“Democracy Dies By Distinction” – Neoliberalism, Intersectionality, And The Failed Project That Was The Citizens Party (Carl Raschke)

There was a moment in a universe long, long ago and far, far away – specifically, in February, 1980 when I and my now deceased ex-wife attended a “precinct” meeting in Denver of the newly founded Citizens Party – that instilled in me the inescapable realization how democracy invariably dies by distinction.

Presumably, there are only a few old poops like myself around nowadays who even know what the Citizens Party was.  For the record, it was a highly motivated, grass-roots political movement (perhaps even the most successful of its kind in the last half century) that until its demise a decade later mobilized environmentalists and sundry progressives, disenchanted with the two-party system in the Carter era, around the common aspiration of achieving for America something known as “economic democracy.”

In many respects the project was similar to current calls for  “democratic socialism,” although its emphasis fell less on creating new entitlements such as universal health care and free college education and more on wresting economic control from Washington bureaucrats, the defense industry, foreign investors, and large business corporations.

Altogether it was a peculiar amalgam of the thinking of Leon Trotsky, William Jennings Bryan, and Adlai Stevenson.  Yet it actually drew enough supporters in the 1980 presidential election that year to qualify for federal matching funds in the 1984 cycle, the first third party ever to reach that benchmark.  Looking backward, one might offer the wry observation that it was most likely the last hurrah for the now dated style of 1960ish, street theatrical, communitarian politics with its ubiquitous mantra of “power to the people.”

However, what made the event stick in my own memory was not what came to be celebrated, or accomplished, at that gathering, but how the whole scene unraveled suddenly and unexpectedly before our eyes, much to the chagrin of everyone in attendance.

The left-leaning, but broadly inclusive “populist” agenda set before us for discussion by the national organization was presumably the main topic for the meeting.  But, surprisingly, no one ever spoke on its behalf.  What happened instead was that the moment a draft text,  which later was supposed to be worked up into an actual political platform, was instantly and savagely attacked by an array of small factions, each one claiming to advocate for the organization’s imagined “true” constituency.

One of the long-standing rituals of the Movement, as the various anti-Vietnam, anti-establishment, and “revolutionary” activist groups at that time called themselves collectively, was to chant at the height of any given demonstration the following meme sequence:

Power to the People!

Who are the People?

We Are the People!

 This mantra for many years had been a staple of our young, civic lives.  For many of the Baby Boom generation it had replaced the Pledge of Allegiance, which in the aftermath of the disastrous Vietnam adventure seemed hypocritical and hollow.   It was a testimony of  “resistance” to militarism, authoritarianism, and the rough beast of institutionalized racism that was commonly associated with the power elites who had only grudgingly acceded to the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

The mantra was intended to be thoroughly “inclusive” in the present day sense of the word.  It functioned as a kind of catechized metonymy for the abstract ideal of a “participatory democracy” which so many believed in, remained yet unrealized.  At the same time, the ideal “haunted” us like one of Derrida’s “specters”, which is both revenir (“recurring”) and avenir (“to come”).

Problematizing the “We” of the “People”

Nonetheless, it was the very “we” (as in “the people”), who had assembled there in that dimly lit, oak-paneled living room of a pre-World War I two-story mansion in Denver’s Capitol Hill, that proved to be problematic for the first time in our recollection.

As routinely happens nowadays also, the whiteness of the caucus was immediately called out by the few persons of color who were present.   An advocate for gay rights, which even among the most “woke” of that particular era was still considered a slightly dubious proposition, added his dissent and was reprimanded by the sole Chicano activist in the room for pulling the discussion “off topic”.  The gay guy then appealed to the white “feminist” convener of the caucus to recognize their own seemingly separate causes as secretly, but powerfully allied in ways that the Movement had not heretofore seriously considered.

In short, the conversation all too quickly became quite heated to the point where the attendees ended up constantly indulging in crosstalk that effectively sidelined the essential question of how to implement the specific program of the Citizens Party in the upcoming Presidential election.  Ronald Reagan, of course, went on to win the election handily.  The episode is only memorable, let along significant, only to the extent that it is in my own experience the very first iteration of what presently would later be termed “intersectionality”.

The problem of intersectionality has always been the challenge of how to reconcile newly articulated differences.   The New Left politics of the 1960s and 1970s had been impelled by a procedural imperative of appropriately qualifying, sometimes even with scholastic stringency, the standard Marxist categories of “oppression” and “class conflict.”

Although the passage from standard Marxism to what would be labelled by its critics “identity politics” or the “politics of recognition” had been underway informally throughout the 1970s, it was an article by Nancy Hartsock in 1983 that gave the mutation an actual nomenclature.  In a piece dryly titled “The Feminist Standpoint” Hartsock proposed  a “feminist materialism” that “might enable us to expand the Marxian account to include all human activity rather than focussing on activity more characteristic of males in capitalism.”

