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Are the Ruling Elites Marxist?
(No.) On snitching and soul-searching as neoliberal politics
The ruling class has a problem.
The system they oversee produces constant friction. In their daily lives, ordinary people are getting fucked by their bosses, taken advantage of by their landlords, and ripped off by the companies selling them the things they need. They’re exhausted, stressed, broke and anxious, trying to keep their heads above water while prices climb higher and higher. They can see that there are huge discrepancies between the way things are described in the news and the way they are. They can see that the whole game is deeply unfair. There’s a small layer of enormously privileged people and it’s obvious that they control everything to their benefit. This class of rich assholes dominate the political process and own everything in sight. They talk down to normal people on TV, discipline them at work, and flaunt their unearned wealth proudly. In the meantime everyone can see that these same assholes have hollowed our economies out from the inside, destroying our capacity to build anything anymore and yanking the rug out from under working people. Nobody can afford a house anymore, wages have been stagnating relative to productivity for decades, and most work performed in our ‘service’ economies is completely pointless and depressing. And to top it all off, the ruling class has overseen a terrifying, slow-motion apocalypse in the form of the climate crisis, which they seem to be incapable of addressing. All this friction has the potential to make people very angry.
Very angry people produce threats to the system. One potential threat is low-level crime, but this is easily dealt with by the police and the prison system before it can turn into a real issue. In the US the ruling class spends $277 billion per year – significantly more than China’s entire military budget – just on police and prisons. A more dangerous threat is found in political movements. A political movement is a channeling of the energy of many people toward a particular political purpose, whereas crime and antisocial behaviour is relatively random. If a political movement opposed to key elements of the system picks up steam, it has the potential to severely disrupt the class power of the ruling elite. If it gains a critical mass of supporters, the ruling class could find themselves losing their power altogether.
Traditionally, organized threats to the ruling class have come from the Left, but far-right movements can also threaten the status quo. Neo-Nazi groups are often subject to surveillance, disruption, arrest, censorship and so on in part because the hard core of these movements propose deeply radical changes to the system, often including dragging significant portions of the ruling class into the street and hanging them. This is not because these right-wing extremists object to the existence of a ruling class, it’s because they consider the current one to be composed of race-traitors, Jews, secret pedophile lizard-people, or what have you; but in any case the kinds of people who own Visa and PepsiCo have no interest in a violent white supremacist revolution setting up a blood-soaked fascist ethnostate in the ruins of America, or being executed by neo-Nazi militiamen for their crimes against the white race. That kind of thing is bad for business. These people want stable liberal democracies with two or three pro-business parties and no organized threats.
Sometimes factions of the ruling class will embrace more ‘moderate’ forms of right-wing extremism, because they see them as a way to build on their own power, or maybe a way to threaten their rivals within the elite. But overall the ruling class is basically committed to the non-extremist right and centre-right, and when more radical views make an appearance in their speeches and think-pieces, they are almost never views which seriously threaten the status quo in terms of their class power.
All this forces us to ask: if the ruling class is basically committed to right-wing and centre-right politics, and the defence of the status quo, why does it seem like large sections of the ruling class and the corporations they control are taking up identitarian politics associated in most people’s minds with the Left? Banks are branding their financial products with increasingly convoluted-looking pride flags, sneaker companies have been proclaiming themselves to be sponsors and allies of BLM, corporations are apparently happily adopting radical takes on identity for their diversity trainings and HR pamphlets, and the liberal-leaning two-thirds of the mass media is full of saccharine puff-pieces about identity. Conservatives tend to see this as evidence that the Left is actually in power. The far right, in their reliably hallucinatory way, see it as evidence that giant multinational corporations and the governments of the core capitalist countries are secretly run by Marxists. This is obviously false. So is there a more realistic answer to this question?
The Left does indeed pose a threat to the ruling class and the system they control. The project of the Left has always been, in one way or another, a politics of redistribution from the ruling class to the working class: the redistribution of money, and also of power, both political and economic. The position of the Left is to insist that governance should serve the population at large, not the interests of a tiny class of privileged owners and bosses: that the goal of governance should be the public good. Since poverty and powerlessness are the main means by which oppression is manifested, the solution to oppression is the eradication of poverty and powerlessness. The broad majority, of course, will benefit from redistributive policies which take the wealth and power currently being hoarded by the ruling class and use it to provide ordinary people with public goods, and specific subpopulations of multiply marginalized people will benefit the most. There is an old adage that racism, and by extension other forms of oppression, stem from ‘power plus prejudice’ on the part of the oppressors. If that’s true, we must therefore do what we can to radically reduce hierarchies of wealth and materially empower ordinary people in their everyday lives. From the perspective of the ultra-rich, this is extremely bad for business.
