The False Dilemma of Class versus Race


Racism and class inequality in the United States have always been part of the same phenomenon. Afro-Americans began their history in slavery, a class status so abnormal by the time of the American Revolution that it required an extraordinary ideological rationale–which then and ever since has gone by the name race–to fit plausibly into supposedly republican institutions.” –Karen E. Fields & Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of the basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.” –W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America

On December 17th of last year The Guardian published an essay by philosopher Cornel West entitled Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle. West used the occasion to provoke a very unfortunate and very public Twitter feud with Ta-Nehisi Coates. It culminated with Coates bidding farewell to 1.25 million Twitter followers and deleting his account.

West’s core accusation was that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing focuses on racism to the exclusion of a host of other salient social, political, and economic needs and concerns. The myopia of his approach, West insists, led Coates to express his pride in America’s first African American president (whom West has described as “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface”) when what he ought to have been doing was holding that president strictly accountable for embracing destructive neoliberal economic and foreign policy. In failing to do so, Wests tells us, Coates repeats Barack Obama’s own central failing: allowing himself to be seduced by the bribe of “black respectability” into being a tool of neoliberal capitalist exploitation.

In the end West’s provocation–more of a broadside than an invitation to critical debate–generated a lot more heat than light. It’s certainly not what I’d intended to write about today. The reason I mention it is because it illustrates quite well a pernicious divisiveness on the political Left today. It’s premised on a dispute that pertains to the very nature, scope, and substance of the Left’s emancipatory political project. How we frame this dispute is contentious in its own right, but the crux of the matter, I think, is just this question: should the political project of the Left focus on class struggle or identity politics?

I already know what what the stock-in-trade response is. Regardless of allegiance or predilection those on the Left will retort that there is no dilemma here. The political project of the Left is concerned with both of these things. I know from experience, however, that this retort is facile and frequently disingenuous. Don’t believe me? Lock yourself in a room with a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter and a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter for an afternoon. Watch them blame, accuse, and finger-wag. Keep close tabs. Note who has a problem with women, who doesn’t understand the plight of people of color, who is a “bro.” Note who abandoned the working class, who doesn’t care about growing wealth inequality, who is a Wall Street shill beholden to neoliberal corporate elites. When it’s over come explain to me how it is that I’m wrong.

I had no intention of tackling this divisive dilemma between class politics and identity politics today. I’d intended, instead, to explore the insidiousness of America’s deeply rooted, apartheid-like system of institutionalized racism. That racism is morally repugnant is obvious to any decent person. And if we only grant that institutionalized racism exists, it is easy to grasp how it stands in the way of fully realizing the ideals of democratic equality and the recognition of human rights–ideals expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. What is less obvious, however, are the ways in which the history and structure of institutionalized racism and the history and structure of economic exploitation are mutually entangled. And entangled they are. That there is an economic dimension to systemic racism, in the way it operates and impoverishes human lives, is obvious. That racism plays a role in economic exploitation (including the exploitation of poor and working class whites) might be less obvious to some. However, racism is implicated here as well. In fact, to my mind racism and economic exploitation are so deeply entangled in American politics that it it’s folly to expect to make much headway in addressing one of these injustices without simultaneously tackling the other.

Here, however, the divisive class struggle versus identity politics dispute stands firmly in the way. If you care about equality, so our current political thinking goes, you’re talking about class. But if you’re concerned about racism,or misogyny, or homophobia, or transphobia, you’re talking about identity politics. They don’t play very nicely together, so you better pick a side.

I don’t want to choose between exploring either economic exploitation or systemic racism. It’s precisely their interrelation that I’m trying to better understand. This requires thinking through the dilemma rather than around it. There is no sidestepping the matter without running the risk of simply getting sucked back to one of the poles of it’s polarizing gravity.

If you care about equality, so our current political thinking goes, you’re talking about class. But if you’re concerned about racism,or misogyny, or homophobia, or transphobia, you’re talking about identity politics. They don’t play very nicely together, so you better pick a side.

