Breakdown of the Liberal Fantasy

The most relevant question isn’t whether Trump or Clinton win the election. Irrespective of who wins the election, it is certain there are going to be deep culture clashes in America, most probably resulting in violence, riots and protests in some form. The most pertinent thing is to understand these clashes and how to navigate them.

I think from the 1960s there has been a liberal fantasy. According to this fantasy, there are two main forces in society: the conservative force and the progressive force. The conservatives want to retain the world prior to the 60s when white men dominated American society, and progressives want to change that world to create a world where all the oppressed groups prior to the 60s gain their rightful place of equality in society. On this story, the conservatives want to keep in place the monolithic power of the white male hierarchy, and the progressives wants to replace that with a rainbow coalition of equality along all the dimensions of gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, class, and so on.

Liberals in the grip of the liberal fantasy claim Trump is appealing just because of the brute conservative forces in society, those who want to take America back to its pre 60s world.

This vastly underestimates the issues at stake.

What the Trump phenomenon actually shows is the breakdown of the liberal fantasy. The liberal fantasy is no longer a good guide to understanding the complexities in our society.

The main fault line in the liberal fantasy is at the intersection of different oppressed groups; for example, between race and class. On the liberal fantasy, the world is divided into two groups: the haves and the have nots. The haves are the rich, white males who are straight, without any disabilities and so on. And the have nots are everyone else. On the liberal fantasy, all the have nots get together and create equality by holding the haves accountable.

Consider now two have nots on this fantasy: a middle class black man who is under privileged due to his race, and a very poor white man who is under privileged due to his economic class. In order for the liberal fantasy to succeed, it is essential to get these two groups of have nots to combine their interests against the haves.

The Trump phenomenon highlights that this combining of interests has not happened in the last 50 years. The poor whites and the blacks (and non-whites in general) have not formed a coalition to work together for a common cause. Instead, it has come to seem as if it is a zero sum game: that minorities are succeeding not just at the cost of holding rich whites accountable, but also at the cost of the poor whites.

Bill Clinton seems to reinforce the liberal fantasy because he is a poor white from the South who was nonetheless “the first Black President” – the assumption of the synthesis of the interests of minorities and poor whites. But in this Bill Clinton was more a token than a genuine movement of the synthesis of the interests of the mass of poor whites in America with those of minorities.

Why this synthesis hasn’t happened is obvious once one stops to think about it. In order for poor whites and minorities to form a coalition, what has to be shown to the poor whites is that in order to transcend their economic lack of privilege, they have to give up their cultural identification with rich whites. This is totally implausible.

The main thing really poor people have is culture, a sense of who they are, the communities they belong to which gives them a sense of grounding and protection. So the main thing poor whites have is the feeling that America is their country, the land of Washington and Lincoln, and that it was whites who fought the British, who tamed the frontiers, who invented cars and airplanes, who fought the Nazis and the Communists, etc.

Given this identification with their culture, when a very poor white person, brought up on Hollywood, Rock n Roll, white washed American history as taught in high schools, etc., dreams of making it out of being poor, what they imagine is becoming a rich white person, just as, as they think of it, their heroes and idols. Most poor people don’t think that they way to get out of their poverty is to eliminate poverty altogether for everyone. They think instead of how they can get out of poverty so that they can become well off.

And here is the root of the tension: the poor white person is still affirming an ideal of success which seem insensitive to the black person’s situation, or the gay person’s situation, etc. And vice versa. Most poor blacks in the ghettos don’t think about how to become part of a movement which will help the poor whites losing their blue collar jobs. That is what it means to be poor or radically disenfranchised: one thinks about how to survive, not how to life up somebody else in a different part of society.

This is one reason why communism didn’t succeed in America. The Communists tried to form a bond between the poor whites and blacks just by highlighting the common economic class they belong to, and saying that race and culture issues are secondary to the class issues. But this is psychologically off. The way people deal with being poor is by becoming more attached to their culture, not by becoming less attached. Generally one requires a certain financial and material well being to think beyond one’s culture or the habits of one’s upbringing and then identify with people who at first blush seem different. Simply affirming that class is the fundamental oppressive force doesn’t deal with this fact.

So the Trump phenomenon is really attracting two groups. First, poor whites who feel that finally they are being heard. They feel that because of their whiteness they have been unfairly treated as privileged, and now they get to stand up to that.

Second, people who feel that the breakdown of the liberal fantasy is creating a vacuum, which can lead to chaos. That we don’t really have a solution for how to get different underprivileged groups together, and that really this whole thing of trying to create a more equal society for everyone is a Pandora’s box which shouldn’t be opened, and that we should stick with whatever structures we already have before things spiral totally out of control.

Against both these groups, Hillary Clinton and proponents of the liberal fantasy seem like aging hippies who think that “no, let’s just wish for a good world, and all the under privileged groups come together to topple the haves, and we can create a shining city on the hill.” If only wishing made it so.

What is needed is to think anew and in a fresh way beyond the narratives and fantasies of the 60s, and to tackle head on the complex issues of what it means to work towards equality along lines of gender, race, class, etc. together.

Before we can achieve such equality in practice we need to figure out first what that even means in theory.

The Pandora’s box of living with diversity has been opened. We can’t close it again. Nor can we live in a fantasy that dealing with it just means affirming progrossive wishes of a harmonious world and closing our eyes to difficulties of coordinating between disenfranchised groups. The only option is to keep our eyes wide open and face the issues without any fantasies.

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