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Into the Breach, by Guy Rundle

A politics for the new divisions

‘There is no such thing as a good Trump voter!’ screamed the front-page headline for a new article by Jamelle Bouie, political editor at online daily Slate. It was the week after Donald Trump’s shocking, earth-shattering election victory, and Bouie’s seventh or eighth article since then. A leading young black writer in mainstream US liberal media, Bouie had identified strongly with the Hillary Clinton campaign, and been disdainful of the left insurgency of Bernie Sanders, arguing that Clinton’s approach, emphasising race as much as class, was a more genuinely progressive vision for the Democrats to hold—and, what was more, a winning formula. Now, facing this hideous defeat, Bouie had turned his guns first on the ‘Bernie Bros’ and then on all Trump voters, marking them as the same. In Salon, to the left of Slate, Amanda Marcotte ran the same line with regard to gender. To consider some non-racist, non-sexist reasons why people might vote for Trump (and 42 per cent of US voting women did) was held to be reactionary. Even considering Trump as an option damned such people, no matter how great their sense of being forgotten and excluded by a centrist Democratic process. Trump’s sexism and chauvinism/racism should have been sufficient to rule him out. Across the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, the mainstream and more marginal liberal press echoed the same sentiment. When Bouie was, in turn, furiously attacked, he returned fire with equal fury, further entrenching himself in his position. This was a position shared by Marcotte and others: that progressives and leftists could have no dealings with working- and excluded-class people who didn’t reach a minimum level of acceptable progressivism.

The old idea that people from such classes who held racist or sexist attitudes could be persuaded to see them as scapegoating others for the class oppression they were themselves suffering had gone. If the white working class, and a third of Latinos, were going to vote for Trump, a new progressive coalition would have to be put together from the people who tended to be found in the knowledge and culture sectors: students, the black community, and people of good heart, already self-defined as progressives. It didn’t look to many that there were sufficient numbers for a winning coalition, but the new progressives were adamant. In articles for Slate and elsewhere, many were quite explicit about this division.

This attitude, and its wide acceptance, marks a new and important political breach, for it appeared not only to confirm but positively encourage the political revolution that team Trump had wrought in the Republican Party. The crew around Trump, drawn from the right-wing ‘Breitbart’ website, emphasised the nation as the vessel of collective political being and attacked the free-market politics held dear by the Republicans—and, of course, by many Democrats, including Clinton. The political shift was another instalment in a final transfer of large sections of the white non-coastal working class to the Republican Party. But this was not a simple repeat of the Nixon Democrats, Reagan Democrats temporary crossover. The division between the ‘knowledge-culture’ classes and the working class was now so great that there would be nothing in the Democrats they would recognise to cross back to. Hitherto, those in the political wing of this new knowledge-culture class had seen the maintenance of an alliance—one that’s become extremely attenuated of late—as essential. Now, freed of the encumbrance, a sort of giddiness took over. At last they could do what they had long wanted, and re-organise their politics with cultural and gender politics at the centre. The working class, those who had not become, foremost, progressive in their politics, were identified as the locus of racism, sexism and xenophobia.

However, this was not simply a matter of one specific class rejecting another. Here, the asymmetry of the two classes came into play. By class I mean not the dominant and one-dimensional division via a relation to capital but the relationship to the production and creation of knowledge, culture, images, policy and the like. In the West, a primary division, politically, culturally and socially, is starting to occur along this line, as the group of people working and making these sectors become sufficiently numerous and important to be a class in their own right. This is not ‘class’ as a sociological group but in its deeper sense: that of a distinct relationship of materiality and being to the world.

The knowledge-culture class consists of the commanders and workers of the new globalised, borderless world of information and smart automation, and the occupiers of its cosmopolitan, abstracted culture of radical autonomy and rights. They are on the side of the abstract, general, unbounded, infinite, of one idea, arising from the enlightenment of what human liberation and full realisation might be. The ‘excluded’ classes—the fragmented, casualised, impoverished working class, the permanently benefits dependent, whole geographical African American communities—tend towards the concrete, particular, bounded and known, a lean towards being over knowing, concrete practice over abstract systems.

In the great class and political struggles of modernity, these abstract and more concrete, general and particular divisions were to be found on both sides of the Left–Right divide. Non-communist socialism was often fused with nationalism and communalism—Swedish social democrats called their 1920s program the folkhusets (‘people’s home’), on the eve of a victory that would last well over seventy years—that grounded its abstracted, knowledge-focused and planned reconstruction of social life. Even the most one-sidedly radical commitments to reconstruction recrudesced. The radical humanism of Bolshevism—abolishing the family, radical reconstructions of self—soon gave way to Stalinism, which, along with its use of terror and repression, recentred society on the family, and daily life on routinised work compensated for by leisure hours. Only Maoism kept up the pace, with thirty years of ceaseless, extraordinary, and extraordinarily violent transformation from 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978–9 (at which point the counterfeit radical transformation of capitalism recommenced).

