When the left cut its throat in the eighties, the mainstream media analysis was that the left had outlived its purpose. Walls were coming down, and the story went like this: after an unpleasant interregnum during which the liberal interdiction on state interference in the economy was universally despised and contravened – bringing about those natural moral scolds, inflation and the decline of productivity – the old values robustly reasserted themselves. They took on the entrancing form, too, of a revolt for freedom, which couldn’t help but entrance the kids. We were now primed to resume our world historical broadcast from the place it had been interrupted in the Gilded Age, and this time we’ d democratize the Gilded age, as whole populations would become investors. The state would move aside, confining its role to a provider of morally uplifting action movie reality shows hosted on various military theaters around the world. As in a high concept movie, the State, a bad guy domestically, would turn out to be a hero abroad, always intervening for the sake of humanitarianism, and thus making the bystanders – the populations of those military theaters – eternal grateful as the troops marched down the streets of their neighborhood or village.
This story explained the left’s demise in terms of a milk toast Hegelianism devoid of Marxist taint – the spirit of history would become a sort of CEO Holy Ghost again. History was all about ideas. It was ideas that made history.
This was a story that, after some initial hesitation, the leaders of the leftier parties throughout the old developed countries rather started to like. Freed from the obligation of having to represent the worker – or, God knows, listen to one – the party leadership decided to switch constituencies. The leadership became even more friendly with the New Economy tycoons, who bloomed as the financial sector took on an imperial heft. At the same time, the Left was digesting the lessons of the great Civil Rights movements of the sixties, reshaping itself in an image of the progressive bourgeoisie of the new Gilded Age.
Two oppressed groups in particular were championed: women (gay or straight) and gays. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these two groups are seeded across the class spectrum. They are as likely to be represented in the ownership class as in the wage earner class. This is not the case, however, with races. It is much less likely for an African American in the U.S., for example, to be represented in the ownership class, whether staight or gay, male or female. By a sort of unconscious natural selection, where the leftist parties broke with their old constituencies, the working class, they also broke, as was in the nature of the economic structure, with the oppressed ethnic groups or races. However, it was easy to absorb the Civil Rights leadership into the ownership or managerial class, so to the leftist establishment it looked like they were realizing the entire agenda of the Civil Rights movement, even as, behind their back, they were at least compliant in the big story of the new Gilded Age – the criminalization of the unfavored racial or ethnic groups. This, as it happens, was also the story in the old Gilded Age, at least in the States, as the Reconstruction gave way to the Reconciliation and Jim Crow was preceded by that crude but efficient modality of surveillance, prison. In other countries, such as Britain and France, this process worked a bit differently, outside the “homeland”, among the colonized, where the necessity to destroy the resistance of the native and to lure into compliance the native elite also used prisons in a mix of processes – the major one being the monetizing of the economy – that had a different shape than the American one.
This, by the way, is not a sneaky ploy to identify racism with class struggle. I simply want to understaned the effect of the latter in reproducing new forms of the former. Another story could be told about the processes in the “interregnum” in which white dominated organized labor and the state operated in tandem to create a regime of discrimination against select races and ethnic groups. There’s a certain nostalgia on the part of older lefty survivors for the fifties and forties – why can’t we, for instance, mount infrastructural projects and employ people like in the old days? This ignores one of the major effects of those projects, which were directed broadly against racial communities. The old slogan – they built white man’s roads through the black man’s home – was true about that time, whether or not the “man” sticks out here like a sore thumb. The destruction of urban neighborhoods through urban renewal and highways was not a just a “bug”.
Revolutionary changes in the political form of a society don’t have to exert themselves in sudden and overt events – however, they will lead, in time, to changes in the socio-economic from of a society. There’s no substructure superstructure, there are only sifting sands, and the houses built thereupon. So here we are.