So, if the politics of the Left are in fact a threat to their power, why would elements of the ruling class embrace left wing ideas? Well, notice that none of these ‘Marxist’ corporations or ‘socialist’ neoliberal politicians we hear so much about from right-wing commentators are proposing the end of class rule by the rich and a strong system of public goods overseen by a working-class government. None of them are proposing higher taxes on corporate profits, let alone representation for workers on their boards, let alone the nationalization of major industries. In fact, the ‘left wing’ ideas they tout never seem to involve redistribution of any kind. They never seem to involve anything material at all. Instead, they revolve entirely around the immaterial and the symbolic; they have to do with codes of politeness and comportment; they are concerned exclusively with questions of identity; and they propose no changes whatsoever to the political-economic system over which the ruling class rules. And this is the reason that some within the elite have been embracing these ideas: these ideas do not threaten them in any way, and must in fact benefit them, or they would not be bothering.
If you take a step back, it’s relatively easy to see why these symbolic, identitarian ideas do not threaten the elite. If you run a corporation, letting people put their pronouns on their name tags changes nothing about the power structure of the corporation the way it would be changed if, for example, you were forced to allow the union half the seats on your board. Even something more tangible like making sure that one of your seats is reserved for a trans person does nothing to change the power structure of the corporation because there is no reason for you to pick a trans person who is also a representative of the company’s workers – you would pick someone who is of your class and will agree with your decisions. The same goes for other identity groups. Ultimately a corporation can say anything, be set up anyhow, offer any identity-based perks, and all will be well for its owners as long as it is profitably engaged in the process of exploiting the labour of its workers. If you are involved in policy, wading into the ‘culture war’ ‘on the side of’ ‘the oppressed’ also threatens your power in no way so long as every single one of your propositions completely ignores the economic system which generates poverty and inequality in the first place, which is always the case.
It is a bit harder to see how this kind of thing actively benefits the elite, but it becomes clear if you look closely. First of all, it allows them to posture as progressive while in fact doing absolutely nothing to give up a single iota of their power or privilege. This can be useful for propaganda or ‘public relations’ purposes. Secondly, it functions to distract attention away from their own power.
The ruling class is in power precisely and specifically because they are the class who own everything important. Their political power therefore springs directly from their economic power and their economic power is maintained through their political power. If you wanted to challenge their power, you would have to find ways to undermine their economic power, for example through general strikes and labour mobilization, or to attack their political power, electorally or even through revolutionary means. Pointing at homophobia or racism and saying that they are going to lead the fight against these evils allows the elite to redirect people’s energy away from the fact of their economic control.
This is doubly insulting because homophobia and racism and other forms of prejudice are indeed dangerous and demeaning systems which inflict needless suffering on ordinary working people. Decent people oppose this kind of prejudice. Yet the solutions presented by the ruling class are largely meaningless because the policies which will help marginalized people the most are, again, redistributive; and the ruling class will never propose redistributive policies. So not only are the struggles of marginalized people being actively appropriated by ruling-class interests as a means to distract peoples attention, but also, the struggles of these people are not even themselves being addressed in any meaningful way. Struggling transgender people do not need banks to update their pinkwashing to include extra colours on the Pride flags plastered on the windows – they need money in their bank accounts, and a slew of policies designed to lift them out of poverty and keep them out. Indigenous Canadians don’t need orange doughnuts from Timmy’s on the Day of Truth and Reconciliation – they need free, high-quality, culturally-sensitive and trauma-informed social services delivered in their first languages, among a number of other expensive initiatives which will only be paid for by, for example, taxing Timmy’s out the nose.
The multinational which owns Tim Horton’s, Restaurant Brands International, explains on their website that ‘diversity is a core value’. However, they explain, ‘we acknowledge our lack of diversity [...] By openly acknowledging our shortcomings, we are creating urgency for action [... We are] holding ourselves accountable for progress’. Very progressive! What does this entail? Protection from discrimination in the workplace, which is already required by Canadian law, and a commitment ‘to having at least 50% of all final round candidates for any role at RBI's four corporate offices be demonstrably diverse’. A ‘demonstrably’ gayer, browner pool of white-collar workers; one wonders if the ‘demonstrably’ underpaid, overworked, non-unionized recent immigrants and temporary foreign workers Tim Hortons employs in virtually all of its urban locations count toward its diversity portfolio.
