"What choice was there for the workers between the fascist costume drama and a socialism that urged them to regard their own working clothes as a costume?" -- Harold Rosenberg, "Pathos of the Proletariat"It shocked and confused many of my American friends when Black Lives Matter activists confronted Bernie Sanders, first at Netroots, and then again in Seattle. Didn't they realize Sanders was the candidate with the best anti-racism record? Was this some kind of agent provocateur action? Hillary? Soros? Cointelpro?
The only thing that should come as a surprise is that the actions and their motives would be surprising. The pattern and the analysis has been out there for years... decades. In a 2009 essay, "The limits of anti-racism," Adolph Reed noted the "visceral and vitriolic anti-Marxism" that prevails among many activists who make identity the cornerstone of their political strategy.
Reed characterized anti-racism as consistent with a "left" neoliberal ideology which "looks suspiciously like only another version of the evasive 'we’ll come back for you' (after we do all the business-friendly stuff) politics that the Democrats have so successfully employed to avoid addressing economic injustice."
It would not be useful to absolve political Marxism of all responsibility for this state of affairs, however. Identity politics is only the latest iteration of what Harold Rosenberg termed "destiny politics" way back in 1949:
"Primarily, destiny-politics consists of a demonic displacement of the ego of the historical collectivity (class, nation, race) by the party of action, so that the party motivates the community and lays claim to identity with its fate and to its privileges as a creature of history."For party, substitute movement... for movement substitute hashtag... and, finally, for hashtag substitute activists, founders, executive directors or scholars. But whereas political Marxism proceeded from the imperialistically homogeneous image of the Proletariat as universal subject, identity politics culminates in the fragmentation of multiple -- or multiplicative -- sites of oppression: class, race, gender, disability, sexuality. Through this "intersectional lens," the notion of a heroic, revolutionary subject of history is translated into that of an abject, anti-heroic victim of oppression:
"Thus, if one is poor, black, elderly, disabled, and lesbian, must these differences be organized into a hierarchy such that some differences gain prominence over others? What if some differences coalesce to create a more abject form of oppression (e.g.. being poor. black, and disabled), or if some differences support both privilege/invisibility within the same oppressed community (e.g., being black, homosexual, and male)?" -- Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global ContextsThe "pathos" in the title of Rosenberg's essay refers to one of the three modes of persuasion analyzed by Aristotle, the other two modes being "ethos" and "logos." Ethos seeks to persuade through the character of the author, logos through the use of reasoning and pathos by appealing to the readers' emotions. The irony that Rosenberg highlighted is that what was argued to be a historical process of development and "awakening" has been transformed into a rhetorical process of persuasion. The erstwhile revolutionary subject of history had already been demoted within political Marxism to a mere personification.
"As a liberating program Marxism founders on the subjectivity of the proletariat. So soon as it declares itself, rather than their common situation, to be the inspiration of men's revolutionary unity and ardor -- how else can it offer itself simultaneously to the French working class and to non-industrial French colonials? -- Marxism becomes an ideology competing with others. When fascism asserted the revolutionary working class to be an invention of Marxism, it was but echoing the Marxist parties themselves." -- RosenbergOf course identity politics and intersectionality cannot and do not inspire "revolutionary unity and ardor" to both "the French working class" and "the colonials." What they can do, though, is offer a moral (or moralizing) surrogate for the absent class struggle. Understandably, in this ideological frame, inherited from political Marxism, the foundering of the class struggle offers to those "not fooled by the illusion" an occasion for hubris. Bow down, weirdo populist economic determinism!