Identity politics crashes; the elite-supported woke comes to the rescue
Jesse Jackson did not run for president a third time in 1992, as he indicated he would to his delegates at the 1988 Democratic National Convention; and the Rainbow Coalition was unable to develop itself into a mass organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s (See “The Rainbow Coalition challenges the establishment,” April 27, 2021). So the Jesse Jackson phenomenon came to end.
In the 1990s, identity politics emerged as the principal approach of the Left. Identity politics is an accommodationist project that abandons the goal of transformative social change of the African-American movement of the period 1966-1972 and of the Jackson presidential campaigns of 1983 to 1988. It seeks greater inclusion in the institutions of the nation of blacks, women, Latinos, indigenous peoples, and LGBT people. Identity politics assumes the inclusion of such groups will create a greater diversity of viewpoints, and thus it will strengthen the institution in the attainment of its goals, and in some situations, could lead to change in the definition of institutional goals. The corporate elite supports identity politics, because it is in a position to control changes that might emerge from it, guaranteeing that its own power and privilege is preserved. At the same time, identity politics can add to political stability, by channeling radical impulses among the excluded sectors toward inclusion in the structures of authority in the established order.
It may seem that identity politics is a version of the Rainbow Coalition. Not so. The Rainbow Coalition called white workers, professionals and small businesspersons. It presented in outline form a comprehensive platform that responded to the concrete needs of these sectors, as they themselves had formulated them in their various organizations. It called for unity of all the popular sectors in support of the concrete needs of each, as the necessary road for the empowerment of the people, ultimately taking political power and control of the government from the hands of the corporate elite. In the Rainbow Coalition, there existed the potentiality of obtaining not merely narrow majorities in alliance with moderate politicians, but consensual majorities forged by the unity of progressive forces and popular sectors. In addition, the Rainbow Coalition advocated an anti-imperialist foreign policy of North-South cooperation, based on the principles of the New International Economic Order proposed by the Non-Aligned Movement and adopted by the UN General Assembly (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021), principles that include respect for the sovereignty of nations, non-interference in the affairs of states, mutually beneficial trade among nations, and solidarity among peoples. The Rainbow Coalition, if it had proceeded to develop, would have provided the foundation for the reformulation of the nation’s narrative in a form that draws upon the experiences of all the popular sectors, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed; and in a form that redefines the relation of the United States with the rest of the world.
The corporate elite, therefore, could not live with the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson, but it could and did adjust to the demands and the rhetoric of identity politics.
But then came the Recession of 2008. The reaction of the people to the Recession created a dangerous situation for the elite. The people not only took to the streets to protest, but they began to occupy public spaces for what they declared to be an unlimited amount of time. Moreover, they were describing themselves as belonging to the 99%, standing against the 1%.
In the late 1960s movements against racism, poverty, and war, there were many confusions and divisions. The rebellion was declared to be a revolution, but there was not agreement as to who was to lead the revolution, of who was to form the vanguard of the revolution. A whole host of candidates were put forth: youth, blacks, students, black workers, students and workers, and workers, at least among those candidates that I remember. In truth, the matter was made more complicated than it really was, as a result of Marxist reflections on failed proletarian revolutions in the West. Most of us in that historic moment of confusion were admirers of Fidel, but I don’t think many of us knew that fifteen years earlier, Fidel had put the matter with simplistic and crystal clarity. Fidel declared, before the listening ears of his nation, that the necessary revolution was formed by the people, by all sectors of the people, and the people were to be led in revolution by the most capable and most committed among them. It was many years before I myself learned that Fidel had declared it so, long after our rebellion and would-be-revolution was spent.
But in 2008 in the United States, in the midst of a profound national and popular confusion and division, the people had perhaps grasped a fundamental and necessary truth. If there is to be a revolution, it can only be a revolution of the people, a united people seeking to take control of the state from the hands of the elite; and exercising power, by and for itself, in defense of its rights and needs. If there is to be a revolution, it must be the 99% against the 1%.