Again, it’s not that the politics of identity have no place on the Left. No reasonable person is arguing that. Identity is an important factor in modern life and prejudice and discrimination based on identity should be opposed vigourously as a matter of course, including through anti-discrimination policies and legislation. But the Left position has always been that without redistributive, pro-labour policies, the politics of identity are, if not meaningless, then largely toothless. It’s doubtful if a cashier living just above the poverty line lies awake at night hoping that the corporate office overseeing the profits she generates for them will hire someone who looks like her to do spreadsheets. She might, however, lie awake at night wishing she had a union, and that the union had seats on the board like they do in Germany.
So what do we call a politics that sort of looks like the Left, and sort of sounds like the Left, but involves no redistribution, no pro-labour policies, no challenge to the ruling class whatsoever? What do we call a politics of identity when it is taken up by the thorough-going neoliberals who rule us, with no intention of carrying out any policies which might benefit ordinary people? Certainly we can’t call it a Left politics (and it certainly has nothing in common with Marxism). A number of scholars and thinkers have instead proposed the term neoliberal identitarianism to refer to this trend. This is a politics tolerated or encouraged by sections of the ruling class and propagated by white-collar professionals and those who aspire to be white-collar professionals. It copies some of the traditional rhetoric of the Left, but is concerned solely with identity rather than economic power, and it is concerned with identity only insofar as no redistributive policies are involved.
But what about the influence of this type of politics on the actual Left? Many people will have noticed that far from only being pushed by capitalists and their lackeys, a version of neoliberal identitarianism is now practically hegemonic within what remains of the organized Left in the Anglo countries. This has been a disastrous development, very badly impacting the already tenuous ability of the Anglo Left to organize itself. Community organizations, would-be political parties, socialist-oriented student groups, environmentalist activism, and all manner of leftist organizations, as well as the very substantial grouping of unorganized but interested people that we could term the ‘online Left’, have all been heavily influenced by this neoliberal identitarianism. In this context, people are (slightly) less obsessed with pinkwashed branding and diversity quotas, but retain the stubborn unwillingness to challenge ruling-class power in any way. Instead, the main focus of these neoliberal identitarians is on a project of soul-searching and snitching.
This project asks us, firstly, to do ‘The Work’. This ‘work’ consists of an eternal struggle against our inner oppressor, taking place on an individual level and aided by self-help books, websites, and seminars. The logic underlying ‘The Work’ states that it can never be over – after all, who ever heard identitarians talk about, say, a white person who is no longer racist? – and therefore that its stated goals can never be achieved. Oppressordom is simply rooted too deeply in all of our psyches, and the thing to do, for the most part, is to sit quietly and think about it. Secondly, we must ‘call people out’ – again, on an individual level – who engage in oppressive or ‘oppressive’ behaviours, and scold them, and snitch on them to the bosses if possible, and pressure them also to do ‘The Work’.
The project of soul-searching and snitching can take up an enormous amount of time and energy. There are always new ways to signal that you are doing ‘The Work’, and of course, there is an endless supply of other ordinary people to go after, for committing an endless array of transgressions. And the more detailed your knowledge becomes of the various kinds of oppressions available to choose from, the more opportunities you get to call people out. Someone’s giving a workshop on local herbs? Not enough Indigenous voices. Someone’s organized an LGBTQ club for going on nature walks together? Ableist. People are trying to stand up to a logging company? Spokesman has white dreads. There is nothing that can’t be turned into an opportunity to soul-search and snitch.
Soul-searching and snitching do not threaten to redistribute anyone’s capital. For all that the adherents of the project of snitching and soul-searching love to talk about ‘structural’ or ‘systemic’ oppressions, the project offers no structural changes of any kind. It implies no threat to the existing political-economic system. In fact, it actively serves to undermine and ultimately destroy nearly any type of organized resistance to the ruling class. Altogether, the identitarian project is easily contained and coopted; easily controlled by elite interests; easily sold back to impressionable liberals as a consumer identity; and easily manipulated to distract leftists from any policy goals that would actually help any normal people or threaten any rich ones. The reason neoliberal identitarianism has been so enthusiastically taken up by sections of the elite is that, very much unlike Marxism, it constitutes no threat to their power and in fact aids and abets their project of class rule in a number of ways.
The ruling class has a problem; and it has found a solution.
I’m indebted to Touré Reed, in particular his book Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, my reading of which inspired this article.
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