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Liberals vs. The Left:
Learning From Identity Politics

The quintessentially 1980s quarrel between radical theory and reactionary politics—or between multiculturalists and the then-rising neocons—is surely not over. This sad old story has been told many times, and we are well too aware of its consequences: the disastrous inner divisions of the American left, the triumph of a new anti-intellectualist moral blackmail on both sides, and the deafening silence of most so-called "liberals" in the face of the worst backlash in American politics and ethics in at least a half-century. Such a situation was made possible by a gradual withdrawal of the American left away from the public space, leaving the entire political territory open for the neoconservative battalions to settle in.

For a long time now, the campus-based "cultural" left and the more traditional liberal left have accused each other of being the driving force behind such a poor state of affairs: the former keeps mocking a classist and unionist type of rhetoric supposedly obsolete in turn-of-the-millennium America, if not entirely counter-productive ever since the Reagan revolution; and the latter laments a complete repression of social issues in favor of mostly symbolic (if not wholly textualized) forms of struggle—pointing to all those tenured activists who "marched on the English department while the Right took the White House," to quote a famous line from Todd Gitlin.

Gitlin and many of his colleagues keep putting all the blame on a fragmented type of politics made up of separate identity-based agendas utterly incapable of uniting around a common political platform—and they do have a point: the disunity of the various multicultural agendas coined during the theory wave of twenty years ago helped make plausible the neocon argument of a "balkanization of American society." In fact, the decade of Thatcherism and Reaganism saw only one common cause around which those different minority groups have accepted to gather on campus: fighting against South Africa’s Apartheid, be it by marching and protesting (as was the case in 70 colleges and universities on April 24, 1985) or staging theatrical "slums" next to the more quiet gothic dorms.

Apart from occasional support for Nelson Mandela’s struggle, solidarity across the board between all minority groups (and especially between their respective avant-gardes, i.e. their campus representatives) never really took place. In fact, disputes between competing factions—whether between queer theorists and gay activists, "essentialist" and "constructionist" feminisms, or the different ethnic agendas—have even tended to intensify over time, due in part to the new academic free market where fighting for symbolic recognition is key to getting budget allowances and teaching positions. Throughout a twenty-year long succession of theoretical trends and new fashionable schools of thought, none of these minority groups has ever really made a clear choice between a protective stance, that of simply defending one specific identity, and a more proselytic approach—using their condition as an epitome of all minority struggles and therefore as a cornerstone of social and cultural movements.

Moreover, the less visible diagonal of social hierarchies and class differences has kept dividing each single group, widening the gap between business-conscious upper-middle class African Americans and their more dissenting lower class counterparts, or stretching the difference between the monogamic advocates of gay marriage and parenting and the less conformist proponents of polysexuality or cross-gender experiments. In the meantime, off-campus identity extremists have occasionally influenced each other without ever considering a common struggle: the radical evolution of the Black Panthers and other Black movements towards social separation and revolutionary politics did have its impact among Chicanos or even Native Americans as well as on some third-world activists, but without ever triggering a real united front of minority workers. The common grounds of social struggle were made gradually invisible by the splitting of community causes and an increasing competition between identity agendas. This is precisely the liberal left’s number one argument against campus radicals: left-wing politics require the idea of a common good, rooted in common culture and social solidarity, or else "if there is no people, but only peoples, there is no Left" to quote another blunt line from Todd Gitlin.

This is only half of the problem: the other united entity which has been dissolved by a decade of radical theorism and identity politics, according to the same argument, is Power itself, a located and visible social enemy against which social struggles could be waged. Here, French theory and its impact on the rethinking of minority politics is what’s in the line of fire: Michel Foucault’s "microphysics of power," the "lines of flight" or "nomadic driftings" of Capital in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have all been accused of having disarmed the good American left-wing activist. Denying the existence of a "center" of power amounts to calling for a social struggle deprived of any "object," according to Michael Walzer, himself occasionally another harsh critic of the so-called cultural left. In Walzer’s 1988 volume The Company of Critics, Foucault stands accused of replacing "real authoritarian politics" with "the microfascism of daily life" as the very object of social criticism, and of not being able to choose between "the reformism of a microphysicist" and the "utopianism" of an anarchist.

