Consider two anecdotes:
The First: Recently I tried to get into the mind of a Trump supporter that had posted a status about the liberal media and their unfair treatment of the president. I had a logical path to lead this person on, thinking I had a silver bullet: we both agree there is bias in journalism. But if journalism is truly degenerate these days, why and when did it happen? I argued that the degeneracy of the press could be traced to Reagan-era media consolidation and privatization, which caused the rise of news-as-entertainment. Outlets like MSNBC and Huffington Post, I said, were merely marketed to liberals; they did not represent substantive left-wing thought. And Fox News is worse, peddling outright lies like the “Puppermaster” fantasy of George Soros, or the birther myth. So you shouldn’t blame Rachel Maddow for liberal “fake news”; Reagan, Milton Friedman, and Roger Ailes are the real culprits. Checkmate, or so I thought.
Nope, he said. The problem isn’t capitalism’s inevitable drive towards marketizing everything. The problem is liberal cynicism, “the media”, broadly construed, lying in order to bring down a man they considered a Nazi. My pro-Trump acquaintance acknowledged that the liberal media thought it was doing the right thing by demonizing Trump. But he was certain they were motivated by pure, hateful ideology.
The Second: R.L. Stephens recently came out with an amazing critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me. Coates’ critically acclaimed book is a long-form essay on how he sees racism in the United States and the world. What Stephens takes issue with is Coates’ framing of racism as a force of nature, not a historical, class-based process: “One cannot subpoena an earthquake”, Coates writes. He proposes no solution, positing essentially that white people must self-reflect to the point where they are “woke” enough not to be racist. Stephens, on the other hand, writes that
The racialized tragedies faced daily by the masses require us to embrace class struggle, not Coates’s demobilizing metaphysical maxims about how white people “must ultimately stop themselves”…the only way to defeat racism was to fight it, every step of the way.
What tied these two incidents together in my mind was the implicit or explicit rejection of material causes for events. The pro-Trump guy from above could not fathom that the ideology he hated had its roots in capitalism, the economic system he loved; Ta-Nehisi Coates chooses to describe racism as an almost mystical force rather than the product of early capitalism’s desire for free labor and its many ramifications. Neither seems to be able to tie their abstract problems to the concrete reality of economic and social life, or propose a decent plan for dealing with said problems.
This fairy-tale of wicked ideologues is increasingly common across the discourse. At its root is a rejection of materialism and material conditions. Rather than acknowledge that ideology has its roots in history and economics, and is not simply the result of cabals of like-minded individuals enforcing their will upon the world.
The philosopher Hegel insisted that ideas and clashing ideologies propelled history forward; Marx and Engels said famously that they “found Hegel on his head” and “flipped him over”. In other words, materialism here refers not to avarice or selfishness but to an analytical frame that views history as the result of economic and material forces, not a battle of ideas.
Ideology, particularly American reactionism, is rooted in material conditions: many fundamentalist Christian strains grew out of rejection of the New Deal; the adding of “under god” to the pledge of allegiance was aimed at countering godless communism (thought the pledge itself was written by socialist Francis Bellamy; modern conservatives use abortion as a wedge issue to divide Left-leaning voters. In each case ideology served a particular function for the ruling class, strengthening and consolidating their sway on society.
My pro-Trump friend realized that a “liberal media” exists, but couldn’t conceptualize that it’s societal function might be to serve as the liberal wing of a capitalist state, and to make its owners money. Coates details in exquisite language the abject misery inflicted upon black Americans, but seems to provide nebulous solutions: White Americans should engage in rigorous self-criticism, but interracial mass politics is off the table, or ignored.
When presented with irrational ideological conclusions, the answer is not to respond with more dogma. Rather, presenting material conditions and solutions may dispel the smoke of vicious belief. That is the thesis of the Sanders crowd: Clinton ran on the phrase, “they go low, we go high” to indicate a campaign centered on national honor and decorum; they should have said, “when they go low, we provide material solutions to your problems, like free healthcare, education, an end to corporate dominance, and the empowerment of the working class”. To be fair, Clinton’s slogan was probably more attractive than mine.
But we’ve lost that frame of analysis. Postmodernism, and the overwhelming onslaught of modern mass media have us looking at Twitter and Facebook for the reasons behind things. This means my pro-Trump friend thinks posting about liberal bias is a crucial part of politics. Ta-Nehisi Coates seems to think that cultural critiques of racism and endless talk of “bodies” is a crucial part of anti-racist struggle. Not to suggest that Coates is equally incorrect: He’s a great writer with an eloquence I envy, and I think that Between The World And Me has given a lot of people a lot to think about. But I see a common thread of politics and the struggle for justice reduced to analysis of culture.
It seems likely that center-left liberals and far-right conservatives both subscribe to Milo Yiannopolis’ thesis: Politics is downstream of culture.
The first step in defeating Trump and company is to understand that they are not evil for the sake of it, and they are not evil because of their uncouthness. They are evil because they are the result of a decades-long movement on the right towards a brutal variant of state capitalism and xenophobia.
The defeat of the right-wing ideologues currently running the country will not come when we “stand together”, “learn to love one another”, or any such amorphous truism. It will come when millions of working- and middle-class Americans band together to enact a specific progressive agenda.