As we all know, the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, exhilarating as they were, got crushed pretty quickly, and the years of bipartisan lead followed – Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush again, Obama, and the opera-buffa of Trump. Of course these regnal dates merely constitute mile-markers for the course of events; and it was all, all of piece throughout: rollback and revanche, recuperation and restoration.
But those two lively decades did in fact alter the terrain. Many fewer people now would cop to being racists, though many would cheerfully have done in the 1950s; few would now seriously argue that women aren’t the equals of men. So the 1970s are the last living or transmitted recent memory of anything good happening.
Perhaps that’s why, after the succeeding half-century of defeat after defeat, and certainly without any further progress, anti-racism and feminism and womanism and various kinds of genderism have come back in a rather fevered form. The general defeat has been so complete, the revanche so thorough, that we’re thrown back upon the last hill we took, and find ourselves compulsively re-taking it, like Civil War re-enactors, with a kind of perseverative and increasingly amped-up hysteria.
It’s been said that liberals are the only conservatives left; they hear the long withdrawing roar of the tide going out, and utter plaintive inverse-Canute cries telling it to come back in again. Not that they liked it when it was coming in; all those uncouth kids occupying university officials’ offices – not really the thing at all. And as for the Black Panthers, oh my. But the kids are nostalgia now, law enforcement settled the Panthers’ hash, and the current reality is oafs in MAGA hats, not to mention mismatched furs, occupying the Capitol.
The result is an unmistakable sense of embattlement and defensiveness, which in some cases, especially among younger people, transmutes into a kind of schematized militancy. Its concrete content is ever-more-vehement insistence on matters long since agreed upon, vigilant enforcement of an ever-changing orthodoxy about terminology and turns of phrase, and a squiggly, gingerbready proliferation of oppressed social categories requiring consideration, foregrounding, and deference; the rich, well-manured field of “gender” having borne abundant fruit in this regard. Activism collapses into the zone of discourse and degenerates into entrepreneurial brand-building, careerism, and the accumulation of moral capital, which expand on inverse proportion to an ever-shrinking base of intellectual originality and substantive political salience. Indignant attitudinizing about the mean old Fash goes hand-in-hand with calling the cops (who are, of course, in fact the best-armed, best-organized, most politically powerful and most dangerous element of the Fash).
Marx’s often-cited (perhaps too often-cited) aphorism about tragedy and farce doesn’t apply here, though farce certainly abounds. Marx’s point was that something new has to dress itself up as something old, but what we see around us now is just the opposite: something that purports to be new but is in fact a compulsive repetition of something old. Something that purports to be an advance, but is really a retreat. Something that purports to be radical but is in fact both aggressively and defensively liberal. Something that purports to be critical but is in fact essentialist. Idealism in a materialist costume; moralism impersonating realism; the petit-bourgeois grad student dressed as a sans-culotte, Phrygian cap and all. “Social construction” lies down with “really a woman”, absolute freedom with ineluctable preordained determination, as we are told the lion someday will with the lamb; the part about the little child leading them seems at least partially to have come true, in the person of that lionized little lamb Greta Thunberg.
But you get the idea.
Of course the obvious missing piece is precisely the keystone of the arch, namely Capital reproducing itself by feeding on us. Men and women have a long and variegated history together, as do Europe and Africa, Old World and New, East and West, same-sexers and other-sexers and people who want to jump the fence. But the world we actually live in is a world comprehensively defined by Capital, and to make “class” just one identity among many is to demagnetize one’s compass and wander at random. There is, actually, an axis on which the world spins, and there is a North Pole. The relations of men and women, black and white, in our actual lives, are not defined by some immemorial patriarchy, or some sticky intransigeant ideology, but concretely and immediately by the conditions of our shared existence under the reign of Capital.
This recognition was present at least to some degree during the heady years of the 60s and 70s, though it never really got into the driver’s seat, which may be one of the reasons why so many of the achievements of that period were so easily rolled back by our ancient foes. Now, during the Great Reawokening, it is almost entirely absent. May one suggest that this significant aching absence is the reason for both our silliness and our ineffectuality? For how useless we are – and how boring?