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.

Zizek was right in 2016

Now that awful Democratic Party stooges like Neera Tanden show up in my twitter timeline again, it’s a sign that its truly the start of the 2020 presidential election season. There’s no better time than the present to talk about general left political strategy. One thing I’ve been thinking of a lot lately is Zizek’s position in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election—I wrote about this already and, like Zizek himself, have no issue with completely plagiarizing what I’ve written before (at least for exposition):

…Leftists recoil at his name. Academics think he’s made himself into a factory of lazy, watered-down philosophy for bite-sized consumption. Activists think he’s betrayed the left on political correctness and made overtures to fascism. Though still well-known enough to pen frequent op-eds, he no longer commands the influence on the left he once did. His appearances in The Guardian and In These Times seem to have stopped since last year, and now Zizek contributes more regularly to RT. He has, reluctantly, found a new audience — one that shares his taste for shocking provocation and esoteric philosophical arguments against the scolding mantras of political correctness. Zizek has become a neoreactionary philosopher.

Ironically, many worldwide political developments since the Occupy movement have actually vindicated Zizek. Europe’s refugee crisis laid bare the raw tensions between the liberal ideas of open borders, anti-xenophobia, and tolerance on one hand and the Western European assumption of a secular social-democratic welfare state on the other. Zizek caused a stir by arguing that the dream of many refugees — of being permitted free access to a utopian life anywhere they choose — was unrealistic, and that it could be the task of national militaries to organize a humane solution for the refugee issue in general.  With the heretical opposition to unconditional openness, and his tendency to test the limits of political correctness, Zizek’s heterodox takes on Freudo-Marxism ceased to impress many on the left.

After the shock victory of the Brexit referendum, the crisis in neoliberalism and its implications for nationalism and identity politics became impossible to ignore. As the 2016 U.S. presidential election neared, Zizek made a much-publicized “anti-endorsement” of Trump on Russia Today, claiming that Clinton would be a worse president whose victory would perpetuate a wretched status quo and the paralysis of the left. Following his understanding of dialectical materialism, a Trump administration, though horrible, would amount to a negation of the hegemonic liberal ideology and present an opportunity for radical change — a line of thinking that brings him closer to the reactionary accelerationists drawn to the creative potential of crisis and danger than to the relative conservatism of a Clinton supporter like Noam Chomsky. With Trump’s subsequent electoral upset and the apparent collapse of center-left parties across the western world, it seemed that Zizek could stake a claim to picking up the pieces…

I don’t necessarily stand by the rest of the article (especially not the connection to accelerationism), and the contention that he’s neoreactionary is obviously polemical and attention-grabbing—but it said what was on people’s minds, at least from reading headlines. The “Reactionary Zizek” was, indeed, a meme. And at the time, I was more interested in talking about the meme, without actually working through the full meaning of his position.

One thing that’s missed is the idea that Zizek’s points, in the end, were correct, from the Left perspective. This is to say, the essential points are valuable—necessary!—even if the old man presented them clumsily at times. This is not to say that every policy prescription of his is correct, but rather that the issues he identified as issues need to be worked through. And whether the polite, proper leftists like it or not for their THEORETICAL politics, there is no way around dealing with them for a PRACTICAL politics.

Zizek always was speaking to the Left. The Left was able to tolerate his objections to their general consensus positions, particularly regarding nationalism and political correctness, by considering him a sort of jester. He was a quirky celebrity with a funny accent and lots of things to say about classic movies. But once these objections to left-liberal consensus positions came to pass and were affirmed in a way that they could no longer ignore whatsoever (by nationwide popular democratic votes for candidates and positions that absolutely rejected this, across the western world), Zizek had to be jettisoned—CANCELLED. There is, of course, a certain Hegelian significance to this cancellation. Is Zizek himself not the “vanishing mediator” here in the conflict between the theoretical abstraction of the neoliberal late capitalist world order and its empirical negation in the political upheaval that has thrown everything into question? If anything, shouldn’t this cancellation be nothing other than a sign of the TRUTH of the position?

So what are the essential points Zizek was right about? I suggest a few:

  1. The need for a Left Populism. A populism necessarily sets some kind of positioning of “US” versus “THEM”, but a Left Populism, instead of identifying the “Them” as the immigrants/foreigners/minorities/Muslims, should identify the “Them” as the capitalist class. In other words, this is a populism that, rather than just attacking symptoms of social problems (i.e. the Latin American immigrants that come and steal American jobs) attacks the underlying causes of those problems (the way that the capitalist class has set up a system that necessitates these global flows of capital). The centrist, liberal position holds (against the populists), that there is no need to declare a fundamental antagonism against the capitalist class, that they are in fact the allies against the intolerant bumpkin Trump voters, and they adjust their messaging accordingly. Unlike a “Trump,” the centrist holds, we must “all come together.” This position holds that there is no fundamental class tension in society—in fact, the tension comes from some kind of alien outside, such as Russian intervention. This position is conservative, uncompelling, uninspiring, and obviously false.
  2. Antagonisms in the issue of borders and migration. There exists an antagonism between the free flows of labor/capital and the coherence of national borders and the well-being of the working classes of the nation. The scale of the issues makes it very difficult for individual people to adequately conceptualize one way or another, especially in a country with a spatial orientation inherited from a settler-frontier ideological disposition like the United States (in other words, the country is so big that such flows of labor and capital are so difficult to conceptualize—and people believe whichever simplifications they want to believe). 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 Western Left needs the Western working class to take political power. It cannot afford to write off their concerns as “Eurocentric” even as it maintains a firm theoretical and practical opposition to racism.
  3. Political correctness, particularly in sexual politics and multiculturalism, is a fundamental site of tension. This is a huge issue because PC-culture operates at the level of the ENJOYMENT of the individual. The consequence of PC-culture is that the enjoyment of the signs that people relate to just in using language becomes regulated by political imperatives that, while often (but not always) well-intentioned, take the form of petty, cruel, vengeful moral injunctions. For example, in sexual politics, this takes the form of a paradoxical injunction to ENJOY the free wonderful sex that all us liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan westerners are supposed to enjoy, coupled with a darker injunction to ENJOY that manifests itself in the paranoia about sex relating to offense, consent, trauma, call-out culture and so on. Of course, this is not limited to sexual politics by any means, and also includes a regulation of the enjoyment of nationalism/multiculturalism: “Enjoy your nation as yourself!”
  4. Fascism will fill the conceptual void left by neoliberal late capitalism. Inasmuch as the Left is unable to come to terms with these antagonisms, the conceptual void left over will be filled by fascism, which will attempt to fill it in a perverted, inadequate, unscientific (in the broadest conception of science) way. Fascism does not solve the underlying issues and is, rather, the fullest extent of the symptom—it does not try to work through these contradictions, but rather react against them as a consequence of their repression.

Are these issues not the defining issues of our time? Shouldn’t this be the takeaway of the Left from 2016?

There are no easy answers to these issues. But we must work through them in a way that many leftists refuse to admit. And it certainly does not require a complete capitulation to the racism, misogyny, homophobia (and so on) of the fascists and their sympathizers on the right. And in doing this we must stay faithful to a revolutionary communist orientation, rather than complacency with a now-conservative, neoliberal status quo.