Of course, there was a lot of intellectual work to be done. Is the 99% going to speak truth to the 1%, “speaking truth to power,” or is it going take power from the hands of the 1%, and utilize power in its own defense? What is the comprehensive platform of the 99%? What are the components of the narrative that defends the right and duty of the 99% to take power from the hands of the 1%?
Yes, there was much work to be done. But it seems to me that the corporate elite, in the midst of its own confusions and divisions, did understand that this was indeed a dangerous concept, this notion of the 99%. It is a notion, of course, that stands in tension with identity politics, which as noted above, is an approach that the elite is able to accommodate.
But suddenly, the 99% was cast aside by the woke. In his highly influential How to be an antiracist, Ibram Kendi reports that in 1993, some 48% of black people identified reasons other than white racism as the explanation for why blacks have worse jobs and lower income; the percentage rose to 53% in a 2003 survey, and it reached 60% by 2013 (the figure among whites for 2013 was 85%). In 2013, only 37% of black people believed that white racism is the cause of racial inequity. That is to say, the number of blacks who identified white racism as the source of racial inequity in 2013 was a minority in the black community, and it had been gradually declining for twenty years. But between 2013 and 2017 there was a dramatic change in public opinion. In 2017, 59% of blacks, 35% of whites, and 45% of Latinos expressed the view that white racism was the principal cause of racial inequity.
Kendi maintains that the reason for the change in public opinion between 2013 and 2017 was a rise in black consciousness, because of televised police killings of blacks, and because of the consciousness-raising work of Black Livers Matter. He writes: “Black minds were awakened to the ongoing reality of racism by the series of televised police killings and flimsy exonerations that followed the Obama election, the movement for Black lives, and the eventual racist ascendancy of Donald Trump.”
I would like to express the phenomenon a bit differently. I would say that it was not simply the police killings, but the way the police killings were framed; combined with the dissemination of this framing by the corporate-controlled media. This widely-disseminated narrative distorts reality by taking the killing of blacks by white police out of its context.
Today in the United States there are principled black scholars who refuse to permit the distortion to go unchallenged. One is Glenn Loury, a professor of economics and faculty fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In a February 10, 2021 article in Quillette, “Unspeakable Truths about Racial Inequality in America,” Loury writes: “There are about 1,200 fatal shootings of people by the police in the US each year, according to the carefully documented database kept by the Washington Post which enumerates, as best it can determine, every single instance of a fatal police shooting. Roughly 300 of those killed are African Americans, about one-fourth, while blacks are about 13 percent of the population. So that’s an over-representation, though still far less than a majority of the people who are killed. More whites than blacks are killed by police in the country every year. You wouldn’t know that from the activists’ rhetoric.”
Loury observes that the killing of 1200 people per year, including 300 black people, is too many, so this is an issue that we need to analyze and discuss. “Still, we need to bear in mind that this is a country of more than 300 million people with scores of concentrated urban areas where police interact with citizens. Tens of thousands of arrests occur daily in the United States. So, these events—which are extremely regrettable and often do not reflect well on the police—are, nevertheless, quite rare.”
Seeking to further put the issue of police killing of blacks in the larger context, Loury notes that “there are about 17,000 homicides in the United States every year, nearly half of which involve black perpetrators. The vast majority of those have other blacks as victims. For every black killed by the police, more than 25 other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks. This is not to ignore the significance of holding police accountable for how they exercise their power vis-à-vis citizens. It is merely to notice how very easy it is to overstate the significance and the extent of this phenomenon, precisely as the Black Lives Matter activists have done.”
So the narrative on the killing of blacks by police takes data out of a larger social context, thereby redefining the problem and redirecting the conservation. But in addition, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the extent to which the narrative was embraced by the political establishment and the corporate elite became evident. How did this happen?
The story begins in academia. During the course of the twentieth century, theoretical currents and everyday discourse in the academic world evolved to embrace and assume an epistemological skepticism and relativism. Truth no longer pertained to a realm beyond the personal and the subjective. Truth was not so much “the truth” but “your truth.”