Of course, since most of these radical movements flourished within, or were strongly inspired by, 1980s campus life, one should not overlook here the key role of the American academic institution, with its social isolation and structural inertia. Mostly limited to theoretical debates and symbolic struggles once the 1960s movements had come to an end, the very notion of "minorities" was turned into a narration, transformed into a speech act, museified into a series of texts, even dramatized by the very theatrical rules of academic debate in the U.S. As demography and sociology have taught us, this issue of the "minorities" was partly de-historicized and surely textualized by a generation of academics who were too young to have been involved in the direct street fights of the 1960s. This very issue, according to that same liberal line of critical arguments, was transferred onto the symbolic realm, assigned to the cultural field, with the goal of making recognition a substitute for socialization, and turning forms of expression into a surrogate politics: in that textual logic—signs of a belonging are more important than political commitment, and the force of language is more convincing than the reality of reforms.

And yet, such a liberal criticism of campus-style identity politics and its theoretical inflation, with all its accurate points, can be criticized itself for both practical and historical reasons. And it should be criticized, at least on two grounds: a denial of responsibility, and a static definition of what the political is. First and foremost, the traditional American left—whether social-democrat or Marxist—is caught here in a typical situation of double speech, or even a logical double bind, all the way from center-left liberals like Michael Walzer to the ultra-rationalist anarchist Noam Chomsky (who’s been accusing Continental "theory" and its "irrationalism" of all evils for thirty years), or for that matter from The Nation to the quarterly Dissent: they are all deriding radicalized academics for their social isolation and structural disconnection from civil society while at the same time accusing them of having turned political struggle into cultural folklore. In other words, if one draws a solid border between fiction and reality, between an academic field doomed to have no outside effect whatsoever and a very real social battlefield, one can not denounce a group of people based in the former for not occupying the latter. It is simply illogical to reproach an encaged snake both with being harmless and with having ill-directed its venom. Or, as Paul de Man famously said (in The Resistance to Theory): "If a cat is called a tiger it can easily be dismissed as a paper tiger, the question remains however why one was so scared of the cat in the first place."

The public space (if such a thing still exists) championed by liberals has been under the tight control of neoconservative ideologues for a quarter of a century. As has been pointed out by New Press publisher André Schiffrin, not a single major publishing house came up with a "political" book (i.e., a book of debate or investigation) for the presidential campaigns of 1988, 1992 or 1996, and not a single major newsmedia outlet has dared confront the full picture of the new "social order" in the two years following 9/11. In fact, that public space had been deserted long before by an elite liberal left which has proved increasingly disconnected from its natural constituency ever since the movements of the 1960s, and which is incapable of promoting a serious alternative to the rise of conservative democrats—who therefore easily reached the White House in 1992 with Clinton and Gore, and who may win again with John Kerry.

What is at stake here is the second weakness of American liberals’ indictment of campus radicals: their definition of the political field in pre-1980 terms. The "political" is defined by them within still the same "molar" (or large-scale, in Deleuze and Guattari’s lexicon) coordinates, that of major institutions, the electoral timeframe, the media’s agenda-setting function, and global geopolitics. They refuse to take into account the "molecular" realities of daily life, or the importance of micropolitical issues such as sexual identity, cultural subjectivation through media stereotypes, in-house rituals and divisions of labor, neighborhood multiculturalism and postcolonial contradictions—as if that good old liberal left, more eager to discuss electoral politics or UN mandates than the political construction of the self, had been waiting thirty years now for the end of that sad episode started in the early 1970s with the idea that "the personal is political." It is an episode they can’t wait to see finally over, even as today’s complete commodification of individual life tells us it won’t be over soon.

Fighting the ridiculous excesses of political correctness can be justified, but doing it with more fury than the neocons ever dreamed of may have been a serious tactical mistake on the part of that same liberal left: it amounted to pointing at the wrong enemy, to demonizing a few radical identity groups who, beyond their rhetorical politics and mostly "semiotic" guerillas, should have been viewed as objective allies in front of the new ideology of "civilization" and the expansion of free market forces. Rather than deriding such a debate per se, they should have taken it very seriously; they should have reformulated it, globalized it, and taken it towards key contemporary issues such as the commodification of cultural "content" and the new multicultural marketing (itself a result of the disconnection between multiculturalists and the "social" left)—two major recent phenomena which turned out to be the main blindspots of tenured identity experts and Cultural Studies radicals alike. In that sense, an important opportunity was missed some fifteen or twenty years ago, broadening the gap between liberals and multicultural constituencies. In facing the need to rebuild a long-term united left-wing movement in today’s America—beyond the neocon threat and beyond John Kerry’s electoral politics—there could be a useful lesson to learn in that well-known story. The rest is History—that is, our immediate future.


Francois Cusset


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2004

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