Why it is time for the US to embrace the class struggle
US politics: This faultline feels less fraught than rifts over race, gender and sexuality
Oppressive regimes hide economic inequalities with bread and circuses. The US does it with a mere idea: classlessness. It explains the national self-image of social mobility that data, as is its impertinent wont, tends to refute. An elite need not be defined by accent or blood to be as ossified as any Old World aristocracy.
As far back as 1828, when they elected the anti-patrician Andrew Jackson, the first president from outside the Virginia or Massachusetts gentry, Americans were aware of entrenched, self-perpetuating privilege. The historian Nancy Isenberg has waded yet deeper into the annals, charting 400 years of antagonism to do with rank and status that began with the earliest settlers.
Americans should face up to their own class consciousness. They should, in fact, embrace it. Class has the potential to divide and embitter, no doubt, but democratic politics has to be contested on some faultline or other. This one feels less fraught than the rifts over race, gender and sexuality that make up what we know, for want of a better euphemism, as identity politics.
It is a matter of numbers. A crude campaign against the 1 per cent would put, at least in theory, all other Americans on the same side. A more viable politics of class would be subtler than that, of course, pitting the top quintile, say, against the middle, which itself would look down (in both senses) at the poor. But even this triage of voters into economic interest groups implies some coherence and manageability. A small number of big blocs would vie for influence. The nation would not be as one – which nation is? – but nor would it splinter into all that many shards.
Identity politics can bring a more thoroughgoing fragmentation. In a country as diverse as the US, the number of ethnic groups – to take just that form of identity – will always exceed the number of social classes. To vote, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, “with the epidermis”, is to invite an endless subdivision of the electorate. And this does not even reckon with the criss-crossing variables of sex, sexual preference, religion and language.
Identity politics is not always and everywhere a folly. Without it, minorities, to say nothing of women, would go without basic freedoms. Classical liberals might rather they pressed their case as citizens first, as per the republican ideal. But when black Americans did just that, from the 1800s onward, the state refused them. Nor is the conflation of “identity politics” with “the left” excusable any more, if it ever was. The right brims with the stuff, from the most respectable grievances against the pace of immigration to the conspiracy theories of the alt-right. What is Republican congressman Steve King, evicted from the judiciary committee for his blood-and-soil sentiments, if not an identity politician?
If there is one thing to be salvaged from Marxist thought, it is relative indifference to matters of blood
Class is difficult to unpick from race. But politicians still get to choose which to emphasise in their rhetoric
The question is not the rightness or wrongness of identity politics in principle. The question is how much of it a nation of uncountable identities can possibly absorb. At some point, does it deform the principle of individual equality before the state into something nearer to consociationalism – group-by-group rights for the sake of social peace? Belgium and Northern Ireland are fine places, but at some variance with the original American ideal.
Class is difficult to unpick from race. But politicians still get to choose which to emphasise in their rhetoric. It is a small mercy that, outside the part-closure of the government, the biggest political interventions of the year so far have majored on class. Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated a 70 per cent tax rate on the rich. Fox News host Tucker Carlson scolded the capitalist “ruling class” in a straight-to-camera monologue. There was a glibness to each statement. But an inclusiveness, too. Americans of all kinds fit into the “middle class” or the “99 per cent”. That is not true of all sectarian groupings.
If there is one thing to be salvaged from Marxist thought – and, really, I must insist on just the one – it is relative indifference to matters of blood. The stress was always on material interest as the motor of history. By rejecting Marx, the US remained free and prosperous, but also defenceless against identity neuroses.
How telling that it was Bernie Sanders, a socialist, who blamed Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 on a fixation with such things. The “fight of today”, he said, is against the “oligarchy”. The senator for Vermont sees a class-based politics as good for the party. A better argument is that it is good for the US. A democratic nation has to fall out over something. Exactly what, it must choose with the most enormous care. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019