Social Justice Doesn’t Have to Synchronize with Politics

If you are of the mind that the best, and perhaps only, way to correct the economic and social iniquities in American society is to bind together the lower and working classes and the dispossessed, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion, then seeing black athletes kneel for the national anthem must be somewhere between frustrating and infuriating. That’s because the result is easy to see—the people most offended by the seeming disrespect of our flag and anthem are precisely the whites from lower socioeconomic classes who are needed for the making of the great socialist revolution. This is a case where black athletes, whatever their good intentions, are pouring jet fuel on the things that divide us in the so-called Culture Wars.

That’s one point of view, and people are entitled to it. Others are entitled to see things differently. But this is how I interpret the following tweet from my colleague David Atkins, which refers to the current brouhaha between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. (As for that matter, I have nothing to add to Simon Balto’s excellent piece from this weekend.)

I am fully cognizant that the character limitations of a Tweet make it difficult to craft an unassailable argument. So, I don’t want to nitpick too much here, but I find it jarring to state the “core” of neoliberalism is anything other than a set of economic practices and political preferences. I’m willing to grant a lesser charge that neoliberal policies are empowered when the classes who should rightly oppose them are instead focused on other things, including fighting each other.  And, therefore, encouraging the lower classes to fight each other is a sensible political ambition of anyone who wants to win a political battle in the interest of advancing neoliberal policies.

Based on this, it’s certainly possible for people to inadvertently do the neoliberals’ work for them by ramping up racial or ethnic or religious tensions. It wouldn’t make them neoliberals, though, which is the charge Cornel West leveled at Ta-Nehisi Coates. It would make them unwitting agents in their own oppression.

As I said at the top, however, the socialist point of view isn’t the only possible point of view. Mainstream Democrats may be as frustrated by the anthem-kneeling as the Cornel Wests of the world, but for strictly short-term political reasons and with no reference to any curtailment or postponement of the great revolution.

At the same time, those who are focused primarily on police brutality and murder instead of the results of the next midterm elections are going to look at the anthem-kneeling in terms of its prospects for raising awareness, providing disruption and discomfort to the status quo, and its symbolism as a strong moral stand. In other words, they’re engaged in a civil rights struggle, not a struggle to defeat Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other heroes of his era didn’t worry about making LBJ and his Democrats uncomfortable or splitting their New Deal alliance because they had larger and more urgent concerns.

It would be nice if people could pursue social justice and political victories in complete synchronicity, but that’s almost never the case. The two are often out of time with each other, and depending on your priorities, you’ll often see one or the other as misguided or morally compromised.

If some will quarrel with the utility and effectiveness of the national anthem protests, the utopian assumptions of the socialist critique are at least as suspect. They don’t ignore civil rights concerns even though they are frequently accused of doing exactly that. Instead, they’d have us believe that issues of racial inequality and injustice will be solved once the great multiracial solidarity of the lower classes is finally achieved. Harping on about these outrages is counterproductive if it only serves to delay the great alliance.

Starting with those assumptions, it’s easy to quickly reach a place where Ta-Nehisi Coates is a neoliberal because he’s doing their work for them. From there, you might even convince yourself that police brutality and murder would resolve itself if only Coates would shut up or change his argument and focus.

I frame things this way so that, hopefully, you can see how ridiculous the socialist critique really is. It suffers from the same defects that most ideologies suffer from—seeking pat solutions and wishing people would be different.

Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t cause the culture wars and he can’t be credibly accused of meaningfully exacerbating them. We have a president and a political movement that is stoking racial tensions so hard it’s turning the country into a blast furnace. To think that multiracial class solidarity is just around the corner and is only being delayed by folks who insist on their civil rights is the height of folly.

Far better is to accept that everyone is going to fight their own battles in their own way on their own time, and that you’ll never be satisfied that they’re all working with you on a common purpose with an agreed strategy. This is okay. Really. It’s how things are.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.