In his interview with Joe Rogan, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was asked where the lobbyists in Washington came from, and what could be done to stop them. Sanders told Rogan that he couldn’t end lobbying alone, and that doing so would require a concerted democratic push from the American people.
One of the major appeals of progressive politics is its opposition to concentrated political power. The indictment of corporate power proposed by the Sanders campaign speaks to the feeling of powerlessness among the working class today, and the idea that Washington is an entrenched swamp—an idea which got Donald Trump elected in the first place. Yet, the draining of this swamp remains outside of the control of any politician, and, perhaps, of any political movement.
Progressives want to end lobbying, but they face a problem that has dogged every human civilization—how to prevent political power from concentrating in the hands of a few. No nation—socialist, social democratic or capitalist—has thus far solved this problem.
Furthermore, what happens when the left-wing base finds itself agreeing with the very oligarchs they seek to overthrow? Among the topics that have exploded in relevance since the election of Donald Trump, few have attracted the attention commanded by immigration policy. Sanders has not always voted in line with the Democratic party on this issue. In his now famous 2015 Vox interview, Sanders describes open borders as a “Koch brothers idea,” a libertarian scam to drive down wages for the working class through direct competition with a steady influx of low-wage labor. This is far from empty rhetoric. In a 2007 vote, Sanders and the AFL-CIO struck out against a comprehensive immigration reform bill, over a stipulation to allow 200,000 guest workers into the United States on temporary visas. Sanders said that this immigration bill would punish “low-wage temporary workers with the result that wages and benefits in this country, which are already going down, will go down even further.”
This type of argument would be inconceivable on the left today, but it is not clear that Sanders was wrong. This fascinating conversation between Brown University professor Glenn Loury and WBEZ Chicago’s senior Race, Class and Communities editor, Alden Loury, focuses on an uncomfortable disjuncture in the progressive stack—the replacement of African-American industrial laborers by Latinos throughout Chicago—which exposes an ongoing conflict within the working class, a conflict that should be impossible according to traditional intersectional notions of power distribution in society. The men discuss the flight of African-American laborers from the Chicago area, following a decrease in available jobs and a rise in migrant laborers. Alden Loury notes this problem, but seeks to downplay it—for good reason. He does not wish to incite division between African-Americans and Latinos.
However, since this division is already occurring at the heart of Chicago’s working class, it poses a dilemma for intersectional activists, who hold that non-whites should all belong to a unified coalition of interests, in opposition to the unearned privileges of white society. Cracks in the intersectional movement seem inevitable if non-whites ever find themselves holding competing interests, rather than standing together against the overwhelming threat of white supremacy.
These three dimensions of progressive politics—the fight against oligarchy, the reluctance to confront problems related to immigration, and the intersectional dogma that even fellow leftists reject at their own peril—are at the root of contemporary problems within left-wing movements.
One major unanswered question in progressive political thought is implicit in Robert Michels’ iron law of oligarchy. In Political Parties, published in 1911, Michels predicts that all democracies aiming for an egalitarian dispersal of political power inevitably become oligarchic, ruled by a small minority of the population, regardless of any nominal focus on democratic rights and the power of the people. Noam Chomsky and Sheldon Wolin have documented this phenomenon in great detail, citing the frequent passage of largely unpopular legislation by democratically elected political bodies and the capture of political parties by special interests as evidence of oligarchy.
Bernie Sanders has founded both his presidential campaigns upon the reality that democracies tend to move political power upward, despite claiming to disperse it evenly among the population. Progressives often assume that this is a consequence of neoliberal policies, and that oligarchy can be easily undone by proper campaign finance laws and other reforms. But perhaps the iron law of oligarchy is simply the natural state of wealth—that is, wealth and authority become a fulcrum for the application of political power in any society.
Simone Weil has argued that, even if a revolution wiped away a capitalist class, a new class of managers would rapidly take control of society, due to society’s enormous complexity and the detachment of modern workers from the immediate fruits of their labor. Even if the US government were taken over by socialists, corporations such as Facebook, Twitter and Google would have to be seized by new operators, and a new breed of collusion would follow, different from capitalist oppression yet still a hierarchical means of control. The moderators and experts of these tech platforms would merely replace Zuckerberg and Google engineers as the masters of mankind. State and corporate collusion is not easy to eliminate from any society, and plans to break up big tech will inevitably still lead to calls for the regulation of online content and the shaping of internet results in the favored ideological direction. Whether led by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren or Republican Senator Josh Hawley, the regulation of online spaces still evokes the fundamental problem of managerial elites managing information flows. Whether these elites are private or public, the information is still not free. Moreover, closer coordination between the state and corporate behemoths opens up greater opportunities for homogenization and control, as we see in most industries in which the state is fused with corporate power.
