The early 21st century has seen a diminution of what discussing politics means. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent, had defined a process by which the acceptable political discussion had be reduced to talking points by the two factions of American politics. What has happened recently, notably with “culture war” and cancel culture, has gone quite further by removing actual politics entirely from what is still considered political discourse. Let’s openly define politics as the organization and distribution of power within society. Almost no topic passing as political disagreements today even touch the surface of the actual power structures of our society. We’re merely juggling with abstractions of abstractions that have become symbols inhabited by the frustrations we feel about the way things are. None of them actually describe what the problems are, most of the time, they’re not even in the same category as the problems. They serve as a way to illustrate one’s position within the discourse framework but almost never to describe how our world is organized.
Let’s use the example of how being a male or a female affects your individual power in our society. The word the left will use to talk about this is patriarchy. Talk to a feminist and patriarchy is and has always been (and will forever be?). This removes any descriptive capacity from the word. If what a woman faces at the current period patriarchy and what a woman 250 years ago faced is also patriarchy, what is the defining purpose of the term? The problems faced with balancing two jobs, mostly “gigs”, now and being responsible for most of the care for the young and the elderly can’t be defined in the same way as the problems faced by a woman in a society in which she has no legal rights and is basically the object of a male relative, husband or father. By using a word like patriarchy to describe both, the real nature of power and how it articulates itself is hidden and therefore prevents it to be evaluated, let alone overturned. This is not to illustrate that “we’ve made so much progress”, that is besides the point. The question is what purpose do the words we use to describe things have so that we can correctly identify the realities we are trying to interact with. The same problem occurs with a host of words like white supremacy for example.
Sometimes these highly abstracted words are used openly to obscure discussions. Remember the infamous Hillary Clinton quote “Breaking up the big banks won’t end racism” to attack Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. What’s the effective purpose of racism here? Is Clinton saying that bank oligopoly and its power on our political system does not affect black Americans? The subprime mortgage crisis suggests otherwise. Does she mean that she has a better track record than Sanders in opposing racism in the US? She was campaigning for Barry Goldwater when Sanders was being arrested for his activities towards civil rights. No, there is no connection between the word and any concrete aspect of racism. It serves as sort of metaphysical affect. Clinton was trying to say that she “cares” more about racism than Sanders by using the term.
The transition between the old left and the new left is one from an historical approach to what we could call semiological approach. When we talk about racism or any other social reality today, we’re most of the time referring to elements that represent the problem. A teen being “cancelled” for having sang along a rap song using the n-word. A politician having to apologize for having worn black face for Halloween. None of these things are at sources of racial oppression in the USA. They merely represent the idea of racism. They are not necessarily defensible forms of behavior but eliminating them will not do anything to address racism as a social problem. Expressing ally-ship as a white person, even though it can be said to be more decent than showing tone deafness on a personal level, is equally purely symbolic when it comes to addressing realities faced by racialized persons. It offers an easy alibi for well-to-do individuals and corporations to show “support” for liberation without having to let go of their material advantages. Is it surprising then that the George Floyd’s mobilization culminated into the taking down of statues of Confederate officers when anti-racism politics means opposing symbols of racism?
Aside from the hypocrisy of attacking symbols rather than acting to change realities, it prevents us to discuss the elements which enforce exploitation and oppression in society. When Uber launches a PR campaign about diversity and simultaneously lobbies to keep their employees from organizing, we see that this superficiality with which we treat oppression has the effect of reinforcing it. Let’s take an obvious example of something that keeps black people out of the possibility of social mobility: school districts. The way public schools are funded is through property taxes. Consequently, districts with houses valued at a higher price get more money which in turn makes the district more appealing to families which makes the houses’ valuations even higher. On the other end, districts where there are more renters have smaller budgets and become less appealing which reinforces the flight of the wealthier families, who are disproportionally white, to the richer school districts. This is a vicious circle of privilege for the already wealthy and of poor service to the less fortunate. This should be a central issue in the race conversation but it’s never heard. It has also been made significantly worse by the pandemic. Even the right-wing when they opposed “equality of outcome” pretend to be for “equality of opportunity”. How is opportunity equal in a system which rewards kids of already well-off people? And more importantly, why are we not discussing this instead of online word policing and quixotic calls for reparations? There are at least half a dozen examples such as this one which we rarely discuss in conjunction with racism, even if we prefix it with “systemic”.
Engaging politically today is being limited to a positioning towards symbols of abstraction of realities. However intense this positioning is, it has no chance of effecting change concretely. Whether by design or by chance, the intellectual tools we use to express the growing dissatisfaction we rightly feel about our society’s power and wealth distribution have absolutely no connections to the realities causing the dissatisfaction. They also do not allow us to understand reality which leads to magical explanations illustrated in its extreme in QAnon but also present in numerous leftwing or rightwing discourse. We will remain in a deadend politically if we are unable to overcome this obscuring of our politics.