3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part II

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in humanities and liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

Progressive Concept #2: Power is the ultimate axis along which people differ, however, it is an abstraction that can only reproduce itself through discourse.

Discourse is how we constitute and communicate knowledge, and then act upon that knowledge. In other words, following from Part I’s concept that absolute objectivity does not exist, knowledge is never neutral, and it usually created by those in power to serve their own power. For example, during the election, detractors of Hillary Clinton have either described her as shrill, which confirmed that her gender identity made her a weak candidate, or they described her as hawkish, which meant that she was denying her gender identity, which made her a badly-adjusted candidate. Thus, this kind of criticisms she faced were based on a discourse about appropriate gender behaviour, and not necessarily her merit, and was leveled against her by people who saw her as a challenge to their preferred status quo.

Discourses generate prototypes and stereotypes that guide further action. Research and theories about discourses (most recently stemming from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault) have instigated something called “the cultural turn,” where scholars, and the broader public, have come to believe that culture is the realm where people have been indoctrinated with biases, and these biases in turn perpetuate inequality (or the opposite, that culture can give society news ways of thinking that can fix inequality). The most significant carrier of meaning in our culture is language, and so closely aligned with the cultural turn was “the linguistic turn,” which called attention to how language has the power to perpetuate or dissuade action. The idea behind the linguistic turn is that language does not transparently represent reality like we think it does, because language is more or less arbitrary symbols that we create to refer to what we decide is important out in the world. The story that Arctic peoples have a hundred words for “snow” may or may not be accurate, but they definitely have more words than English; it matters to their livelihood that they distinguish different kinds of snow through language and we don’t, even though in “reality” we get as much different kinds of snow as they do. Having more words for snow also means that Arctic peoples will more likely notice the differences between subtypes of snow, whereas we won’t. Thus, what snow “really” is depends on whose speaking and their language. This position can be summed up with the phrase “words have power.”

On the academic front, the discipline of Cultural Studies is where scholars can research and teach about how culture and language has developed to privilege certain kinds of common sense over others. Combined, the linguistic turn and the cultural turn help us by point out the constructedness of concepts, ideological motivations of people who have lead us to believe in those concepts, and how to imagine better alternatives. Criticism of Trump, for example, has called out his rhetoric as being misogynist and racist as part of this academic/cultural trend.

Response #2: Despite attention to power, in the US class is subordinated as a dimension with which to critique inequality. I believe that 3 broad tendencies have contributed to this:

a) the suppression of Marxian critique despite being in a society of advanced capitalism

b) the obviousness of race and gender as markers of difference in the US

c) theories of discourse and language have been reduced to political correctness

I would not say that Marx is entirely correct, however the essence of the definition of class is socioeconomic status, whereas neither race nor gender are defined essentially by socioeconomic status. In other words, in an alternate time / place, poor people will still be poor, but poverty may not be aligned with markers of biological difference. Obviously, whether one has power or not does not depend entirely on one’s socioeconomic status. For example, historically a woman who has high socioeconomic status based on her relationship to privileged male family members would still be unable to vote on legislations or shape public discourse if women were categorically denied the vote, especially on issues pertaining to gender. However, the current US is a country of advanced capitalism (especially in the post-New Deal era) defined by individual labour and commodification, and thus the extent of one’s abilities to sell one’s labour and buy life necessities in a large part determines how one lives life.

In the US, critiques based on this has come largely in the form of advocacy for more public spending on the part of the government, however prominent civic groups have not coalesced around class but ethnicity and gender, such as the NAACP and Planned Parenthood. Academic departments reflect this; we have departments such as Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies where class is taken into account, but not Class Studies or Marxian Studies. The organization that is meant to address class is labour unions. However the US has transitioned out of an economy based on large-scaled industry into an economy based on the service industry (which actually need people on the ground and thus cannot be outsourced) and professional labour.  Thus, this means that there are less and less work places where there are enough employees for collective bargaining. With small businesses, workers can legally unionize but are much less likely to due to the low number of employees. With subcontracting, workers don’t count as employees. Apparently some agricultural and service industry workers cannot unionize either (Though I am not a labour historian or economist by training, what info I got from here). The bias in public discourse around gender and race that leaves out class may discourage working-class and poor people to organize.

