Divided Totality and the Broken Heart of Existence Itself
In the chapter The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought of the book History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs argues that basically all cultural experience in capitalist society is fundamentally at odds with itself. It always forms two halves that can never synthesize.
Generally in life everything wants to unify, everything wants to find completion by merging with its opposite, but in capitalism, the material conditions for this to be possible just aren’t present yet. Our harmony doesn’t fit in the budget.
Mandalas and tapestries are great symbols of the concept of totality, a big part of the dialectical materialist core of Marxist philosophy – part and whole being interrelated, all things being indirectly connected.
But in Marxism the totality is not some hippie idealism. The totality is real. All things are scientifically connected, by material contact, through physical and economic, market interconnectedness.
And that means the totality under capitalism is broken. Cut right down the middle.
Chaos and order never synthesize. Peace and war never interblend. Me and you, us and them, black and white, man and woman, matter and mind, dreams and realities, an unbridgeable chasm, a cut, a wall slams down between these things.
It was expressed beautifully by the contradictions of the characters in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. They all have half the puzzle, but are missing the other half.
TS Eliot in The Hollow Men:
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion
From The Second Coming by Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The fragmentation and bifurcation of the totality is the broken heart of the world, our very inability to find happiness or fulfillment, our constant searching to find something, or someone, that connects, which always seems to fail.
It also manifests itself politically, in the form of our constant inability to synthesize class politics with identity politics in a smooth or stable way.
The Truncated Nature of Communication in Capitalism Mandates Narrowed Messaging
I’ve argued elsewhere that focusing on class does a better job engaging oppressed identities than focusing on identity issues themselves does. And it’s true that there are many marches going on against Trump’s attacks on everything under the sun, but I personally fear they are reaching out to rather specific, activist, and Democrat-loyal demographics, and not engaging the much larger, politically independent, class-angry demographics which the Occupy movement and Sanders campaign activated.
Here I’m going to drive the point home a little harder and say, deep down we all know that full liberation for oppressed identities under this economic systemic is incomplete, and that systemic change requires a majority movement.
But that majority movement cannot be built on an intersectionality which addresses oppressed identities alone.
My argument isn’t that intersectionality isn’t important. My argument is that it doesn’t appeal as much to the vast working class majority who is actually capable of overturning the system, and instating a more equal system which would actually be better for all the oppressed identities.
Marxists might call it “utopian” or “idealist,” or they might say “the material conditions for the ideal of intersectionality to take hold in the abstract on a wide scale do not exist.” More on that in the next section.
The lives of the working class are structured in such a way that the only movement which will resonate with the majority is one with class struggle or economic justice as its primary value, and with identity-based intersectionality as a supporting value.
Some of this has to do with the way that under the ultra-rushed existence of capitalism, time and attention themselves are scarce resources, and so issues must be phrased in a way that attention can only be given to one over-arching theme at a time, and the one must be selected that has an internal logic which is the most uniting as opposed to seemingly implying a competitive or divisive logic, even if it doesn’t actually deserve to be perceived that way.
Attention under capitalism is an extremely limited resource that people don’t give out freely: therefore so is speaking time, attention, article length, clicks, and page views.
The lesson of the Sanders campaign was this: When you only have a ten-second soundbite, discussing class just seems to bring people together of all different demographics into solidarity with each other, and discussing race or gender just seems to harden people into division, opposition, and misunderstanding, even if it really shouldn’t.
And because of the ultra-fragmented, abbreviated, and rushed nature of communication under capitalism, all we really seem to have a lot of are 10-second soundbites, misunderstood Facebook comments, and 140-character tweets.
So I guess we have to go with the uniting theme that actually works in practice.
Marxism 102: People’s Ideas are Shaped by Material Conditions
The notion that people’s ideas arise from their economic and life circumstances, as a sort of distorted mirror image of them, rather than people just having ideas as a sort of independent world of fully free-willed and spontaneous consciousness, is one of the cornerstones of Marxist theory, and laid out in Marx’s text The German Ideology. The fundamental quote is below:
Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of humanity is their actual life-process. If in all ideology humanity and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.
In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what humanity say, imagines, conceive, nor from humanity as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at humanity in the flesh. We set out from real, active humanity, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but humanity, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life (emphasis added). In the first method of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness.
Life circumstances which predispose the majority toward class rhetoric
Some leftists have said that the ruling class broadcasts bigoted propaganda through the media and school system, and this is the source of prejudice among the working class.
This isn’t necessarily false, but it can’t explain all the prejudice of the working class. After all, the corporate media and education system also has a liberal wing which spreads multi-cultural neoliberal identity politics.
There’s another liberal idea that the working class is spontaneously ignorant and racist, like it’s some innate characteristic, and the working class just needs more “education.”
This is elitist and also wrong.
Instead, a few things make people prejudiced:
- The competition imposed by artificial scarcity, which is imposed by capitalism’s unjust distribution of wealth, filtering through every demographic division and causing all groups to see each other as enemies
- Also the “poor performance” of oppressed groups who naturally do badly in this system where they face institutional disadvantages
- People are generally made more reactionary and unsympathetic by the brutality of working life they experience under capitalism; universalist and humanitarian ideals like intersectionality would flourish on a mass/majority basis under socialism when everyone is guaranteed a living income is worry-free enough to care about social causes
The competitive mindset can take hold despite the incredibly overwhelming objective economic indicators that life is not some even competition between groups but, for example, black people just objectively have it worse.
Nonetheless, the all-against-all cultural logic of capitalist does, indeed, pit all against all at the level of our mentalities.
Again, another thing compelling us to pick a unifying theme like class is that focusing on specific identities is often misunderstood as favoring one group over another during short bursts of communication that define capitalist culture.
So what do we do?
The Left is actively ripped apart by seething tensions and conflicts between and over men and women, different races, native born and immigrant, and groups defined by gender and sexual orientation.
We have a Left whose existence is continuously defined by drama and scandal, a hellish social existence of tension and internal hatred.
Will some new approach or school of thought heal this?
The sensible among us will gravitate to each other over time. We can try to do our best. That’s about it.
Building a majority movement in the USA on the basis of intersectionality alone is literally impossible.
Rather, intersectionality can only be a secondary, supporting value to a majority movement built around a different primary focus – a focus on class struggle, or economic justice.
The tragic thing, the truly tragic thing, is that what it’s going to take is for people who are literally oppressed on the basis of their identities, a very real and awful form of oppression, to work in environments where that is still treated as a priority, but not treated as the first or primary focus or priority.
That’s asking a lot.
Now most of these people who are oppressed according to an identity are arguably oppressed by economics actually more than they are oppressed by their identity. So it’s actually not, on a logical basis, the most ridiculous thing to ask. But it’s still an extremely sensitive issue. It’s still extremely emotional.
It’s the touchiest subject there is.
It’s not that I actually want to ask people to put their problems second to get over this snag in history.
It’s just that this is the way life, existence, reality itself is actually structured.
But here’s the good news:
Intersectionality can take hold under capitalism, however, in a specific context: that of people being brought together in common struggle, seeing each other as necessary allies in struggle for better conditions for themselves and each other. Class struggle serves as the economic material basis for the mass majority adoption of intersectionality under capitalism. So we should engage in more class struggle. If people are focused on fighting as one for pay or healthcare or schools, divisions and bigotry can recede, more progressive attitudes can prevail, and even positive affirmation and political action for oppressed and marginalized groups against obstacles and oppressions they face can come into focus.