Opportunism of the Transpatriotic Left

The new post-9/11 U.S. "left" has grown "wise", has denounced militancy, and has become a faith-based network of hospitality devoted to what Lenin has called "yielding and getting on with everyone" (One Step Forward, Two Steps Back). It has, to paraphrase Lenin again, ceased to be ashamed of the praises lavished on it by liberals who have turned opportunism into a way of life.

Left used to mean "radical", when radical meant grasping things by the root. In its cultural critique it argued that the binaries of gender and race in which the representations of women, people of color, and gays were systematically devalued were necessitated by class relations, capital accumulation, and the search for profits. Capital needed such cultural hierarchies to legitimate the exploitation of labor in production. The left argued that exploitation is justified by capital by its naturalizing of differences. The critique of culture was necessary, therefore, to expose the ideologies of capital and unify the exploited and oppressed peoples of the world to fight back against the monopolists and owners. Culture was a way of knowing—not avoiding—the class dynamics of capitalism.

Now the left cultural critique has become a diversion from class. The very idea of class itself has, in fact, been turned into a trope of opportunity and opportunism. In the conciliationist idioms of the left class has come to mean nothing more than a "lifestyle"—not inequality at the point of production but pleasures in the shopping malls.

What is amusing is, of course, that the left writers (George Yudice, The Expediency of Culture) now claim that shopping, which actually helps to prevent the fall of the rate of profit of capital itself, is the place of resistance since, according to them, revolution is a thing of the past. All that we now have is consumption. Culture as resistance assumes that social inequalities are not at root class questions that have to be dealt with at the point of production, but questions of the ethics of distribution which is really a trope for consumption and its "surprising" effects of power.

These unforeseen results of power caused by the proliferation of signifiers is what Henry Giroux ("Cultural Studies in Dark Times") celebrates as resistance to inequalities which he regards to be the effect of lack of access to discourse. For him, democracy is unfettered access to discourse which is his translation of the bourgeois freedom of speech. He presupposes that material forces do not produce material effects because they must be mediated through culture which has its own autonomous laws that disrupt objective causality. Culture, Giroux claims, "offers a site where common concerns, new solidarities, and public dialogue refigure the fundamental elements of democracy". The cultural in Giroux's writings dissolves politics into the shifting terrain of symbolic contestation. Such an understanding of culture is itself deeply complicitous with capitalism because it turns culture into a self-agency free of class forces. Without such a concept of the material basis of culture in class relations there can be no "reconfiguration" of the fundamental elements of democracy and the status quo is maintained through the practices of mere resistance.

Nothing represents the contemporary left and the complexities of its shifting opportunism more clearly than Lars von Trier's latest film, Manderlay. The film is, in the left vocabularies, "radical". Its radicalism, however, is a transpatriotic radicalism whose loyalty is not to any particular nation or state but to capital itself (Hardt and Negri, Multitude). When this left talks about "anti-capitalism", it actually means anti-corporationism. It has no problem with capitalism itself. Even left socialism is a market socialism. Through various cultural relays and affective displacements the transpatriotic left obscures the material inequality among people with a libertarian abstract freedom and, in effect, legitimates the free market.

Ostensibly, the film represents race as an ideological construction that denies the oppressed a cultural voice. Democracy, the film suggests, is a ruse to disguise the ongoing slavery of the division of labor. The transformation of the "slave plantation" into a "free enterprise" therefore, the film shows, does not change the fact that the slaves (even though they have a voice in how they are governed) are still economically exploited through the mechanisms of debt and the competitive advantage of older capitalists like the card shark who is hired to subvert the economy of Manderlay. When Timothy says to Grace, who is angered to the point of whipping him for not using his freedom to liberate Manderlay: "you made us", it is not only to say how can you punish us for what we chose to do with our freedom, but also to indicate that despite the freedom of speech the oppressed still don't have freedom. The film, in other words, seems to offer a "radical" critique of bourgeois democracy, but quickly that critique turns into a legitimation of slavery!

