Race & Ethnicity


Date: Tue, 24 Jan 1995 23:48:02 -0800 (PST)
From: "Jeffrey P. Levin"
Subject: Multiculturalism and the Left
To: Bad Subjects mailing list

In the past week or so, I have come across a couple of articles pertaining to a topic near and dear to the Bad Subjects list -- multiculturalism and the left. In the hopes of sparking some renewed discussion on the limits of identity politics in our Newtopian age, I offer up some (lengthy) excerpts.

The first article, from New Left Review #208, is by Russell Jacoby: "The Myth of Multiculturalism".

"Let me put my cards on the table: multiculturalism and the kindred terms of cultural diversity and cultural pluralism are a new cant. Incessantly invoked, they signify anything and everything. This is not simply an example of sloppy terms; these phrases have become a new ideology. To put it provocatively: multiculturalism flourishes as a programme while it weakens as a reality. The drumbeat of cultural diversity covers an unwelcome truth: cultural differences are diminishing, not increasing. For better or worse only one culture thrives in the United States, the culture of business, work and consuming....

"To put this sharply: America's multiple cultures' exist within a single consumer society. Professional sports, Hollywood movies, automobiles, designer clothes, name-brand sneakers, television and videos, commercial music and CDs pervade America's multiculturalism. These cultures' live, work and dream in the same society. Chicanos, like Chinese-Americans, want to hold good jobs, live in the suburbs, and drive well-engineered cars. This is fine--so does almost everyone--but how do these activities or aspirations compose unique cultures?

"Amid the interminable discussions on multiculturalism virutally no one admits that the diverse cultures' do not offer any real alternative to American life, leisure or business. A section of the Left may be the worst sinner or the most hypocritical; it jabbers about diversity, hegemony and the other', but its vision is no different than anyone else's. Heated disputes turn on curriculum, programmes and hiring; the implicit goal is always the same: what is the best way to enter and prosper in the American mainstream?...

"Obviously all groups do not participate in American society with the same success. Those excluded because of racial or ethnic injustice, however, do not necesarily constitute a distinct culture--far from it...

"Good evidence exists for a counter-argument. The racial mix in schools and campuses; the alterations in curriculum; the spread of ethnic restaurants and eating; the new immigrants: all can be chalked up as proof of a certain multiculturalism. None of this can or should be dismissed. Confirmation of a new cultural heterogamy can be found in all corners of life. The friends of my daughter, who attends a Los Angeles public highschool, include a Korean-American, an Eritrean and a Japanese-American. We joke that they look like a little United Nations when they go out together.

"Of course, they are going out shopping. While the face and faces of American society have unquestionably changed, the consuming heart has not skipped a beat...

"Indeed the most devoted multiculturalists might be American corporations, a point which David Rieff has recently argued. Are the multiculturalists truly unaware,' he asked, of how closely their treasured catchphrases--"cultural diversity", "difference", the need to "do away with boundaries"--resemble the stock phrases of the modern corporation: "product diversification", "the global market", and the "boundary-less company"?...

"Proportional representation of racial groups can be argued on other grounds, however. To read racial and ethnic inequalities as cultural differences is not only inaccurate, but makes a bad situation worse. It fosters group chauvinism and enmities; it infers every group has a special perspective and intelligence, which each member represents. An African-American is hired, then, not from simple justice but for cultural reasons; he or she carries a distinctive sensibility."

The second piece, from New Politics 18, is by Christopher Phelps: "Commemorating 1844--Why Marx Still Matters" (the article is an argument, on the 150th anniversary of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, for the continuing relevance of the work of Karl Marx).

"Self-identified radicals, especially of the postmodernist variety, frequently see Marxism as an antiquated worldview subject to any number of grave, damning errors. American academics inspired by French theorists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (both of whom, it must be said, evince far more respect for Marx in their writings than their American epigones) attack any "universalizing" aim, socialism included, as an ambition innately totalitarian and repressive. They speak of the world as irreducibly contingent, fluctuating, malleable and textual. They talk themselves blue about "race, gender and class," but they get excited only about the first two and have hardly anything to say about the third. When they do discuss class, it is to reduce the concept to an "ism," _classism_, apparently without recognizing that class consciousness, unlike racism or sexism, is reflective of a keen understanding of social reality and ought to be encouraged rather than denigrated.

"Most such theorists operate exclusively from the seminar room, lacking any practical connection to the world beyond the campus. But the social movements, too, such as they are, have been overtaken by a related trend: identity politics. This style of activism treats politics as connected in an immediate and unreflective way to self-interest, so that, for example, Asian students, black students, women students and gay students all are encouraged to engage in militant expression of their own separate identities, victimization and rage, irrespective of whether they complement or contradict the strategic and programmatic aims of comparable organizations or make any political sense given the particular conditions of a campus or locality.

"Socialist criticism of these new currents of social though and activism differ markedly from the fire they are receiving from the right. Socialists affirm the reality of oppression and degradation that identity politics purports to address, for socialists are acutely aware that the anger and bitterness of oppressed groups are not self-indulgent. Injustice and exploitation are not, as conservatives think, invented fabrications of the self-pitying. But socialists simultaneously assert the need to aspire to a common politics on a democratic basis.

"Some criticisms of past left practice made by the new theoretical currents are worthy of embrace. Sectarian party-building at the expense of autonomous movement development is a tragic mistake, for without broad independent movement activity, socialism will never regain momentum. Any attempt to compress other oppressions into the category of class fails to grasp that capitalism is the rule of a social layer that employs multiple forms of domination, not just exploitation, to maintain its position. Dogmatic recitations from sacred texts are insufficient ground for social theory. But where postmodernism goes awry is in supposing that radicals can do without a common politics--a universalizing project, as postmodernists disdainfully call it. Since social reality is neither exclusively nor primarily linguistic or textual, changing it requires more than cleverly adding slash marks between words or putting parentheses around syllables. Rather than indulge in abstruse convolutions or pose at an ironic remove, a responsible radical social theory should be immersed in the social world and in political practice.

"Only at their peril, therefore, can radicals relinquish the hard-won conceptual centerpiece of class. Class struggle will remain central so long as society remains capitalist. That analytic and strategic judgement should not be confused with a moral ranking of class exploitation above the various forms of oppression. Nor need it regress into the old tendency to see labor battles as the only important social struggles. The point is simply that in a deeply class-divided society, social theory and political activism must pay proper attention to class."

I offer these passages to raise again the question of whether the multicultural/identity politics project has failed; or whether it is a viable strategy for social change. At a time when the forces of reaction are quite clear in their mission to wage "class war from above" by undoing the social contract institutionalized in the New Deal and Great Society, I think we all ought to be asking what kind of political strategy is needed to forge the kind of broad social movement capable of fighting back.

Jeffrey Levin

"We live as we dream, alone"
-- Gang of Four

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