Socialists, feminists, and civil rights activists challenged class, gender, and race oppression in the 20th century. Engagement with these radical forces by the defenders of the status quo nonetheless led to substantial gains for members of historically exploited and oppressed groups. Millions escaped poverty. Workplaces and commodities were made safer. Black Americans ate and voted alongside white Americans. And women controlled their bodies.
By the 1970s, capitalist elites had moved determinatively to stop this progress. Harvard professor Samuel Huntington typified ruling class concerns when, in his contribution to The Crisis of Democracy, a collection of essays organized by David Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission, he decried the “democratic challenge to authority.”
A conscious strategy of suppressing worker rights and globalizing production and markets weakened the organizations of labor. Conservative cultural and religious identity soothed and substituted for the loss of political power and and cultural prestige. Meanwhile, multiculturalism, promoting diversity and tolerance in place of equality and liberty, fractured the struggle for gender and racial justice among the younger generation.
As a consequence, radical politics, which could, on the basis of an analysis of social structure, organize workers across gender and racial lines, has seen its replacement by an identity politics premised on the notion that historical antagonisms are organic and essential to humanity, that there is, moreover, a group-based consciousness inaccessible to those who are not authentically members of that group (group membership to be determined by cultural signs and gatekeepers), and that, therefore, rights are to be in part determined on the basis of group association and identification. The result of these developments is a mode of politics that, while appearing progressive, undermines the politics of class struggle that is the right of labor.
At the core of multiculturalism lies a confusion about democracy, freedom, and human rights. Educated in a milieu of moral relativism, a generation has come to believe that freedom and equality are based not on one’s objective social position and right to personal freedom, but rather determined by the degree to which a person is permitted to express their ethnic, racial, or religious identity in an uncritical way. In this view, identity functions to efface its socially-constructed character. As ideology, it dissimulates the forms of exploitation and oppression that exist within its traditions.
For example, religious-based oppression, such as the Islamic veil, representing the imposition of modesty and gender roles in Islam, is redefined not only as a right women born under Islam are free to embrace, but as a symbol of gender empowerment. This redefinition of the situation of women under Islam finds young American women expressing solidarity with Muslim women in the standard cultural appreciation format of taking a day to experience the exotic. “World Hijab Day” stands as a protest against “Islamophobia.” In this view of things, tolerance of an unreasonable tradition becomes required to be a reasonable person. In Europe, where the situation is worse, women are warned by their governments to avoid arousing Muslim men if they wish to remain unmolested.
This situation has produced a popular understanding of political struggle as polarized between, on the one side, younger workers and students, devoted to diversity, globalism, and tolerance as hallmarks of freedom and equality and, on the other side, older workers, disproportionately white, who, screwed by globalization and the neoliberal restructuring of their republics, express an economic nationalism that is sometimes accompanied by white racial, super-patriotic, and conservative Christian sentiments. Their desire for democratic control over their life chances thus becomes associated with racism and xenophobia. It is said that it is better to let the technocrats handle such matters as politics and economics. The disempowering of the working class is thus reinforced.
The result of this spectacular ideological achievement is that the democratic spirit that desires emancipation from economic exploitation, and from racial and religious group determination, is not merely marginalized, but conflated with the falsely-conscious politics of white working class conservatism. What is more, by effectively neutralizing class struggle and consciousness through the strategy of multicultural programming, the globalists have enlisted young Americans and Europeans in the neoliberal project that is deepening economic insecurity and entrenching oppressive and divisive cultural and religious systems of control.
Thus the natural allies to a renewal of the socialist project, or even to return to social democracy, side with unelected global elites. They take their side while characterizing working class anxieties as expressions of bigotry, leaving the political ordering of the latter to charismatic reactionary who misdirects the fractured masses.