How can multiculturalism contradict working-class solidarity?

This is part 1 in what will be a series of blog posts.

In response to my last blog post, I was asked a good question: “what exactly is multiculturalism and what is its contradictory relationship with international solidarity?”

Multiculturalism is something that can have many different definitions, so I’ll try to stick by the understanding that has to do with the context of “why Zizek was right” and antagonisms with international working-class solidarity.

To start, in the most general, theoretical sense, there is no antagonism between multiculturalism and international solidarity. In short: immigrants can and should be considered part of the broader workers’ struggle. This is not, in principle, something that needs to be fundamentally revised. In a globalized world, we need to think about these issues in a “global” sense. So I think I made a mistake when I said:

“There is, however, still an unavoidable antagonism between a left-theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a left-theoretical commitment to working class solidarity under global neoliberalism: the left needs to come to terms with the practical-left commitment to a working class displaced and alienated by widespread de-industrialization.”

The issue shouldn’t be framed as an antagonism between the theoretical commitment to multiculturalism and a theoretical commitment to working class solidarity, but between a theoretical commitment (multiculturalism) and practical commitment (working class solidarity). I think I was incorrect to imply that the issue necessarily occurs at the theoretical level.

So what is the practical contradictory relationship between multiculturalism and working class solidarity?

To get an idea of what is at stake in this, consider the line that the Clinton campaign used against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party primaries—that Bernie Sanders is a “single-issue candidate” for running on a platform of economic justice, opposition to Wall Street, and so on. Part of what was implied in this is that Sanders’ program is “just for white people,” that the struggles of women, minorities, and others are not fundamentally tied to a critique of capitalism—and that, if anything, the capitalists, the well-educated and well-mannered elites, are precisely those who are on the side of the marginalized, as opposed to the racist, provincial, backwards white working class.

Of course, the Clinton campaign alone does not demonstrate that there is a theoretical contradiction between multiculturalism and working class solidarity at all. In fact, from this, we can affirm the theoretical compatibility of those things. The opposition between “intersectionality” and “socialism” that the Clinton campaign set up is best countered by demonstrating that there is no opposition—that many of the most structurally oppressive issues that marginalized people face are fundamentally economic, and that it is the “Woke Capital” ideology that is more concerned with empty gestures and tokenism. But does this calculating Clintonite sleight of hand reveal something deeper?

This brings us to where the practical contradictory relationship between “multiculturalism” and working class solidarity occurs. The Clinton campaign’s “Woke-Capital” ideological opposition of multiculturalism with working class solidarity is nonsense on the theoretical socialist terrain—but it mirrors the concrete functioning of global capital, and poses and urgent practical obstacle for organizing in developed countries. I will summarize crudely. Capital expands outwards to avoid the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The rate of profit is sustained by creating global value chains of production, extracting resources and labor from the global periphery—“developing countries”. As this expansion toward the periphery occurs, the industrial base in the economic core is no longer needed, because the cost of labor is higher and the potential returns are lower. These former industrial regions in the global economic core themselves begin to resemble the “underdeveloped” periphery, facing widespread unemployment, poor social services, and other issues (the “Rust Belt,” the Ruhrgebiet, and so on). By contrast, the new cores of the developing countries, benefiting most from the windfall profits of global value chains, begin to look much more like the core—embodying the logic and the appearance of “cities of the future” than the core itself (Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg…). The consequence of this is that there is a form of “multiculturalism” that is taken up and assimilated into the logic of global capital. This logic does validate the rainbow-colored masses of “the developing world,” but it only understands their value through the exploitation of their labor (“Immigrants: they get the job done!”). But what this logic has no use for is the post-industrial “leftovers,” who are themselves backwards and forgotten, as if excluded from the progression of history (“Why do people support a racist like Trump? Don’t they know it’s [the current year]?”).

The Left’s confusion over the apparent impasse between multiculturalism and the interests of the “leftover” working class has done little to stop right-populists and fascists across the developed world from achieving previously-unimaginable electoral success. The now-popular identification of developed-world post-industrial working class interests with the Right is inexcusable for leftists. Accepting the left’s position on the conservative side of a radically-flipped political spectrum of late capitalism is the fast track to obsolescence.

How can we get around this impasse? To start, the Left’s theoretical understanding must take into account the nuanced, shifting, and increasingly-muddied distinctions between global economic cores and peripheries. It must to take into account the leftover working classes in the “peripheries of the cores” that have been left behind by history.

But this is only a tiny part of the beginning of the solution. We must go much deeper to truly work through the problem of contemporary racism posed by the issues facing multicultural western societies. For this, we should turn to psychoanalysis, and in particular, the concept of jouissance. Zizek is correct to identify this as the kernel of the problem in his fascinating 2015 feud with Sam Kriss:

“Which is the factor that renders different cultures (or, rather, ways of life in the rich texture of their daily practices) incompatible? What is the obstacle that prevents their fusion or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence? The psychoanalytic answer is: jouissance. It is not only that different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other without a common measure; the Other’s jouissance is insupportable for us because (and insofar as) we cannot find a proper way to relate to our own jouissance.”

I intend to go into more detail on the meaning and significance of jouissance as an obstacle to solidarity across cultures (and discuss how the Zizek-Kriss debate is the microcosm of the Left’s theoretical difficulty grasping this issue) in another blog post.

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