Ellen M. Wood’s “The Retreat from Class” , published in 1983, is uncannily predictive of the course of neo-liberalism. Though she is pretty highhanded with us epigoni of French Theory, what she says about the disappearance of class within political discourse – and cultural discourse in general – is totally correct, at least in the Anglosphere.
Of course, class only disappears in the minds of the bien-pensants, not from their daily lives. Class as lived experience is overwhelmingly present, from the counter people at the sandwich shops where David Broder checks in on the proles to the shores of the mini-mansion subdivision universe.
Neoliberalism is neo because, unlike classical liberalism, it proceeds logically from the dismantling of the labor theory of value. In terms of class, this means writing out the working class, and substituting as its pertinent tri-fold structure the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. The wealthy are described as wealth makers. The middle class are economically autonomous, and the poor are government dependents.
Within neo-liberalism, then, taxing the wealthy is justified by the government services provided for them, and not as a countermeasure to the level of exploitation that creates that group. The middle class, if it demands something from the government, is displaying moral culpability: how dare, for instance, middle class kids demand free secondary education? Obviously, they simply want bribes. And the poor never work – the goal is to get them to work. Then we can pull away government support for them.
Class, which used to indicate a position in the spheres of production and circulation, becomes, in neoliberalism, a proxy for income.
Politically, income is a very weak guarantor of solidarity. The search for solidarity turns elsewehere – to various identities, which, in the absence of a robust sense of production and circulation, take on the primary roles in structuring our lives, and thus the politics concerning our lives.
It is interesting to me that Marx talks about life, not about economics, when speaking of what determines our consciousness. Life is at the center of his thinking, yet it is consistently read out of his thinking. When we read that Marx doesn’t accord enough force, or accords no force, to ideas, the people saying this are usually at work. They are usually academics writing ideas in books that, among other things, will gain them tenure. The ideas that they are talking about come from the great names. They are not talking about the ideas of the sandwichmaker at Subway. Why?
What we know of the life of the sandwichmaker – or of our own lives – is that we perpetually sacrifice our idea time to our work time. Marx has a pretty keen idea of what space, in the course of a life in which twelve hours a day is devoted to repetitive work activities, is going to go into ideas that are going to be written on paper.
The neo-liberal triumph is to make this all seem delusory. Instead, we have the great ideas of the great ideamen – usually men, but under our new more liberal standards, even women are accepted! – and then we have the daily lives of people who, if we don’t watch out, will want free government services.
It is in this way that neo-liberalism moves from being some set of “ideas” about the economy to a cosmic vision of how things are and ought to be.
We – denizens trapped in this world, or is denizens too glorious a word for rats caught in a trap – are clearly in an alt-right moment. Just this week:
- Andrew Scheer, the conservative party candidate for prime minister, went to a Yellow Vest rally that was heavily attended by white nationalists and said: we’re with you, after which he posed near a Trudeau: wanted for treason poster. Scheer is leading in polls, after Trudeau was exposed for leaning on the Justice minister not to prosecute a favored corporation for its crimes.
- Mario Salvini of the League Party, who is the interior minister in Italy, has been trying to summon other hard right parties, like Germany’s Afd, to a common block that will put up candidates for the EU elections.
- Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading hard Brexiter, has been recommending an Afd video to his followers. Meanwhile, polls show that Boris Johnson is the most popular politician in the UK at the moment.
- And to round this up, Netanyahu, who is an Israeli nationalist who has showed open contempt for liberal Jewish culture, not hesitating to ally with anti-semites or employ anti-semitic rhetoric (against, for instance, George Soros), has probably been re-elected prime minister in Israel.
Our bullet points have ignored Trump, Orban, Netanyahu, Bolsinaro, et al., because we can just check them present and noxious, in the headlines every day.
I am interested, though, in the fact that the Left is either disorganized or a minority in every country where it used to form that one real opposition party or, sometimes, even the governing party. From the 40s to the 70s, even in countries like Italy, where the Christian Democrats tenaciously held onto power, the tide was to the left. From social policies to real advancement towards economic equality between the working class and capital, this was the direction the world was moving in.
But since the 80s, the movement is all the other way. And instead of forming an opposition, the Left has taken on a role as facilitator. It is no wonder that a recent headline in the Guardian formulated the political situation in France as the center vs. the extreme (by which was meant Le Pen). Melanchon is almost unknown outside of France. Inside, the former Left is riven by personal domain issues. The absence of a Left response to Macron’s farcical “Great Debate” was painful.
