Compromised Terms, or How To Win “The Working Class”

One of the most important insights generated by post-Marxist thought is that “class,” as the name of a structural position/condition within capitalist relations of production, is that which cannot function as a social identity. It emerges there only in displaced form of various proxies. Unfortunately, various critiques of liberalism, the nation-state, procedural democracy, and the like have led us to reject virtually all of the proxies by means of which class conflict actually takes place. One of the telling symptoms is the tendency on the left to call out those who dare to appeal to patriotism, faith, or “essentialist” notions of race or gender as a source of solidarity. The objection makes perfect sense, but the overall effect is to mark most salient forms of solidarity as a priori suspect. As a result, the left has rendered itself rhetorically impotent, bereft of terms capable of mobilizing collective identities compatible with its political aims. It can propose excellent policy ideas, but it remains unable to build large constituencies whose binding force exceeds pragmatic interest in those policies.

Yet by its own account, class is inherently incapable of serving as such a term. If there is going to be progress in class struggle, it will not be made by means of explicit class identification. So Thomas Frank is mistaken when he blames “the absence of Democratic will.” That will was absent, but the real problem has been the absence of a legitimate and viable rhetorical vehicle for such a will. Sure, “the task of capturing public anger was one [Clintonites] regarded with distaste,” but it is far from clear that the progressive or Marxist left was adequately equipped to do so. Democrats have long served as the fantasmatic obstacle vindicating left impotence: “if only they didn’t dominate the political sphere, we could finally get the working class on our side…” It is in this sense that “the Democrats…remain a mystery.” What is mysterious about them is the left’s investment in them as the source of always-already thwarted desire.

But for this very reason, Frank’s “pragmatic” concession to the party is actually more radical than the radical pose itself:

“Make no mistake: it has got to happen. Democrats simply have to take one of the houses of Congress this fall and commence holding Trump accountable. Failure at this baseline mission is unthinkable; it will mean the Democratic party has no reason for being, even on its own compromised terms.”

Joining the fight by taking on a clear-cut political identity is not a betrayal of class struggle; it is the only way to conduct that struggle, which can only take place via “compromised terms.” Those are the only terms available.

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