On the Right side, the liberal-conservative formula, over decades, was that traditional society, authorised and protected by the state, would encompass a market, in which the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalism could be allowed to ceaselessly revolutionise life, while a traditional culture, assisted by an assertive state, would hold values in place.

The crucial event of our era is that these two tendencies within the human spirit—to revolutionise and conserve—have now become identified with two separate mega-classes: the knowledge-culture class and the excluded. The knowledge-culture class idolises Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, the black-skivvied avatars of the new futurismo, at the same time as they have replaced the hitherto abstracted and idealised worker—the steelworker, the working single mother—with new figures who dominate the political imagination, chiefly the trans person and the refugee, the forced nature of the latter’s movement ignored in favour of a celebration of the fluid/nomadic/rhizomatic and so forth. Remake the world, remake selfhood. Praise the two ‘news’; down with the two olds. The technological and social-cultural-psychological politics of the knowledge-culture class share a certain mercilessness with the old Maoist program as regards existing life-worlds.

The lack of identification with the excluded classes (some of it a merciful release from workerism) is matched by a lack of interest in a strong, enabling or coercively progressive state. Inevitably, there is an attraction towards a certain type of capitalism. True, when the bulk of the knowledge-culture class was young—and this is a mass class of less than a generation’s existence—and many were students, this drive to the infinite expressed itself as a substantial and widening interest in the potential of new technologies as open source, unbounded and propriety free, a part of infinite free exchange. The creation of the Napster music-sharing system in 1999 suggested the rise of a whole new world. Remember Napster? Recently, sections of the remaining political Left have become interested in the fusion of these ideas with anti-statist Marxist notions, under the idea of ‘post-capitalism’.

But as this interest has risen, the widespread enthusiasm for open source as a mass political movement has faded somewhat. The reason is obvious: as the new knowledge-culture class has entered and risen through the workforce, many at professional levels, or as self-paying entrepreneurs generating apps and other products, capitalism has become re-fused with the borderless world of knowledge and information that challenges it. Transforming the world with a knowledge-culture supercharged capitalism suddenly appears attractive to many, not simply because the radical open-source model was unworkable (in any period prior to some sort of fantastical ‘full communism’) but in part because such a fusion offers the opportunity for a heroic class power—power over the world, and over others. Information capitalism may sequester knowledge, free flow, infinite exchange, but it may be, not coincidentally, the one sort of bordering, enclosure and propriety the knowledge-culture class gains an enthusiasm for.

Consequently, the general/particular, abstract/concrete knowledge split will increasingly set the two hitherto united classes against each other in the area of global production and trade. In the first round of the global anti-capitalist movement, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, enough of a socialist-oriented alliance remained for there to be an outright and mass rejection of the World Trade Organization and the newly interlaced global free-trade system. When the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) emerged a decade or so later, opposition from the knowledge-culture class was split. The TPP took Barack Obama to the political and economic ‘Right’ of his party, Hillary Clinton followed him there in support of the deal, and she was only persuaded to abandon it by the rise of the Bernie Sanders insurgency, which was firmly left-nationalist on political-economic questions. Crucially, however, millions of the knowledge-culture class were supportive of Clinton even before she had abandoned the TPP. Its anti-democratic, anti-organised-labour, anti-sovereignty provisions were simply not sufficient for them to abandon the march to class victory—the completion of race and gender triumphs in the presidential arena—that her election would represent. Neither Bouie nor Marcotte found Clinton’s support of the TPP, and the deep sense in which her politics were expressive of such, to be a deal-breaker in terms of active support and enthusiastic preference for her. Had even a skerrick of the old alliance been in place, such ease of support would not have been possible.

