The Failure of Identity Politics

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham, star of the HBO series, “Girls,” shows off her support for Hillary Clinton with a dress emblazoned with the Democratic presidential candidate’s first name.

I maintain, as I have previously argued on this site, that one of the greatest obstacles to developing a mass, diverse working-class movement to fight not only the Trump regime, but also the system that spawned it in the first place, remains the scourge of identity politics.

This political orientation, along with its associated practices of “privilege-checking,” and “calling out,” has rendered the left atomized, devoid of a concrete political vision, and largely incapable of joining together in solidarity. Indeed, even that word, “solidarity,” is quite threatening to practitioners of identity and privilege-politics, who regard it as a sort of “whitewashing” of real inequities in race, gender, and sexual orientation.

The absence of a clearly articulated class-oriented approach to social justice, combined with a generally low-level of class-struggle (recent resistance to Trump’s election, notwithstanding), has allowed the nebulous, postmodernist dictates of identity politics to fill the void. As a result, in places like Portland, Maine the framework of identity politics has become the default orientation of left-wing groups.

According to liberal identitarians all white people are inherently—and perhaps, irredeemably—racist, simply by nature of being white. And no amount of education, enlightenment, commitment to social justice, or personal growth can alter a “privileged” white person’s racist, prejudiced views. Thus, identity politics casts White People or even just “whiteness” as the enemy of the oppressed, rather than the structural racism intentionally perpetuated by the wealthy elite.

As the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass observed of the twisted genius of the capitalist ruling class in pitting white workers against black workers, “The slaveholders, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much of a slave as the black himself.”

“Both,” Douglass adds, “are plundered by the same plunderer.”

Proponents of identity politics, likewise, insist Donald Trump was elected president based purely on racism—and nothing more. They point to exit-poll data suggesting a majority of white voters—including a majority of white women—voted for Trump.

But this data is misleading. A majority of white Americans did not vote for Trump. A majority of the whites who voted did. This is a crucial distinction. Nearly 50 percent of eligible voters stayed home on Election Day or were barred from voting.

And, while racism no doubt played some role in Trump’s election, many of the working-class whites who voted for him did so out of legitimate economic grievances. As Jacobin’s Adaner Usmani puts it, “All Klansmen are Trump supporters, but all Trump supporters are not Klansmen.” It is crucial those of us on the left understand this if we are to have any hope of winning some of those working-class Trump supporters–many of whom voted for Barack Obama, at least once–to our side.

This is in no way meant to diminish the very real and insidious role of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and ableism in Trump’s electoral victory. It is merely to acknowledge that his ascension is more complicated to explain—his supporters’ motivations more complex and often contradictory—than the easy scapegoat of “racism” suggests.

Furthermore, it was the slave-owning Founding Fathers’ Electoral College which handed Trump the presidency—not the voters. If we lived in an actual democracy, where candidates were elected based on the popular vote (or, for that matter, if we had more than two candidates to choose from), then Hillary Clinton would currently be sitting in the White House.

But proponents of identity politics conveniently overlook all of these nuances, preferring a simplistic (and decidedly cynical) understanding of society and human nature as governed by nothing more than fear, hatred, and naked self-interest.

As such, Maine activist and blogger, Shay Stewart-Bouley, claims in a recent post on her “Black Girl in Maine” blog that a “fear of the declining value of whiteness is what brought us Trump.”

Stewart-Bouley goes on to admonish her white readers that people of color do not need their “white guilt” in anti-racist activism, only to then proceed to remind them that “racism is largely a white problem.” Sure seems like a guilt-trip to me.

But rather than explaining how white leftists can be better “allies” in the fight against racism, Stewart-Bouley echoes the familiar identitarian doctrine that black and white activists conduct their work in separate circles. This, she explains, is so white people can “have a space [of their own] to work out the kinks on their journey without harming me and other POC [People of Color].”