In very broad strokes, I think the lack of a developed class-based critique is due to a chain of eras: the US not being a feudal system with a large wealth gap among its “free citizens,” the Roaring 20s and “fighting the good fight” in WWII creating a good economy and national cohesion, and subsequently the Cold War and anti-Communism. In addition, the Civil Rights movement was focused on rights on the civic level for people who had been denied them based on factors other than class, which was primarily race. It was not a revolution that fundamentally dealt with inequality generated by capitalism, much less global capitalism (though from starting to read scholarship on the Black Panther Party, it seems like they tried).

An example of how Civil Rights-era critiques can miss the mark in current times was when Black students at Scripps College posted an ad asking for a roommate who is a person of colour. I take no issue with the students wanting safe spaces with race as a factor, or even that the students specified this directly on a public posting (more in Part III), but I take issue with the fact that they only specified race as the determining factor for feeling safe. American colleges attract an increasing number of students from Asia, who are broadly defined “people of colour” (and know themselves to be such), however with absolutely no correlation between their race and their political commitments. I live in a Black neighbourhood in LA where I am the only person of Asian descent, though I had temporary Chinese neighbours who moved away because they felt unsafe. One international student from China even called our neighbours “gorillas.” The Black-White paradigm has indeed been salient for the US, however continued migration from Asia in the past forty years has been a part of new global capitalism, leaving Civil Rights-era ideas of where social change comes from narrow and inadequate .*

In addition, I believe that the linguistic and cultural turn, combined with the weight we have collectively given to race and gender, has become a cut-and-dried tool to call out inequality that does not require us to actually look at material factors. Thus, it is easy for liberals to denounce Trump and Trump supporters on their rhetoric, while not explaining in detail why his economic plan is unsound, or explaining what economic factors might have driven his supporters to adopt racist and misogynist language.  Even advocacy for cultural issues that have a significant monetary dimension usually gets couched in a cultural justification first, and material effects second, if at all. An example is the LA Times article where the creator of #OscarsSoWhite was interviewed about diversity in Hollywood. Among her answers, there were multiple mentions of needing to highlight the achievement of people of colour, or that their stories need to be heard; twice she mentions profit motives in the industry as the reason for discrimination; however, nowhere does she talk about how more diverse filmmakers and actors would mean more people of colour getting professional jobs in a massive industry.

This is also a factor in the backlash against political correctness. While I don’t disagree with the spirit of political correctness, it is a mass application of the linguistic turn in a very reductive way. This is especially the case when people understand political correctness as being the change of a few isolated words, such as not calling Natives “Indians,” or asking people to stop saying “hey guys” when talking to women. Most people who follow political correctness do not have much of an awareness how the language they wish to use would address actual material inequality, or fail to explain it in a way that convinces people who do not agree. Some professors I have worked with ask that undergrads to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” and instead use “undocumented immigrant,” which is a way of getting students to stop treating law as though it was naturally-occuring. While this justification makes sense, a teaching strategy that does not make sense to me is taking off marks for writing “illegal immigrant,” which professors have done or have threatened to do. To me, this is in part an undeserved attention to one linguistic term at the expense of other means of demonstrating critical thinking, and in part the uncompromising attitude demonstrated by radicals, which I will discuss in Part III.

Finally, notice that most of not all of the politically incorrect words that we have sought to change are about race, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability, and almost none are about class; in daily discourse, there is no such thing as an obvious, single-word expression or even a phrase that signals a class-based offense (though “redneck” comes close). This means that disenfranchisement based on class is harder to detect, and unfortunately liberals often avoid doing that work and stick to pointing out linguistic or cultural offenses instead.

In an academic setting, unfortunately the superficial application of the cultural turn is also exacerbated by these scholars negatively judging other social science disciplines. For people in Cultural Studies or Literature, Political Science and Economics have been seen as less suited to social change or even suspect – less successful because their priorities are not conceptual, and suspect because they rely on a structure that, like language, has implicit rules which have biases towards those in power. For example, Political Science to a certain degree assumes that we need a government of some kind, which leftist anarchists (and libertarians) would reject; Economics positively appraises allocating work to decrease opportunity costs and increase specialization to boost overall productivity, rather than question who gains from productivity. In addition, I have seen fellow scholars argue that disciplines that rely on big data cannot address inequality because the complexities of personhood and subjectivity becomes lost in the data. While all of these criticisms might be true, saying that data-driven disciplines are entirely complicit with power would be writing off knowledge that can look at broad material differences in society.

