When I think of the liberal response to the election of Donald Trump I’m reminded of, as much as anything else, accounts of the shock and trauma that Germans experienced at the end of the First World War. Ordinary Germans were so inundated with years of wartime propaganda asserting that Germany had been winning the war that the belated realization that it had in fact lost – and would, moreover, be held entirely responsible for the war – shocked and disoriented Germans and helped lead to the notorious “Knife in the Back” conspiracy that held that the German military was defeated not on the battlefield but by treacherous domestic forces.
While nobody is blaming the Jews for Hillary Clinton’s loss, bewildered liberals have nonetheless lashed out against leftists, Russians, the FBI, and, most recently, political correctness or identity politics itself.
Notably, liberals who are now advocating eschewing identity politics are doing so for the very same reason that they originally adopted them: to advance the interests of the Democratic Party. Accordingly, the liberal critique, recently articulated by Mark Lilla, is a self-incriminating exercise that more than anything else betrays the national and racial chauvinisms of liberal ideology, chauvinisms that have laid dormant, until now, for the sake of political expediency.
As Katherine Franke notes, “Lilla’s op-ed makes an argument for the commonalities between Americans, arguing that we have to move on to a ‘post-identity liberalism,’ refocusing our attention away from identities to broader, more abstract ideas of ‘citizenship.’”
Such an effort to manufacture a “post-identity liberalism” within the parameters of the contemporary capitalist nation-state of course will not – and cannot – transcend identity politics and will on the contrary only reproduce them in more pernicious forms; obliterating recognition of the social and economic disparities that are continually reproduced by the capitalist state, such “post-identity liberalism” can only default onto the white, male, “American” norm that is historically defined via the subordination of everyone else.
Lilla’s prescription for national unification is precisely what Trump has promised to do: to “Make America One Again”, begging the question of what such oneness consists of and what must be erased or forced to conform in order to achieve it (it’s notable that other hierarchical and violent institutions, such as corporations, also profess their undoubtedly sincere desires to create unified communities).
While the Lillian critique of political correctness is, as Franke notes, nationalistic and white supremacist, the counterargument – in which “talking about identity, or better yet status-based power, does not preclude discussions of class, war, the economy or the common good” – nonetheless minimizes the historic origins of identity politics and their unique suitability to pluralistic class society.
In the hands of the Democratic Party identity politics have become a valuable tool precisely because of the systemic material restrictions on economic policies that, since the 1970s, have replaced postwar Keynesianism with a growing consensus geared toward regenerating growth via accelerated impoverishment.
Notably, this economic transformation has been a bipartisan and international affair, indicating that “neoliberalism” is hardly a matter of culture, ideology, or misguided political strategy, and that it cannot be simply willed away by the “good” politicians.
It was due to the evolving demands of global capitalism, not caprice, that socialists such as Francois Mitterrand announced that “‘The French are starting to understand that it is business that creates wealth, determines our standard of living and establishes our place in the global rankings”’; Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan “glumly explained to his colleagues, ‘We used to think that you could just spend your way out of a recession…I tell you, in all candour, that that option no longer exists’”; and Bill Clinton declared, “the era of big government is over.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Trump in the Age of Identity Politics’.