American Decline

The Limitations of Class Politics in a Society Divided by Tribal/Sectarian Conflict

It is true that class divisions are the widest they have been in 100 years, and there are now more strikes going on than at any time since WW2.  However, the class-based politics favored by the economic left still faces an uphill battle in terms of becoming the dominant political paradigm as opposed to the “culture war” paradigm.

May be a Twitter screenshot of one or more people and text that says 'Black in the Empire @blackintheempir We got 1 Party with 2 wings, both waging a culture war to keep us divided so we never come together to wage a class war and none of them actually give a fvck about the issues they're using to keep us distracted. aubrey lefkowitz (follow limit) just learned that America' S current wealth gap is wider than that of France in 1789 right before the revolution, so that's nice.'

This is the common refrain on the sectors of the (serious) left that favors a class struggle-oriented politics. But I think it’s an overstatement. The “culture war” isn’t just a ruse created by elites to distract from material issues, although some sectors may use it for that purpose. The culture war represents a real fracturing that is taking place among the ranks of elites. Piketty’s recent studies show that a major cleavage has developed between the “merchant elites” and the “Brahmin elites.” I would add to that the intra-capitalist class fragmentation between industrial capitalism and digital capitalism, and the wider social conflict between the rising upper-middle class and the sinking traditional working-to-middle class. This conflict spans the Western world.
But in the US, the “culture war” represents a wider quasi-religious conflict over existential values that is over and above mere material interests. One side is comprised of those who favor the traditional American civil religion along with traditional metaphysical religion. The other side is those who favor Enlightenment rationalism, scientism, “citizen of the world” cosmopolitanism, and in some cases, neo-Christianity (“progressive” Christianity, social gospel, etc.). There are sectors of the elite on both sides, while the bulk of the conflict tends to take place within the upper-middle class, and both sides have proletarian and even lumpenproletarian contingents. Class-based politics is not hegemonic in highly heterogeneous societies with fragmentation into tribes with conflicting existential values.
A lot of these neo-social democrat types like Kyle Kulinski, Krystall Ball, Jacobin, Intercept, etc. seem to think you can gloss over the existential conflicts by buying off the socially conservative sectors of the working class with welfare. My question to that crowd would be, “Which cultural issue would you be willing to compromise on in order to win over social conservatives for the welfare state? Abortion, gay rights, transgender restrooms, religion in schools, environmentalism, affirmative action, law enforcement, Confederate flags, death penalty, immigration, guns….?” In most of their cases my guess is the answer would be “zero.” But they somehow think the answer from social conservatives would not be “zero” if only they promise them a higher minimum wage and Medicare. That’s ridiculous. This is a religious war equivalent to the sectarian rivalries in the Middle East. It’s also an intra-liberal conflict (between Lockean liberals and Rousseauan liberals), and a continuation of the historic conflict between various American traditions.
In an American context, there is also the rivalry between the Northeast (now aligned with the West Coast) and the Sunbelt, between puritan and Great Awakening fundamentalism and Jeffersonian anticlericalism, between mercantile cosmopolitanism and xenophobia, etc. There are some parallels between revolutionary France, revolutionary Russia, and today’s America, like huge wealth inequality, an upwardly mobile middle class opposed to traditional elites, an intransigent ruling class that is impervious to reform, and secularization vs traditional religion. There are also parallels with Weimar Germany and 1930s Spain in terms of left/right polarization. But I actually think the analogy to the contemporary Middle East holds up better. In the Middle East, educated elites tend to be more Westernized, cosmopolitan, and secular (even if they exploit religious sectarians as useful idiots), while plebes and proles tend to be more conservative, with wealth inequality being huge, but class-based politics being impossible between of tribal-sectarian fragmentation where it’s all about “Tribe First.”
Serious socialism never had more than a marginal influence in the US. The most popular socialist leader in US history was Eugene V. Debs, and he never got more than 10% in presidential elections. But I don’t think that is due to cultural fragmentation as much as the fact that US political culture is so profoundly shaped by English liberalism and bourgeois culture generally. English socialism was always kind of wimpy compared to some of its continental counterparts as well, and American socialism even more so. The Anglosphere is the last place on earth you would probably ever find a genuinely powerful Communist Party. I think the Anglosphere is analogous to the Middle East in that the ME is so profoundly Islamic that any kind of revolutionary force has to frame its politics within an Islamic context. Instead of Communism, you get Nasserism, Qadaffi’s third universal theory, Baathism, Khomeinism, etc.
The barrier to socialism in the Anglosphere is Lockean liberalism, and in the Middle East, it’s Islam, although tribal conflicts are an added liability, as they are becoming in the US as well.

1 reply »

  1. I am some kind of left Hegelian nihilist/postliberal Austrian panarchist, and even I have a hard time saying I’d be willing to compromise on some of this stuff. I believe people have a right to theocracy, ave that Christianity is better than Progressivism, that bootlickers are better than gunphobes, etc. I have no principled objection to fags, spics and furries but any community I’d be part of wouldn’t allow them to organize dissident cells arguing for the genocide of kulaks because they think women being treated differently than men is evil. I want to live in a certain type of Western Anglo society myself, and as long as I’m being forced to live in one with other people allowed to exert political and economic power I absolutely favor the persecution of the whacky left just to keep them off my back. Until the left learns to mind their own business (impossible) they are the enemy, and I have more in common with that buffoon Trump than I do the homo-pedo universalists.

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