Why the socialist discourse on identity politics is so confused

We're in the middle of a messaging campaign by Democratic and Republican capitalists.

Thought experiment: imagine that you are an utterly cynical political operative whose exclusive goal is to defend the rich from socialists, who want to expropriate their wealth and give workers control of the means of production. Because this is your goal, you will be much more likely than socialists are to get rich capitalists to back you and fund massive political / media operations.

First, suppose that you want to foment hostility against socialists among the rank-and-file of the Democratic Party. Since Democrats are generally concerned with issues of identity like racism and sexism — or at least, since this is their brand — an obvious angle will be to insist that the socialist agenda is at odds with these concerns. You might argue, for example, that socialists simply don’t care about such things, or that they even approve of things like bigotry and systematic / institutional oppression. And you would insist that this is not just a quirk of individual socialists, but a defining feature of socialism itself.

This argument would wreak all kinds of havoc in the discourse. Among Democrats, it would accomplish at least some of its intended effect: to make wealth expropriation and worker control of the means of production look, somehow, like racist or sexist outcomes. Among socialists, meanwhile, you would predictably see two forms of overreaction. Some might conclude that this critique is basically right, and would become deeply suspicious of socialism and the socialists, even as they continue to identify as one themselves. Others might swing in the opposite direction and agree that this critique is actually correct, but that things like racism and sexism are actually good, or at least unimportant.

Now: imagine that you are this operative, but that you want to foment hostility towards socialists among anyone in the GOP who might be sympathetic towards things like wealth expropriation or worker control of the means of production. Since Republicans have long been concerned with things like “political correctness” and “wokeness”, one obvious angle would be to insist that this is really what socialism is all about. You would maintain that these people who say that they oppose things like economic inequality and worker exploitation really just want your kids to become blue-hair hippies who yell at you for saying “Latino” instead of “Latinx”; besides, all of these people are rich champagne socialists themselves, or at least PMCs.

The discourse effects, of course, would be exactly symmetrical. Republicans, even those sympathetic to things like wealth expropriation and worker control of the means of production, would conclude that the people who advocate for such things are all really just SJW Democratic elites. Among socialists, some would basically agree with this critique; and others would overreact to it, and insist that there is no such thing as a self-described socialist who is really just a liberal Democrat.

Three takeaways from this thought experiment:

  1. If anyone calls for wealth expropriation and worker control of the means of production, we should expect the narratives about them that rich people are willing to fund to dominate the discourse. Antiquated ideas about how the discourse works imagine that it proceeds as a strictly rational debate, with correct narratives inevitably ascending against the incorrect ones. A materialist understanding of ideology, however, tells us that the people who control massive channels of communication and publication are the ones who dominate the discourse (a point that is perfectly obvious if, say, you have ever criticized a blue check on Twitter with a giant corporate media platform and noticed that it never does a thing to discredit them).

  2. The narratives about socialists that will dominate the discourse are completely predictable, based entirely on which partisans rich people are pandering to. One narrative will insist that most (if not all) socialists are white male cishet crypto-fascists; the other will insist that most (if not all) socialists are soy PC crypto-Democrats.

  3. These narratives will combine to create a rigid ideological framework, funded by competing factions of the rich, from which it will be very difficult to escape. Popular debate will occur almost entirely within the bounds of two absolutist simplifications about socialists: that they are either Republican fascists or Democratic SJWs. (Both sides, notably, will agree that socialists tend to be well-off, if not outright rich.) Even socialists themselves will routinely fall into this ideological trap, often because they are not viewing the discourse from the materialist perspective that brings us to the analysis outlined above.

We should expect this ideological debate about socialists to emerge regardless of what socialism, in theory and as practiced, actually is. I suppose it’s possible that one of these narratives that dominate our discourse — funded by the rich and advanced by political partisans — happens to be closer to the truth than the other; but that would be an awfully big coincidence, and is directly at odds with what a materialist understanding of ideology would lead us to expect.