An anthropologist looks at the empty identity politics of America’s Left

Summary: Here is the last chapter of anthropologist Maximilian Forte’s series about America’s New Victorianism. It explains many of the otherwise baffling aspects of Campaign 2016. This essay is worth a ton of journalists’ reporting about the sound bite circus that dominates the news.

Queen Victoria and family by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1846)
Queen Victoria and family by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1846). It could be a modern campaign portrait.

The Working Class, Identity Politics and New Victorian History

Against the Labouring Classes: Identity Politics in the New Victorian Age.
By Maximilian C. Forte. Part 4 of 4.
From Zero Anthropology.
Reposted with his generous permission.

The New Victorianism serves to not only divert politics into issues of morality and identity, it works to obfuscate the bases of increasing inequality. Focusing on the Democratic Party, and its abandonment of the working class over the past forty years, Adolph Reed Jr. (professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania) would appear to have seen from early on how these issues are linked — though he does not use the phrase “New Victorianism,” he describes it in other words. Speaking of Democrats and liberals in general, he wrote of,

“their capacity for high-minded fervor for the emptiest and sappiest platitudes; their tendencies to make a fetish of procedure over substance and to look for technical fixes to political problems; their ability to screen out the mounting carnage in the cities they inhabit as they seek pleasant venues for ingesting good coffee and scones; their propensity for aestheticizing other people’s oppression and calling that activism; their reflex to wring their hands and look constipated in the face of conflict; and, most of all, their spinelessness and undependability in crises”.

— “Liberals, I Do Despise” by Adolph Reed, Jr. in The Village Voice, 12 November 1996.

Twenty years ago he criticized “their refusal to face up to the class realities of American politics” and how liberals “avoid any linkage of inequality with corporations’ use of public policy to drive down living standards and enhance their plunder”. Instead, when it comes to the marginalized within the US they opt for a maudlin “save-the-babies politics” that demonizes working-class parents, much the same way that the right-wing has done. He concluded that liberal politics are “motivated by the desire for proximity to the ruling class and a belief in the basic legitimacy of its power and prerogative. It is a politics which, despite all its idealist puffery and feigned nobility, will sell out any allies or egalitarian objectives in pursuit of gaining the Prince’s ear” (Reed, 1996).

Reed’s critique later expanded beyond the confines of the Democratic party, moving to include left activists and the labour movement, raising an issue that I recently touched upon when I wrote that, “it now seems clear that every single sector and shade of the US left has made some sort of peace with neoliberalism, with the basic structure of the status quo, from which their hopes hang even if by the thinnest of humanitarian, cosmopolitan and reformist threads”. This is how Reed argued the point…

“the labor movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling. Dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to ‘disparity,’ while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality”.

— “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals” by Adolph Reed, Jr. in Harper’s Magazine, March 2014.

On Obama, Reed commented on how he is largely a figment of identity politics: “Obama is the pure product of this hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content” (Reed, 2014). Just as Obama as a mere image was meant to perform a domestic counterinsurgency function — pacification — identity politics was meant to suffocate class divisions:

“The assertion of a fundamentally antagonistic history between labour and social movements, particularly those based on ascriptive identities like race, gender or sexual orientation, is a reflex in the discourse of the identitarian left fuelled by liberal stereotypes of the organized working class as definitively white, male and conservative. This political lore, despite having some basis in historical fact, has hardened into unexamined folk knowledge among many activists”.

— “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States” by Mark Dudzic & Adolph Reed, Jr. in Socialist Register, 2015, 351-375.

We have now reached the astounding point where those supporting the working-class are seen as being, at best, closet racists. That is not the triumph of the New Victorians, rather it’s a sign of them desperately digging in their heels as their project begins to collapse under the weight of resentment, revolt, and even ridicule. What is a sign of the success of the New Victorians, however, is the extent to which “the left” has been emptied of meaning or practical force, edging it closer to becoming a fiction.

Still from the film "Pig Hunt"
Still from the 2008 movie, “Pig Hunt”. Available at Amazon.

Understanding History and the New Victorianism

One of the persisting problems with speaking of an Old and New Victorianism, is the timing of the height of the phenomena. The older, British one marked a confident period of economic and territorial expansion. The newer, American one comes also during a period of expanding and multiplying wars, but also with a sense of persistent and worsening crisis and insecurity at home. For now, I cannot go further with this problem, if it is a problem.

There are other key differences: since Old Victorian times, there has been a great decline of the illusion of certainty and order in nature; our understanding of nature has become one that increasingly sees it as messy and unpredictable (Hewitt, 2006, p. 418-419). Another major difference is that Victorian culture was not a consumer culture — there was a general awareness of scarcity, of limited luxuries of life, and there was a limited range of consumer goods (“Why the Notion of Victorian Britain Does Make Sense” by Martin Hewitt in Victorian Studies, Spring 2006, 395-438).