Let’s not keep doing this. Let’s think through the dilemma. The place to start, I think, is simply to note that there is a logical equivocation going on here. On the one hand, just as there are economic justice struggles that aim to address the exploitation and oppression of poor and working class people, there are also any number of social justice struggles that aim to address the oppression, exploitation, and unjust treatment of women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, persons with disabilities, and so forth (this is not an exhaustive list). On the other hand, there is Left identity politics, which has a particular take on social justice struggles. It advocates for the recognition of various vulnerable identity communities that have been marginalized for a host of cultural, historical, and (it is sometimes argued) essential reasons. The equivocation is that the former and the latter are one and the same–that social justice struggles are reducible to identity politics. Indeed, among some of the more zealous practitioners of identity politics this equivocation is a quasi-religious article of faith (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) such that criticism of identity politics’ shortcomings can be construed as a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or transphobic act in itself. Prospective critics–especially those lacking the appropriate identity bona fides–are thus wisely cautioned to abstain.

While choosing to champion class struggle and choosing to champion various social justice issues focused on race, sex, and gender poses no real dilemma, it certainly appears as though there is a dilemma if we grant identity politics’ monopoly claim to social justice issues. This is because the aspirations of class politics and those of identity politics do in fact pose a genuine conflict–a conflict between universalism and difference. A class politics of the Left is universalist in its aspirations. Its goal is economic justice for everybody (despite our differences). An identity politics of the Left resists this universalist aspiration on the grounds that it threatens to erase thedifference under which marginalized groups can be identified and recognized.

There are obviously historical reasons why we’ve come to believe in this equivocation and the false dilemma is implies. There are historical reasons why class politics and social justice issues qua identity politics came to be alienated from one another. Those reasons, like history itself, are partially contingent and might have been otherwise. A deeper understanding of those reasons alone will thus go some way towards showing us that there is little that is necessary in this presumed dilemma. There are also, however, clearly some ideological and dare I say metaphysical reasons why class struggle and identity politics appear to pose a dilemma. I’ve already alluded to the primary reason–the conflict between universalism and difference. And finally, I also want to suggest that inasmuch as this class struggle/identity politics conflict divides the Left, there are some powerful structural, socio-economic interests in perpetuating and reinforcing this apparent dilemma as a means of ensuring that the Left doesn’t become a formidable political force for change in the world.

Addressing all of these reasons and interests is a rather ambitious project. In an effort not to bite off more than either of us (me as writer and you as reader) can chew, I’m going to limit this current investigation to the history of the mutual alienation of class politics and social justice. The remaining topics will have to wait for future explorations.

The Splintered Left

Je suis Marxiste — tendance Groucho.” –French protest slogan from May 1968

In 1997, well after the Democratic Party had rebranded itself as a “centrist” party, American philosopher Richard Rorty published a series of lectures entitled Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. The title is an homage to James Baldwin’s hopeful allusion to America as an unfinished project in the conclusion of his remarkable 1962 book, The Fire Next Time:

“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

In these lectures Rorty described himself as a “red-diaper anticommunist” baby who grew up supporting a distinctly American reformist Left tradition. Tempered by Walt Whitman’s optimism and Deweyan pragmatism, this brand of Leftism distinguished itself from the revolutionary Marxism popular in Europe in the early 20th century by its commitment to pursuing redistributionist economic goals, social justice, and a classless society within the framework of constitutional democracy. On Rorty’s telling, this distinctly American Leftist tradition was splintered in 1964–the year that President Lyndon Johnson sought Congressional approval to enter the Vietnam War.

In characteristic Rorty fashion, this pinpointing of the splintering of the American Left to 1964 is both analytically precise and, for a reformist Leftist, pragmatically focused. 1964 was the same year that Lyndon Johnson signed into law the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction (the Civil Rights Act of 1964). For Johnson, this effort was to be the inaugural effort in a bold plan to build upon the gains made under the New Deal to create the Great Society: a series of social programs expressly aimed at the elimination of poverty and racial injustice. Tragically, however, the political capital required to realize these goals–the very ideals of the reformist Left Rorty championed–were squandered on the Vietnam War effort. The Great Society was never to be.