This political division will only increase. The knowledge-culture class has a great interest in fair-trade, free-exchange, borderless reciprocity—it has an interest in the universal content of universally extended relations—and it has an interest in modular, ‘post-capitalist’, fluid solutions to problems, such as using renewable energy and large-battery storage to access power off the grid. But it has no affinity with, or enthusiasm or support for, what the precursors of its class once had—large-scale state socialism, or radical social democracy, with its necessary use of boundaries, borders and membership and otherwise of a community to manage production, distribution, power, economy and opportunity within society. As it has become less interested in this—and indeed has become a critic of Big Government—the excluded classes have become more interested in more concrete and culturally bounded forms. The question of community, investment levels and orders has replaced the question of ownership and share—the ownership of capital has become a non-question (for the moment, at least), with people more concerned about where it is geographically located. People are concerned about the retention of industries, jobs, neighbourhood, first, and large-scale investment in society, while who ultimately owns the investment is, for the moment, a secondary question. That is for the excluded classes. For the knowledge-culture classes, the question of openness—of the primary importance of reducing borders, increasing global and universal flow, exchange—is prior to the question of how a community should have its resources shared out. Increasingly, the knowledge-culture class will find itself as the ‘cultural Left’ of an economic politics that emphasises the primacy of free exchange (it will see the market as the only form of this, but it will be increasingly opposed to impeding its operation as such).


The ‘material’ Left—those of us interested in a transformed world along certain ethical/existential lines inherited from traditions like Marxism, but no longer bound by them—must accept one thing, first, absolutely and without any cavilling or wishful thinking. The alliance, dating from the 1960s, that brought together the nascent knowledge-culture subclass and the working class into a broad and powerful social-democrat/socialist Left of liberal and progressive sociocultural politics is gone. Dead. That alliance has no chance of revival, even in the attentuated form in which it existed into the 2000s. Should a broad alliance between a section of the knowledge-culture class and a large section of the working/excluded classes be revived, it will be as an alliance with the differences of each respected by the other.

This would be quite different to the postwar Left, which was seen—especially by many in its knowledge-culture class section—not as an alliance but as an expression of the essential qualities of human being. Members of that class believed that the equality and collective autonomy of a fully realised socialism would match the individual’s cultural and personal liberation from all previous oppressions by sex, race and sexuality, and their liberation from all imposed bounds whatsoever. The ‘New Left person’ would feel complete equality to be not their second but their first nature (even though no such thing as nature existed). To a degree this process was observable; in the great liberal era of the postwar world, almost everyone gradually became less sexist, racist and discriminatory, and residual manifestations of that in one’s class allies could be seen as time limited. But that notion was, more recently, extended to more general values: other classes would lose their preference for the known and historically transmitted and become as globally cosmopolitan as the members of the knowledge-culture class monitoring them (often literally, these days). The equality of men and women, the equality of hetero- and same-sex desires—these were simply values that become essential once a specific religious (or political: note the abhorrence for homosexuality under Stalinism and Maoism, the subjection of women under Italian fascism) value system has been abandoned as the grounding narrative of moral conduct, and the necessary fact of human equality observed. In modernity, such liberal humanism could be seen as the necessary ground, revealed as specific prejudices were, bit by bit, removed and abolished.

What has set the agenda, or an agenda, for the past few years is that the most class-expressive, activist sections of the knowledge-culture class have extended this process from a necessary general humanism to their class-specific values of infinitely open equivalence: they argue that there is no given difference between men and women, no difference between nature and culture, that there should be no difference between our comportment towards a community member and that towards a stranger, and so on. This is not the advancement of a simple unarguable moral system; it is the advancement of a specific theory of human existence that has only become plausible in the last few decades, but dissent from which is now variously labelled sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and the like. In the past half-decade, the application of this moral order has become insistent, even against minority intellectual traditions within the knowledge-culture class—such as psychoanalysis, which rejects the notion of an identical subjectivity buried beneath outward layers of gender, or second-wave materialist feminism, such as that of Germaine Greer, which rejects the idea that a born-male trans person taking on female attributes, from dress to physiological transformation, can reasonably be called a woman. Though the ideology of the knowledge-culture class ostensibly celebrates difference, it actually advances the idea of an enormous equivalence, a world in which all identity is constructed on a single cultural dimension. Under the impact of this, one group of the knowledge-culture class is now simply rejecting the excluded classes altogether—and becoming increasingly disdainful of and uninterested in their social condition, one of growing disadvantage in terms of opportunity, education, health and life-path choice.

On the other hand, many in what can still be described as the Left continue to extend a notion of ‘false consciousness’ to the knowledge-culture/excluded class split. Though many find a certain silliness in much of the mass-culture treatment of this issue—the celebration of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner as ‘woman of the year’, for example—they cannot, however, mount a thorough criticism of this cultural-political drift from within their political ideology. Such an impasse illustrates how deep the contradictions of this remnant Left run, and the degree to which the new class split has laid them bare.

