Sunday, July 19, 2015

Social Democratic class politics versus New Left identity politics

Traditionally, the term "progressive" has connoted a social democratic, class-based politics. It was a political perspective rooted in the socialist tradition of the early 19th and 20th century labor unions across Western Europe, Canada, the U.S. (Eugene Debs), and elsewhere. Over time, "progressives" moved away from anti-capitalism and become social democrats, working to reform capitalism while melding markets with robust safety nets. Old-school progressives wanted to unite the working class as a whole, to push for policies including collective bargaining protections, minimum wage laws, fair-trade deals, single-payer healthcare, affordable college, progressive taxation, public funding of elections, and more. Class solidarity was the primary goal.

However, "progressive" has come to connote a new term definition, especially among young people. As leftist movements across the developed world adopted neoliberal and corporatist Third-Way policies, "progressives" moved away from center-left and toward the center, and even often to the center-right on class issues. However, they still portrayed themselves as "leftist" by having a unique focus on politics of identity. Gay rights. Women's rights. Reproductive rights. While all of these issues are important in their own right, focusing too heavily on them and prioritizing them created an environment in which societies made much social progress, but they moved backward on economics. No longer in the U.S. is it controversial to support gay marriage: heck, even large corporations and Wall Street are fully supportive of LGBT rights and issues. But it's far, far harder in the U.S. to say "let's also raise taxes on the rich above 50%" or "let's enact Medicare-for-all" or "let's make college tuition free" or "let's reign in on Wall Street." These issues are politically unpalatable, while social progressive stances are much more easier for our elected politicians to adopt, even on race-based issues.

What we're seeing now is a pretty ugly clash between the old school social democratic progressives and the new left identity politics progressives. True, identity politics and class solidarity aren't mutually exclusive, and it is important and necessary to reconcile them. No good modern leftist is a class reductionist who believes LGBT rights is a "minor" issue, or that criminal justice reform is "insignificant." However, the problem is that there are too many "identity politics reductionists" in the "progressive movement." People are judged and reduced to their tangible identities: their race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, visible disability status, religion, and so on. All that matters is whether someone is a white male, for example. That is enough to discount to what they are saying, even if they have a genuinely important agenda. Class issues are almost completely downplayed: poor or impoverished white people are often not viewed as needy of help. I've heard people say that "homeless white people don't need assistance because homeless PoC have it worse." In my view, that mentality is wrong. Oppression Olympics is wrong.

Extreme adherents of radical identity politics argue that the problems in society are inherently caused by white cisgender heterosexual males. Every single event and action by white men, even if they are progressive, is seen through the lens of power relationships or "privilege." These radical leftist ideologies are in fact very counter-productive because they divide people, and are hostile to whites joining social justice movements to show solidarity with PoC. Radical identity politics leftists say white progressive "allies" often "invade space," "derail conversations," and "aren't critical enough." They claim white people can't ever understand the struggle of PoC, or ever empathize, or ever be good. There is some truth to this, but radicals crank it up to the extreme. To say that Bernie as an old white male cannot want equality for someone else and offer his support and help in an active manner is... not anywhere close to equality. In believing that white people can't truly care about social justice, racial justice, or economic justice, these radical identity politics leftists are the ones being bigoted toward white people. And I'm saying this as a person of color who has been in progressive activist circles.

I'm not white. I'm South Asian: I immigrated from India to the U.S. as a child. I'm 22 years old, and was active in campus politics at UC Berkeley. And I've been around these radical identity politics leftists. They praise MLK and Malcolm X, but ignore how Malcolm X changed his views toward progressive whites after the Hajj. Many of them are voting for Hillary solely because she is a woman, and because they feel our society is characterized by systemic patriarchy. While it is important to break down glass ceilings and to effect gender equality, and I'd love to see the first female president, I think other issues and policy stances are important too. I think it's also demeaning to Hillary to vote for her simply due to her gender. I've met a lot of well-meaning, genuinely progressive white allies throughout my life, and I think it's horrible to portray them as the enemy when we all need to come together to make a more equal society.

It's viewed as a deficiency of Bernie's that he's focusing his agenda on economic populism, that he's not talking enough about race, gender, or other topics. But that's missing the point. Sure Hillary Clinton gave speeches on mass incarceration, white privilege, immigration reform, and other important social justice topics. But she's not calling for reinstating Glass-Steagall, single-payer healthcare, raising the minimum wage to $15, or other important economic policies. She's not focusing on overturning Citizens United, tackling the top 1%, etc. That's because the billionaire class holds the true political power in the U.S., and the billionaires (Wall Street, the Koch Brothers, etc.) are the root of our evils.

