When I was a young person – in the 1950s and 1960s – I was, like everybody else who lived in North America at the time, greatly impressed, one way or the other, by what we then called the “civil rights movement”, but which I now prefer to call the black liberation movement. And now, upon long-matured consideration, I think it was arguably the most important thing that happened in the United States in my lifetime, and certainly the best. Looking back today, after yet another low dishonest decade wound to its dismal close, with little obvious prospect of better times to come – looking back from the perspective of a Left mired in deep confusion and sterile conflict, I want to rewind the film, and ask how the hell we got here from there.
The black liberation movement inspired others, or in some cases, re-animated movements which had a prior history.
Middle-class white kids, like me, who quite rightly didn’t want to go get killed in Vietnam, found in the black liberation movement an inspiration for the anti-war movement of the 60s – which did not, regrettably, survive the war that spawned it; there is in effect no anti-war movement in the US today, and the wars roll merrily on, with the dumb, stunned, poleaxed acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, of the American public. Still, it helped, at least, to put an end to at least one unspeakable war, and that was undoubtedly a good thing.
Women began to take the view (again, after a period of some quiescence) that contemporary social conditions called for a reassessment of the relations between the sexes; specifically, it became difficult to justify any distinction between women and men, as regards the jobs they might do or their roles in the household.
People who enjoy same-sex sex began to resist the culture of pathologization and policing that arose over it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those of us who didn’t like being policed, or pathologized, or who had any regard for the dignity, autonomy, and privacy of the human subject, had to identify and applaud, regardless of our own sexual predilections. Besides, the Bastille of the gay liberation movement – I’m referring to the Stonewall intifada, of course – was a downright street battle with the cops, a thing which any decent person must regard as constructive and praiseworthy.
These were the foundational developments of the US Left in my lifetime. Some good theory emerged from this heady period of history, and some bad. The latter has rather festered, and calls for disinfection. Meanwhile, the tide of general insurgency which fostered all these movements has ebbed, left them beached on the rocky strand of triumphalist neoliberalism, desiccated and dead, or nearly so – reduced, at best, to a repertoire of spasmodic and perseverative gestures, increasingly desperate and futile.
The reflex of this degeneration within the Left – or at least, what thinks of itself as the Left – is what is generally referred to as “identity politics”. The concept of “identity” in itself calls for some examination. One thing that has become pretty clear about “identity politics”, though, is that it is a concept which can be deployed for extremely reactionary purposes, and often is. For example, identitarian arguments and appeals during the most recent US presidential primaries were almost without exception used against the only candidate who had any claim at all to being a Leftie.
I refer of course to Bernie Sanders. He was never a hero of mine, and his Leftism is a fairly mild thing, but compared to all his fellow-contenders – this is the benighted US context, remember – he looks like Lenin. All his opponents lay well to his right, yet they and their supporters revved up the identity machine against this old white cis-het male Boomer, with considerable success. The result being the emergence of the unspeakable old racist white neoliberal cis-het male Boomer Joe Biden as the nominee.
Something has gone very wrong here. Perhaps we should retrace our steps.
(To be continued)