The film cancels this critique of bourgeois democracy and its inequalities by borrowing a trope from psychoanalysis and turning material oppression into a story about repression—the impossibility of emancipation because of the enslavement of the slave to his own desire for rules and regulations. The slaves of Manderlay, for instance, are represented as voluntarily subordinating themselves to "Mam's Law" which they, in the person of Wilhelm, actually wrote to mitigate their anxiety about the abolition of slavery. The film, in other words, argues that since slavery and democracy are both rule-governed, there is really no difference between the two. All social organizations, in other words, are the same because they are all governed by "rules" and "ordered". The radical left critique collapses in a bourgeois libertarian gesture which in essence says that there is no real difference between democracy and slavery because there must always be the rule of law. The film becomes a banal piece of "post" theory which holds out the "wise" consolation of philosophy that in the end knowledge of the self as the author of things as they are is all that matters.

The scandal of left opportunism has reached such a level that even the leftists themselves cannot ignore it any more. For example, in a recent tribute to Edward Said, one of the icon-tutors of left opportunism, a left writer (whose ultimate purpose is to legitimate Said's practices) cannot help but in a seemingly critical tone ask him:

"What struck me very early and has remained with me since was that jovial ease you seemed to have in the company of the privileged and the powerful.... Remember that time...we talked about Aijaz Ahmad's book...? You wanted nothing more than to toss all printed copies into the incinerator. I said you were wrong to feel that way.... [Ahmad] simply could not fathom how someone could be feted and flattered and, at the same time, a problem to power…. In fact, throughout your career you embodied this very dilemma: Is it possible to be inside and outside at the same time? There is a nobility to absolute noncompliance that you could never appreciate, I think. So long as they are not of the majority... intractable positions usually lead to ostracism. You, Edward, managed to avoid that reaction, but I was not always clear how you managed it. How did you get away with all those acerbic jabs in conversation, or in some of the more angry confrontations in print with people…? Why didn't these remarks put you in the camp of the untouchables?…. I am sure that many quietly wonder whether you didn't cheat a little by managing to live comfortably while playing the iconoclast.... There are also people who wonder whether your improbable middle road was cleared by cutting corners, stroking unsavory friends, keeping silent at opportune times...". (Critical Inquiry, Winter 2005). 

It is in the terms of "getting things done" that the transpatriotic left has become such an effective translator of the interests of global capitalism into "populist" strategies for easier consumption. This is particularly the case in the left's rejection of challenging capitalism in favor of embracing media and technology as creating a new public sphere of post-class alliances and playful, hybrid identities from within capitalism. Take, for example, Nicholas Negroponte's "one laptop per child" campaign to create and market $100 laptops to poor nations, which has attracted significant attention from both progressive intellectuals and transnational capital. While couched in a cyber-ethical rhetoric of eliminating the "digital divide" between the North and the South, it is not fighting social inequality that has this project so appealing to global media corporations such as Google, AMD, Samsung, Motorola, and (Rupert Murdoch's) News Corp. Instead, it is Negroponte's argument that the key to the program's success is that "the World Bank make telecom deregulation a condition of loans" (The Guardian, "Bridging the Technological Divide", 2/15/2005). Similarly, Mark Poster, another "left" theorist who, like Negroponte, promotes "open source" software and cheap electronic devices as eliminating class inequality by creating the conditions for a post-capitalist consumer society, now fears that without open and competitive free markets to challenge corporate monopolies the US economy could start resembling the Soviet Union, which, to be clear, for Poster signifies the absence of consumer freedoms ("Who Controls Digital Culture"? Fast Capitalism). That Negroponte and Poster now sit alongside of Thomas Friedman and Lawrence Summers in championing "free" competition in the market is not an accident. It is a reflection of the fact that the "progressive" left has long since abandoned its resistance to capitalism and, instead, has become the more advanced mouthpiece of imperialism by advancing the idea that it is only by appealing to the same economic principles of capitalism that created the deep class inequalities now threatening it that can "save" capitalism from its current crises. 


