Lawrence Grossberg is one of the leading figures in cultural studies internationally. Having trained under Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Grossberg has been writing about popular culture, youth culture and political culture in post-WW2 United States, for over four decades. In this article, written exclusively for the Pluto blog, Grossberg diagnoses our contemporary malaise; poking holes in the Trump-led right’s veneer and exposing the limits of a left-led identity politics, he concludes by outlining his hopes for greater strategic unity on the left.
Grossberg’s next book Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right will be published by Pluto Press in January 2018, it is available to pre-order now.
We need to tell better stories, because bad stories make bad politics, but better stories demand more and better theoretical and analytical work.
There are, no doubt, many reasons to be pessimistic about the political culture of the U.S., considering the likely toll of Trump’s administration. Despite its increasing visibility and activism, the affective tone of the left—liberals, progressives and radicals alike, its many fractions responding with different tactics to different issues and constituencies–has been shaped by this pessimism, ‘hyperinflated’ into moral outrage and panic. Yet I do not think we have begun to reach the pits of despair that will appear when we consider the possible long-term outcomes of the current political culture, because we have largely failed to look beyond the immediacy of Trump and his populist appeal.
It is easy to see the world in a grain of sand, and the various lefts all too often search for that single key, that single cause, that core constituency, that will, once and for all, make sense of what is going on. Yesterday, it was white working-class resentment; today, all eyes are focused on the white supremacists and fascists. People seem to imagine that we are witnessing the rebirth of the Confederacy or Nazism. But the chances of a fascist revolution are no more likely now than in previous decades, when such groups also marched. They continue to be widely unpopular and generally perceived as fundamentally un-American. They are not the biggest danger facing the country; they are not the leading edge nor the most powerful expression of the right, even the ‘pro-Trump’ right. Notice how hard most Republicans have worked, after the events of Charlottesville, to dissociate themselves from the white supremacists; and while we should not let conservatives get away from their responsibility for fostering racisms that can be articulated into fascisms, we should also take note of important changes that have re-positioned these reactionary extremes.
The left—as fragmented as it is—may be missing an opportunity to organise and mobilise against the shifting right that has been shaping American political culture for decades, and perhaps, to find ways of mobilising broader support for a progressive vision of the future. At least two things stand in its way: first, a healthy mistrust of demands for unity and organisation, and second, an unhealthy division between activism and intellectualism. The left often celebrates its activists as intellectuals, relegating its more self-reflective intellectuals to matters of policy. I want to revivify the idea of the British New Left, which was above all a political-intellectual project, to imagine a new New Left.
Optimism of the Intellect
The claim that Trump has ‘legitimated’ white supremacists and fascists is too simple, although he has certainly enabled them to claim a new visibility. Actually, the extremist reactionaries who marched under the unexpected banner, ‘Unite the Right,’ even as they chanted the more predictable ideological and racist slogans, pointed us to the disorganisation of the right as a major cause and product of the extraordinary chaos of the dominant political culture. I am suggesting that this chaos is not (only?) the result of stupidity, incompetence, greed, paranoia, personality disorder, etc., accusations we have made against every conservative Republican administration since Nixon. Chaos is a serious thing in politics, and things happen inside and because of the chaos. The present chaos is providing cover for a real struggle that is taking place on the right, a struggle to redefine conservatism in America, and this may in fact offer the left an opportunity for a bit of optimism, even amidst the many expressions of injustice, hatred and violence coming out of the Trump administration.
A bit of history may help here. After all, Trump is part of a history of struggles, since the 1950s, to redefine conservatism, involving many different groups, ideologies, strategies and conflicts. Russell Kirk and William Buckley began to redefine it as the conjunction of anti-communism, religion and capitalism (thus rejecting the traditional conservative view of capitalism as destructive of values). This ‘New Right’ saw itself as an inclusive, umbrella organisation, but it excluded most elements of the reactionary, ultra-nationalist right, from the white supremacism of the KKK and the fascists to the paranoid conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society
Nixon, generally despised by both the New Right and the reactionary right, nevertheless pushed the Republican party toward both when he appropriated some of the latter’s strategies: the ‘southern strategy’ appealed to the racism of white southerners, and his populist constitution of a new ‘silent majority’ redefined the enemy as an intellectual, cosmopolitan ‘elite.’