On the other hand, I think the North American “New Victorianism” marks an actual decline in and of itself, and is thus quite distinct from Victorianism. Most of our politicians, journalists and academics could not survive a five-minute interview with one of their Victorian ancestors. To be blunt and entirely subjective, I think our Victorianism is a dumber version: less articulate, challenged when it comes to vocabulary and grammar, and more importantly, lacking sufficiently developed logical and analytical capacities. We seem to be especially plagued by a generalized problem: the inability to understand that wishful thinking is not analysis, that what we think the world ought to be cannot describe the world as it is.

One of the other issues that troubles me about drawing parallels between the present and the 19th century, is the risk of reinforcing the tendency to see the present, and the future, as a mere re-run of the past. The historicist mistake is to think that no new history is possible, that it really did terminate in the 19th century, the same century in which Hegel was proclaiming the end of history. The main advantage in thinking of “Victorianism” (old or new) is not to suggest that Western culture endlessly repeats itself, but how two culturally, ideologically, and technologically proximate empires share a similarity in decline, and how the New Victorianism marks not the height but the start of the dissolution of the New Imperialism. This seems to be especially the case as the latter begins to devour its own at home.

Another question has to do with how we measure periods, and how we treat periods (the arbitrary construction of analysts) as if they were facts. We thus risk treating time measurements as if they were social realities, and treat chronology as if it were history. One way to deal with this problem is to see the 19th century as much longer in duration that we actually thought, with the discontinuities and changes not substantial enough to justify abrupt demarcations in time. In that case the Old Victorianism might represent the high point of hegemony, and the New Victorianism a point lower down the slope, as unresolved contradictions plunge us into a post-imperial world, post-Western world. I doubt this will mean the end of all Western civilization and capitalism, just that they may serve less and less as the focus of a unitary global order. Again, this cannot be developed further for now.

We are also hampered by those who have written about empires and imperialism. Many who have written about the British empire, do not see imperialism continuing after the end of British colonialism — because they conflate imperialism with colonialism, when colonialism might instead be seen as one mode among many for achieving empire. On the other hand, there are those who view contemporary imperialism as an abrupt departure from the British, and reduce British imperialism to a single, stereotypical mode of colonization.

Also not addressed here is why Victorianism emerged as such. Why the emphases on trade, philanthropy, and good governance? I think this has to do in large part with the need for capital to expand. Pursuit of free trade requires standardization, undermining rivals through propaganda campaigns and policies of emancipation (anti-slavery then, anti-homophobia now). Such imperial “freedom” campaigns, which perform a service for capitalist growth, also bring in surrogates recruited through soft power and enchantment, even as horrible violence is unleashed. However, the risk here is that of arguing that all of this is purely, ultimately, or mostly the product of the determinations of capital. Capital, on its own, is a pile of inanimate junk (to paraphrase a colleague). Capital needs to interact with ideas, motivations, compulsions, and practice. But when, how, and why the ideas of liberalism took shape and gained ascendancy is a much bigger project and requires further research on my part.

Even with these difficulties and problems with Victorianism, it is a useful means of doing the following:

  1. understanding how disparate parts of a social and cultural formation fit together, how they form durable patterns, and how they reinforce each other;
  2. providing an historical basis for perceiving the contemporary culture of imperialism;
  3. raising the question of cyclical history and how we might envision “what is coming next”; and,
  4. shining a light on the historical and cultural origins of the ideas framing current political debates.

The New Victorianism PDF

The full series: The New Victorianism

  1. The New Victorianism.
  2. The New Victorianism, Imperialism, and Identity Politics.
  3. Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics.
  4. The Working Class, Identity Politics & New Victorian History.

—————————————-

Maximilian ForteAbout the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numberous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

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3 thoughts on “An anthropologist looks at the empty identity politics of America’s Left

  1. Goodness.
    “. It is a politics which, despite all its idealist puffery and feigned nobility, will sell out any allies or egalitarian objectives in pursuit of gaining the Prince’s ear” (Reed, 1996).”

    Is anyone reading these?

    Thx
    Breton

    Like

  2. “I think the North American “New Victorianism” marks an actual decline in and of itself, and is thus quite distinct from Victorianism. Most of our politicians, journalists and academics could not survive a five-minute interview with one of their Victorian ancestors. To be blunt and entirely subjective, I think our Victorianism is a dumber version: less articulate, challenged when it comes to vocabulary and grammar, and more importantly, lacking sufficiently developed logical and analytical capacities. We seem to be especially plagued by a generalized problem: the inability to understand that wishful thinking is not analysis, that what we think the world ought to be cannot describe the world as it is.”

    Exactly!

    The Disguised Global Capitalist Empire, which is only HQed in, and merely ‘poses’ as, our former country, has achieved its excision of democracy by dumbing-down, deluding, and deceiving almost the entire polis.

    Like

    1. Alan,

      “has achieved its excision of democracy by dumbing-down, deluding, and deceiving almost the entire polis.has achieved its excision of democracy by dumbing-down, deluding, and deceiving almost the entire polis.”

      I understand and agree with you observationally — but disagree with that formulation. We have agency. We might allow the 1% to shape us, but we’re not passive pots on their wheel. We are responsible for ourselves. Otherwise you grant the rightness of the 1% to rule us.

      Like

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