The old radicalism and the cultural revolution

The old-time left-wing radicalism, which sought economic change, is being replaced by a new radicalism, which seeks cultural change.

The old radicals thought the basic problem is that a tiny elite monopolizes wealth and power.  The new radicals think the basic problem is that dominant groups, such as whites and males, oppress marginalized groups, such as blacks and women.

The George Floyd protests show how the new radicalism has taken hold.  They are bigger and involve more people than anything in my adult lifetime, including the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A real and great evil, the abuse of black people by police, is opposed not only by black people, but by middle-class white people and, nominally at least, by corporate America as well.

Ross Douthat wrote a great column in the New York Times about Bernie Sanders as the last representative of the old-time radicalism and his eclipse by the new radicalism.

Here are some highlights:

[It was argued that a] left that recovered the language of class struggle, that disentangled liberal politics from faculty-lounge elitism and neoliberal economics, could rally a silent majority against plutocracy and win.  The 2016 Sanders primary campaign, which won white, working-class voters who had been drifting from the Democrats, seemed to vindicate this argument.

The 2020 Sanders campaign, however, made it look more dubious, by illustrating the core challenge facing a socialist revolution: Its most passionate supporters — highly educated, economically disappointed urbanites — aren’t natural coalition partners for a Rust Belt populism, and the more they tugged Sanders toward the cultural left, the easier it was for Joe Biden to win blue-collar votes, leaving Sanders leading an ideological faction rather than a broader working-class insurgency.

Now, under these strange coronavirus conditions, we’re watching a different sort of insurgency challenge or change liberalism, one founded on an intersectional vision of left-wing politics that never came naturally to Sanders.  Rather than Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats, the rallying cry is racial justice and defunding the police.  Instead of finding its nemeses in corporate suites, the intersectional revolution finds them on antique pedestals and atop the cultural establishment.

The new radicalism is not anti-corporate, Douthat noted.  In fact, CEOs of big corporations are out in front of most Democratic leaders on these issues.

It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first.  Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department.  The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

In our cultural institutions, too, the official enthusiasm for the current radical mood is suggestive of the revolution’s limits. The tumult and protest is obviously a threat to certain people’s jobs: The revolutionaries need scapegoats, examples, wrongthinkers to cast out pour encourager les autres, superannuated figures to retire with prejudice.  But they aren’t out to dissolve Harvard or break up Google or close The New York Times; they’re out to rule these institutions, with more enlightenment than the old guard but the same fundamental powers.

And many of the changes the protesters seek are ones that the establishment can happily accommodate: I can promise that few powerful people will feel particularly threatened if the purge of Confederate monuments widens and some statues of pre-World War II presidents and Franciscan missionaries come crashing down as well.  (Though renaming Yale might be another matter.)

So the likely endgame of all this turbulence is the redistribution of elite jobs, the upward circulation of the more racially diverse younger generation, the abolition of perceived impediments to the management of elite diversity (adieu, SAT) and the inculcation of a new elite language whose academic style will delineate the professional class more decisively from the unenlightened proles below. (With the possible long-run consequence that not only the white working class but also some minority voters will drift toward whatever remains of political conservatism once Trump is finished with it.)

Yes, serious critics of structural racism have an agenda for economic as well as cultural reform. But that agenda isn’t what’s being advanced: Chuck Schumer will take a knee in kente cloth, but he isn’t likely to pass a major reparations bill, the white liberals buying up the works of Ibram X.  Kendi aren’t going to abandon private schools or bus their kids to minority neighborhoods.  And in five years, it’s more likely that 2020’s legacy will be a cadre of permanently empowered commissars getting people fired for unwise Twitter likes rather than any dramatic interracial wealth redistribution.

I am in favor of the George Floyd protests.  The American criminal justice system needs to be fixed.  The supporters of the protests that I personally are not ideologues or members of any kind of elite.

They are decent people who react against the image of a man having the life systemically squeeze out of him in a public place.  They are not the kind of ideologues that Douthat describes, although they may be influenced by their books.

The problem is that they—and I—are sympathizers.  We are protesting injustice done to somebody else.  We are not protesting the things that affect all of us—industrial decline, unpayable debt, unaffordable medical care and so on.

The vast majority of us are in the same boat.  Our overall system needs to be fixed.  I hope we realize this and can act before it is too late.  Maybe the George Floyd protests will show us how to do it.


The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders by Ross Douthat in the New York Times.

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2 Responses to “The old radicalism and the cultural revolution”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I think you’d enjoy a long conversation with my daughter. I had one last week when my wife and I went to visit.

    What she sees is that knee on that throat. All the political and philosophical discussion becomes irrelevant. Police violence is a part of it but medical care, education and economic opportunities are just more variations of the knee on the throat theme. I don’t think she cares if Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have hundreds of billions between them as long as the people at the bottom aren’t getting crushed.

    That’s a cultural issue, not an ideological one.

    Comparing yourself to billionaires or even those evil “2%ers” is a fool’s game and intentional misdirection by people who gain power by creating scapegoats. For the vast majority of people, there will always be those with far more and some with less. The question to ask is whether you have what you need to be happy, healthy, and upwardly mobile should you desire more.


    • philebersole Says:

      I probably would would agree with your daughter. What matters is the condition of the vast majority of Americans – the poor, working people and the middle class.

      And I agree it is not the problem is not just police violence. Education and economic opportunities are part of it. So are the erosion of the industrial economy, our perpetual (and losing) wars and our dysfunctional government’s inability to deal with the pandemic and climate-related weather catastrophes.

      Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos deserve some credit. Bill Gates played a big role in commercializing personal computers. Jeff Bezos created a new, highly-efficient retail distribution system.

      But both Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos created monopoly corporations. Microsoft and Amazon stifle competition and contribute to the stagnation of the U.S. economy. Both are tightly interlocked with the U.S. government

      Gates and Bezos are not scapegoats for the problem. They are part of the problem. I do not care whether they live lavishly or not. I do care about the power their wealth gives them over government and the direction of the U.S. economy.

      I don’t necessarily want to condemn them to living in relative poverty — that is, live like you and I do. Let them own as many houses and private planes as they can enjoy.

      I do want to take away their power.

      Liked by 1 person

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