The New Right was always a changing, fragile coalition that included, at various times, small business capitalists, neoliberals, fiscal conservatives, anti-tax/small government advocates, evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians, social moralists, Constitutional literalists, single-issue (e.g., 2nd amendment) advocates, and neoconservatives (who wanted to spread ‘American democracy’ internationally, by any means necessary). Its unity was based on simple principles (such as individual freedom and an accommodation to wealth) as it waged a long-term struggle to occupy and control the Republican Party, and the State, and to change the common sense of, the priorities of what mattered to, ‘ordinary’ Americans. It was explicitly willing to work with people or groups with whom it disagreed to achieve their goals.
Meanwhile, the excluded reactionary right was constructing a popular scepticism about the Republican Party, the New Right and establishment politics (government by professionals and experts) in general. The assault finally came in the form of the Tea Parties, funded by some of the corporate money that the New Right had coaxed into politics. Attacking the inability of the ‘establishment’ elite to address the problems of concern to certain segments of the nation, they demanded ideological purity and the certainty of the fanatic.
But there is as little homogeneity in the contemporary reactionary right as there was in the New Right. The differences need to be understood, for they demand different oppositional tactics, and provide possibilities for pushing even further the divisions and antagonisms within the right.
Numerous forms of reactionary politics have become part of public discourses, all of which have taken up and articulated the experience of white identity and white victimhood, often embracing a white nationalism. They appeal to people who feel —or rather, they reconstruct people’s experience– that they have been ignored and left behind by the establishment/elite, that they are stuck with nowhere to go, that they are powerless, but also to people who fear for future generations. They appeal to a sense that the promise of America—the claim of American greatness–has been lost. And they are pushing many ‘New Right’ conservatives, as well as disgruntled centrists, further to the right. Such people do not belong to a single class or race, but many of them voted for a carnivalesque ‘wrecking ball’ who promised to drain the swamp and Make America Great Again.
On the activist side, we can distinguish: the populist nationalism and anti-government sentiments of the Tea Parties, various revitalised white supremacist and fascist groups, and the anti-populist ‘post-libertarians,’ who imagine themselves to be the new counter-culturalists, an educated vanguard for ‘low-information’ voters, who seek to disrupt, outrage and humiliate those with status and power.
The theorists of the reactionary right, often cited by the activists, assume that the liberal/left is in control of the country, embodied in the educational system, and in governance by experts and politics by compromise, including the New Right. They are convinced that we face an inevitable catastrophe, whether as economic and political collapse or race war, and that the only hope lies in a revitalisation of nationalism. Here too there are significant differences including fascist philosophers such as Julius Evola, ‘Trumpist’ populists (www.amgreatness.com, American Affairs) who emphasise the political sovereignty of the people as the constitutional basis of American exceptionalism, and anti-populist ‘neoreactionaries’ (Mencius Goldbug and Nick Land’s The Dark Enlightenment) who combine traditional conservative communitarianism, an attack on Enlightenment faith in change, egalitarianism (democracy) and universalism, and a postmodern sense of freedom as escape.
The important thing is that the contemporary right is deeply fractured, full of antagonisms as intense as what they feel for the liberal/left. The left can, must, use this to develop strategies that address the various forces that are shaping the current directions of America’s future. The chaos of the right may offer an occasion for optimism, even amidst the many expressions of injustice, hatred and violence resulting from the Trump administration. The New Right understood, as should we, that real political change requires long-term strategic thinking. William Buckley would regularly tell audiences that the battle to outlaw abortions would be won but it would take fifty years, and it would require serious analyses, self-criticism and ongoing consideration of how a conservative politics would have to change as it responded to changing contexts.
When the oppositional forces are in chaos, it would seem opportune to gather one’s own forces together, at least temporarily and strategically, not to impose a sense of homogeneity and hierarchy that denies differences but to create an articulated unity-in-difference, a ‘movement of movements that may be capable of dismantling at least some of the power of the right and forging a broad progressive majority.’
