The impeachment circus has now finished playing to Washington town after six months, all the time taxing its motley audience to the outer limits of their attention span.
In the meantime, we came within a hair’s breadth of going to war with Iran, and the novel coronavirus has virtually shut down China while morphing into a prospective pandemic that threatens to sink the global economy. But the numerous donkeys and elephants that paraded through the three rings under the media big tent, according to polling, moved the political support needle for President Donald Trump nary a centimeter.
If impeachment accomplished anything, it strengthened Trump even more in the eyes of his supporters, who consist in about half the United States in the neoliberal “no-go” zone between the West Coast and northeast population corridors. It might have even nudged into Trump’s column a handful of chronically and crankily undecided political independents.
That the already highly polarized United States demos is now abjectly and irreparably schizoid has within the past six months transitioned from a fashionable lament among the high-minded to a garden variety truism. But why has all this happened in the first place?
The punditry, of course, has been fixed for more than three years now on the personal and political style of Donald Trump along with the affect-amplifying impact of social media. The fact that Trump was really the first major politician to govern by a distinctively populist method of mass rallies and to communicate almost exclusively by Twitter has been the pièce de résistance for commentary that attempted wrongly to compare what was happening with previous instances of authoritarian movements in modern history.
Yet just in the last six months a gush of expert and largely academic literature has poured forth demonstrating that our current political debility may be more the fructification of deep-seated and long-term trends than a mere aberration associated with the short-term influence of an outsize and controversial political figure. What most of these studies suggest is that we are witnessing the sudden crackup of a massive global socio-political “iceberg” otherwise known as the neoliberal world order that established its murky hegemony some time during the mid-to-late 1980s and remained frozen in place until the Great Recession that started over a decade ago began to create stressors it could no longer withstand.
The “New Class War”
The same studies also adopt with varying spins and emphases the essential argument I make in my own book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, namely, that such a world order is not simply an economic one, but a peculiar type of moral or “valuational” system that repositions on a planetary basis the more familiar gridlines of social stratification to create a new kind of “feudal” hierarchy – one which defines both income levels and cultural location – that draws stark distinctions between the educated and uneducated.
One of the most thoroughgoing, well-documented, and rhetorically astringent contributions to this new genre of political analysis is Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite. Lind, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin makes the case that such high-profile trends or movements such as Brexit, the gilets jaunes in France, Trumpism in America, and Modism in India are not crypto-fascist, or “reactionary”, flutters on the otherwise stable screen of progressive history but diverse flashpoints for a global class conflict that is as epochal as the struggle for social democratic reform in the second half o the nineteenth century. “The issue”, Lind writes, “is power.” He goes on to say:
Social power exists in three realms—government, the economy, and the culture. Each of these three realms of social power is the site of class conflict—sometimes intense and sometimes contained by interclass compromises. All three realms of Western society today are fronts in the new class war.(xi)
The struggle for social democracy – or what today we would call “democratic socialism” – was achieved in most of Europe and in significant measure in America following World War II. That era was highlighted by the prevalence of what Lind calls “democratic pluralism” that at least in “the societies of the North Atlantic” brought about “mass prosperity and reduced inequality.”
In the last three decades, however, the same societies have fallen prey to what Wendy Brown has termed a “stealth revolution” or a slow, slinking coup d’etat by a cosmopolitan “managerial elite” that has effectively reversed decisively the erstwhile triumph of social democracy. “What has replaced democratic pluralism can be described as technocratic neoliberalism.”(xii)
That, of course, is not exactly news. But what makes Lind’s argument so forceful is that unlike the current left-liberal establishment which harps almost exclusively on income inequality and the need for state-directed redistributionist policies that transfer wealth from those who wield economic power to those who lack it, he insists that such measures do little to reduce the source of class conflict which lies primarily in the sphere of social and cultural influence. Lind contends that “sharing wealth through redistribution and symbolic gestures of respect are unlikely to end the new class war, if the small managerial overclass is not willing to share genuine power with the working-class majority.”
