Monday, 25 January 2016

White Guilt and Middle Class Angst

Freudian explanations can be quite cheap, and in politics one has to be careful that psycho-analysis doesn't become ad hominem in analyst's garb. That being said there are two particular trends in political rhetoric that I think deserve an emotional probing, if only because a rational one would be fruitless. As the title suggests, I refer to the political right's obsession with accusing opponents of "white/colonial/national guilt" and the political left's passive-aggression directed at its own middle-class members.

Within British politics there are a certain contingent of pundits and campaigners who have a somewhat revisionist opinion of British colonialism. Naturally attempts by the left to dispute claims that British colonialism had the broad global interest at heart or improved the lot of the developing world are chalked up to "colonial guilt". The idea being that the left are possessed of a self-hatred motivating them to give undue credence to claims of atrocity committed by their forebears.

This kind of accusation is curiously silly when you unpack it. The left's traditional stance on nationalism can be summed up by a quote from the, not very left wing, comedian Doug Stanhope:

"Nationalism does nothing but teach you to hate people you've never met and take pride in accomplishments you had no part in".

Considering similar movements in Japan, Germany and other nations, I think we can add an extra symptom to our diagnosis of nationalism:

"Nationalism does nothing but teach you to hate people you've never met, take pride in accomplishments you had no part in and acquire guilt-complex's over atrocities you didn't commit."

Being ashamed of your nation or your race only makes sense if you have already adopted a framework within which your identity and self-worth are already tied to your nationality or race. The left wing perspective is as incapable of national shame as it is of national triumph. Sure there are the occasional melodramatic fools who engage in performative self-flagellation but these are generally cries for attention rather than a sincere apology for atrocity. While the left may have its own biases, derived from their combatitive struggle with the right, such biases do not, and cannot, stem from an affective attitude which the left considers to be irrational tout court.

The accusation of self-hatred via colonial guilt only makes sense from an inherently right-wing perspective. The right-winger perceives the left wing argument as an argument in favour of self-hatred precisely because accepting left wing accounts of history while observing a right-wing social ontology would necessitate self-hatred. All across the globe there are people who insist that belonging to their particular nation gives reason for celebration and these people can often provide vague historical justifications for such an outlook. More worryingly, within the nations that have historically been host to notable human rights abuses there are nearly always a small, but relatively vocal, group arguing that such histories are the product of self-hatred which Japan/Germany/Britain needs to move past.

It is only when you are ambivalent to your national identity that you can view its short-comings without succumbing to guilt. Conversely if you have already committed yourself to the notion that you are "Proud to be...." then your nations past failings are considerably more threatening leading to a desire to deny, minimise and blot them out.

So moving from something that the left doesn't feel guilty about to something it does, let's discuss the role of students and the middle-class in left wing politics.


 The term petite bourgeoisie is a common putdown in left wing rhetoric: it denigrates things/people/practises which are counter-revolutionary in part because of their affluent origins. This concept makes some intuitive sense. The language of the left, bar the liberal middle, is the language of class warfare and for justice to prevail the working class must triumph over their oppressors - this necessitates a similar rejection of the logic of the ruling class. There are some other elements of identity politics at play here and also a desire to be seen as authentically representing "the working people" but the overall aim is clear.

Yet this aim is frustrated by the fact that left wing movements are not necessarily always endorsed by the working class: if they were then capitalism would have ended a long time ago. Indeed there are, not just in contemporary life, many cases in which instigators, writers and participants in left wing struggle were of petite bourgeois origin (Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, William Morris, Emma Goldman).

This is not necessarily surprising. Middle class people, and students especially, tend to be more educated and well-read; consequently they are far more likely to have come across books and people who discuss Marxism/Anarchism/Liberalism at a volume and in a tone other than "screaming". There's also the logistical barrier in terms of protest; participation in left wing politics often involves a good deal of sign waving, civil disobedience and risk of arrest. If you are a relatively un-skilled labourer, as opposed to a relatively affluent university student, then spending a day in a jail cell may be quite prohibitive: missing some of your lectures is one thing, missing your shift at work can be another. The result is left-wing activity being disproportionately accessible to those who have yet to acquire any "real world" commitments.

Considering this, is it really so surprising that many of our revolutionaries come from a section of society who have been given the time and opportunity needed to develop left wing beliefs?

All of this must be quite painful to read for those on the left who imagine themselves as part of an uprising working class rather than an expression of petit bourgeois idealism. That's not to say that left-wingness is middle-class by definition: merely that so far as it is a break from the status quo leftism will find a cultural van-guard in the sections of society with better access to education.

But angst about this is un-warranted and rhetoric that refers to purging the left of middle-class hipsters is wasted breathe. It is only expected that the radicals in a society like ours will come from backgrounds where radicalism and creativity are more easily acted upon. An acknowledgment of this is perfectly compatible with working to untangle access to left-wing politics from the bohemian lifestyle but it does require dropping the rhetoric of "leftism as working class populism."

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