If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” –James Baldwin

At no time, to my knowledge, did Lyndon Johnson labor over a decision either to endeavor to end poverty or to endeavor to end racial injustice. At no time, to my knowledge, did he choose to focus on white-worker poverty exclusively because as an old heterosexist white man he secretly hated people of color and, due to his privilege, was completely blind to their needs and struggles. At no time, to my knowledge, did he choose to focus on racial inequality exclusively–or rather, not racial inequality at all but the lack of racial diversity–because as a cultural elite he was hoping to distract political attention from the rapacious conquest of wealth being perpetrated by the Wall Street interests who owned him.

This isn’t to imply, of course, that when Johnson was President there was no money in politics, that there was no white privilege, and that there was no overt racism. Obviously there was. Rather, my point is that at this time in American history, a commitment to fight poverty and a commitment to fight racism posed no contradiction. That would come after the “splintering”.

To be clear, this is also not to suggest that the American Left splintered due to the policy missteps of the Johnson Administration. Such an account of history is far too heroic (or as the case may be, anti-heroic), and too narrowly American. In a less “pinpointed” form, the tale Rorty tells about the splintering of the Left is a familiar and oft repeated one.

Regarding the waning of the old Left’s (a term Rorty hated) concerns over class struggle, two general causes are frequently cited.

First, Marxian utopian energies we’re already on the path to exhaustion between the two World Wars thanks to the horrors of Soviet style totalitarianism. As Rorty himself notes, the Marxist-Leninist corruption of the aspirations of Marxian socialism, with its oxymoronic ‘communist state’, was a disaster not only for the states that attempted it, but also for Rorty’s beloved reformist Left. This failure of Marxian thought was, in fact, a major preoccupation of the dissident intellectuals associated with the Frankfurt School who developed the Critical Social Theory that informed much of the New Left thought that would inspire the radical student movements of the 1960s.

Second, post-war prosperity in the Western liberal democracies under conditions of Keynesian style mixed-economy led to a large and thriving middle class. This broadly distributed prosperity and increased affluence, in turn, blunted much of the class antagonism that drives class politics. When most people are bourgeois, the plight of the struggling proletariat just doesn’t seem as urgent.

It was under these conditions in the 1960s–conditions of relatively broadly distributed economic prosperity butextreme social upheaval–that an activist student Left arose. This was the decade that witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the Harlem and Watts riots, and thousands of Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. From a more global perspective, it was also the decade that saw the revolutionary Paris student protests of May 1968, the Prague Spring, and the Mexico City student protests of the inclusion of Apartheid South Africa in the 1968 Summer Olympic games. During this decade a radicalized New Left championed not only opposition to the Vietnam war, but also the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, the pre-Roe v. Wade struggle for reproductive rights, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggles, and, sparked by the Stonewall Uprising, an emergent gay rights movement–the very social justice issues that would eventually fall under the general umbrella of identity politics. Class struggle, however, historically associated with labor unions and working people rather than with the children of the bourgeoisie, never quite made it through college.

Initially, the increased emphasis on identity and recognition in social movement activism arose as a corrective to the tendency on the Left to subordinate struggles against racism and sexism to class struggle. It’s the same subordination that Ta-Nehisi Coates, criticizing Bernie Sanders’ flat refusal to entertain the case for reparations for slavery, would describe in 2016 as “the ‘class first’ approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible.” As Adolph Reed has noted, the by now well worn phrase “the personal is the political” arose among the 1960s student protest movement as part of a brief against sexism in the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and SDS (Student Democratic Society). Countering the the Leftist impulse to view racism and sexism as (to use Reed’s apt description) mere “epiphenomena of capitalism”, the lesson taught here was that racism and sexism (and homophobia and transphobia) are deeply rooted, systemic features of society. This being the case, they can infect movements as well.

