned liberal economists like Krugman and Robert Kuttner keep saying, unless a popular-democratic socioeconomic agenda is militantly imposed on Washington, there is probably no way of avoiding a long and painful period of severe austerity. The U.S. ruling class must be forced now to pay a high price for its perverse excesses and disastrous policy decisions, or there will be very scary times ahead. For this, a strong social mandate is needed: a well-organized class struggle at the level of radical thought and feeling. And the starting point from which to gather the moral and intellectual force for this struggle, as well as its necessary political energy, can be found in a very familiar place, in the language and spirit of the revolutionary African American tradition.
1. As economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, co-founders of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (http://www.cepr.net/), have been saying for several years now, the subprime mortgage scandal differs fundamentally from the two previous Wall Street swindles, the Savings and Loan debacle and the dot.com bubble, in that it involves the only liquid financial asset the overwhelming majority of Americans can claim to their name: their house. Whereas the two other Wall Street scandals put at risk only those owning securities (about 20 percent of the population), the subprime scandal has jeopardized just about everyone.
2. Thomas Frank has defined the Right’s “culture war” better than anyone else. It “mobilizes voters with explosive social issues – summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art – which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends” (What’s the Matter with Kansas?, 5).
3. See Timothy Brennan’s new book, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), for a robust account of the Cultural Left’s religious zealotry in spreading their ideas in the American academy.