As I note in “Preface: An intellectual autobiography,” April 6, 2021, I fully discovered the diversity of world views in the early 1970s at the Center for Inner City Studies, a black nationalist teaching and research center in Chicago. I at first concluded that social science is inevitably relative to social position. I was not happy with this, because relativism implies that the ultimate arbiter of truth is found in the terrain of power, and not in the world of reason. I would have liked to somehow rescue reason as the arbiter of truth, but I did not know how. I found a way, however, through my subsequent study of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan at Fordham University, and through subsequent encounter with the implicit epistemology of the Third World.
I arrived to a secure epistemological grounding, in which I found objective knowledge in a multicultural world, in three forms.
(1) Scientific objectivity. Scientific knowledge evolves through the discovery of relevant questions. The fact of its evolution does not nullify its validity, due to the high probability of insights being correct, based on the collective investigation of relevant questions. History and the social sciences pertain to science, subject to cross-horizon encounter in order to overcome ethnocentric conceptualizations.
(2) Moral truths: colonial domination is wrong; forced labor is wrong; superexploitation is wrong; neocolonialism and imperialism are wrong; humans have the moral duty to seek to understand neocolonial structures and transform them, and to resist imperialist policies, imposed on the world by powerful actors who are driven more by the defense of their particular interests than by the pursuit of truth and justice.
(3) Truths in the realm of faith: the prophets of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic traditions have taught the truth, which only can be validated through faith, that there is a God who acts in history in defense of justice for the poor, and that all children of God have the duty to do justice. Fidel, who could not be convinced of the existence of God by the priests and brothers who were his Catholic school teachers, nevertheless was able to make declarations in the realm of faith, such as, “No one has the right to lose faith in the future of humanity.”
I used to joke with my colleagues, “I have solved the problem of objectivity; the problem is, I can’t get anybody to believe it.” It took me several years to find a publishing outlet for my thesis, and when I did find outlets, it found very few readers. I sent a draft of my book, Beyond Ethnocentrism, to Immanuel Wallerstein, who wrote an endorsement of it; and he wrote a message to me saying that “we should pay greater attention to epistemological questions, as you do.” But in general, it appears that the academic community had little interest in debating the issue. It appears that the academic world was comfortable with its epistemological skepticism and relativism, which incidentally, excused it from seeking the true and the right in the context of a changing and conflictive world in which its members, at least, were secure and comfortable.
When humans deny the existence of objective knowledge in the realms of science, morality, and faith, we place human civilization itself in peril. If you do not have some understanding of the objective dimensions of knowledge, you are not going to feel obligated to verify your beliefs through investigation in the form of dialogue with others, such as through the study of ancient Western philosophy; Western literature; ancient civilizations of the world in the East, in Africa, and in the Americas; or the Third World movements of national liberation of the twentieth century, which emerged to challenge the assumptions and denials of the modern West. No, you do not need to bury yourself for a time in such wisdom. Nor do you feel a duty to dialogue with other persons in your own society, persons with different religious views or from different regions of the country. You know what your truth is, based on your experience.
Furthermore, you know that the laws and regulations of the nation are determined by influence. So you consider it worthwhile to enter the realm of public discourse, to promote your truth, using all available means, including distorting the facts, because moral constraints on methods of persuasion pertain to the dustbin of epistemological history, when people naively believed that they knew the true and the right.
Now this peculiar combination of epistemological relativism and personal conviction did not pertain to the whole nation. It pertained specifically to the educated and credentialed class, who entered with force in the economy of the nation with the generation of the baby boomers. And this class, being educated and credentialed, had been taught to believe in their own superiority, like the credentialed of previous generations. So arrogance was added to their arsenal.
Stephen Soukup, in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital, maintains that this class, which I have described as possessed of epistemological relativism, personal conviction, and a sense of superiority, had an increasing influence on the corporate world during the period 1992 to 2008. Not by becoming part of the corporate elite, for the most part. But through pension funds, and the emergence of a phenomenon known as “stockholder activism.” The phenomenon first emerged with respect to investments in apartheid South Africa, when the managers of the assets of universities began to disinvest in companies that did business with South Africa. In 1990, the first social index of companies was launched, rating companies on such issues as the environment, women’s issues, labor relations, abortion, the treatment of laboratory animals, pornography, and compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel.
