I’m going to go on the record and predict that, unless the Left formulates an new alternative to capitalism, it will eventually return to Marxism. This may take a few generations, but barring the creation of a new left economic alternative, Marx is coming back. ‘Why?’ you ask. The answer is simple. Once the memory of Soviet communism is gone and the low hanging fruit of identity politics is picked, the Left will still want an alternative to capitalism, and will need to appeal to the general public. And that’s only the dynamic on the left. I won’t even discussing the problems facing the right.
Forgetting Soviet Communism
I believe the left is still mourning the collapse of the legitimacy of state socialism, and floundering for a lack of an economic alternative. I think that Marx will remain tainted as long as Soviet communism is in living memory for middle aged people. However, as these people move on, new generations will emerge for whom Marxism is academic and untainted by Stalin and bread-lines. It will lose it’s stigma, and will be re-evaluated for current times, perhaps under a different name. It will be explicitly concerned with equality, not just poverty. It will seek equality of outcome.
Low Hanging fruit
In the mean time, we work with identity politics. Identity politics has provided orientation for the left in recent decades, and made great strides in addressing very real, lived oppression. But the tendency of identity politics is from formal/legal discrimination to trickier cultural questions of meaning and values, and from larger groups to smaller oppressed identities.
Essentially, the legal/formal discriminations are low hanging fruit. There is no ethical or just case to be made for such discrimination against minority identities, and we leftists will eventually knock these off. The campaign for marriage equality has been a great success here in New Zealand (and in other places), and next legal/institutional fight is for those groups that don’t fit the simplistic binary of ‘men born with penises, women born with vaginas’.
We will succeed in ending formal legal and institutional discrimination against trans people, intersex people, and people not identifying as one of the two largest gender groups (forgive me if I’ve left groups out here). These fights are clear and easy to rally behind. Legal and institutional discrimination is easy to identify, and can be addressed through existing political channels. In political science terms, the ‘negative’ freedoms are easier to secure than the ‘positive’ freedoms. And we will win these freedoms with the largest oppressed identities first, and then proceed to the numerically smaller groups (eg. from women to ethnic minorities to sexual minorities to gender minorities).
Appealing to the general public
But as these fights are won we are left with complex, nuanced and difficult cultural battles concerning meaning and values. These are harder for the general public to engage with, as they are not simply about ‘rules being fair’. This is not to say such battles are unworthy; they are definitely worthy. They are just not as easy to win. They require understanding concepts like legitimation and discourse; something new and unfamiliar for much of the general public. This is where I see the shift back to a politics of equality, due to political necessity. Once the low hanging fruit is picked and some of the urgency taken from pursuing identity politics via electoral means, leaders on the left will return to where the votes are; the poor. The collapse of the legitimacy of neoliberalism, identity politics successes, and the desire for new thinking will drive us to more urgently seek Left alternatives.
A Left alternative
Inevitably, electoral rationality will rear its head and require Left leaders to engage with issues that the general public can relate to and rally behind. The pain suffered by marginalised groups is real, but I suspect focusing more and more on fewer and fewer people will not be a huge vote winner. As we delve deeper into identity oppression, we become decreasingly relevant to the general public. Complex cultural battles are not won at the ballot box. In contrast, economic inequality will still be very material, hurting the majority, easily quantifiable, and amenable to government action. Economic inequality will still be a problem, and Marx will still be the Left’s best/only alternative to capitalism.
However, identity politics (particularly feminism) won’t necessarily be killed by this shift back to Marx. There are few oppressed majorities in the west; women are one, non-whites another, the poor are another. Feminism will remain a powerful driver of thought and political action by virtue of its mass appeal and its powerful insights, many of which are still filtering through to the public consciousness. Any Neo-Marxism will have to account for discrimination AND poverty, and do so in a way that is understandable to the apolitical. In doing so, it becomes appealing to the general public, and the Left alternative to capitalism.
Let me be clear: I do not predict the end of identity politics, nor do I predict the return to Lenin or Mao. I predict identity politics will become relatively less central to left-wing politics. I predict the reinvention of, and return to, Marxism. Although maybe we need to return to Hegel, as Zizek says. But that can be the subject of another blog. I think I’ve been presumptuous enough for one day.