Instead of a critique of the family as a class institution that reproduces the fundamental private property relations of capitalism (and not merely its status divisions), the transpatriotic left now celebrates the "new" pluralist family as a place of "affect", "desire" and "choice". Its critical focus is no longer family and class but the shifting status relations within and among families. Take, for instance, the work of Judith Stacey, one of the most celebrated family theorists of the left. In her In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age, she writes: "Despite my personal baptism in the heady, anti-family crucible of early second wave feminism, I, for one, have converted to the long-term cause [of legalizing gay marriage]". In other words, "mature" people, according to Stacey, stop producing structural critiques and learn how to limit the changes they advocate to the details of existing structures. Even the historian Stephanie Coontz, long known for her critiques of culturalism in family studies, has now taken the culturalist position that family is no longer an economic necessity but a matter of "love", which explains the family's "instability", which is ultimately a code for deteriorating material conditions (Marriage, A History). The left reformism and its redistributionism is increasingly taking the form of a rather vulgar apologism for capital and its family structures. For instance, following Ulrich Beck's theory of "risk society", Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim argues that family is now a "do-it yourself" project and thus that the "success" of each family is based on its individual members and their inner workings ("On the Way to a Post-familial Family: From a Community of Need to Elective Affinities" and Re-inventing the Family). This is, however, nothing more than a re-articulation of the logic of those direct apologists of capital such as Friedman who argue that the world is now "flat" and each individual (read: family) is an entrepreneur who determines her (or their) own fate. 

The transpatriotic left is technophilic. It believes that the "new technologies"of globalization "solve" the problems of capitalism by dismantling its oppressive cultural identities. In his Against Race, for instance, Paul Gilroy claims that developments in biotechnologies produce "a fundamental change of scale in the perception and comprehension of the human body" which dissolves the presuppositions of racism as "raciology" (the racial typologies active in racist discourse since the eighteenth century). Global capitalism is, in other words, ushering in a new era of monadic difference and cosmopolitan values that frees the individual from cultural domination. The very left that regards "progress" to be a myth of the Enlightenment and as oppressive as "reason", is now opportunistically manufacturing a progress narrative of capitalist globality and, in doing so, obscuring racism—which is a structural problem of the relation between the sellers and buyers of labor power— by re-writing it as a matter of cultural values. In fact it is now competing with the Right wing in privileging "values" in its cultural commentaries. By displacing racism as a form of exploitation and representing it as a form of cultural knowledge ("raciology"), Gilroy substitutes a focus on cultural equality for economic inequality. 

The bourgeois left's capitulation to capitalism is evident in its response to the health care crisis in the U.S. As health profiteers—insurance companies, banks, and finance corporations—are draining public resources through the so-called prescription program of Medicare and preparing for the even bigger financial windfall from Bush's new "medical savings accounts", instead of offering a socialist universal health plan the left is reduced to uttering ethical slogans. The transpatriotic left, as we have said, has no problem with capitalism and its institutions. It may disagree with the Right that the solution to the health care "crisis" (which like all other crises is the outcome of the unequal relation of labor and capital) is in individualized private insurance schemes, but it has no fundamental opposition to privatization in general. As the authors of Critical Condition, for instance, argue, "To be sure, the market approach is unbeatable in most segments of the economy… The glaring exception to the theory is health care". The problem, in other words, is "managing" the market, which is, in reality, a way of supporting the market by reducing the costs of reproducing labor power for capital. The debate between the right and the left over the extent to which the market can "solve" the healthcare crisis is, in short, a debate over the distribution of profits. Will the pharmaceutical industries and HMO's be allowed to continue to leech profits from other sectors of the economy, as the right argues, or should the government protect other segments of capital from an over-zealous medical industry, as the left argues. What the left proposes, in other words, is a weak "market socialism". To cite the market as a "failure" in healthcare only, as the transpatriotic left does, is in actuality a means of covering over the failure of the market everywhere to meet people's needs. 

