So here we are again, talking about materialist dialectics vs. identity politics as if the two could exist independently of one another. Longtime readers will know that I’ve struggled with this issue for years, and the stark contradictions between what I will describe for the sake of convenience as the leftist position and the liberal position have grown far sharper since the 2016 election and the rise of the Sanders wing of American politics. I hate to keep returning to the issue, but it keeps making itself central to the discourse, and some recent writings by my DSA comrade R.L. Stephens have caused me to focus my argument. He’s far more articulate on the subject than I am, for what should be obvious reasons, but I’m going to try my best to give them another pass.
Liberal Democrats often argue against the more wide-ranging social programs of the left by saying that they are impractical, and that they, as the ‘practical’ party, must be pragmatic and do what is politically realistic. How much truth there is to this depends on where you’re sitting; certainly, politics is the art of the possible, and the failure of Democrats to win elections in recent years has limited their ability to effect change. On the other hand, they were in the position in 2009 to work their will on the federal government, and chose instead the centrist path of carrying water for their sworn enemies and pointless aisle-crossing ‘compromise’. Regardless, it’s hard to swallow the claim that universal health care, free education, and more generous family leave policies are impractical, given that almost every other country in the world — including many that have substantially fewer resources than the United States — have figured out a way to implement them.
Believe me, folks, I know from pragmatism. I am a devotee of Dewey, of Fish, of Rorty: I know better than most that it’s not really about changing the way people think, of converting them or reasoning them out of their beliefs. It’s about finding common ground and using that to see what they can get away with. But it precisely on this field that liberalism stands and dies. Conditions being what they are, liberals cannot claim that these goals are impossible; they must, therefore, retreat to the position that they are, instead, undesirable. You thus end up with self-identified liberal progressives — many of them white and middle-class or better — ‘explaining’ to impoverished minorities why free health care, an affordable college education, and a higher minimum wage would not actually help them, but are instead hare-brained schemes cooked up by a fraud to benefit only Caucasian men.
You see this argument at its pinnacle from none other than the High Priestess of Neo-Liberal Identity Politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton herself: “Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” she asked in early 2016, referring not so subtly to a proposal by Bernie Sanders to do what Barack Obama lacked the courage to do, “Would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?” Even today, the scope of the question is extended by neoliberal centrist Democrats: Would universal health care end racism? Would free college eliminate sexism? Would a higher minimum wage stop discrimination against gay people?
The answer to this is so obvious that it is scarcely creditable that it needs to be so often repeated: no, breaking up the big banks would not end racism, but it would break up the big banks. Universal health care, free college, and a higher minimum wage wouldn’t end racism, sexism, or homophobia, but they would provide universal health care, free college, and higher minimum wage, all of which would help blacks and Latinos, women, and gay people tremendously, not to mention eliminating the additional damage done to all these minority groups that is an inherent part of institutional systematic discrimination. Not doing these things, meanwhile, not only doesn’t give anyone any of the obvious benefits of doing then, but also doesn’t end racism, sexism, or homophobia!
Taking it to the contested battlefield of pragmatism, we still find it to be no contest at all: what is easier to accomplish, after all — raising the minimum wage, or ending racism? The first is easily accomplished through simple legislation. The second is nearly impossible to define — what on Earth does it even mean to ‘end racism’, let alone the question of how it could be accomplished by the federal government? — let alone to accomplish. Introducing universal health care requires only the political will that practically every other country in the world has managed to muster; ending racism and sexism means combating generations of cultural indoctrination, means plumbing the very depths of the human psyche, means combating something that lies in every heart and soul. Which isn’t to say it isn’t worth doing! It’s just a lot harder than, say, eliminating student debt.
Put it another way: let us admit that the white working class harbors a great deal of racial animus against blacks and Hispanics. But let us also admit that many of them voted for Barack Obama, a liberal black man, when he ran for president — not once, but twice. These people vote, and they are not going away. What is easier: writing them off as irredeemably racist, somehow ‘fixing’ their racism, or finding some common ground that would convince them to vote for a progressive regardless of their racism? Let us admit that the workplace is full of bosses that will hire and fire based on their own racial prejudices. What is easier: hoping that they are eventually replaced by less racist bosses, firing them all and replacing them with a more woke managerial class, or empowering workers with rights that let them fight back against racism? The hatred that poisons the human heart may never be destroyed, but it may be rendered powerless. Martin Luther King recognized this: the law, he said, may not make the white man love me, but it can keep him from killing me, and that’s not nothing.
It is folly to pretend that the currents of racism and classism flow from a single spigot, and that cutting one off will stop the other. But it is even greater folly to pretend that they never mix, that one is not feeding the other, or that each drop must be separated from the rest before anything can be done. Resisting a materialist analysis because it does not correct every evil of racism is like refusing to fight a fire because it is also burning down the house of a neighbor you don’t like.