On the contrary, “achieving a genuine class peace in the democracies of the West will require uniting and empowering both native and immigrant workers while restoring genuine decision-making power to the non-university-educated majority in all three realms of social power—the economy, politics, and culture.” (xiv-xv)
Indeed, it is the cultural – or what I have termed the “valuational” – that defines the “dialectic” of this new “class war”. Contrary to the pervasive Marxist template for the ongoing analysis of the meaning of “class”, recent theorists have begun to forge new “hermeneutical” tools that take us beyond not only classical historical materialist approaches, but even the highly fashionable “intersectionalist” methodologies that offer a supposedly flexible calculus for make sense out of the volatile social and political chemistry that incorporates such significant non-economic variables as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and even religiosity.
Class, Polarization, and Cultural Identity
Ezra Klein, a well-known liberal journalist and commentator, has in his new book Why We’re Polarized articulated the view that problem of “class” really amounts to one of cultural identity, the end result of an intricate and largely imperceptible process that manifests as a political positionality only after a plausible, yet totalizing schema has been provided by a social movement or political party to draw together every possible sense of self-recognition and occasion for grievance that a given person has developed in order to navigate the choppy straits of our media intensive and information-saturated contemporary era.
In that respect what has come to be known as “identity politics,” according to Klein, is something of a misnomer. The phrase has become useless, he claims, because it has come to refer only to political stances adopted by historically marginalized groups. However, “all politics is influenced by identity,” Klein says. “Those identities are most powerful when they are so pervasive as to be either invisible or uncontroversial.” (xxi)
In previous generations what we now refer to as “identity” was often termed “interest.” But the shift in recent decades has amounted to something far more profound than a change in terminology. Politics, particularly in America, has morphed from Lind’s lost idyll of “pluralized” democratic “interest groups”, which often reflected community-based if not extremely parochial concerns, into a powerful industry, made up of corporate digital communications overlords, cable news commentators, pollsters, academic “experts”, and Beltway lobbyists that seek to command our attention and galvanize our emotions round the clock.
This subtle “big brothering” of our daily mental focus is what has really changed in recent years. Even our non-political ancillary identities have become “weaponized.” Klein writes:
Our political identities have become political mega-identities. The merging of the identities means when you activate one you often activate all, and each time they’re activated, they strengthen.(70)
Both Trumpism and anti-Trumpism, therefore, have emerged in less than a single electoral cycle as the dominant “mega-identities,” that have sucked up from their respective constituencies an ever-engendering salmagundi of what were once politically inconsequential fragments of self-understanding and transformed them into roaring engines of partisanship.
That is “neoliberal rationality” on steroids, and in many respects is hardly different from the self-conscious project of the National Socialists in the 1930s who sought to create a true “Aryan nation” through what they called Gleichschaltung – the fine-tuning and alignment of every aspect of culture in such a way that pure and rowdy group-think would be the only available way of thinking.
Yet today it is not official the Gauleiter or “commissar” (as in the Stalinist system) who can be blamed on this mass mobilization of our uncritical minds and undisciplined affects. It is we ourselves who have submitted, almost willfully, to such an order of regimentation.
A New “Constitutionalism”?
According to conservative writer Christopher Caldwell, who sketches out a wide and pointillist canvas of history over the last half-century with his The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, the two antagonistic orders which now commandeer our political subconscious can actually be traced to a major social and cultural fission that took place during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The key historical benchmark was the famous Civil Rights legislation of 1964, which creating not only competing “mega-identities” (as Klein would designate them) but rival “constitutions.”
The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible…Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave—it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation.(6)
Both “constitutions” have been equally touted under the banners of what we know as American exceptionalism with the second version gradually entrenching itself as the mainstay of the new “progressive neoliberal” cosmopolitan vision that dwells on America’s historical failings and denounces the former as a morally backward kind of “white supremacist” ethno-nationalist nostalgia that refuses to adapt to a new multiculturalist and racially heterogeneous global reality.