This insistence of separate spaces for black and white activists flows from the identitarian concept that it is “not the job” of oppressed people to educate others. White progressives, in other words, must “do the work” of educating themselves.

“Seriously, I am not Oprah or Mammy,” Stewart-Bouley writes, “and for my own well-being, I want people to know what they don’t know and work on it without being expected to have their hand held by me while they do it.”

As someone who has worked (albeit, briefly) in education, I can assure you: Dismissively telling students to “go educate yourselves,” with no additional guidance or direction from the teacher, is a surefire way to ensure the majority of them do not take the class seriously, spend the semester slacking off, and ultimately fail the course. And, when it comes to eradicating racism, and building a viable, multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-ethnic working-class movement, failure, as they say, is not an option.

Telling people to “educate yourself” or just “Google it” in response to legitimate questions about unfamiliar phrases, jargon, or histories, merely reproduces “neoliberal atomization,” as one of my comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) phrased it in a recent internal document. That is, “sit by yourself in front of a computer and figure it out alone.” And this is to say nothing of the generally contemptuous tone of telling people, “It’s not my job to educate you!”

Part of being a revolutionary means being willing to educate, discuss and patiently debate with others—even those who may not be as radical as you are. Reading, studying, and debating collectively are indispensable components to building a sense of solidarity, and coalescing around a unified, cohesive political orientation.

Contrary to the dictates of identity politics, just because an individual does not personally experience a particular form of oppression does not mean he or she has no interest in fighting to end that oppression. Indeed, the system of capitalism—a system that is inherently exploitative— oppresses all workers to some degree. The ruling class has its proverbial thumb on all workers—though it presses down with greater force on some particularly oppressed workers (African Americans, women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities), than others.

But all workers have an interest in cutting off the bourgeois thumb (if not, indeed, the entire hand it is a part of) and dismantling the system that keeps us all down.

As socialist author, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her 2016 book, From Black Lives Matter, to Black Liberation:

Solidarity is standing in unity with people even if you have not personally experienced their particular oppression[.] The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction—at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer.

While the inclusion of more people of color, women, and gays in the corporate and political arena is certainly a welcome trend, the folly of multiculturalism is in viewing this diversity alone as a form of progress. The fact is, one can be gay, black, female, or trans and still be part of the bourgeoisie. Take figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, or warmonger “feminist,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example.

As left-wing professor Adolph Reed, Jr. writes in a stinging rebuke of liberal identity politics:

[A] society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.

None of this is to suggest that class is “more important” than race or other aspects of identity. Rather, as Karl Marx observed, class and race are inextricably intertwined.

“In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in Volume One of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

The left must rekindle the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Only through solidarity—through a shared sense of class-struggle among workers of all genders, gender-identities, races, and sexual orientations—can we hope to fight the right, rebuild the left, and win nothing less than the self-emancipation of the working class.

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Ignore the GOP’s Lies: The Pentagon is Not Broke

Fighter Jet

During a recent interview on NBC’s Meet the Press,  Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins reiterated one of the biggest lies about Barack Obama’s presidency.

When host, Chuck Todd asked Collins if there is “any part of [President Donald Trump’s] budget you support?” she responded:

“Yes. I do think that we need an increase [in spending] for our veterans and an increase in military spending because readiness has really suffered.”

For context, the majority of Collins’ six-and-a-half minute interview was devoted to the president’s proposed health care bill which, as of this writing, is DOA. These remarks were her sole reference to military-spending.

Yet, the statement, minor though it may be, is extremely significant.

The notion that military readiness has “really suffered” due to Obama’s budgetary policies has been widely repeated by congressional Republicans, Trump, and the corporate media. The GOP maintain Obama “depleted” military funding, leaving the U.S. woefully under-prepared—if not, in fact, completely unprepared—to adequately respond to a foreign attack.

Trump alluded to this notion of a “weakened” military during his March 1 address to Congress.

“I am sending Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” Trump said of his proposed $54 billion military-spending budget.

