Liberals and the sectarian WestPeerless essayist and notorious crank Gore Vidal wrote that, “History is nothing but the story of the migration of tribes.” This is a useful insight from a veteran critic of western republicanism. In the West, after all, we pretended to live in a society that has evolved beyond tribalism, thanks to the Enlightenment, the printing press, and sundry other magical innovations. In fact, we are so well-evolved, it is our responsibility to defend, on a global basis, the defenseless (and perhaps huddled) masses against the scourge of sectarianism from the scurvy hordes in ‘developing’ nations.
In reality, like almost everything in the West, the enduring practices of tribalism are merely disguised behind rhetorical facades that neither change nor mitigate the pernicious products of sectarianism. Be it ethnological or genealogical or other, we are still beholden to the ideologies of exclusivist power that generate human conflict. We are ruled by a bipartisan elite that jostle amongst themselves in intra-class battles for supremacy. These internecine wars, like cage fighting, are televised for the consumption of the masses, who clamor for bread and circuses. But make no mistake, these elites are two sides of the same corporate coin, locked in a symbiotic relation without which neither would survive. With a few necessary exceptions, the ruling class as a whole abides by the “vile maxim” articulated by Adam Smith: “…all for ourselves and nothing for other people.”
The L Train
The principal western tribe is liberalism. The secondary western tribe is racist white patriarchy. But that tribe has been losing ground to the liberal tribe for decades now, slowly eclipsed as the complexion of American society broadens. Democrats got behind demographics in the Sixties, presumably as an electoral strategy, eschewing the shrinking white populace for the influx of ethnicities whose minority status would allow Democrats to transition from the party of labor to a party of multiculturalism without a significant shift in its discourse. Still fighting for the underdog. The standard fustian still applied.
Though the constituencies are different, on the core issue of class and imperialism and exploitation, the elites are truly bipartisan, that is to say, nonpartisan. Donald Trump, recognizing the Democrats abandonment of their old working class base, played the populist card, running to the left of that pastiche of false progressivism, Hillary Clinton, and took the election.
As we have seen since the election, the credo of the liberal tribe can be distilled from the liberal response to Trump himself. It is simple: we must follow the rules of decorum. As journalist Michael Tracey says, “Aside from a few marginal deviations, Trump has faithfully implemented an orthodox GOP agenda. These grousing internal “resisters” (a reference to the anonymous Times op-ed from a Trump administration official) are getting just about everything they could’ve wanted policy-wise. It’s the style/rhetoric that they find intolerable. They’re obsessed with decorum.”
This is precisely it. The language of politics must be massaged until it renders inoffensive terminology that is suitable to bourgeois audiences. Tame rhetoric must be employed. That is the mandate of the liberal tribe. What is being done behind the scenes, policy-wise, is an open question. What is not up for debate is the need to employ and deploy the calm platitudes and soothing phraseology of liberalism. Hence, when Barack Obama decides to mimic Jimmy Carter and fund a proxy war in the Middle East, he does so under the banner of helping “moderate rebels” to unseat a “brutal dictator”, neither of which are accurate descriptions. The former refer to mercenary terrorists and the later to an elected president. But, drummed into bourgeois minds with ceaseless regularity, the labels stick.
Everything else is negotiable. This is possibly because the apparent fungibility of the liberal ethos. For modern liberals, everything is relative. It is all a matter of perspective; all is merely opinion. This sliding scale of moral suasion freed Democrats to sell themselves to corporate America on the premise that they could still make incremental progress on social issues even as they coffered coin from the purveyors of global imperialism. To do so, a flexible perspective was a prerequisite; one would have to triangulate policies that shaded left of conservatives but appealed to big business. Though they would have to advance the imperial agenda, they could do good by tempering its excesses. That old catchphrase in reverse: do good by doing well. The outlook was clear. The growing ranks of people of color would bolster their electoral power. Running candidates in suitable gender and ethnic categories would draw POC to the polls. And minor fiddling on the fringes of the capitalist system of exploitation could be trumpeted every four years as the small triumphs won in the face of Republican obstructionism. It seemed a flawless narrative strategy for political domination. And it all hinged on intellectual relativism and a vocabulary of empathy. It has worked for 16 of 24 year up to 2016, when the unraveling mise-en-scene of American austerity finally betrayed the narrative on a mass scale.