The transpatriotic left takes the class privileges of a very small minority of women within transnational capitalism as progress for feminism and banishes from feminist debates critique of the social relations of production under which the vast majority of the women of the world are not only producing the "life wares" upon which these positions of "power" are based, but also falling deeper into poverty doing so. For instance, in her introduction to Women's Studies On Its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change (Duke UP 2002), Robyn Wiegman suggests that feminism in the university really no longer needs to get involved in debates over unequal power between women anymore now that Women's Studies has become a well established institution and (some) women have been granted Department chair and tenured positions. Feminism, she prescribes, should consider this to be a "positive political inheritance", work from "within the positions of power" that some women now have, and just change the subject accordingly and "think about the field otherwise".

For left opportunists this class complicity is the raison d'etre of feminism. Inderpal Grewal argues in Transnational America that "feminism" has been "engaged in a struggle with neo-liberalism" but at the same time feminism is "dependent on it for its existence" and, therefore, it is the limit beyond which feminist struggles cannot go. Feminism, on these terms, has been and can only ever be a "negotiation" with transnational capital and should restrict itself to "rethinking consumer citizenship" safely within its bounds. By appeal to a Foucaultian logic of "immanent power", this feminism translates the relation of the exploited subject to the class contradictions of capitalism into an endless "love-hate" relationship with U.S. imperialism. Most telling are Grewal's comments that, after 9/11, "the American Dream"—and the Bush campaign to make "shopping a civic duty"—"was in danger" because "most people did not have the confidence to go out and spend money". In Transnational America those who have been economically devastated "at home" and "abroad" by economic crisis in production for profit now get the "privileged" position of serving as the moral compass of neoliberalism by "not shopping". The deepening poverty and alienation of exploited workers who cannot afford to purchase the basic necessities of life is sentimentalized and patronized as radical "resistance within" to "shopping as usual". But, Grewal reassures, lack of consumer "confidence in the American Dream" doesn't mean that one does not still "feel American". In the last line of Transnational America, Grewal teases out the implications of this argument: "If there are some who, we are told, 'hate America and all it stands for,' then we also know there are many who cannot afford to hate America, and many in the United States and outside who come to mourn its perpetration of violence and feel a solidarity with it that they would not feel for most other countries around the world". In this narrative, feminism after 9/11 becomes a compulsory patriotism. It is more opposed to revolutionary women's critique of capital than the devastation of the lives of the world's women by neoliberalism.

Of course, left opportunists always have the last word: in response to these class contradictions, Grewal and Caren Kaplan claim that "there is no such thing as a feminism free of asymmetrical power relations" (Women's Studies on Its Own). By invocation of the divine right and natural laws of the market, the transpatriotic left polices the class border of feminism from "within" and hangs on its threshold the notice to the exploited women of the world: "No admittance except on business!"

While the proponents of Intelligent Design, the Academic Bill of Rights, Abstinence Education, Freedom in Religious Education, No Child Left Behind, aggressively assault public education, the transpatriotic left, instead of struggling for an equal education for all, simply retreats to the capitalist rhetoric of "progressive education" and "academic excellence". Michael Apple, a left educationist, in a recent book (Educating the "Right" Way: Markets, Standards, God, And Inequality) attributes the gains of the Right as primarily the results of a cultural battle over the hearts and minds of the public, gains made through a values rhetoric separate from the economic realities of daily life. In this view, what is needed is for the left to develop its own left values rhetoric with which to combat and displace this other values language. For the left the attacks on public education and the democratic equality that it promises is simply a matter of rhetoric. The left educators, in other words, refuse to educate the public through conceptual analysis of capital and demonstrate to them that what has caused the deterioration of public education is not the decline of values in schools but class struggle against poor and working people who cannot afford to buy private education. Apple advocates that left educators form a community of consensus, a "decentered unity" of affiliates on the left who work based on their agreements, setting aside that about which they cannot agree: specifically the vulgar Marxist notion that race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality,… are class effects. In The University in Ruins—the quintessential transpatriotic left educational book—Bill Reading completes Apple's project by turning "class" and "class struggle" into tropes—metaphors that are unable to explain anything—performatives, at best, of a desire.

THE RED CRITIQUE 11 (Winter/Spring 2006)