This oft-repeated talking point that the military suffers from a lack of “readiness,” corresponds with the equally false narrative that Obama was “weak” on matters of foreign policy—too eager to engage in “wimpy diplomacy,” and “negotiations,” rather than military force.

But this baseless narrative ignores the fact that both military spending and the use of military force increased under Obama. Indeed, Obama—who received the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year into his presidency—proved to be more of a warmonger than George “I’m a War president!” Bush.

Under Obama, the U.S. escalated the war in Afghanistan, down-scaled—but did not end, entirely—the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, and engaged in covert drone bombing campaigns in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Perhaps most unnerving was the Obama administration’s penchant for relying on unmanned predator drones which can be controlled from thousands of miles away, and its codification into law of extrajudicial targeted assassinations.

The latter tactic claimed the lives of at least two U.S. citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abulrahman al-Awlaki.

Obama even maintained a not-so-secret “kill list” of suspected terrorists targeted for death, for Christ’s sake! Perhaps Republicans are just jealous a black man got to engage in all the really deranged, ultra-violent stuff, while Cheney and Rumsfeld had to settle for merely waterboarding people.

The fact is Obama was hardly the peacenik Republicans—along with their subservient echo-chamber in the corporate media–constantly portray him as. Likewise, the claim that Obama “depleted” the military of funding, leaving it in a “weakened” state, is downright laughable.

Contrary to the GOP’s rhetoric, the United States still maintains the largest, strongest, most expensive military force in the world.

As Branko Marcetic writes in a March 6 piece for Jacobin titled, “The Lie of ‘Rebuilding’ the Military”:

The US military has a vastly larger airforce, navy, and number of aircraft carriers than any of its closest rivals. While it commands less manpower than China and India, its nuclear stockpile—a mind-boggling 6,970 warheads—is second only to Russia. The massive three hundred held by France in third place looks piddling by comparison. According to a 2015 Credit Suisse report, all of this and more means the United States far outmatches any other country in terms of military strength.

As Marcetic notes, maintaining an absurdly massive military of this size does not come cheap. The Pentagon ate up $622 billion of the federal budget in 2016, alone. Fifty-four percent of our federal tax dollars go to military spending. And much of this money is wasted on outdated, Cold War-era weapons and fighter jets the Pentagon has no need for—a fact that, curiously, goes unnoticed by “fiscally conservative” Republicans who constantly harp about the need for the government to “get its fiscal house in order.”

(And while we are on the topic, can we mention the hypocrisy of claiming to want to “shrink the size of government,” while lavishing the military–which, last time I checked, is part of the executive branch of the federal government–with billions of dollars?)

Contrary to what the talking heads on “liberal” NPR insist, the largest portion of the federal budget is devoted to the misleadingly-titled category, “Defense”—not so-called “entitlement” programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

But military-spending is so sacrosanct among both political parties it is almost never brought up in budgetary debates. Instead, we are told immigrants, refugees, public school teachers and their “cadillac-style” retirement benefits, and the earned-income programs won through hard-fought working-class struggle are to blame for our nation’s budgetary woes.

This is the perverse genius of the so-called “austerity” policies the global capitalist elites have pushed in Europe and the U.S. since the Great Recession: Socialize the costs and privatize the profits. And during Obama’s presidency those profits continued to soar for weapons manufacturers like Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics, which owns Bath Iron Works, one of the largest employers in Maine.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is eyeing deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is now headed by climate change denier, Scott Pruitt. Also on the chopping block is funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the State Department, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and most federal regulatory industries.

Turns out Americans should have heeded President Dwight Eisenhower’s outgoing warning about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex,” after all.

“As millions of Americans struggle with inadequate health care, low wages, deteriorating public services and uncertainty about their futures as the wage gap between the wealthy elite and the working poor widens,” famed consumer advocate and ertswhile independent presidential candidate, Ralph Nader wrote back in 2013, “billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars are pouring into the coffers of the Department of Defense ever year.”

