In America, the political left and political right have conspired to create a culture and politics of victimization, and all the benefits of resentment and cynicism have accrued to the right. That’s because resentment and apocalypse are weapons that can be used only to advance a politics of resentment and apocalypse. They are the weapons of the reactionary and the conservative — of people who fear and resist the future. Just as environmentalists believe they can create a great ecological politics out of apocalypse, liberals believe they can create a great progressive politics out of resentment; they cannot. Grievance and victimization make us smaller and less generous and thus serve only reactionaries and conservatives.
As liberals and environmentalists lost political power, they abandoned a politics of the strong, aspiring, and fulfilled for a politics of the weak, aggrieved, and resentful. The unique circumstances of the Great Depression — a dramatic, collective, and public fall from prosperity — are not being repeated today, nor are they likely to be repeated anytime soon. Today’s reality of insecure affluence is a very different burden.
It is time for us to draw a new fault line through American political life, one that divides those dedicated to a politics of resentment, limits, and victimization from those dedicated to a politics of gratitude, possibility, and overcoming. The challenge for American liberals and environmentalists isn’t to convince the American people that they are poor, insecure, and low status but rather the opposite: to speak to their wealth, security, and high status. It is this posture that motivates our higher aspirations for fulfillment. The way to get insecure Americans to embrace an expansive, generous, and progressive politics is not to tell them they are weak but rather to point out all the ways in which they are strong.
— Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, “Status and Security”
This book was written before the economic down and the explicit shift on both the left, which had been heading this way explicitly since the late 1960s, and the right, which had had done it in coded language only since 1980s but became explicit about towards the end of the Bush administration, moved into one would, with the condescending vague hope, the “late” phase of the culture war.
Now, I don’t think we need to rebuild the “progressive” coalition like Nordhaus and Shellenberger, but I do essentially agree with them. In lieu of any thing like a mass movement, we are left with spectacle around campuses. This has happened over and over again as people effected directly by economic and policing politics do not have the leisure to maintain mass protests, and the protests move to places where people do, campuses. To talk in liberal terminology here, this moves from a site of lesser privilege to a site of more privileged, even if intersectional oppressions abound.
In the communist movement, the key point of the abolition of “value” is that value was generated by working class. There ability to change society was not their status as victims, although they clearly were, peasants were also victims, but as Marx noted, all peasants revolts could generally achieve was just replacing the old ruling class with themselves. They did not have the power to end what produced the need for feudal or even an agrarian capitalist society. It was the proletariat’s power that had as the people who made the stuff that society ran on that made them the subject of change. Not their victimhood.
So why is identity victim so popular and why is there a race for even the objectively powerful to claim it? Victimhood is a quicker proxy for group cohesion than symbolic kinship. Symbolic kinship is what enabled tribal societies to expand blood bonds through rituals of inclusion, adoption, etc. Marriage, replacing the labor of lost members of the tribe, or even suing for peace made this possible. In fact, as Marshall Sahlins pointed out, while sociobiology and some branches of evolutionary psychology had assumed reproduction, sexuality, and tribal determined kinship, the evidence is that its inverted even in hunter gather societies. However, a quicker, albeit much less stable, was to generate a “political” body was victimization. It generates the other to define the tribe.
IF you view culture as two things, the habits of a society to organize around its own reproduction as a whole (which is, in some ways, a codification of economic and familial relations) and as the means to govern conflicts within that unit without explicit or even implicit violence, you can see that culture develops from these two impulses. Culture wars would naturally accord when patterns of life dissolve, which capitalism after the world wars has clearly done even in the most “developed” countries for both good and ill.
Furthermore, in moments without political clarity and where prior oppressions have made other forms of social life more distrusted, and there is no-to-little-mechanism to organize by class in terms, victimhood as a cultural politics would be innately appealing. Think about the shift from the Black Power movement to the Rainbow coalition to focus in social justice on structural oppression. All three movements actually shared a view of structural racism beyond individual bigotry, and all three moments acknowledged the horrendous victimization of the African diaspora and other people termed “black” in the Americas and from European colonialism. However, the focus from power to integration to justice moves the focus of agency.