At the time Hartsock’s essay, which has been republished on numerous occasions, seemed to be little more than a somewhat idiosyncratic instance of what the orthodox labelled “revisionist” Marxism.  But Hartsock, who rightly pointed out that Marx himself had viewed the gendered division of labor as the anthropological template for class conflict throughout history, also inadvertently opened the door for an entirely new and mutant methodology for theorizing social and political divisions.

As historian Ange-Marie Hancock stresses, Hartsock’s “feminist standpoint theory reconsiders or re-appropriates Marx’s analysis for gender, and suggests a ‘pluralization’ of gender to ‘include’ race or ethnicity as a shaper of gendered experiences in particular. It preserves the bright line between oppressed and oppressor”. (86)  Hartsock by her own reckoning simply wanted to qualify Marxian “historical materialism” with a more nuanced kind of radical “epistemology” that took into account the actual experience of women – and by extension women of color – in the process of production.

What Hartsock did not foresee was a relentless and pervasive pre-emption of such a materialist reading over the next generation and a half by the idealist factions that were beginning to populate academia and relied on a kind of cheapened neo-Kantian cultural hermeneutic that was coming to be known as “social constructivism”, or just plain “constructivism.”  The term “constructivism” can be traced to the writings of the mid-twentieth century developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, but it runs through various European schools of theoretical sociology all the way back to the German idealism of the early nineteenth century.

Broadly stated, constructivism consists in the view that no knowledge is merely given, while it denies that the world somehow can be open to direct inspection by the mind.  Whatever we term the “real”, therefore, is the direct output of cognitive “construction” that relies on an apparatus of inherent psychic instrumentalities at both the perceptual and conceptual level, which in turn furnishes a determinate content to human experience.

Kant, who can be regarded as the philosophical founder of constructivism, held that this “apparatus” operated in the same manner for all human beings.  A few generations later social scientists and cultural linguists began to redefine the precise mechanisms for the collective production of experience as embedded in “society” itself.

The pioneer of the notion that ways of knowing are always, as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann would later call it, “socially constructed” was the French theorist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).  Social constructivism, the core tenet for a school of primarily Continental European thought throughout the first half of the twentieth century known as the “sociology of knowledge”, served largely as a conservative counterthrust to Marxist materialism.

As Volker Meja points out, the sociology of knowledge in particular – and social constructivism in general – was designed to parry the Marxist critique of ideology as a “mystification”, or “false consciousness”, of material reality that distracted the oppressed worker from understanding their true condition.  Instead it strives, as Karl Mannheim put it in his landmark book Ideology and Utopia, to “comprehend thought in the concrete setting of an historical-social situation out of which individually differentiated thought only very gradually emerges.” (3)  Social constructivism, therefore, harbored the implicit goal of legitimating the status quo, not overturning it.

From Marxist Feminism to Intersectionality

The evolution of feminist Marxism into identity politics – and ultimately the theory of “intersectionality” which sought to overcome many of its internal contradictions – could not have happened without the prevalence of the social constructivist mindset in academia, which nurtured it from the start.   The post-structuralist preoccupation with “difference” provided a generic semantic operator for magically turning “constructivist” theoretical categorizations, mostly of an academic nature and derived from demographic classification systems, into seemingly indubitable “entities” proliferating throughout a strange, new pseudo-Marxist social metaphysics.

As these new “entities” multiplied like spring bunnies, they gradually filtered into the discourse of popular media and ultimately became part of the social imaginary itself.  The “experience” of the different groups that were supposedly differentiated from each other by intersectionalist parsing no longer had their key provenance in the material conditions of social struggle and productive labor, but were “de-materialized”, as Maurizio Lazzarato has phrased it, through a hypostasization of the logic of difference itself.

As Hancock herself professes, within the intersectionalist universe “difference is the home, the ontological reality from which all experiences and, more importantly, their aftermaths are dealt with in a way that does not rely on the eradication of categories.” (134)  In other words, both identity politics and its intersectionalist progeny have become the latter day political “Truman Show” where French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s prediction a of a gradual deliquescence of the materially grounded “real” into the semiotically simulated “hyperreal” has eerily come to pass.

An initial foreshadowing of the process was evident in the seemingly innocuous political dustup from the winter of 1980, which we recounted earlier.  But it now has reached epic proportions.  Identity politics and the politics of intersectionality, once one strips away the ethnography that has given it tone and color from the outset, has always been predominantly about gender.  And it is gender that continues to roil the waters of “progressive” politics.

The most obvious illustration is the current controversy between transsexual activists and so-called “anti-trans feminists” (or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists, i.e., TERFs, as they have come to be labelled).  The controversy, bitter at times, has been running for a number of years, but it received renewed and wider attention with a recent article in New York Magazine by conservative gay journalist Andrew Sullivan inanely titled “The Nature of Sex.”

With prose that cut through much of the jargon and occasional Tartuffery in much of the debate, Sullivan averred that he had “no doubt that many will see [the TERFs] as anti-trans bigots, or appeasers of homophobes and transphobes, or simply deranged publicity seekers.”