Now these are good and just causes for the most part, but one begins to see a problem here, and it has to do with the circumvention of the democratic processes of the nation, however imperfect those processes are. These important issues should be discussed by the people, arriving to a consensus, and creating a political dynamic in which the government, in representation of the political will of the people, takes the necessary measures to ensure that all institutions, including corporations, act in accordance with the national political will. Of course, consensus is difficult to attain. But the exceptional class, with its conviction and arrogance, did not seek to learn how to arrive to national consensus; it took the view that national consensus is not necessary, because it has the capacity to influence policy in accordance with its truth through other, albeit less democratic, means.
Soukup reports that, as the use of social indices of corporations evolved and grew, the shareholder proxy became the primary tool of the corporate activist, facilitated by the rise of proxy advisory services. There has emerged a bewildering interpenetration of corporate stockholder activists, proxy advisory services, and corporate boards. In this dynamic, the stockholder activists and proxies are able to obtain concessions from corporations, who are concerned to avoid the staining of their reputations. In this way, blackmail becomes a stand-in for reasoned discourse.
In this phenomenon, Wall Street is represented, but Main Street is not. The members of the exceptional class of superior and convinced credentialed men and women believed that they represented the people, and that they were placing moral constraints on the conduct of the corporations and the corporate elite. But in truth, they represented only a sector of the people, and not all of the people were in agreement with their moral precepts. In most cases, the corporations negotiated with the proxies, thus in fact creating a situation of give-and-take between the representatives of corporations and representatives of the upper-middle and middle professional class, creating policies in regard to important issues confronting the nation, without the participation of the elected representatives of the people.
In more recent years, the focus of the stockholder activists has been on the issues of racial equity, LGBT rights, immigration, and the environment, with the emergence of a few big CEOs who are stars of the stockholder activist movement. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the presence of the corporate world became especially dynamic. On June 1, 2020, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a message to his employees, informing them that Apple will make donations to groups that are committed to challenging racial injustices. He also announced that he would make available $100 million of shareholder funds to pursue “the unfinished work of racial injustice and racial justice and inequality.” Jeff Besos, the founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, announced in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, that Amazon would donate $10 million dollars to social justice organizations like Black Lives Matter in order to “combat racism and the disproportionate risk that Black people face in our law enforcement and justice systems.”
Cook and Disney CEO Bob Iger have been critical of state legislatures with religious liberty bills, viewing them as efforts to discriminate against the LGBT community. And they are not beyond bullying tactics to extract compliance from states in which they do not reside. When the Georgia legislature passed a religious liberty bill, Iger threatened to boycott the state. Disney has a strong presence in Georgia, due to its generous tax breaks toward the film industry. In response to the threat, the Governor vetoed the bill that had been passed by the elected representatives of the people. In North Carolina, Disney threatened boycott over the state’s controversial bathroom bill. When the elected representatives of the state did not back down, Disney imposed the boycott, creating considerable economic hardship for the state.
In recent years, therefore, the stockholder activist movement and the corporate elite have been entering into issues in which there are sharp divisions among the people, more so than in the earlier issues raised by the movement. The corporate elite has entered into issues in which the people are divided, stoking those divisions; and especially stoking racial divisions. And they enter the process in a form that circumvents democratic processes, however limited those processes may be, thus further stoking division.
If the stockholder activists are right in their moral precepts, they nonetheless are wrong; because democracy cannot be imposed on the people. The duty of leaders is to educate the people, not impose their truths. Democracy can only be built by the full and free participation of the people.
Meanwhile, the concept of the 99% has been pushed off the table. One can never know the motivations of individuals. But we can know that the substitution of “the 99%” with “systemic racism” and “white privilege” is in the interests of the corporate elite, because as the history of triumphant and sustained revolutions teaches, “power to the people” is attained through the unity of the people, forged on a platform that addresses their common interests.
In the colonial era (slavery and Jim Crow segregation), the elite used the racism of whites to divide the people. Today, in the era of neocolonialism and imperialism, it supports a misguided form of black consciousness to divide the people. In my next commentary on Tuesday, May 4, I will address further this misguided form of black consciousness, with a critical commentary on How to be an antiracist, by Ibram Kendi.