Oct 24, 2023

Identity Politics and the Professional-Managerial Class

"Raising the standard of living for the working class by increasing the minimum wage, creating stronger worker protections and job security, funding education and job training, making housing affordable, and socializing healthcare would benefit the entire working class, which includes racial minorities, women, gay, and trans people. However, such policies would provide much less benefit to the ProfessionalManagerial Class, who can already afford those things due to their significantly higher salaries and greater degree of education. For them, such “economic theory” is irrelevant and unable to provide what they are most concerned about: equitable and inclusive access to the higher tiers of salaried positions."
By Rhyd Wildermuth / filmsforaction.org
Identity Politics and the Professional-Managerial Class
An excerpt from Here Be Monsters: How To Fight Capitalism Instead of Each Other, by Rhyd Wildermuth

The corporate trend of adopting equity and related principles into business models has been described by some as a form of “elite capture” or recuperation of more authentic anti-racist and gender activism.

Examples of such apparent “misuses” of identity politics and social justice themes abound throughout corporate advertising and political speech, including US vice-president Kamala Harris’s inclusion of her pronouns (she/her) on her personal Twitter bio. This goes beyond corporations: the Central Intelligence Agency and the US Military have created recruitment advertisements narrated with direct reference to social justice identity politics. But are these really misuses?

Often citing the concept of recuperation as first iterated by the Situationist International, some radical theorists insist that the use of identity politics and cultural-political forms by the powerful are merely cynical attempts to strip a liberation theory of its power. Such an idea seems to have merit on its face, until we again remember the economic and social status of those who originated these ideas. That is, rather than an organic and lower-class revolutionary politics, the foundational theories of this framework all originate within the Professional-Managerial Class.

A deeper analysis is needed here, as the adoption of this framework by the powerful is precisely what has helped give it the political clout to displace and suppress class analysis. Neither Goldman Sachs, the United States Army, nor most definitely the CIA can be said to have a particular desire to see a massive redistribution of wealth along the lines of Marxist class revolt in the US. In fact, we might be forgiven for suspecting such institutions are deeply interested in making sure such a thing never happens.

On the other hand, nothing within the framework of intersectional social justice is incompatible with the continuation of capitalism or of the United States’ military policies. A non-binary or a trans soldier is just as capable of enforcing the will of the capitalist class upon the people of other nations as a cisgendered one. Investing in black-owned businesses and hiring more black woman bankers, stock brokers, mortgage lenders, or corporate board members and CEOs would not actually alter capitalism itself, only the aesthetic of capitalism and the skin color of capitalism’s managers.

This observation is the inverse of a rather famous speech made by Hillary Clinton to a private, union-organized rally in 2016, during a time when her leading rival for the Democratic National Convention nomination was senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ campaign platform, while not explicitly Marxist, included many reform proposals directed at the working class and employed a popular critique of the financial institutions from whom Clinton was known to derive significant funding and support. According to the Washington Post’s account of her speech:

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton asked her audience of a few hundred activists, most of them wearing T-shirts from the unions that had promoted the rally. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?”

“No!” shouted her audience.

In her speech, she then continues with the call-and-response, asking if such an action would end “sexism,” “discrimination against the LGBT community,” “make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight,” or “solve our problem with voting rights” before finishing with:

“Would that give us a real shot at ensuring our political system works better because we get rid of gerrymandering and redistricting and all of these gimmicks Republicans use to give themselves safe seats, so they can undo the progress we have made?”

“No!”

Clinton’s candidacy and her subsequent failure to win the presidential election in 2016 triggered the conditions that made identity politics fully displace class analysis. During that time, it was impossible to be on social media as a leftist without encountering Everyday Feminism articles, memes arguing against class reductionism, and a deeply polarizing narrative that asserted that anyone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton — even if they also did not vote for Trump — was an enemy of black and trans people. After Trump’s election, it was also common to see emotional posts by activists and others declaring that trans and black people were in both physical danger and deep states of trauma, as well as many posts urging people to completely disassociate from family members and friends who had voted for Trump.