Caldwell may well be overstating the issue when he deems the new “liberationist” sensibility that arose among the so-called New Left during the 1960s (what the right today tendentiously, but misleadingly has named “cultural Marxism”) has functioned as a “constitutional” canon for both legal and social transformation. The Civil Rights action of 1964 did not specify new “rights” so much as it crisply defined an unqualified measure of recognition and protection for certain classifications of people who had historically been scanted, or excluded, under the generic rubrics of the original United States Constitution.
But what he does bring to light through his extremely rich and nuanced narrative of the period following passage of the legislation is the way in which what was initially a changed juridical framework for the rectification of historical injustices turned into a broader kind of “deep framing” (in George Lakoff’s phraseology) for the emergent self-image of the new transnational “knowledge classes.” As both Caldwell and Klein underscore, this gradual displacement of deep cultural frames has coincided in America with the re-alignment of political parties since the Sixties, all the while embedding their actual politics within incompatible and clashing world visions that can only stoke every intensifying partisan fury.
At the same time, hyperpartisanship may be nothing more than a socio-psychological pathogen engendered from a hypertrophy of the normal political processes inherent to democracy itself. It is in this context that we have to consider seriously Chantal Mouffe’s well-known characterization of democratic politics as a form of “agonism”, an ongoing contest between opposing blocs or factions. Adapting Schmitt’s “friend-enemy” distinction to the dynamics of popular deliberation, Mouffe demands that “the adversary” be accepted as “a crucial category for democratic politics.”
Contrasting herself with John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, Mouffe challenges the notion that “our allegiance to democratic values” is somehow “based on their superior rationality” or that “liberal democracy” happens to be “the model which would be chosen by every rational individual in idealized conditions.”(121) Rather, democracy is founded on a struggle between colliding constellations of normativity that naturally inhabit the demos as a whole, mirroring “the deeply pluralistic character of the world and the irreducible conflict of values.”(122)
The “Democratic Paradox”
Elsewhere Mouffe calls this tendency toward ethical fractioning within pluralistic polities “the democratic paradox.” It is paradoxical because traditional theories of liberal democracy from Locke through Mill to Rawls have conveniently assumed that if the political order is to remain viable, “society needs a form of consensus that is deeper than a simple modus vivendi on mere procedures” and that “its aim should be the creation of a moral and not only prudential type of consensus around its basic institutions.”
In other words “’political liberalism’ aims at defining a core morality that specifies the terms under which people with different conceptions of the good can live together in political association.”(23). Rousseau himself in The Social Contract believed that this “core morality” requires a transcendental guarantee of both authority and legitimacy, which he called “civil religion.”
But Mouffe argues that such a common “civility”, as was the case in the age of the Roman Republic, is always in times of “globalization” and empire on the threshold of breaking down because of the overextension of the values of the polis into an unmanageable “cosmopolitan” environment, which in turn gives rise to a novel and unprecedented type of value configuration for the elites who benefit from these changed circumstances as well as the establishment of a counterpolitical form of “governential” normativity.
And indeed that is precisely where we find ourselves nowadays. Lind’s “new class war” is at bottom a planetary agon for a yet dimly glimpsed type of democracy (Derrida’s “democracy to come”?) that recognizes the frustrated aspirations of the world’s “populist” underclass, defined not just economically and socially but culturally.
The domination of the world’s communications networks by neoliberal managerial cadres and investment capital nabobery has effectively prevented a true revolutionary “class consciousness” from taking root among those who have been left behind by digitization, automation, gentrification and the “urban clustering” of gainful employment reserved for members of the new international, overeducated ruling “knowledge class”.
But the smoldering embers are slowly flaming into visible insurrections in often unlikely places.
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 is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.