Pessimism of the Will
But I have to admit that I am rather pessimistic about the possibility that the left would undertake such a radical effort. It would need to establish a more robust and enduring relation between theory and activism. It would need to avoid assuming that it always understands what is going on, seeking instead to provide an analysis of the changing balance between the old and the new political, economic and social relations that constitute the conjuncture.
It would need to recognise that politics is always conjunctural and it would need to embrace the necessary complexity of the conjuncture, refusing to see the world in a grain of sand or to assume that it’s all about one thing– economics and class resentment, or racism, or nationalism. It would need to see that there are no guarantees, that outcomes, identities and even the binarisms we often use to organise the world, are the result of struggles, that history is constantly being made.
It would need to inaugurate a popular politics that connects with people’s lives and make questions of everyday life and agency central. This must go hand in hand with the recognition that culture–the maps of meaning, value and feeling that organise and construct our experience of ourselves and the world, of how and where we belong–matters. Change does not just happen: the new does not just appear and the old disappear. The ground has to be prepared, the work has to be done to reshape the old and give shape to the new, to redefine social categories and their political possibilities, and to win people from wherever they are to somewhere closer to where we think we ought to be. And that means starting where people actually are, approaching them with a sense of humility, a willingness to accept that people may have different positions and beliefs, and that one’s own positions might need to adapt to others’ perceptions and demands. We have to seek ways of dealing with the complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties, of translating and living with our differences.
Why is it so hard to imagine even a strategic unity of the left? Consider how the left is torn apart by the assumed distance and difference between a politics of economic redistribution and a politics of social justice. (One could also talk about the division between state and community or autonomous politics.) Advocates on each side accuse the other of everything from undermining the success of the left to complicity with the right to left racism to left fascism.
This effective divisions of the left are partly the result of flawed theoretical foundations and inadequate conjunctural analyses. Consider the question of race–perhaps the most emotionally charged issue dividing the left. The problem is not the demands for social justice, or even identity politics, for there are many struggles that embrace the complexity and that are deeply informed by sophisticated conceptual and empirical analyses, but there are also many instances of bad identity politics—theoretically, analytically and strategically—and unfortunately, these often become the dominant media images and ‘fuel’ for the right. Most depressing, it is increasingly difficult to have the necessary critical and convivial arguments within the left that would advance the collective struggle.
The struggles against racism actually condense a number of different questions. Is the struggle against racism the same as the struggle for identity, or are identities (such as ‘black’) the result of racist practices themselves? As the black British cultural theorist and analyst Stuart Hall put it, ‘cultural identities matter not because they fix us into place politically but because they are what is at stake—what is won or lost—in cultural politics. . . . Thus, any attempt to contest racism or to diminish its human and social effects depends on understanding how exactly this system of meaning works, and why the classificatory order it represents has so powerful a hold on the human imagination.’
Is there a single politics of racism? Or are there many forms, practices and sources of racism? Perhaps the most pressing is not white supremacism (although it may well be the most frightening), but the often less visible forms of institutionalised racism, and the more personal and subtle forms of racism, sometimes built on longstanding historical prejudices or institutionalised structures, but sometimes arising out of rather desperate attempts to make sense of the failure of the American promise. These may or may not end up in white nationalism, but that is never guaranteed in advance; it is a matter of political struggle. While we oppose all forms of racism, we have to avoid equating them, reducing all of them to the worst possible evil.
We must understand the nature of such identities and the politics surrounding them in the present conjuncture. Do such identities have an essential and unchanging core, whether it be biological, cultural or experiential, or are they constituted by natural stable binaries (an argument that led the left to argue for the recognition of ‘white’ as an identity)? Or are they actually fluid and complex articulations, the sites of ongoing struggles? Ironically, many on the left have fallen back into an essentialism that has been systematically criticised by anti-racist intellectuals. While various racisms render identity in terms of biology or culture, social justice activists increasingly define identity by equating social position with experiences and feelings. The important argument that the personal is political has become the political is personal: one’s personal experiences and feelings (for example, being offended), assumed to be rooted in stable, predefined identities, become the basis for political judgement, and the relative value of a person’s feelings depends on their position of privilege or subjugation. The problem is that such a politics makes it almost impossible to connect across differing structures of experience and feeling.