It was not just on social media that such a conflation of support for a presidential candidate and outright hatred of people with oppressed identities occurred. A popular book published during the first year of Trump’s presidency, Antifa: An Antifascist Handbook, made the same argument:

Any time someone takes action against transphobic, racist bigots — from calling them out, to boycotting their business, to shaming them for their oppressive beliefs, to ending a friendship unless someone shapes up — they are putting an anti-fascist outlook into practice that contributes to a broader everyday anti-fascism that pushes back the tide against the alt-right, Trump, and his loyal supporters. Our goal should be that in twenty years those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that fact in public. We may not always be able to change someone’s beliefs, but we sure as hell can make it politically, socially, economically, and sometimes physically costly to articulate them.

A significant trope in many of these analyses was that Trump’s election was driven by white, working-class anger towards minority groups. Citing exit polls which showed that large majorities of white people in lower economic brackets and without college degrees had voted for Trump over Clinton, “white working class” became code for misogynist, transphobic, racist, and fascist. This narrative dominated and still dominates, despite polls showing that in many voting districts throughout the United States — and especially in economically depressed areas in the Midwest — large percentages of those supposedly racist white workers had voted for Barack Obama in previous elections.

Despite polling and analysis showing that economic prospects were a primary concern of the working class — white and otherwise — the narrative that a racist, transphobic, nationalist, and fascist insurgency was occurring in the United States persisted throughout the rest of the decade, and still persists.

Let’s step back for a moment to consider the larger political narrative which arose during these years, one which now fully dominates radical politics in the United States. Trans people, black people, and all others with oppression identities became a collective political category victimized by Trump and all those who either voted him or didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s failure to win the election signaled not just the success of Trump’s political campaign but also an ascendancy of whiteness, transphobia, and bigotry that needed to be stopped.

While for Antifa, stopping this rising fascist tide would require social, economic, and physical violence, more broadly the belief was that a focus on justice divorced from class analysis was needed. As Clinton asserted, “economic theory” and attacking the financial investment system would not stop racism, sexism, and homophobia. With the media maintaining the narrative that those same people who cared about their economic situation were themselves racist, homophobic, and sexist, social justice and identity politics became, by default, opposed to those concerns.

Again, from a class analysis, this dichotomy is an obviously false one. Raising the standard of living for the working class by increasing the minimum wage, creating stronger worker protections and job security, funding education and job training, making housing affordable, and socializing healthcare would benefit the entire working class, which includes racial minorities, women, gay, and trans people. However, such policies would provide much less benefit to the ProfessionalManagerial Class, who can already afford those things due to their significantly higher salaries and greater degree of education. For them, such “economic theory” is irrelevant and unable to provide what they are most concerned about: equitable and inclusive access to the higher tiers of salaried positions.

To put this in a more direct way, the Professional-Managerial Class stands to gain very little from political movements and reforms that target the poor and the nonsalaried working class. On the other hand, they are much more likely to benefit from racial and gender reforms, as well as from cultural movements which favor their lifestyles and political fashions over those of rural and non-urban people. Professionals who work in technology, finance, and in management greatly benefit from globalization and the trade policies (such as NAFTA) which harmed lower-class workers. As such, it’s not difficult to understand why they might resist all efforts to discuss class and instead favor a political framework built upon identity.

Buy the book here.

Here Be Monsters speaks to a left that has forgotten its history, its potential, and its power.

Gramsci spoke of a time of monsters or morbid symptoms. In the ancient world, monsters were not enemies, but rather divine warnings, symptoms of a world out of balance. Here Be Monsters meets these monsters and listens to what they have to tell us.

Interweaving personal stories with engaging histories of political thought and the meanings of monsters, Rhyd Wildermuth reveals the roots of current identity conflicts and political contradictions in feminism, anti-racist theory, Marxism, Frankfurt School theorists, and the many other leftist attempts to put the world back into balance.

The left has always been the province of dreamers and visionaries, or as Ursula K. Le Guin named them, “realists of a larger reality.” Here Be Monsters is an urgent and deeply engaging narrative to help us remember that reality once more.

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