The inevitability of a managerial class of experts presiding over the complexity of modern legal and economic infrastructure was predicted by G. K. Chesterton in the early twentieth century: “nothing is straightforward … all its ways are crooked even when they are meant to be straight. Into this most indirect of all systems we tried to fit the most direct of all ideas. Democracy, an ideal which is simple to excess, was vainly applied to a society which was complex to the point of craziness.”
Direct democracy is even more specious. The people of a nation would not, as a collective, vote on their trade agreements. The hostility toward Brexit on the western left has already shown the inadequacy of direct voting as a path to immediate and direct action. If citizens could directly vote on all bills and laws, mass propaganda campaigns would be created to direct the vote, and advertising and the distortion of the will of the people would persist. The oligarchs would manufacture consent by any means necessary, and, if the present oligarchs were wiped out, the new vanguard or representatives of the revolution would do it for them. People would vote the wrong way, as they purportedly did on Brexit. The complexities of the remaining neoliberal society would be negotiated by new representatives, who would again be exposed to all the forms of corruption that are alive in our present oligarchical system.
We might pass robust campaign finance laws, or repeal laws such as Citizens’ United in the United States, to put a stop to financial oligarchy. But this does nothing to prevent the rise of an administrative class of informal elites, who make most of the decisions in a nominally democratic polity. Even if political bribery were formally outlawed, it would be impossible to outlaw the formation of elite circles, who serve one another’s interests much as the class president and class treasury in a high school might both have influential parents and thus become grouped together through similar interests at a young age, and create informal pacts to promote one another’s interests—which is effectively no different from any other arrangement of elites buying their way into power.
It is one thing to change the law. It is another thing entirely to disrupt the bonds forged by Ivy League institutions, shared zip codes and the cliques amongst the 9.9% of Americans able to effectively climb the ladders of managerial society. Wealth is only one of many means of consolidating political power. Others include charisma and standing in one’s community. None of these sources of oligarchy are explicitly tied to campaign finance. If one takes the iron law of oligarchy seriously, it is no surprise that influential elites are able to get their way with or without explicit bribes. The DNC as a formal organization may be opposed to Sanders’ policies, for example, but the social attitudes and personal animosities formed in 2016 amongst party power brokers are just as influential as tangible wealth. The superdelegate system is one way of enforcing oligarchy through personal loyalties and social attitudes amongst the powerful, rather than bribes alone. As George Carlin once said, “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.” The club is dictated by big money, but also by social and institutional pacts and allegiances.
Sheldon Wolin’s political science treatise, Politics and Vision, charts the decay of democratic polity into oligarchy throughout western history. Its final pages advocate using the regional and local spheres as a way to buck this anti-democratic trend, echoing Ralph Nader’s vision of an engaged citizenry active in their communities, overseeing decisions with keen eyes. But this would be spitting in the wind, in light of our increasingly globalized reality, in which decisions are never made locally by an engaged polity, but often taken thousands of miles away—or invented in San Francisco and sold across the entire world months later, as is the case with new technologies that define both new markets and new social relations. Both destabilize pre-existing communal arrangements. That an atomized and career-oriented individualist culture could produce an engaged local tribe who could subvert the power of big business is a near impossibility. If Sanders requires a movement to defeat the lobbyists, he has to contend with the deep problem of a fractured American society not capable of mobilization on behalf of shared interests.
Part of this societal fracturing is connected to immigration. The left’s need to protect both multiculturalism and its anti-oppressor version of history obscures wider issues that prevent the formation of a unified working class, particularly when big business seeks low-wage laborers and thus pushes for guest worker programs and other means of acquiring cheap labor, to the detriment of American citizens of all races and backgrounds.
Regional power and local control can only emerge out of a fabric of individuals who share something in common, but shared culture is eliminated by the pressure to prioritize diversity and a collection of discordant lifestyles in one geographical location. Thus, cultural wedge issues prevent the formation of a unified front of working people, especially in cases such as Chicago and the 2007 guest worker program, where the interests of multicultural immigration and high wage economies come into direct conflict. These awkward moments produce contradictions within the left-wing narrative of fighting for the little guy.
Intellectuals on the left frequently critique globalization as an economic concept, but any foray into the realm of immigration in the context of global capital is immediately quarantined as a right-wing virus. Leftist writer Angela Nagle’s critique of open borders on purely economic grounds begot a firestorm from left intellectuals. Publications such as Current Affairs have actively argued in favor of open borders on moral grounds of inclusion and common humanity.
However, the issues of immigration and globalization are inseparable, as the global rise of white nationalist and far right movements continue to demonstrate. The intellectual left seeks to restore the power of communities to determine their own outcomes, using rhetoric about gentrification and big business, but rejects controls on immigration as fundamentally unjust.
