I recall a conversation I had a year or so ago with a friend of mine. We were comparing our political persuasions and after describing himself as solidly left of center on social issues, my friend proclaimed he was “liberal where it matters.” The implication being, that is, that economic liberalism, or an unshakeable allegiance to labor, were passé. The sentiment is a common one among my generation, I think. Support gay marriage, abortion rights, and gun control? You’re a forward-thinking liberal. Barack Obama is your guy, economic justice, obtained through collective means, an afterthought.
Mine is a generation that came of age in the oughts, when good Democrats opposed the war in Iraq and the Bush tax cuts. Unions, their retreat as consequential actors in the national economy complete, seemed like some strange holdover from the past; Republicans loathed them and Democrats halfheartedly supported them, but we rarely came across their members outside of the classroom or the library or the post office. The most recent social movements, the ones with which we tended to be most familiar — antiwar, civil rights, gay rights, feminist, environmental — weren’t constitutively anti-capitalist. If class was invoked, it was to contrast consumer habits and cultural markers — NASCAR-loving gun owner versus Starbucks-frequenting Volvo driver. With the Left insipid, neoliberalism firmly established itself as the new “common sense“; neoliberals began to set the terms of debate and structure the way most people thought about the world.
The Left that did survive wasn’t unscathed, immune from neoliberalism’s influence. Consider the rise of “green capitalism,” whose proponents proposed, and continue to propose, that we essentially buy our way out of climate change catastrophe (and feel warm and fuzzy doing it!). Under this strategy of change, corporations and localist lefties, if they’re not acting in concert, are not working at cross-purposes at the very least. And naturally, corporate power and capitalism itself are resultantly granted reprieve.
Postmodernists, in assailing essentialism and exalting difference, also contributed to a Left increasingly skeptical of class-based movements, strategies, and analyses. To these critics, understanding the world through the lens of class, relations of production, and the economic “base” of society was hopelessly simplistic. The world was much too complex for such a reductionist exercise. Class struggle was out, identity, contingency, and subjectivity in. Capitalism’s staying power and the declining power of labor unions also reinforced this retreat, as leftists focused on more auspicious sites of struggles.
A decade after the global justice movement hit the United States, Occupy, reclaiming the language of class, declaimed against a rapacious 1 percent. Occupy might not be dead, but it is dormant.
So the question is, what role should class play in the politics of the democratic left? In an era of escalating income and wealth inequality—such that even center-left types and corporate Democrats have expressed alarm—should economic justice and challenging capitalism be our principal preoccupation? And how will our project speak to, and question some of the assumption of, the generation born and bred under hegemonic neoliberalism?
Ellen Willis, the late feminist and democratic socialist, provides some insights in her essay “What’s the Matter with Tom Frank (and the lefties who love him)?” The New Deal-loving Frank famously argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas that the culture wars were an insignificant sideshow, fodder for the GOP’s regressive bait-and-switch. Willis strenuously disagrees:
The cultural radical impulse is rooted in the core elements of the democratic ideal: equality and freedom. There is a clear logic in the progression from affirming that all men are created equal, with the right to choose their government, enjoy freedom of speech and religion, and pursue happiness, to demanding that these rights apply to racial minorities, women, homosexuals, young people, atheists and other groups in one way or another denied them; that the challenge to repressive authority extend beyond government to institutions like the corporation, the family, and the church; that the pursuit of happiness include freedom from sexual restrictions dictated by patriarchal religious norms; that free speech include explicitly sexual and anti-religious speech… Cultural radical demands immediately question and disrupt existing social institutions, yet building democratic alternatives is a long-term affair: this leaves painful gaps in which men and women don’t know how to behave with each other, in which marriage can no longer provide a stable environment for children but it’s not clear what to do instead. Is it really surprising that cultural revolution should cause conflict?
To argue that this conflict has no political significance is to say that democratic values have none—never mind the blood and passion expended by democrats and their enemies.
Willis concludes, “We need to look not to the New Deal but to a new politics, one that recognizes equality and freedom, class and culture, as ineluctably linked.”
Willis has a certain affinity with post-Marxist theorist Chantal Mouffe, a thinker known for — opprobriously, in some circles — displacing class as the central struggle for the Left. Writing in the 1980s with her colleague Ernesto Laclau, Mouffe tried to account for and theorize the “new social movements”:
One of the central tenets of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is the need to create a chain of equivalence among the various democratic struggles against different forms of subordination. We argued that struggles against sexism, racism, sexual discrimination, and in the defence of the environment needed to be articulated with those of the workers in a new left-wing hegemonic project. To put it in terminology which has recently become fashionable, we insisted that the Left needed to tackle issues of both ‘redistribution’ and ‘recognition’. This is what we mean by ‘radical and plural democracy’.
This “chain of equivalence” is mighty discomforting to lefties who want to build movements on the basis of bread-and-butter economic issues, conventionally conceived. Willis would retort, of course, that culture issues and economic issues are inseparable, and both indispensable to a Left politics. Laurie Penny put it pithily in a recent Guardian column: “There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women’s rights.” When I think about an egalitarian political project, it must be, at bottom, about democratizing power relations, reducing human suffering, and emancipating people from domination.
I’ll cut it off there, as this post is running long. Class, the neoliberal generation, and the Left—to be continued.