The Old Left and American Exceptionalism

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(Image from Google)

After this past weekend, it’s clear that even those on the Left love to romanticize the past.

What I mean is: the language we use to push forward our arguments about equality and social justice can feel just as naive and ignorant as policies shared by some bow-tie wearing freak at CPAC (shout-out to the sexually repressed conservative!)

Ex. Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.

They are the most popular progressives in the country, and for good reason. They speak up for the marginalized, and go after the right-wing with zeal.

However, they still package their beliefs in quaint doses of American exceptionalism.

When Warren attacked Trump over Twitter, she does so by criticizing his race-bating methods but in turn, essentially condemning him as un-American, and that the U.S. has a tradition of being inclusive and unity.

It’s great that she gone after an asshole like Trump. But her statement that the U.S. was built on merit and that Trump is an outlier played into the right-wing patriotic narrative that’s been holding back POC and the working-class (women and men) since its founding.

Similarly, Sanders has been criticizing the economic elites. He’s been an opponent of Big Banks and corrupt capitalism. Yet, time and time again, his solution to a society that works for everyone is reverting to the New Deal or to a period in time when the wealthiest paid more in taxes. Again, I agree that capitalism is a sick enterprise and one that values profit over lives. But the fact that he looks to the past, a past mired in segregation and white terrorism as well as gender oppression, always make me annoyed and frustrated.

Economic inequality has to be tackled effectively. But it seems as if major progressive have given into romanticizing American Old Left politics.

Former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, does the same in his documentary, Inequality for All, where he continues to cite 1950s era as a time of high-growth and low-disparity. I actually do recommend everyone to watch the movie because it is very informative. But no one in their right mind, especially POC, should believe that pre-1970s, that the U.S. worked for everyone equally. Was there perhaps less inequality? Perhaps. But economic equality shouldn’t just be based on capital. Economic equality itself shouldn’t be tied to freedom either. If you were a black intellectual somehow able to build a life for yourself in the deep south, or in places further north, you are still living under the specter of lynching and terror. This will harm your health, your well-being, your state of mind and security.

I am a democratic socialist. I find positives and negatives in both Marxism and capitalism and hope we can one day merge them into a system that works for everyone.

And I do take lessons from the past. I can’t lie and say I am not moved when I read about movements of working-class peoples striving for more rights in a time when risk and sacrifice was the only way. I am also very much aware of how unions in our modern era helped create some of the economic rights and privileges we have today and that we take for granted.

Yet, for some friends (and I am not being sarcastic, I hope we can continue this discussion) to be just as critical of those on the Left who abide by a narrow logic of the American system and history. And to admit that the image of working-class people struggling together against the elites is simplistic.

As sociologist Deborah K. King explains in her seminal work, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist ideology,” labor movements of the past were quick to represent solely the interests of white men:

“Samuel Gompers, the leading force of trade unionism and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL, founded in 1886), believed that the best means of improving wages for Anglo males was to restrict the labor supply. His strategy was to advocate the return of women to the home and the banning of blacks and Asians from the unions. Although the AFL never formally adopted these restrictions at the national level, many local chapters did so through both formal rules and informal practices.”

In “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” famed historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, states:

“The metalanguage of race also transcended the voices of class and
ethnic conflict among Northern whites in the great upheavals of labor
during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amid their opposition, capital and labor agreed sufficiently to exclude blacks from union membership and from more than a marginal place within the emerging industrial work force. Job ceilings and hiring practices limited the overwhelming majority of black men and women to dead-end, low paying employment-employment whites disdained or were in the process of abandoning. The actual class positions of blacks did not matter, nor did the acknowledgment of differential statuses (such as by income, type of employment, morals and manners, education, or color) by blacks themselves. An entire system of cultural preconceptions disregarded these complexities and tensions by grouping all blacks into a normative well of inferiority and subserviency.”

I know many of you probably already know this. Yet, I also think many of you needed a reminder.…/evelyn-brooks-higginbotham