All of this makes clear the left’s urgent need to revive the beleaguered anti-war movement, which largely remained dormant during Obama’s presidency. As Maine anti-war activist, blogger, and professional organizer, Bruce Gagnon told me in a 2015 interview, “Liberal Democrats are reluctant to challenge the president when he’s ‘their guy.'”

“It’s a real hypocrisy,” Gagnon added. “And it’s a real problem for maintaining an active anti-war movement.”

Perhaps the fact that it is now a Republican carrying out these disastrous wars will reinvigorate the anti-war left. The mass opposition to Trump’s racist campaigns against Muslims and immigrants is certainly an encouraging sign. Socialists must tap into this growing movement, while also making the broader connections between the global refugee crisis and U.S. imperialism.

But our first task must be to offer a forceful rebuke to the bourgeois falsehood that the military needs “rebuilding.” Quite the reverse, we should be investing less money in killing people, and more on infrastructure, good-paying jobs, renewable energy programs, health care, and our public schools.

“Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination and not for freedom, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations,” Vladimir Lenin wrote in his 1917 essay, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, “… all these have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism.”

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November Spawned a Monster

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Reckoning with Trump’s win and the dark, difficult struggle ahead.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind,” Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein, “as a great and sudden change.”

Twelve days after the 2016 presidential election, I am still having difficulty fully processing the fact that reality TV celebrity, Donald J. Trump will be the next president of the United States. Like most of the pundits, I expected Hillary Clinton to win. (Cue accusations that third-party voters like me “spoiled” the race in three … two … one …)

How wrong we all were.

To put this into historical context, the country’s first African American president is to be followed by a narcissistic megalomaniac and outright racist, sexist, and Islamophobe, with open ties to white supremacist groups including the KKK. This is a man who has a long, disturbing history of sexual harassment of women and young girls, bragging in a now infamous recording that he enjoys “grabbing them by the pussy.” This is a man who began his xenophobic presidential campaign by claiming that Mexicans are “rapists,” and promising to build a wall on the Mexican border, and forcing Mexico to pay for it.

While many conservative critics derided President Barack Obama for his lack of government experience, having served only one term in the U.S. Senate, Trump has no political experience at all. He has never held public office.

And now voters have just handed this man the reins of Executive power, including nuclear launch codes, access to FBI Intelligence briefings, and the ever expanding tools of the security and surveillance state.

When faced with a choice between an arrogant, racist pussy-grabber, and a bellicose Establishment elite, who represents the very epitome of bourgeois neoliberalism–admittedly not much of a choice, at all– voters decided to take their chances with the racist pussy-grabber.

And this is acknowledging that about half of eligible voters were so repulsed by the option of Clinton or Trump, that they abstained from voting, entirely. I can’t honestly say I blame them. So much for the “world’s greatest democracy.”

Make no mistake: Trump’s election marks a chilling turning-point for the country and the world.

Not only has Trump’s victory further emboldened the racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant groups and sentiments whose fear and hatred he has ominously stoked throughout his campaign.

But, on the environmental front, Trump’s climate change denial and vow to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris climate negotiation and charge full-speed ahead with coal production, spell almost certain doom for the prospects of keeping global temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius–the perceived “safe zone” for maintaining a habitable planet for the human species.

While I maintain things would still look considerably (if not quite equally) bleak had Clinton won, we must be very clear about the unique and frankly frightening threat that President Trump will present to our already beleaguered democracy.

Indeed, the next four years are going to be very tumultuous, and we will likely suffer a number of serious losses on our side. Those of us on the left should, by all means, mount a sustained, organized resistance to every aspect of Trump’s vile agenda. But we must be prepared for the harsh reality and difficulties that await us.

As Dan O’ Sullivan writes in a recent piece for Jacobin:

It will be bad–a violent acceleration of America’s drift, and with it, perhaps, the destruction of the last remnants of an enlightened society.

