“The U.S. left has been dead for decades….”

Philosopher Peter Leiter makes some crucial points in a May Day interview with Il Manifesto, “Italy’s leading communist newspaper” (look for the link to download an English translation of the interview). Here are three highlights from the interview:

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades, starting with the state purge of communists in the 1950s and continuing with the neoliberal revolution since the 1980s and the war on the organized labor movement — so Trump is more symptom than cause of the fact that there is no left in the U.S….”

This is probably the most important thing that Leiter says in this interview. The lack of meaningful leftist politics in the U.S. not only means that Bernie Sanders, a center-left politician, is popularly thought to be a socialist — it also means that most U.S. residents do not actually know what leftist politics look like. This is a huge hole in our political discourse. Leiter goes on to add:

“‘Identity politics’ is the narcissism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, who want to get their share of the ‘capitalist pie,’ including their share of ‘respect’ as reflected in language and culture. … Insofar as ‘left’ politics in the U.S. has been captured by identity politics, it has been rendered impotent against the real obstacle to human flourishing….”

In other words, in the absence of actual leftist politics in the U.S., we have a putative leftist politics that does not aim to reform the economic injustice perpetuated by capitalism; instead, this putative leftist politics wants to keep capitalism going by offering it to historically marginalized groups. Even for those who strongly support capitalism, it’s important to understand that the goal of identity politics is not fundamental economic reform; its goal, while worthwhile, is much narrower.

Leiter will be taken to task here by U.S. academics who will point out that he is a white man and therefore can not understand identity politics; but as Leiter points out, most academics come from “bourgeois backgrounds” and indeed some of them are “actual or aspiring members of the ruling class”; as apologists for capitalism, they are not going to engage in serious critique of capitalism. So if he as a white man can’t understand identity politics, then they as aspiring members of the ruling class can’t understand leftist politics.

And here’s perhaps my favorite passage from the interview:

“Moral and political ideals are very important to human beings, but there is no evidence that the often unintelligible theoretical writings of academics about these ideals make any difference at all. Marx, who was a good writer (unlike Habermas), seized the imagination of revolutionaries in the 19th-century because he explained to them the causes of what was visible to them and what to do about it; he didn’t have to persuade them that they were suffering. No one who reads Marx could mistake him for Habermas….”

I once went to a lecture given by Jurgen Habermas. He spoke with a heavy German accent, but the real reason I found his lecture incomprehensible is the same reason I find his books incomprehensible: he’s a lousy writer. You can’t go about changing the world if you write specialized books that only appeal to a tiny number of professional philosophers and other academics.

There is more to Leiter’s interview, and no matter what your political persuasion, it’s definitely worth reading — it’s hard to find any American these days who can speak intelligently about leftist politics as they relate to the U.S. context.

Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.