‘Political Correctness’ is a common bogey deployed by the Right in order to wedge the Left ; But here ‘Anti-Political-Correctness’ is the much bigger problem when viewed in perspective ; (As effectively argued by former Keating speech writer, Don Watson). At the same time the Left needs to ‘return to class’ ; and engage with opinions we don’t like. The ‘political pressure cooker’ alternative may blow up in our faces…
By Dr Tristan Ewins
In response to the surprise Trump victory in the US Presidential election I’ve written a couple of letters to Australian newspapers : though neither published yet. Before engaging in a broader examination of ‘political correctness’ and ‘anti-political correctness’ (which I thought I’d deal with in response to some negative commentary) – here are the letters in their original form.
First to ‘The Age’:
Hard as it may be to believe there’s a silver lining to the US Election result. Instead of being taken for granted one way or another, both Republicans and Democrats will now have to take account of the needs of the US working class. Bipartisan support for the neo-liberal interpretation of globalisation will need to be re-thought. In the mid-West and elsewhere the industrial working class and its sons and daughters have long suffered a deindustrialisation which robbed them of social and economic security and identity. The Right also increasingly uses narratives of ‘Left elites’ and ‘political correctness’ to drive a wedge against the progressive Left. An unambiguous return to class politics could sweep the rug from under that strategy. The old Left made the mistake of taking working class support for granted. Some in today’s US Democrats make the opposite mistake of ‘writing white male workers off’. What we need is a strategy to build a multi-faceted electoral bloc based on a politics of solidarity, mutual respect, and mutual liberation.
And also to the ‘Herald Sun’ ( a counter to Andrew Bolt):
Andrew Bolt calls the Trump election victory “a revolt against the Left’s arrogance” (10/11). But reality is more complex than this. A neo-liberal consensus – a particular INTERPRETATION of ‘globalisation’ – has prevailed around much of the world, facilitated by BOTH the parties of the Right and of the ostensible Centre-Left. Working class people who had lost their identity, as well as their economic and social security with the destruction of their jobs – gravitated towards a promise to restore America’s industrial base. Trump’s old school protectionism might not be the answer, but Nordic-style, targeted industry policy might serve better. Policies which promote high value-added manufacturing alongside Research and Development, and promotion of information and communications technology industrial development. Instead of taking their orientation for granted, the US Left needs to actively court the working class – including white males – with policies that offer the respect and security which could be key to building a broad electoral bloc, and rolling back Trump’s support base.
After I had posted one of these at Facebook I got the response from one reader:
“I see, so white males are the most important in all of this are they?”
I was surprised at this as I thought many on the Australian Left could see the problems with US politics ; that is – the lack of a clear class perspective; and hence the political alienation of a great many American workers. Great swathes of the American working class have been co-opted by Conservative interests who play ‘divide and conquer’. This is similar to the situation in Australia. For instance where certain media outlets play the working poor off against some of the most vulnerable welfare recipients.
That strategy is detestable ; but has proven quite effective.
The best response it to build solidarity – and promote the rights and interests of both those on benefits AND the working poor. More robust labour market regulation and social wage provision for the ‘working poor’ is a crucial strategy in response to those Conservative ‘wedge strategies’ in Australia.
In the US, however, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be wedged by propaganda which emphasizes themes of ‘political correctness’ , ‘Left cultural elites’ and so on. (also similar to Australia). What’s more, modern identity politics has paved the way for this strategy’s success. The class perspective was abandoned. There has been an emphasis on the privileges of white men – but where class just never comes into the picture. At its most vulgar and simplistic this is interpreted by some as suggesting there is something just ‘essentially bad’ with white male identity, sexuality and status.
Race and gender no doubt need to be seriously taken into account when constructing a critique of privilege and power in modern capitalist societies. They are a big part of the overall picture. We need greater equality in the labour market, the public sphere, sport, the home, and so on. We need a women’s movement which demands these – and more.
But as former Keating speech writer Don Watson effectively argued on QandA recently (I paraphrase) : ‘political correctness can be bad’ ; although ‘anti-political correctness is much worse!’.
The lack of tolerance for real engagement with more conservative social perspectives : indeed the tendency to supress debate for fear of being vilified or shamed – actually plays into the Right’s hands. It can create a ‘pressure cooker’ environment which can finally explode with the rise of a Trump-like character. And if people are already disengaged because no-one is speaking to their economic and social interests ; and because they are prejudged as ‘red-necks’ – that just facilitates the Conservative agenda. (not that Trump is ‘traditional Conservative’)
But sure – the monopoly mass media does the same thing – but in reverse. Mostly it fails to engage with progressive perspectives. Systemically excludes them on any significant scale. Often it facilitates that strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. It facilitates intolerance, fear, ‘downward envy’ and so on. Often it is intellectually dishonest.