But, as a a gay person himself, he asked whether “viewing ‘gender identity’ as interchangeable with sex,” which has been the endgame in both public perception and the legal arena of trans activism, “and abolishing clear biological distinctions between men and women, is actually a threat to lesbian identity and even existence — because it calls into question who is actually a woman, and includes in that category human beings who have been or are biologically male, and remain attracted to women.”

The same, Sullivan argues, applied to males as well. And he concludes that “if you follow the current ideology of gender as entirely fluid, you actually subvert and undermine core arguments in defense of gay rights.”

Once disconnected entirely from biology, gender identity (and by implication all other forms of normative identification as the criterion for not only the recognition of difference, but also for political privileging and empowerment) becomes an arbitrary constructivist gesture no longer warranted by any “ontological” claim to respect and dignity, but only by those who possess the agency to make it acceptable to a political majority at any period in history.

Ironically, the “construction” of gender has been used in exactly this very fashion by the patriarchy for thousands of years, invoking the thesis of “difference” to keep women, along with those who can locate themselves on the LGTBQ spectrum, unequal and confined to domestic servitude – an observation that does not escape Sullvan’s notice.

British champion of “trans feminism” Sally Hines has attacked the kind of argument Sullvan expounds as not only “discriminatory” but relying on “reductive biology,” a term she does not clarify, even though it is obvious from the history of science that biological distinctions are not drawn from any amount of sociological consensus in any given era.  A whale will never be a fish in the minds of scientists, regardless of cultural sensibilities.  One always has to incise a line at some point in the ever volatile “nature/nurture” debate.

The “Identificatory Crisis”

But the issue is not ultimately about the rights of transgender people to be allotted their own modicum of dignity and equality within the public space.  It is about how what Ellen Samuels in a trenchant historical study calls an ongoing “identificatory crisis”, where intensifying social change, mobility, and fragility of constituencies, combined with conflicts of interpretation over the constitutive rights and responsibilities of certain familiar groups as a sidebar to these very transformations, leads to confusion about who or what makes up our brave “new polis.”

Samuels notes that all political identifications in the final analysis amount to “fantasies” configured by the desires of real people to have their bodies, if not their closely cultivated personae, achieve an effective “visibility” within the magic theater of popular opinion.  She remarks:

Fantasy forms the bridge between the social and the textual, the material body and the discourses that constrain and enable that body’s intelligibility. These fantasies jarringly combine a certain wistful desire to know and understand certain identities with a persistent and often violent imposition of identity upon people whose subjectivity is overruled by a homogenizing, bureaucratic imperative. (3)

The manufacture of subjectivity in the guise of one’s personal self-image or self-identification, of course, has been an all-sufficient contrivance for the triumph of consumer capitalism in its apotheosis as a global, neoliberal, transnational “superstate”, which leverages the more elevated moral sentiments of the educated, cosmopolitan elites to carry out its own neo-colonial “civilizing mission” in taming the ignorance of the world’s populist masses.  My forthcoming book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) analyzes with a certain surgical precision how this transformation has been engineered by the very “progressive” opinion leaders who hypocritically contend against it.

The Citizens Party was strangled in its crib by the incipient forces of neoliberalism, which would launch its dark ascent in the autumn following the disruptive February caucus.  But it was not merely Ronald Reagan’s saccharine announcement that it was now a “morning in America”, which would stifle once and for all any political pretensions that the “people” who had the real political power.

It was the evisceration of the very idea of any common populus through a ruthless rhetoric of differentiation – in effect, any common humanity – that manifested itself that February evening.  In effect, the idea of the “citizen” as a linchpin for democracy, one who in Étienne Balibar’s reading constitutes the differentiated subject whose unique positionality has found common accord with others in belonging to a re-envisioned concrete universality, vanished at that moment into the constructivist haze of proliferated self-identifications.

Democratic politics, which is always a labor of polity-making, requires more than an “intersectional” take on whatever distinctions continually pop up within the demos.  Democratic politics, therefore, turns out to be a calculus that relies on the infinite production of distinctions.

But it is an integral calculus rather than a differential one.  And the procedure of “integration” is only possible if the material substance of democracy is viewed as the body politic – i.e., a politique of real bodies – that have to be reconciled with each other, not simply redlined and severalized as monadic self-reflections of discrimination and oppression.

The Citizens Party was but a wispy cloud castle that dissipated in the gray and austere cockcrow of a dawning neoliberal incumbency.  But it left a lesson for any kind of radical democratic politics that seeks to reverse neoliberalism’s hegemonic Blitzkrieg of the last 40 years.

The lesson is simple.  As B.R. Ambedkar, one of India’s great social reformers put it, “democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.”

With apologies to Kant, we may say, however, that recognition of difference without respect is empty.  Respect without the recognition of difference blind.

It is a lesson in this age of toxic politics we need desperately to learn.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, will be published by Edinburgh University Press later this year.  He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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