In subsequent decades New Left theory would evolve within the academy in a way that was, by turns, increasingly less Marxian, less class struggle focused, and more postmodern. Social justice issues pertaining to racism, misogyny, and LGBTQ+ rights would continue to be championed by the student Left, but the old Left struggle for economic justice and a classless society would largely atrophy and go dormant. This trend would be reflected at the level of national politics as well. Beginning with the Volcker shock and the deregulation of transportation under Jimmy Carter (the first neoliberal President), and continuing through the slow destruction of the social safety net (“ending welfare as we know it”) under Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, the DNC abandoned organized labor to join the GOP in dismantling the New Deal and embracing global neoliberal capitalism

If by the end of the 20th century it still was not necessary to choose between fighting against economic inequality or fighting against racism, it was now because economic inequality no longer registered on the menu of concerns animating the American Left. Left identity politics, however, was beginning to come into its own. Writing as a frustrated reformist Leftist professor working within the American academy, in 1997 Richard Rorty reported that the “heirs of the New Left of the Sixties” had created a “cultural Left,” and that many of its members “specialize in what they call the ‘politics of difference,’ or ‘of identity,’ or ‘of recognition.’” However, to Rorty’s palpable disappointment, this cultural Left was largely oblivious to economic inequality, poverty, and class struggle.

“[T]he cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to the market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized decision making,” Rorty lamented. “Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. It prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements…”

Of course we all know what happened next. A decade later, in December of 2007, the Great Recession hit. Millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, their savings, everything they had, and Wall Street got a government bail out. Like Freud’s return of the repressed, class antagonism came back with a vengeance. And as for those things Rorty claimed that the cultural Left doesn’t think about? We think about them a lot now.

The Prescient Professor Rorty

I have an ulterior motive in bringing up Richard Rorty’s 1997 work Achieving our Country. Rorty offered this work as a kind of warning regarding the likely consequences of the Left’s abandonment of economic inequality and class politics in favor of cultural issues. He died in 2007, so he never saw the eight trillion dollar housing bubble burst, the global economic devastation that followed, the rise of neo-nationalism, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump. Nevertheless, when viewed in retrospect after the 2016 election cycle, Rorty’s work appears positively prescient. His warnings now appear like eerily accurate predictions, as though the Owl of Minerva, whom Hegel insisted only flies at dusk, had taken a rare tour in the afternoon.

The principal motive of the cultural Left in 1997, Rorty observed, was to “help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.” However, the victims helped were invariably those who were “humiliated for reasons other than economic status.”

“Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies,” he wrote, “because the unemployed, the homeless, and the residents of trailer-parks are not “other” in the relevant sense.”

This was a grave mistake in Rorty’s view. He warned that “the bourgeoisification of the white proletariat which began in World War II and continued up through the Vietnam War has been halted, and the process has gone into reverse,” and that “this process is likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt.” He opined that “the globalization of the labor market” threatened to accelerate this process until we arrive at a world economy owned by “a cosmopolitan upper class,” which threatens to divide America into “hereditary social castes.” The richest 25% of Americans would be among the elite owner class, while the bottom 75% would steadily see their economic status decline.

Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and the residents of trailer-parks are not “other” in the relevant sense.

“If the formation of hereditary castes continues unimpeded, and if the pressures of globalization create such castes not only in the United States but in all the old democracies, we shall end up in an Orwellian world.”

“For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, both of the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere–to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores.”

“Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. […] fascism may be the American future. […] The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for–someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”

“[T]he gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.”

Apart from the retrograde comment about the suburban rather than the urban electorate, and the optimistic bottom percentage of 75% rather than the Occupy movement’s 99%, Rorty’s prognostications concerning the terrors of our present appear to be pretty spot on.