As middle class and working class “white” (read rural and suburban, which gets coded for white) life does decline as wealth becomes urban and even more highly centralized and uneven, the mantel of victimhood is claimed, and it is made to deliberately mirror that other identity movements. Whiteness becomes defined as, instead of a lack of identity as it was seen in most of twentieth century, as a besieged but substantive identity, as you see pop up in the rhetoric around the alt-right.
In a different time, this does resemble fascists movements claim of victimhood. Something that we forget about all three of the major European fascist movements and the Klan. So it can be serious as death politically when a dominant social group does pick up the rhetoric of victimization. However, in the “first as tragedy, then farce” way, things degenerated quickly.
Berkeley, for reasons having to do with both the free speech movement and the birth of the new left, has taken on weird symbolism. In a way, it has become a manifestation of our dreams of internet culture. The shouting and burning away of Milo recently was a spectacle for both the so-called “alt-light” and antifa movement to appear to matter. However, it did nothing but boast his book sells and maybe stop a doxing, which is a small victory. The neoconservative and religious right finding Milo’s complicated stance on teen-adult relationships between gay men, a stance that many of the radical left actually share with him, is what had is book deal ended and lost him a media outlet. The prior Berkeley moment was a spectacle, but it was all light, no head.
So again, things move to Berkeley when the Alt-right decided to make it ground zero for a gay pride style protest. Caitlin Johnstone says in her article, I Think We Can Safely Say The American Culture War Has Been Taken As Far As It Can Go,
Okay, that’s it. That’s as far as the American culture war can possibly be taken. When you’ve got people dressed as superheroes brawling with people dressed as ninjas over who’s got the better warmongering neocon politicians in Washington, you’ve taken this idiotic game to its most ridiculous possible extreme. These Berkeley demonstrations where right-wingers who think America is one COEXIST bumper sticker away from full-fledged Marxism gather to have fist fights with lefties who see Adolph Hitler’s face on every mammal without a Tumblr account have taken the artificial dichotomy created and promulgated by America’s ruling elites and made it so cartoonishly exaggerated that it’s lost all shape and meaning outside of “hey look at me!” social media vanity politics.
If you haven’t been following (and I would not blame you if you have not), there was yet another pro-Trump demonstration in the ultra-liberal city of Berkeley, California yesterday, which was once again met with counter protests from masked “antifascists”, and which once again turned violent. This happened because people who voted for Trump last year are tired of being painted as racist Nazis by the people who voted for Clinton, so some of them have been staging the conservative equivalent of a gay pride parade to let everyone know that they’re out and they’re not ashamed. The people who voted for Clinton, meanwhile, have been brainwashed by corporate media into believing that their nation is being taken over by fascist bigots, so when they saw what they were being told was a rally for white nationalists and neo-Nazis assembling in their neighborhood, they came itching for a fight. Tempers flared and fists flew.
I’m not calling for this behavior to stop, for the record; if a bunch of bored internet denizens want to get together and break their hand bones on each other’s skulls with poorly-thrown punches in order to feel something, that’s fine by me. I just think it’s worth drawing attention to how ridiculous this whole thing is getting. Because some rich people and their politicians figured out that rural Americans have different fears than urban Americans and that these fears can be used to keep voters fighting each other instead of demanding a just and equitable society, you’ve now got guys dressing up like Captain America running around breaking sticks over the heads of dreadlocked black bloc liberal arts majors in one of the most expensive parts of the wealthiest nation on earth.”
This in a moment where Trumps politics are shifting. He is going back to the normie neoconservative foreign policy hawking that has defined Republicans. Partly because it clears the charges of being a Russian stooge, in a new liberal quasi-McCarthyism, while not substanceless, does seem to be going to a paranoid style of politics liberals in the past avoided. The fact that these manifestations of internet debates on radical political cultures have come to substitute for the work that needs to be done in the US.
This farce may be an indication that things are actually darker than anyone realizes, but what looms is not mass radical movements. This is not Rome in 1931. IF fascism was defined by total mobilization, then this is inverse. It’s demobilization, depoliticization, and the decline of the energy of the politics around victimhood. There is such a thing as a tragifarce.