Communities composed of individuals with nothing in common are expected to share empathy and fellow-feeling—even as those values run directly contrary to the demands of current liberal cultural norms, which prioritise independence and the forging of new selves through economic and social superiority. Paradoxically, modern people are expected to abandon their specific cultures and communities in favour of a sense of universal humanity, while, as individuals, they are held responsible for earning a living and beating the competition. The result is a kind of split mind. The loss of a common culture and its replacement with multiculturalism alone, the singular substituted by the multitude, contributes to anomie and depression and to an ongoing western identity crisis. A social fabric is not an abstraction, but a lived reality. The absence of a coherent shared culture does not reveal the fallibility of traditional social structures—it’s a novel experiment being carried out by global capital, which seeks to dissolve specific attachments in the name of a global identity: that of the infinitely malleable low-wage worker.
A fundamentalist Muslim or Christian and an atheist liberal can all live together, so long as their opposing beliefs remain private matters. But this is an arrangement born of the suppression of differences within a truly diverse polity. Over time, the fabric of the social reality will begin to dictate the cultural norms and the laws according to democratic consensus, and groups will inevitably be drawn into conflicts, with winners and losers. Certain ideas will have to be erased from the multicultural framework, if we are all to live in harmony. Paradoxically, multiculturalism results in certain cultures being repressed, as two contradictory ideas cannot be supported at once. The religious and liberal stances on abortion, for example, are in enduring conflict. These national debates are influenced, and often decided, by which types of immigrants, with which belief systems, are admitted into the fabric of the country.
Still, critiques of multiculturalism on the right veer uncomfortably often toward critiques of multiracial societies. The academic Amy Wax, for example, has constructed a thoughtful model, permitting new immigrants on the basis of cultural distance, or the ability of such immigrants to assimilate into western culture and uphold the tenets of liberalism. However, the animus toward Mexican immigrants and immigration from the global south on the culturally conservative and religious right is often hard to square with Wax’s theories. For example, over 80% of Mexicans are Catholic. From a standpoint of social homogeneity, white liberal atheists are more contrary to the ideal of America conceived of by the culturally conservative right than Catholic Mexicans. Yet, white identitarian ideas still thrive in certain pockets of cultural conservatism.
Patrick Deneen’s landmark book Why Liberalism Failed helps to paint a clearer picture of the pitfalls of mass immigration in a society with a robust social safety net. Deneen paints a bleak picture of an America without community, where a single mother is supported by her employer and the state from birth to grave, with little need for other human beings, reliant solely on institutions. Bernie Sanders’ vision of free kindergarten and free college—in other words, a public upbringing—instead of an emphasis on marriage and coherent family life, reflects a bleak view of the world, in which a person’s only relationship to other people is mediated through massive state and corporate institutions, which are often fused together. The result is isolation and anomie, and, in the case of mass movement and immigration, a lack of attachment to one’s neighbors, who are always transitory, and may be outside of mutual understanding given the lack of a shared set of cultural values.
Emile Durkheim’s famous sociological study of suicide found that both tribal societies untouched by the modern world and highly religious societies have lower suicide rates than modern industrial democracies. Current research agrees. Democracies full of individuals who cannot form a consensus are by definition unsustainable. But any indication that diversity and fragmentation of culture leads to disempowerment and anomie is often dismissed as right-wing signaling and exclusionary. Thus, the left cripples its ability to subvert right-wing populism in any meaningful way. The loss of cultural traditions, such as the expectation that everyone will marry and start a family, is instead often celebrated by the left as progress, despite the fact that this celebration leads to obvious backlash, and drives people who yearn for a more rigid social fabric toward the right.
In a stunning contradiction, the Democratic Socialists of America have voted for open borders and the radical expansion of the American social security net at the same time, creating the conditions for the United States to become the home of atomized individuals, with little in common save their relationship to the state. Worse, providing Americans with expanded benefits and sharply loosening control of the border would produce an unprecedented surge in immigration from those who wish to take part in the massive expansion of socialized first world living. This would turn US citizenship into little more than a grab bag. Community cannot emerge solely from the desire to earn money.
The Democratic Socialists of America’s stance on open borders does not poll well amongst Americans, but, as a highly influential intellectual vanguard with supreme moral browbeating ability and savvy in new online idea marketplaces, their ideas cannot be ignored. The combination of relaxed border controls and increased payouts to those who live in the United States furthers the degradation of American life into a melting pot of strangers all seeking wealth—ironically, this describes the left’s chief critique of what neoliberalism has done to American life. The left, in effect, is still neoliberal, in that they believe the only language one must speak with one’s fellow citizens is financial and contractual.