We are the 99%

On September 17th, 2011 protesters in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan sparked a global movement against economic inequality. The slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement, “We are the 99%,” was a defiant battle cry against the elite 1% of the population who own an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, capital, and political influence. For the first time since the first half of the 20th Century, in America of all places, a widely popular political protest movement focused clearly and specifically on economic class struggle as such.

If the Vietnam War, using Richard Rorty’s milestone, was the point of divergence that splintered the Left and set identity politics on a path separate from economic class politics, then the Occupy Movement was the point, not of convergence, but of confrontation. After decades of neglect, the Old Left’s political concern with economic inequality had become so alienated from the concerns of the cultural Left (again to borrow Rorty’s language) that it was unclear how the latter and the former might reintegrate into a unified Left political movement. It’s here that the false dilemma between class struggle and social justice qua identity politics comes into full bloom.

Are you going to fight against economic inequality or are you going to fight against racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia? Pick a side, because apparently you cannot fight for both. The rift was still manageable enough not to scuddle Obama’s re-election, but it was the elephant in the room during the 2016 election cycle. The Occupy Wall Street set backed Vermont Senator and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. The Left identity politics set backed former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, as a woman, promised to score a historic victory for diversity just as Barack Obama (qua African American) had done before her. Animosity between the Clinton and Sanders camps, as we all well remember, was often intense. As you’ll also recall, and are likely reminded every day, in the end both sides lost.

Finally, we should also bear in mind that, as anyone who lived through the culture wars of the 1990s knows, there is a cultural Right as well as a cultural Left. I qualified “the identity politics set” with “Left” in the paragraph above because there is a Right identity politics set as well (the salient identity groups are white, male, straight, and Christian). They backed Donald Trump and helped propel him to victory.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

A Question of Universalism

At the beginning of this essay I noted that there were historical reasons why we’ve come to believe–almost implausibly if we think about it–that struggling against economic injustice and struggling against racism presents us with a dilemma. I’ve suggested that this dilemma has taken the form of an incompatibility between class struggle and identity politics. I’ve also attempted to offer an account of how this state of affairs unfolded historically. Finally, I also noted at the beginning of this essay that there were further ideological and even metaphysical reasons why we’ve come to believe in this dilemma–reasons that would have to wait for a further exploration. Before concluding the present essay, and at the risk of leaving us all with a bit of a cliffhanger, I want to close on a few additional and brief comments on the one ideological-metaphysical reason I already mentioned: the conflict between universalism and difference.

Many of the social justice struggles we now tend to associate with identity politics–feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, “the civil rights movement” in general–had a career that predates the advent of Left identity politics. And advocating both for these struggles and for labor rights, economic justice, and an end to poverty hardly appeared incompatible. This could still be seen, for example, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s evolution from civil rights leader to architect of the Poor People’s Campaign, which was sadly cut short by his assassination in 1968. As Michelle Alexander notes in her masterful work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “[Dr. King] argued that the time had come for racial justice advocates to shift from a civil rights to a human rights paradigm, and that the real work of movement building had only just begun.” If advocating for civil rights and advocating for economic justice presents us with a dilemma, it’s not a dilemma that Dr. King would have recognized or acknowledged. Dr. King’s proposed shift was thus a missed opportunity, one that Michelle Alexander and a host of others (and yes, even Cornel West and Ta-Nehisis Coates) now ask us to reconsider. At issue may well be the very ability to develop an effective Left political praxis that might change the world–something that is not likely to be built upon a valorization of difference for its own sake. This point was not lost on the British historian Eric Hobsbawm even as identity politics was first fully coming into its own. In a lecture entitled Identity Politics and the Left given on May 2, 1996–roughly the same historical moment as Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country–Hobsbawm, a committed life-long Marxian, was able to cut directly and simply to the heart of the matter:

“The political project of the Left is universalist: it is for all human beings. […] And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only. […] That is why the Left cannot base itself on identity politics. It has a wider agenda.”

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”