To regard the excluded classes as likely to adopt the knowledge-culture class take on identity, nature and culture, sex and gender, community and rights, and so forth, is to follow the originating error of the Left and imagine attachment to other values as nothing but false consciousness.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, working-class and excluded-class culture took the same trajectory as society at large, losing some fixed ideas of gender roles and male domination, much of the soft or hard racialism of pre–Second World War society, and some of the formerly virulent opposition to homosexuality. But even as this occurred, excluded-class culture in other areas insisted on resisting knowledge-culture class beliefs in gender/race/sexuality equivalence. Mass culture—in hard-rock and country lyrics, action-movie franchises, comedy—became more insistent on the differences of desire, comportment and values between sexes and ethnicities, more oriented towards patriotism and the nation, and more willing to celebrate all such. By the 2000s the situation had become absurd: working-class culture celebrated hot women and fast cars, endorsed a sexual contract of male pursuit and female display, maintained a belief in labour division around child-raising, saw, from both sides, major differences in black and white culture and values, and were at least able to openly regard the celebration of Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner as ‘woman of the year’ as absurd. Yet for the Left, still projecting the political role of universal human subject onto the working class, all these attitudes were simply evidence of the mounting degree of false consciousness created by the ideological apparatuses bolstered by a media society plugged into capitalism.

It is vital that ‘the material Left’, which is drawn from the knowledge-culture class, understand the complex roots of this form of projection. It was wrong at the start—the product of a powerless class with great dreams of global transformation. It is wrong now, but for different reasons. What remains of the industrial working class, and the excluded classes, deprived of education, working cities, state initiatives towards opportunity and, above all, social power, is now constructed by many on the material Left as being the ‘authentic’ class. This class must still be persuaded to experience the Left’s radical commitment to equality in every dimension of life, so as to sanctify that goal for the knowledge-culture class—which shares these values, but whose members often have absurd jobs of pointless busywork and ideological production, and feel the need for endorsement by ‘real’ workers.

An alternative take is to argue that the knowledge-culture class is the universal class that Marx sought, and that its commitment to radical social equality will soon promote commitment to radical economic equality and post-capitalism—once the fascination with and fantasy of great riches from ideas alone have evaporated. But even if it is arguable that this class has acquired those universal habits, as the material structures of its activity (the Internet, media etc.), there is little scope for them to become one with the excluded classes in some general ‘multitude’, as has been sought. More likely, the knowledge-culture class and the excluded classes will define themselves against each other, on cultural grounds, and control over the excluded classes will become part of the ‘class pleasure’ of the knowledge-culture classes. The incessant regimes of control for public safety—in relation to smoking, food, public conduct, traffic—appear to have this purpose, in part: the ritual and endless enactment of the disjuncture between a class that controls knowledge, information and policy, and a class controlled by them.

How have so many on the material Left let themselves be lulled into a situation where they have neglected or refused to criticise and attack a set of class values that have nothing to say about the material liberation of persons? The answer is that it too still works under the assumption that the knowledge-culture class is the old insurgent bohemia/intelligensia, that its values must be radical values. The reverse is the case. Members of the material Left within the knowledge-culture class are like the old nineteenth-century revolutionaries, children of merchants become doctors become political activists adopting a working-class movement. They have the same relation to their ‘context’ class, the bourgeoisie, as today’s material Left should adopt towards the wider knowledge-culture class. The bourgeoisie taught the world to dream of ceaseless transformation to tame nature and turn it to human ends—and then made other humans the nature in question to be tamed and used as a means. Revolutionaries took up bourgeois habits—the determination to transform, the refusal to accept barriers, a necessary ruthlessness—and rejected the intent to which the bourgeoisie put them. So too should today’s material Left. The new forms of media, technology, global interconnection, organisation, universal notions of justice are inevitably and necessarily part of our entry into the world. But the implicit idea of the mass of the knowledge-culture class—an administered world in which an abstract morality of rights is enforced with a totalitarian zeal, while the big things such as the role of technology in daily life, control of the productive forces, the settings of existence such as the working day, the structure of cities, decommodified zones of time and space—must be rejected, and rejected absolutely.

This is not simply a quarrel between friends and allies. This is, at least as regards some people, a breach between those of contradictory political intent, whose antagonistic relation was hidden by structures inherited from history. It is a necessary breach, one that needs to be brought on all the faster to dissolve simple notions of a big-tent progressivism, in the interests of making visible a politics that has a deep and multidimensional idea of the human being at its core. Should there be no politics of this type arising from critical Enlightenment traditions, it will come from the other side of things, in a manner and a movement that will make the Trump fiasco—with its attendant clowns from the progressivist side simply part of the show—look like the farce before the tragedy.

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