Medicare and Social Security will be on the chopping block. War will reign as the boss universal, the very pretense of diplomacy discarded with, once and for all. America won’t just continue its deportation regime; it’ll be something akin to a reality show now. Capital will surge up the ladder even faster, marrow being sucked from the poor.

So how the hell did this happen? How could the ostensibly enlightened pollsters, pundits, and intelligentsia been so completely wrong in their electoral forecasts?

There are, certainly, a number of answers to this question, and there has been no shortage of post-election assessments from the same clueless, chattering classes. But for now, I think it is enough to attribute the Democrats’ stunning loss to a single name: Hillary Clinton.

The fact is, Clinton was probably the worst candidate the Dems could have run for this election–one in which the clamoring for an “outsider” candidate was so clearly pronounced.

It is not just that, as a politician, Clinton possesses none of the charm and charisma associated with her husband. Rather, policy-wise Clinton’s campaign offered virtually nothing enticing that voters could enthusiastically rally around the way they rallied around Bernie Sanders.

Clinton’s entire response to Trump’s asinine promise to “Make America Great Again,” was that “America is already great.” Not only was this simplistic slogan incredibly inane, but it only further marked Clinton as an out-of-touch elite, so completely detached from the everyday economic struggles of working-class Americans. Calling Trump supporters “deplorable” (even with the understanding that some of them absolutely are) obviously did not help.

While I maintain my criticisms of Sanders’ decision to run in the capitalist Democratic Party rather than as an independent or in the Green Party, as well as his hawkish foreign policy platform, the fact is his campaign offered bold, radical solutions to ameliorate the devastating effects of capitalism. And the thousands of voters who packed into stadiums to hear the 74-year-old, self-described “democratic socialist” talk about universal health care, tuition-free college education, paid maternity leave, and the urgent threat posed by global warming, showed that Americans are ready for, if not quite socialism per se, at least something closer to that concept than voters have been offered in decades.

Clinton, in contrast, proposed that we must “save capitalism from itself.”

In the end, the Democratic Party–not just the DNC or Debbie Wasserman Schultz, mind you, but the entire party–crushed Sanders’ campaign.

And, while the election has been something of a vindication of Sanders to a Democratic Party and its subservient corporate media that never had much time for him, we must not let the Vermont senator off the hook, entirely. Sanders’ decision to play the role of “sheepdog” and campaign for Clinton after the primaries rather than continue his presidential run with the Greens, demonstrates his own culpability in this sad, unfortunate affair.

The left should not forget this going forward. It is yet another reason why we must abandon the Democrats, entirely. They are not on our side.

The one silver lining we can take from all this is found in the dozens of protests that have erupted in major cities throughout the country since the election. At least four major demonstrations have already taken place in Portland, Maine, including a student walkout at the University of Southern Maine on Nov. 15, protesting both Trump’s win and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We need to make these demonstrations a permanent fixture of Trump’s presidency. After all, as Howard Zinn famously observed, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House but who is ‘sitting-in’–and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”

We must ignore the calls from accommodationist liberals to “give Trump a chance,” or to “see what he is going to do.” We already know what Trump plans to do. We should not give him an inch to enact any of his horrific, regressive agenda. No, our goal for the next four years should be to make America ungovernable.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we firmly plant the flag of socialism in the hopes of attracting some of the legitimately angry and disaffected workers who, in desperation, voted for Trump (or did not vote at all). We cannot simply write them all off as irredeemable racists. Indeed, a majority of Trump supporters voted for Obama at least once in the last two presidential elections.

We must, rather, offer them a viable left-wing alternative wherein workers can not only improve their current economic circumstances, but eventually establish a world where they have complete control over their economic, political, social and even spiritual lives.

The road ahead is no doubt quite ominous. I cannot say with any certainty that we will succeed in pushing back Trump’s agenda of hate–never mind our prospects of preventing humanity’s very extinction from a rapidly warming planet.

But we are doomed if we do not attempt to resist in every way possible. “I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win,” writes Chris Hedges. “I fight fascists because they are fascists.”