Perhaps I’m a mean spirited, miserable bastard– okay, yes, I am a mean spirited, miserable bastard –but two of my greatest pet peeves with what passes for “leftist” political thought as practiced in the United States revolve around a superficial politics based on the “kumbaya” that seemed to emerge around and following the sixties. I encounter this sort of political thought not so much in political theory circles, as I do among certain democratic activists still in the grips of 80s and 90s identity politics as the paradigm of all politics, to the detriment of anything having to do with political economy. “Kumbaya Politics” seems to be based on the thesis that the root cause of all suffering and conflict arises from the friend/enemy distinction as it organizes social groups. In other words, the thesis runs, if we would just recognize that everyone is human, that there is no genuine friend/enemy distinction, then human conflict would come to an end and we would all live harmoniously with one another. The reason there is conflict, strife, and struggle in the world lies in the operation of this artificial friend/enemy distinction among groups. Were we to just be tolerant— and here I think the Enlightenment concept of tolerance becomes twisted beyond all point of recognition –human conflict, cruelty, and struggle would end.
The second, and closely related, thesis that irritates me to know end is the thesis that the goodness or evil, justice or injustice, of a person’s actions is a function of their intentions. That is, the only people who are genuinely unjust, who are genuinely evil, are those who intend to be unjust and evil. Or, put differently, a person must consciously entertain unjust, wicked, and hateful thoughts to be unjust, wicked, and hateful. Given that the vast majority of people do not intend to be wicked, unjust, or hateful, given that the vast majority of people think of themselves as doing good and desire to do good, it follows that the vast majority of people are not “bad” people.
Both of these views, I think, have been catastrophic to American leftist politics. In one respect or another I think both of these views can be traced back to a “semiotization” of the political that took place during the 60s. By “semiotization” I have in mind the idea that politics became predominantly about signs, identities, meanings, etc., pertaining to cultural identities and genders. The political because the site of a contest over the recognition of gendered and cultural identities– so well described by Laclau and Mouffe –such that political struggles were a question of guaranteeing equal participation of all differences within the political sphere without one particular semiotized identity (white males) overdetermining the rest.
In and of itself, this shift was positive and was a fulfillment of egalitarian promise already inaugurated during the Enlightenment. No doubt these particular shifts occurred at our particular point in history due to shifts in the nature of labor, social organization, and capital, that rendered gendered and cultural identity in-different with respect to the potential to engage in wage labor. Where economy no longer relied on stratified social identities in order to function, these semiotic differences became a site of context and erasure (erasure being a synonym for egalitarian promise). The problem with the ideal of tolerance that emerged out of semiotic politics, is that it confused the erasure of semiotic or cultural differences in egalitarian politics with the erasure of the friend/enemy distinction altogether. In short, it concluded that the only political difference was semiotic difference, thereby effacing those differences that make up political economy and which objectively stratify social groups into classes despite or regardless of the intentions of those participating in economy.
Because these other forms of difference became invisible, because non-semiotic, non-cultural, non-gendered differences fell from visibility, it became possible for privileged and vapid leftist political activists to smugly remind others engaged in struggle that “bankers are humans too!”, “that investors are human too!”, that “the ruling class contains good people too!” One wishes such proponents of Kumbaya Politics would read Brecht on the greatest of criminals. Perhaps one of the positive side-effects of our economic depression might be to generate a return to the concept of objective guilt. If there is a virtue to the concept of objective guilt it lies in de-suturing the guilt or complicity of a person from anything pertaining to their intentions or consciousness as an individual person. Rather, objective guilt is instead a function, despite any intentions that a person might have, of the functional role that a person’s actions play in an overarching system of social relations. Thus, for example, as someone who has a 403 retirement plan, I possess a share of objective guilt with respect to how Capital functions to stratify society, how it exploits other groups of people, how it organizes war and poverty, how it destroys the environment, and all the rest. This objective guilt has nothing to do with my intentions as an individual person. No, my intention as an individual is to set aside a certain percentage of my wages for investment so that I might some day be able to retire and sustain my existence until death. I have no desire or intention to exploit others, to organize poverty, to promote war, to destroy the planet, etc. However, objectively my investments participate in all of these phenomena.
Clearly there must be scales of objective guilt. The point here is that the manner in which social relations are organized generates objective friend/enemy distinctions that have nothing to do with how nice or good people are as individuals. I am sure that many of those bankers and investors are perfectly delightful people. I am sure they care for those in their immediate vicinity, worry over their sick friends, go to church every Sunday, donate to charities, want the best for their children, etc. As David Harvey is careful to point out, no one sets out asking themselves consciously “how can I exploit this other group?”. At least not in the vast majority of cases. Nonetheless, through their decisions they organize economy in such a way as to bring about a whole host of horrific consequences and massive human suffering throughout the world. Here it is not a question of being tolerant or recognizing that “everyone is human”. Indeed, one wishes that the tender hearted humanists would recognize that all humans are animals and that animals often prey upon one another and exercise terrific cruelty on one another, not out of malice or wickedness, but simply out of pursuing their own interests. However, no matter how nice these people are, when faced with a system that causes so much human misery and such disproportionate privilege, certainly it follows that the friend/enemy distinction is entirely operative. In fact, what is disgusting is not the operation of the friend/enemy distinction, but those who would deny its presence, treating the field of struggle as if it were flat and everyone were in the same position. If anything positive comes out of this financial debacle, perhaps it will be the move beyond semiotic politics and a recognition that the humanist notion of equal individuals playing on a level playing field is a profound myth. Perhaps it will lie in a newfound recognition that just as the gazelle cannot sit down and smoke a bowl with a lion in peace, there are objective struggles and conflicts in the world that aren’t just a matter of failing to be tolerant.