No doubt like a lot of people I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the political developments of the last year. I think for me the biggest shock has been a growing awareness that I don’t quite live in the type of culture that I thought I did. Perhaps I live in the much discussed “political bubble” or “echo chamber” as I thought that we were gradually moving away from racism, xenophobia, sexism and misogyny. Without really realising it I think this was founded in a kind of enlightenment belief in human progress and although there have been bumps in the road along the way things were generally getting better.
What we have heard since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump is that many working-class, rural, and poorer people have felt “left behind”. What people on the left such as myself have probably forgotten is that the “progress” we’ve put so much confidence or belief in has been partial to say the least.
The progress we have seen is, if indeed it is that, has been through winning battles in the “culture wars“. That is, the left basically seemed to have won the argument on identity politics. So it was becoming more accepted that language is important (racist or sexist comments have an impact) representation is important (people other than white men need to be in, and be seen to be in, positions of influence and power) all people should at least have the opportunity to have some kind of self determination and fulfilment. But what we neglected was class and economics.
Reflecting on this has made me think about the distinction which Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello made in their book The New Spirit of Capitalism between two critiques which emerged after the social protests and upheavals of 1968. What they claim came out of these events was a social critique and artistic critique.
The artistic critique was one which opposed the ways in which the existing capitalist structures didn’t allow for self-expression and fulfilment. The social critique was concerned with the structural and economic inequalities brought about by capitalist relations. Boltanski and Chiapello claim that capitalism gave ground on the artistic critique and incorporated this into their strategies of capital accumulation. The left allowed the social critique to largely wither away.
The artistic critique (and perhaps identity politics more generally) ultimately proved relatively easy to integrate with existing capital structures and to compatible with their aims. The concessions made by capitalism placated those on the left who were relatively economically secure. In the meantime the bases of the social critique (economic inequality, lack of opportunities for working class people) were largely left unchanged over the next forty years or so. The consequences of this bargain being struck between capitalism and its critics and the acceptance of the situation by the left is now coming back to bite them.