The late political media magnate Andrew Breitbart has frequently said that “politics is downstream from culture.” The absorption of old-school Marxism within the Democratic Socialists of America by identity politics indicates that there may be some truth to this statement. The thorn in the heel of Marxism is probably the fact that cultural signaling and moral browbeating about race, gender and cultural norms have more influence on current political discourse than economic theories of labor. This is unlikely to change. Identity politics and all related topics are likely to remain more influential upon political tides than the emancipation of the working class from big money—a fact which may alienate Marxists and critics of oligarchy among the left.
To appease the left, for example, the New York Times’ 1619 project affirms that the US was founded not in 1776, but with the arrival of slavery to North America. This rewriting of the founding myth has been echoed by presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. Cultural issues such as guns, race and sexual oppression carry more clout than technical disputes about Medicare, and, although these candidates are not polling highly, the cultural trend of repudiating white America is seen as the enactment of social justice on the national scale, for both politicians and major corporate entities.
Complaints about alienation, mostly from white Americans, in the wake of major media projects to relocate the founding of America to the introduction of slavery, rather than the birth of the constitution, are dismissed as white fragility, or the whining of the vanquished conservatives. However, it is worth considering what this reframing of the founding moment of one’s nation, denoted by elite media, means for everyday Americans and for what the flag represents. This repositioning of what America means fuels right-wing movements motivated by patriotism and resentment against left-wing cultural ideas, movements embodied by Donald Trump.
The progressive focus on intersectional identities produces identity crises amongst those groups not awarded a vaunted moral position. White men, in particular, have no role in intersectionality save for silence, an idea that runs counter to the ideal of a democratic voice for all in a society of unified workers. The new intersectional order produces identity crises in those who represent whiteness, and thus must pay some form of penalty in order to achieve equality. If that penalty is silence, then the voicing of grievance becomes intolerable. The intersectional ideas of fragility of whiteness and maleness mean that groups with these characteristics must accept that they are there to listen, and cannot voice their own grievances on equal terms. Then, they are often accused of being toxic and bottling up their feelings, and taunted for being repressed and alienated. Without a positive voice in the emerging global order, the white male without a healthy cultural framework to fall back upon is liable to become sucked into movements that exalt his white identity and offer him a place in the world, as vile as those movements may be.
If all politics is identity politics, and America is fundamentally about slavery, then the defeat of American oligarchy is hopelessly entangled with the defeat of American whiteness. The academic concept of whiteness is a marker for that which is in need of retribution. White America still owes a debt that can never be paid, since to pretend that material reparations would equalize America is itself seen as another way for whites to try to get off the hook. The debt is infinite.
In other words, intersectionality makes a unified working class impossible, as it drums up divisions between the races and sexes as sources of retributive justice. It thrives on the demolition of oppressors, within the movement and without, whenever they step outside of their sanctioned roles. Additionally, real contradictions within the progressive stack, that is, the claims of new migrants to jobs and social benefits versus those of American citizens who are already here, must be smoothed over, because the linguistic magic of people of color produces a coalition of the Other where none exists.
Questions of citizenship pose deeper problems yet, as a Nigerian migrant who moved to the United States in 2017 would conceivably be owed the same proposed reparations granted to a Georgian African-American, whose entire family was enslaved for generations. If these payouts are only for the children of former slaves, then major divisions within the African-American community would be impossible to avoid. If the payouts are granted on the basis of race alone, then the link to chattel slavery itself is severed, and modern institutional racism is instead the basis of the payout, regardless of family history. The amount of payment may scale according to the relative suffering attributed to racism, but in this case, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, trans people and more would be entitled to reparations, if the criterion is merely being slighted by white heteronormative patriarchy. Not to mention the growing white resentment that would emerge in multiracial low-income communities, where some dirt-poor laborers receive payment and others do not, on the basis of birth circumstances none of them could control. This will be justified as equality feeling like oppression, but it will invariably feel like special treatment. Suburban, upper-middle-class African-Americans will receive payouts, while trailer park whites receive nothing, leading to obvious contradictions and deepened resentments.
The campaign and candidacy of Bernie Sanders is one of the most fascinating tests of current progressive ideology. If Sanders can unite the intersectional and pro-immigration attitudes of the Democratic Party with a battle against financial forms of oligarchy, he will demonstrate that an effective left-wing coalition already exists and can take political power, and that the contradictions discussed in this piece are not as glaring as they seem. However, a Sanders victory will result in the continued repression of many of these seeming contradictions, and may well embolden the right if the Sanders presidency is unsuccessful at achieving its campaign goals. Sanders’ prior stances on immigration also create uncertainty as to the future of the labor movement, whether it respects borders as limitations on worker movement in principle or not.
My problem with progressive politics in the current year boils down to several key factors: the inability to provide a clear roadmap for a polity that will not devolve into managerial oligarchy; the inability to discuss cultural sources of distress in a left-wing multicultural framework; and the inability to properly balance economic populism with intersectional moral boundary-policing. Each issue feeds the other. Only time will tell if these problems are fatal.