“Toppling the 1%” and the Need for a Leftist

Published online 22 April 2015.

From the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter:

Hillary Clinton Calls For ‘Toppling’ The 1 Percent

Hillary Clinton believes that strengthening the middle class and alleviating income inequality will require “toppling” the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, according to a New York Times profile published on Tuesday.

Okay, I’ve read the HuffPo piece, I’ve read the New York Times link, and I’ve read Matt Taibbi’s analysis, which seems to me to be thorough.So here is my take.  I’m not going to get into what this whole “topple the 1%” pitch says about Hillary Clinton here.  What’s important about Clinton’s call for “toppling,” rather, is what it says about her mass public audience.  Clinton’s mass public audience must really need a “leftist.”  My link explains in full what I mean by a “leftist” here — a “leftist” caters symbolically to “left-wing” demand, of course, but it’s really up to an audience to define who is or isn’t a “leftist.”  For some very, very important reason, Clinton can’t sell corporate conservatism to the mass public as the superior alternative to antipublic conservatism, and so she responds to that reason by presenting “leftism.”

Another example of an audience’s need for a “leftist,” and the performer’s consequent adaptation of leftist-face, can be read into a critique of intellectuals as “leftists.”  One such critique is in an essay by Ishmael Reed, titled “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?  The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual.”  Reed’s polemic was published sometime in 1995 in the Village Voice, and for the most part it’s an attack on Black public intellectuals, from the perspective of a particular Black political thinker.  In this piece, Reed argues that Black public intellectuals are playing roles having little to do with intellectualism or activism.  That’s his essay’s main point.

What really interests me about Reed’s piece, though, is not the issues it raises about Black public intellectuals, but rather Reed’s criterion for judging public intellectuals.  To a certain extent, Reed gets after the individuals he critiques for promoting “cultural politics,” rather than what he regards as real politics.  Here’s the passage that is most pertinent to the idea of the need for a “leftist,” from pages 88 and 89:

Most insidious, though, is the retrograde sham that masquerades as a leftist “cultural politics.”  Rather than an alternative, deep structural “infra” politics, as Kelley and others contend, the cultural politics focus is a quietistic alternative to real political analysis.  It boils down to nothing more than an insistence that authentic, meaningful engagement for black Americans is expressed not in relation to institutions of authority — the state — or the workplace — but in the clandestine significance assigned to apparently apolitical rituals. Black people, according to this logic, don’t mobilize through overt collective action.  They do it surreptitiously when they look like they’re just dancing…

Reed’s idea, here, is that “cultural politics” is a sham because it redefines actual political demobilization — the mass passive acceptance of the existing political order — as some sort of “leftist” cultural politics, when in fact there’s no real politics to cultural politics.   But maybe the point of “cultural politics” is that people just needed “leftists,” and so “cultural politics” was invented so that public intellectuals could satisfy that need.Can we apply Reed’s criterion for real politics to an analysis of calls by politicians for a “toppling” of the 1%?  We might start to do this by focusing on the distinction that political rhetoric is just culture, and that by contrast actual policy is what counts as the enactment of institutions of authority, to use Reed’s phrase.  And as for us as members of a mass public, it isn’t our need for “leftists” or our cultural politics that defines our political mobilization.  Rather, we are mobilized when we are in fact mobilized — when we are geared up to exert genuine pressure upon politicians, when we are engaged in meaningful institution-building for ourselves, or when we are participants in class struggle.

But people need “leftists,” I suppose, even when (or maybe especially when) nothing is happening in terms of public mobilization.  This is why politicians might feel obliged from time to time to say things against the 1%, and it’s why we might get “leftist” public intellectuals who argue “cultural politics” so as to transmute public passivity into something nicer-sounding.  (Such an analysis, of course, makes a curiosity out of national-level Republican political figures, who are openly in favor of the 1%.  They certainly do not pander to the need for “leftists.”  But that’s for another diary.)

On the other hand, a real political analysis (in Reed’s terms) might be the product of a discussion of institutions of authority, of why they are the way they are, of how they can be confronted through political mobilization, and of what can be done about them.


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