Compared with so-called ‘political correctness’ the ‘anti-PC’ movement is so frightening as it could facilitate a full-on political and social Reaction : perhaps even fascism in some instances. There is a disposition to wind back past gains: social security and welfare ; affirmative action and women’s right to choose ; the welfare state and social wage. Civil and industrial liberties are mocked, belittled and trivialised.
Here I had chosen in one of my letters to mention white working class men specifically because of their strategic importance ; but also because they matter as human beings ; and should just not be ‘written off’. Karl Marx argued for the human liberation of ALL working people. Facilitating the fullest possible human development of all working people ; and the amelioration (and finally abolition) of alienating forms of human labour under conditions of material abundance. That is: Marx critiqued physically and/or mentally punishing labour with people treated people like ‘cogs in the machine’. Where labour was for subsistence ; and its fruits are taken by capitalists in the form of a surplus. So emphasising peoples’ class interests could be ‘the foot in the door’ – to gain peoples’ trust for a broader strategy of mutual solidarity ; and of building an unbeatable electoral bloc.
I like to think of the strategy I propose as one of ‘mutual liberation’. The aim, here, is not to write off or humiliate those demographics who are considered ‘problematic’. But rather to suggest that the liberation of each is interconnected with the liberation of all. This should involve a real conversation: about democracy, and about class, race, sexuality, liberal rights, education and civic activism, and gender.
In Australia right now it could be argued we’re wrapped up in veritable ‘cultural revolution’ with regard to gender and sexuality. Broadly this revolution is a good thing. But arguably sometimes ‘the Left’ gets it wrong. Privilege can be conceived of in a overly-simplistic way: not only neglecting social class , but also age, disability, body image and so on. What is more: real privilege is complex. If we are to employ an approach of ‘intersectionality’ (ie: the various forms of privilege and the ways in which they intersect) we need to use those more complex variations on that framework : which look to specific experiences. Not ONLY the large scale social relations of inequality and oppression ; but ALSO the highly individualised experiences. When we accept this we can see that we ought not judge any person until we fully understand their individual circumstances. Without accepting this we are left in the position of unnecessarily alienating some people: people who might otherwise be convinced if there was a strategy of respectful engagement.
But where the project of liberation is subverted into becoming a project of ‘turning the tables’ this also can fuel a political and social reaction. It can ‘blow up in our faces’ with exactly the opposite consequences to what we aspired towards.
So the Trump electoral result is a real wake-up call for the broad American Left. ‘Class’ has to return to the front and centre of progressive American politics. Promotion of working class interests is a good thing in itself ; but also ‘a foot in the door’ for a broader engagement on the project of mutual human liberation.
Active and targeted industry policy is a desirable strategy to engage with the needs and aspirations of the traditional industrial working class. To achieve full employment ; and the creation of secure, well paid jobs. The movement for a $15/hour minimum wage needs to be fully embraced – and even updated to account for inflation and a rising cost of living. Industrial rights and liberties are paramount. The neo-liberal interpretation of free trade and globalisation needs to be re-thought in a way which does not undermine popular sovereignty. While nonetheless encouraging nations to take advantage of each others’ specialisations and comparative advantages. And making the most of everyone’s ‘skill sets’ ; not leaving them on ‘the labour market scrapheap’. And the benefits of the social wage and welfare state need to be sold to layers of the working class which used to enjoy such benefits provided through the private sector.
Finally I should mention the fact that despite being slaughtered in the electoral college vote, Hillary Clinton won a clear majority of the popular vote. In this scenario the ‘industrial rust belt’ really was critical to the Trump ‘electoral college landslide’. That’s the sense in which we have ‘a silver lining’. That those displaced by a decades-long process of deindustrialisation must finally be taken seriously. That workers’ interests more broadly will be embraced as being of real strategic value. That the working class will no longer be practically ‘invisible’ in American politics.
The question of Trump’s ‘mandate’, however – and the ‘mandate’ of the Republicans more broadly – needs to be viewed in this context. Also it is cause to apply a critical eye to the US electoral system. It demands constitutional reform.
Finally: although Bernie Sanders will not likely re-emerge as a Presidential candidate in four years time, nonetheless the movement he helped create is far from exhausted. If anything it may gain momentum if Trump’s failure to deliver disillusions parts of his base. Economically Left: they are in a position to appeal to workers’ interests.
Hillary Clinton has not ‘shattered the glass ceiling’. And indeed while her victory would have been of great symbolic importance – it is actually POLICY and how it affects specific groups which matters most. Clinton will not likely return ‘for another shot’ in four years’ time. But also it really is only a matter of time before a woman ‘takes the top job’. Also she was the first woman candidate to run in a US Presidential election. And she won the popular vote. Regardless of her flaws: that will go down as history.
This article was originally published on alpsocialisteft.blogspot.com.
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