We should recognise that it is possible to move at least some people from racism, which demands not only a cultural-political struggle, but also an affective politics, so that we do not start by simply condemning people (or the nation) as irredeemable. People hold beliefs and have feelings for many reasons, in many ways. Rather than reducing all of them to bearers of white privilege, the symbols and beneficiaries of the history of slavery and Jim Crow, or silencing them, or attacking them as irrational, evil, or crazy, we have to struggle to listen to their sense of reality, to their feelings, even if they make us uncomfortable or angry. After all, we have to find ways of changing how people think and feel.
At the same time, those who argue for economic redistribution and the primacy of class relations generally present the same problems and often do not operate from a significantly stronger foundation. Too often, they act as if everything can be explained by the economy, which they treat as a pregiven, natural domain existing independently of and reflected in cultural practices and social relations. And they tend to have rather simplistic understandings of class (as exemplified in discussions of the ‘white working-class resentment’), ignoring the ways class identifications are constructed at the intersection of structural inequalities, lived social positions and cultural differences.
This brings me back to the question of the imagined unity of the left as a strategic effort to use the chaos of the right to shift the balance in the field of forces. I want to suggest that the current argument within the left about whether we prioritise economic issues or social justice, like so many other rifts within the left, is neither theoretically, empirically or strategically well conceived. Too often, activists ignore serious intellectual work from the academy, and academics ignore the complex tactical demands of concrete political struggle. Most of the current debates within the left are not new, but they have been analysed, deconstructed and re-articulated embodied in serious intellectual debate. The choice is not between economics and identity or culture; these are not two preformed arenas standing part, from and against each other. They depend up on each other, they construct one another, in complex ways. They are inseparable and equally vital in the present conjuncture—but that is possible only if we are willing to rethink such categories in the light of the best contemporary intellectual work.
I believe that the strategic unity of the left demands a more theoretically grounded and conjuncturally specific analysis of economic relations and cultural identifications, providing the foundations for a new cultural politics. Cultural politics provides people with stories that reconstruct their sense of reality, that re-articulate the political identifications and differentiations, that speak to and within popular understandings, emotions and moods. Revolutions may be led by true believers, but they have to win over those who are not so sure about the new stories. These stories can unsettle and move people only if they speak to people where they are, struggling on the ground of common sense and popular feelings, responding to people’s experiences, hopes and desires, disappointments and cynicisms, fears and angers.
If such stories are to work, they have to offer interpretations based on principles that enable people to connect their flawed present to a better future in ways that do more than just offer them criticisms and condemnations. People have to feel something good about themselves, their nation and the future if they are to make the effort to change. This does not mean criticism is bad; it means that criticism in the political culture has to figure out how to work in complicated even messy, affective and ideological landscapes. Does the left have principles—not policies—that define us and that resonate with people’s sense of their own lives? How do we get our fellow citizens to want progressive change?
Somehow, we have to reclaim an America that, despite its failures, can realise its promise. If we abandon the promise because of the failures of the past and the present, if we define America by those failures, we will be abandoning the future of the promise of America as indivisible in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. This does not mean appealing to some false sense of unity that ignores the real and vital struggles for social justice. It does not mean denying the differences and the inequalities. And it does not mean ignoring the contradictions and inequalities of capital. It means recognising that unity has to be made and even earned. It means that we need better stories.
Lawrence Grossberg has been writing about popular culture, youth culture and political culture in post-WW2 United States, for over four decades. He is internationally recognised as a leading figure in Cultural Studies, and his work has been translated into eighteen languages. He is the author of Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (Duke, 2010), We All Want to Change the World (online, 2015) and Caught in the Crossfire (Routledge, 2005) amongst many other works.
Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right is available from Pluto Press.