I suspect that the alt right moment is the result of this huge fucking hole in our ideological choices – in Europe, in the Anglosphere, in Elsewhere. The tear is evidently caused by what I’d call Lordon’s paradox: Left parties systematically moving right, while retaining the label and symbolic capital of being Left. My name for it comes from Frédéric Lordon, the French philosopher and economist, who stated it in a scathing review of a book by a well known French historian and political philosopher, Pierre Rosanvallon, who was one of the co-founders of Fondation Saint-Simon in the eighties. Rosanvallon has always been associated with the Socialist Party in France, but the FSS was very actively against the kinds of things that socialism is traditionally associated with : namely, understanding the limits of the market – and never taking the market as a model for the social whole. These precepts were reversed. And instead of simply supporting the right, these intellectuals remained on the “left,” becoming a vector for propagating a neo-liberal message into the Mitterrand era coalition of the « Left ». That message was wrapped in moral scolding : the idea was that the Left in the twentieth century had been criminally complicit with Stalin, and then with, oh, Pol Pot, and the only way to purge its sins was to embrace Milton Friedman.
This is a caricature, but not a very broad caricature. If you read Débats, the journal associated with FSS people, you get the message.
That historians figured so strongly in it – Francois Furet was also a cofounder – was essential to the project, since the de-legitimisation of socialism was laid out on revisionist historical lines : thus, beaucoup attention was paid to the terror under the Jacobins of the French revolution, and zip attention was paid to the 150 years of terror endured by the African population that was shipped to Haiti, whose stolen labor, shortened lives, broken families and tortured rebels – not to speak of the hundreds of thousands of bodies littering the Atlantic from collateral casualties – provided much of the wealth of the ancien regime. If attention were paid to the latter, then it was easy to claim that political correctness was messing things up, and perhaps the objections were even connected to Stalin, Lenin and that arch-criminal, Marx. The FSS historians held up the American Revolution, minus the genocide and the slavery, as a model, and the French revolution was downgraded to an advertisement for the coming attractions of the Gulag.
All of these elements were checked by Lordon, who asked: why has nobody ever examined, with sociological seriousness, this strange interior hollowing out of the Left?
My own tentative theory is that the historical argument mounted in the 80s was, in a way, window dressing; what was really happening was that, within the parties of the Left, the leadership and policy was being captured by a group that was, by family ties, education, and outlook, indistinguishable from the bourgeoisie who ran rightwing parties. The old influence of the working class – by way, for instance, of unions, or politicians who came from the working class – at the highest levels of the left was no longer a ‘thing’. The suspicion, or dislike, of the working class, common to the bourgeois right, was shared, less overtly, by the bourgeois left. There was a family resemblance between the two establishments.
In 1959, Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian dissenter, wrote a book entitled « The New Class » about the party bureaucrats in the communist countries who, in effect, had become a governing class, with all the perks, due to their position as the elite guard of the « revolution ». This book was immediately enrolled in the arsenal of the Cold War. See, communism leads to feudalism. And since the end of the Cold War, it has been forgotten. But the new class, in broad outlines, does provide one answer to Lordon’s paradox. It explains one aspect of the ideological hole in our present political spectrum.
In one country after another a kind of third way became the norm: globalization, massive wealth and income inequality, and the neoliberal penetration of capitalism into every sphere of private life, was embraced by the third way. Which still claimed, however, a tenuous link to the Left. But if the Left did not represent the working class, who did they represent?
They came to represent not a position in the class struggle defining capitalism, but a moral stance.
Half this tale has never really been told, to cop a Bob Marley line. To recap this rather hazy chronology: The emptying out of the Left is a story of the march of the New Class. It started out as the New Left in the late 60s and 70s, and became the new non-Left Left in the period of neo-liberal ascendance. We could divide this roughly into stages: the moral stage, which involved indignation about the Gulag and the identification of anti-colonialism with Pol Pot and Ayatollah Khomeini; the pragmatic « liberalism » of the 80s, which accepted Thatcherism but proposed to soften it; the final rejection of egalitarianism as an ideal in the 90s, which implied that social democracy as a political structure could rest on an economic framework resembling the Gilded age of the 1920s. In this last stage, which is still with us, investment in public goods was radically downplayed while the Left’s thinkers turned to more sweeping privatizations – in the argot, “reforms” – to accomplish the welfare sustaining function of the government.