* A further note about the relationship between race and class:

I don’t mean class in terms of any specific ideology or its application such as Marxism or Maoism, and I don’t mean race in terms of the 5 categories offered on the US census. By “race” I mean any constructed definition of a group of humans with unique characteristics linked to their biology. By “class” I mean someone’s economic position relative to their society’s economic range, that comprises their income, inherited wealth, properties and other assets, and how much these things are worth.

I don’t believe that someone’s class is more important than their race when it comes to personal experience, especially not in the US (a historically-grounded and clear essay from Cornel West is helpful to elucidate this). In West’s essay, he points out that one failing of Marxism is that it is too focused on modern industrialized capitalism and the class divisions it generates, and cannot explain pre-modern kinds of racism. This is true. However, class in a Marxian sense is different from economics in a general sense. While I do not believe that the resulting class divisions coming out of industrial capitalism is more important than race for a given individual, I also do not believe that large-scaled demonization of another group based on biology can occur without an economic (or some other resource-based) motivation. The enslavement of Africans did occur before modern capitalism, but they provided cheap labour so that plantation owners could turn a higher profit; thus, while it is not necessarily class in the Marxian sense, there is still a clearly definable economic motive (see Cedric Robinson’s book Black Marxism).

I do not dispute West’s and other cultural studies scholars’ point that relations of power are ideological as well as material (Stuart Hall gives a great integration of this). I also do think that because racially-based ideological justifications for economic domination have happened for so long that they have taken on a life of their own. Thus, even when there are no longer discernible competition over resources, racism still continues. While I don’t dispute radical ethnic studies scholars about how we got here, to me, solving the problems we have comes down to 2 things – 1) whether you think it is easier to change people’s minds or change socio-economic organization, and 2) whether we are focusing on undoing the wrongs of the past, or preventing new wrongs from taking shape in our present.

For me, I believe that it is difficult to change people’s tendencies to band into a group and to demonize other groups based on simplistic reasoning, though we can try to improve on this point. It is more effective if we change structural and economic factors so no group can hold enough power in a way that their demonization of others carry weight, and the potential for economic gain would not be so great that dehumanizing someone else might be worth it. As for the second point, ethnic and gender studies scholars and activists have a very difficult job in working against the discourses that have collected through time. What may have started as economic motives have turned into self-justifying discursive biases, such that in the US, race has determined whether one can participate in civil society or live in certain neighbourhoods. However, this does not mean that all forms of inequality are driven by the same discourses as before. Following from the above post, economic motives now have more subtle means of fulfilling themselves than a recourse to racism. With global capitalism, nationality and class become determining factors on a world scale, even if race is still a determining factor in the US. Even as we attend to how wrongs in the past have happened, it is important to recognize when and where they might have changed.

My discussion about how defining inequality by race is inadequate is also relevant for the debate about whether Black people can be racist or reverse-racist. An explanation of the assertion that Blacks cannot be racist would be helpful: this position says that because Blacks have been on the bottom of the racial hierarchy designed to disenfranchise them, what seems to be reverse-racism is just to mitigate previous racism. This position relies on a metaphor of a numeric scale, where equality means all groups sit at 0, and racism is any racial group trying to rise above 0 by pushing those below 0. This has happened, as Whites have risen in wealth and status over history due to the exploitation of Blacks. Contemporary Blacks, who I think are predominantly still metaphorically below zero, can use means such as affirmative action to get to 0, and insodoing can pull some Whites down to 0. However, until Blacks rise above 0 and push Whites below that, reverse-racism has not occured. This position also takes an overall structural view of racism not as individual acts of discrimination, but an overall social effect of one race rising above another race. Thus, it is not addressing whether individual Blacks can be discriminatory.

I largely agree with this view of racism and fully endorse affirmative action and other efforts at equalizing opportunity. However, while I don’t think Blacks can be racist, I also think that Blacks can be nativist, homophobic, and religiously bigoted. As someone who is not American myself but in American Studies and Ethnic Studies, what I found surprising was how American Black Americans are, especially those who have been in the US for generations and have not lived anywhere else (so not immigrants from the Caribbean, like in Canada). Two of my neighbours, for instance, are older Black Christians who are very nice to me but told me that they believe Mexicans are engaged in a silent but hostile takeover. I think race is a factor that needs to be addressed, however it should not eclipse the real ways that Black Americans can speak from the position of Americans, Christians, and cis-gender and straight people. However, I also think that this is a conversation to be had internal to Black communities rather than have outsiders who don’t understand their positions swooping in to accuse them of wrongdoing.