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Marx’s error | Populism & Hegemony pt.2

This is the second post in a series.

As discussed briefly in part one, in modern society our identities are complex. Our lives tend to be fragmented. In different spheres of our lives, we play different roles, hold different loyalties, perform different identities, and cultivate different aspects of our identities. Take a minute to think of some of the many ways you identify or have identified throughout your life. What are some key aspects of your identity?

Seriously, take a minute. If you want, grab a piece of paper and a pen and write them down.

Below is a partial list of aspects of my identity; things that have meant something to me personally at different times in my life&#151many of them simultaneously&#151that I came up with in about a minute:

 boy    man    Caucasian  
 American Indian    American    Pennsylvanian  
 Minnesotan    rural    working class  
 Christian    Mennonite    pacifist  
 feminist    antiracist    pagan  
 heterosexual    musician    punk  
 revolutionary    progressive    student  
 worker    electrician    activist  
 environmentalist    organizer    trainer  

What did you come up with?

Our individual identities today tend to be multifaceted and fragmented. We live in a highly heterogeneous society, where individuals tend to have much greater agency over which features of their identities they will invest in and cultivate, and which they will divest from. In some important senses, we are consumers of our identities. I could start out a conservative farm kid and end up a bohemian artist in the big city. And in the process of this transition, as I invest in one set of identities and divest from another set of identities, I am simultaneously investing in new clusters of people and divesting from others.

This is not quite the world that Karl Marx imagined when he was hunkered down writing up a manifesto. Then, capitalist industrialization was making more and more people seem more and more alike. Industrialization was producing a relatively homogenous industrial working class; meaning that a critical mass of folks worked in similar exploitative arrangements, made similar wages, lived in similar conditions of squalor, packed into the same urban areas, wore similar clothing, and on and on. All of these similarities acted as signifiers of an emerging “group” &#151 the industrial working class.

This is precisely how working class “consciousness” developed simultaneously in industrializing countries all around the world within such a relatively short time span &#151 causing a political polarization that was favorable (in terms of numbers that could be mobilized) to working class interests. I put the word consciousness in quotations because I believe this emergence was only possible because of how signifiers of similarity triggered primal, preconscious group-oriented instincts in people’s heads (per my discussion in part one).

Today, working people are still being screwed. Capitalism has further consolidated wealth and power, but the kind of solidarity and class consciousness that was common a hundred years ago is rarer today. There’s no longer any one coherent, organized working class identity that’s big enough to shake up the status quo. To be clear, the emergence of class identity was never an automatic process. Nor was it even close to a fully homogenizing process. There have always existed important heterogeneous layers within any broad class identity. But the signifiers of class similarity, more abundant a hundred years ago than today, probably made the constructive process of working class identity significantly easier.  So much so that many Marxists believed that a radical redistribution of capital and political power was a foregone conclusion; an inevitable, automatic historical process… right around the corner.

But today we are a very self-expressive bunch. As individuals, we express ourselves in dramatically different fashion, and thereby signify to each other&#151i.e. constantly remind each other of&#151our differences. These expressions of difference, as discussed in part one, are at their root signifiers of belonging with the groups that each of us identifies with the most.  The bonding is happening within these groups, but we’re increasingly disinterested in crossing bridges between groups.

This is what a fragmented society looks like.

To be clear, I am not making a value judgment about this fragmentation. This is not a nostalgic rant longing for the era of a more homogenous-seeming working class. Rather, I am attempting to accurately assess our contemporary terrain, for the purpose of working toward a strategy that makes sense for our context; ideally, a winning strategy for progressives. I believe that the fragmented, heterogeneous composition of our society makes populist alignments absolutely indispensable, if we want to build the kind of collective power that can rein in the very rich and powerful and bring about meaningful progressive change.

Fortunately for this discussion, we have some very powerful, very contemporary examples of such populist alignments, which I’m leading up to…

(For a deeper discussion of how advanced industrialized societies became so fragmented, read anything by Ronald Inglehart, or check out Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, or read my review of it.)

1 Comment

  1. Someone asked me&#151on a facebook thread about this article&#151to provide more clarity about the error I am referring to.
    The error was the prediction that conditions of industrialization would lead increasingly to a more homogenized, self-aware industrial working class. What actually happened was that capitalist processes made, and are making, society increasingly complex&#151less homogenous&#151and “workers of the world” have not organically and automatically attained the level of class consciousness and class unity that Marx and many Marxists had anticipated.
    That’s why Gramsci is so important. He engaged this complexity in his strategic frameworks. Stay tuned. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

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