Often, this tale is told without putting the political economics of the EU and Anglosphere into the global context of the foreign policies pursued by the “former” imperialist countries, which is where much of the moral energy of the New Class Left was discharged. By the late 90s and 00s, the much reviled Tiers-mondist position was dead. In its place was a new ideology of human rights “interventions”, eerily reminiscent of the gunboat diplomacy of the early 1900s. The New Class formed a tacit alliance with the military-industrial complex which, in their youth, they had denounced. HI operated as preliminary propaganda, laying down its barrages in the media that was intertwined with the New Class. Much was made of the monstrous torture chambers of some selected dictator in Elsewhere, and little to nothing was made of the instruments of destruction, the shock and awe, the drones, the new doctrine of long distance assassination. Then the show was over. Mostly, the country broke apart – as in Iraq and Libya or starved to death – as in Yemen – and no investment whatsoever on a scale to make up for the breaking apart, not to speak of the massive human disasters (for instance, the two million refugees from Iraq), took place. Victory was declared, and the Others in Elsewhere had to clean up the bodies and wonder whether the three hours of electricity per day was enough to make a meal or heat water in. Besides, of course, wondering what paramilitary would be out tonight, whether they would use guns or drills, and whether the kids would survive.
Meanwhile, in the “humanitarian intervener” states, investment in the industrial-military complex in the U.S., and sales of military equipment to the Gulf states, did make for profits all the way around, which created a huge incentive for perpetual aggression.
I would argue that the hollowing out of the Left as a working class force had everything to do with the way in which the New Left concern with human rights was turned, in the neo-liberal order, into a series of aggressions and profit opportunities. Elsewhere, it should be mentioned, often struck back, feeding their terrorism buzz – and ours: under the delusion that paramilitaries in the Middle East, who’d been armed to the teeth by twenty years of Western arms sales to the various countries they emerged in, would never dare strike Europe, Francois Hollande, for instance, ordered bombing in Syria without, apparently, considering blowback, or consulting the population at large or hinting that France had declared war against Daech, and that Daech fought by its own on the ground shock and awe. So Hollande made the same elementary mistake made by Jose Aznar in Spain in 2004, when the Spanish alliance to the Coalition of the Willing made Spain a target for terrorist attack. Aznar fell. Hollande fell. And the HI group learned nothing.
This, too, tore a hole in the former ideological balance of Left and Right. The Left’s enthusiasm for military strikes and trade treaties giving multi-national corporations unheard of governance powers – its pilgrimages to both the Pentagon and Davos – were decisive breaks with the old anti-colonialism and the old internationalism of labor. It was the internationalism of the consumer that the Left elevated. But the consumer could well see that cheap tat did not replace an environment from which public investment was withdrawn, wage freezes, and large price increases in lifestyle goods like health and education.
I am of course painting in broad strokes. There is another broad stroke I should add, because it is crucial to the alt-ness of the alt-right. If the Left no longer represented the working class, the New Class establishment did have a constituency: an educated, middle to upper class that understood and assimilated, at least mentally, the demands of the civil rights struggles of the 60s. This was the one great positive advance to which the New Class could point – even if, in actuality, it did not organize those protests, and it did not supply, for the most part, the protesters. Yet it did recognize the moral progress in making formerly oppressed groups citizens. This became its cause – its so-called identity politics. Yet even this advance brought with it unsuspected dialectical problems. I’ll mention two of them.
The first was the notion, founded on the New Class’s mirroring of class characteristics of the bourgeois Right, of a tacit moral exchange. Just as liberals and leftists adopted the economic precepts of the Chicago school of economics, so they convinced themselves that the Right adopted the civil rights results of the 60s onward – that officially, at least, the right condemned sexism, racism, and even homophobia.
The second was in the self-image that the Left erected. Because if the Left bourgeoisie was hip to women’s, or gay, or black cultural products – if, being so media-centered, they were especially sensitive to verbal abuse of formerly oppressed groups – that does not mean that they were hip to changing the structures that underlay homophobia, sexism or racism. When Third Way politicos were able to get elected, their politics reconciled the abandonment of egalitarianism and the egalitarianism by the civil rights movement by making the latter a case of formal legal advancements. Thus, a certain schizophrenia of approaches became the norm. For example, if the Obama administration could, on the one hand, came finally to embrace gay marriage – full civil rights for gay people – on the other hand, they had no problem with deporting a record number of illegal immigrants – 2 million – and doing everything that went with this, including separating children from their families. They did this without, as it were, seeing it. If the Left constituency abhorred and watched for verbal racism in the public forum, they were blind to, or even helped facilitate, the mass incarceration of African-Americans. I’m using American models, but one can find similar patterns in Blair’s Labour, and Hollande’s PS. Meanwhile, the ranks of the political establishment in the Left remained persistently dominated by white males, and a patriarchal perspective.
This provides a general outline, I think, of positions within the EU and the Anglosphere, where the left has collapsed the hardest. Without that collapse, this moment would look much different. We might even, given a real Left, be able to act on the fact that climate change is going to be the greatest catastrophe human beings have ever faced. And do something. Instead of retro-paddling into the 30s. The environment requires a separate note, I think.