Class Before Color
One of the great successes of the liberal tribe’s multiculturalism is that it has convinced many Americans that we have in some sense overcome sectarianism. Thus when the “Washington crime syndicate” gets a black leader who appoints women and Hispanics to key government positions, we are led to believe the traditional tribal barriers have been broken down, and that perhaps we have moved into a meritocratic era, where one’s work ethic and natural skills are the measure of our success. Yet these choices are merely rhetorical and token displays. We have simply drafted a multicultural team into a class war. It is class that reveals the tribal conflicts that still rage among us. Class expresses the race, gender, and national bigotries that shape the American experience. Class is economic, and that’s why it is likely the fundamental category of stratification. But because class has been largely scrubbed from our national vocabulary, we often fail to notice the class war in which we are all enmeshed. Which is precisely the purpose of multiculturalism–to disguise class violence behind a mask of post-racial and post-gender brotherhood. Did the Democrats push the 1965 immigration act because they were deeply committed on supporting the dreams of Latinos and Asian immigrants? Or did they do it as part of a calculated electoral strategy?
Obama embodied this class strategy. Before he was black, he was elitist. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet he presided over seven wars, shattering international law at every turn. But he recited the rhetoric of peace. He spoke of humanitarian action. He spoke in measured terms, rarely tweeted, delivered articulate speeches that reified the tropes of liberal ideology: empathy, equality, and justice for all. Humility and principle, patriotism and free markets. Yet behind that wall of words he bombed brown people every day. He backed Israel in its slow-motion eradication of Palestine. He supported Saudi Arabia’s criminal siege on Yemen. He expanded fossil fuel drilling. He lobbied for fracking. He prosecuted patriots when they blew the whistle on government corruption. With a filibuster proof Senate majority, he appointed bipartisan elites to shelter the rich from the “pitchforks”. He stood aside while banks threw five million mostly POC from their homes. African-Americans lost unprecedented amount of wealth during his presidency. He lifted Republican programs and passed them off as his own version of the Great Society or New Deal initiatives. The ACA was anything but, yet the language–“affordable” and “care”–were plucked from the Democratic dictionary of false sympathy. Before Obama, it was Bill Clinton that gutted welfare and passed a crime bill that exploded the prison population, but he, too, professed to “feel your pain.”
For this reason the liberal tribe was silent over their offenses. Decorum. These presidents narrated the soothing mantras that reinforced the Democrats false image of themselves: as peace-loving, patient, magnanimous, and altruistic. It is the self-deceit of liberals that is the deepest tragedy of politics. Not Republican myopia. Read David Sirota on the compromise of the Democratic Party. Read Glen Ford on how Democrats don’t care for minorities much more than Republicans do. They’re just content to let minorities steer the racist, imperial, corporate ship of state now and then. Now, of course, as Sirota points out, a small groundswell of hopeful “social democrats” are challenging establishment Dems in various primaries. Summoned by the spectacle of Bernie Sanders quixotic charge in the 2016 primaries. Some will win, some will lose, but most of the winners will be ground up by the meat grinder of the party’s beltway machine. Candidates like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have already vacillated before the pressures of the party–to support the status quo policies of endless austerity and war.
The Language of Conviction
Liberals are happy to espouse the lexicon of equality but play the foot soldier of capital so long as they haven’t got skin in the game. The ruling class, and the professional classes that serve it, rarely do. Failing that, wars a thousand miles away and merely perused in the morning papers are hardly sufficient to stimulate radical change. Through this lens, Vietnam was perhaps a bourgeois rebellion against being drafted into service. Once the draft was rescinded, the bourgeoisie professional class settled back into its groove of rehearsing liberal vapidities while surreptitiously supporting imperial slaughter. Whenever the vile and venal motives of war are exposed, liberals can simply say they were fooled by the humanitarian rhetoric of the Democratic Party. They can stoutly claim, “Well, I believed we needed to act before Milosevic launched another European genocide…” They can glibly shrug their shoulders and remark, “Well, I thought we were supporting moderate rebels against a brutal dictator. Are you telling me Assad…” Or shrug and say, “Surely Yanukovych was a corrupt politician…” and “Seventeen intelligence agencies agreed that Russia…”
And so on. The great unspoken goal of corporate media propaganda is plausible deniability. The rhetoric the media employs perverts reality and creates a mask of rectitude behind which liberals can hide, even when their narratives are exploded. I was fooled. I didn’t know. This is news to me. Still the lesser evil. Malcolm X said white liberals were the friendly fox that wasn’t your friend. MLK said they care more about “order than justice.” To that he might have added they also care more about platitudes than policy. In a society of spectacle, best to perfect the pose. When it comes to the Democratic Party’s campaign pitch this fall, caveat emptor.
Parting shot—a word from the editors