It's much harder to advocate for economic populism than it is to call for social justice on other topics. Economic injustice also exacerbates systemic racism, sexism, etc., and we can't eliminate racism without economic reforms. No one in the Democratic Party establishment is talking about economic injustice, or eliminating poverty. Only Bernie.

Bernie's talking about the issues he's talking about because they have been ignored and dismissed as "fringe" for so long, ever since LBJ's "War on Poverty" since the 1960s. Economic justice is one the most important issues that have been neglected in the U.S., and of course it makes sense for Bernie to make it the center of his campaign. When rural, socially conservative states are backing higher minimum wages, support protecting entitlement programs, and support collective bargaining, that shows they aren't supporting the GOP due to an agreement over pro-business economic policies. Sanders is tapping into a nascent economic populism in the country, and in my view, it is important to make that the central topic of the 2016 presidential election. It is actually a deficiency that the rest of political establishment has ignored economics for far too long. And it happens to be the fact that Bernie's policies would mostly affect poor people of color given that minority communities have been hit the hardest by wealth and income inequality, poverty, unemployment, poor education, and low social mobility.

Like Bernie was saying in Iowa the other day, we can't divide ourselves by gender, sexuality, and race. But that's exactly what the hecklers earlier today in Arizona want to do, as they chanted "what side are you on," and spewed profanities. Sanders, in contrast, has the ideology that all poor and working class people, regardless of race, should unite in a broad movement. And he says the problems in society can be traced to the billionaire class' stranglehold on government. It is a populism based on economic class, rather than ethnic or racial identity, and I think it is a much more workable leftism and and has a better shot at building a genuine grassroots movement.

Bold and italic emphasis in the excerpt is mine.

I can't speak about or judge Martin O'Malley  -- I'll leave that to Egberto -- but Bernie Sanders has been a staunch advocate for African American civil rights for over 50 years.  He marched with MLK in 1963, and witnessed the "I Had a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  He was a student organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  He coordinated sit-ins against segregated housing at the University of Chicago, and got arrested for civil disobedience, protesting racially segregated schools in Chicago.  He has consistently denounced police brutality and the criminal injustice system in America as applied to people of color... as recently as yesterday in Phoenix, even as he was being shouted down.

Bernie Sanders backed Jesse Jackson's 1988 run for POTUS, opposed the "tuff-on-crime" policies of the 1990s, opposed the 1996 welfare reform -- a Bill Clinton initiative, mind you -- that marginalized poor women of color the most.  He continues to oppose mass incarceration, the war on drugs, police militarization, the death penalty, etc.

Bernie Sanders has come correct on the issues that matter to all black lives, all of his adult life.  So when protestors at Netroots Nation -- or anywhere else, such as perhaps in Dallas and Houston today -- chant "Whose side are you on", I just hope they'll check the facts.  And to Tia Oso's question, the answer is yes.

I would add that her question, slightly revised, would be an excellent one to ask Barack Obama:

"After nearly seven years as president, where is your racial justice agenda that will dismantle, not reform, not make progress, but will begin to dismantle the structural racism in the United States?"

Update: From Oliver Willis (a black man, for those who might be unaware, and so we can avoid the "whitesplaining" nonsense):

There is a fine and upstanding tradition in America of protest. At its most effective, protest is a great tool towards changing public attitudes about key issues (gender, race, sexual orientation, economic policies) and has actually been able to pass laws producing amazing change.

At its worst, protest can simply be an exercise in vanity, an almost childish temper tantrum with no goal or policy set in mind beyond the venal egos of the protesters.

This event appears to be the latter.


...It isn’t that the issues of Black Lives Matter don’t exist, but what in God’s name can Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley do on a Saturday afternoon to fix them? It isn’t as if either man has given the issue a cold shoulder. The establishment front runner, Hillary Clinton, has made speeches and policy proposals on these issues as well.

And even while President Obama has been addressing these issues – just this week he visited a prison, the first time any president has done so — the protest would have been less impotent if it had targeted him or policy makers with the ability to do something over the next year.

But instead, they yelled at Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, which accomplishes nothing more than proving the case that there are elements of the left who would protest the Easter Bunny if it meant being able to yell some sort of slogan.

I bet they feel great about themselves, having done nothing to advance the issues they profess to care so dearly about. I bet they feel great.

Update: If you want to understand the complexity of the struggle between the two factions, the irony being used as leverage, and the power of Twitter employing it, just scroll through #BernieSoBlack, or read this for the short take.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

Well put. These thoughts are exactly mine. It's how many a neolib has claimed to be a liberal when he really isn't.