Many who once embraced identity politics are now turning away from it. But this is a cycle we keep repeating in modern history. In the first instalment of a new series examining the rise, fall and rise of culture wars and their social and political meaning, James Foley remembers his engagement with an earlier left-wing backlash against culture war.
“Fashion is a form of imitation and so of social equalization, but, paradoxically, in changing incessantly, it differentiates one time from another and one social stratum from another. It unites those of a social class and segregates them from others. The elite initiates fashion and, when the mass imitates it in an effort to obliterate the external distinctions of class, abandons it for a newer mode.” – Georg Simmel.
In this series, I will examine the lifecycle of “radical” philosophies: why some ideas proliferate; why they decline; and what traces they leave afterwards. My starting point is that identity politics is in decline. Its taboos are being broken; its furious energies are being redirected. Yet increasing incredulity to identity politics has provoked little self-examination. Rather than being consciously replaced by better ideas, identity ideology is being unceremoniously shed like last season’s style trend. And in its decline, identity politics is revealing the truth of its earlier proliferation: it spread less through conscious conviction and rather more as fashions do, by a process involving equal parts imitation and differentiation.
That insight is not intended as a personal slight to anyone who feels the pull of a zeitgeist. Indeed, it led me to consider my own journey through various iterations of radical politics, which brought me to rereading my first political book, Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Today’s hipper youngsters would doubtless cringe at this tale of Gen-X agonising over branding and sweatshops: many of No Logo’s tropes have passed into activist folklore and have suffered for it. It was of its time. But perhaps that’s the point: I was drawn towards a political (anti)fashion trend, through a subcultural process very similar to mass expressions of today’s identity politics. For a precocious but insecure fourteen year-old, No Logo was both a fuck you to the high school normies and a doorway to the cooler kids that I imagined inhabited campuses. Every generation has its variant of radical posturing: aging badly comes with the territory.
But fashions are also circular, and thus, with a fresh eye, it’s surprising how much of No Logo feels fiercely contemporary. For all the badly dated surface of AdBusters and placards outside Gap, No Logo is also, quite explicitly, a tale of generational disenchantment with the earlier phase of what we now call identity politics. Quite explicitly, much of it tells of exasperation with the holy trinity of humanities research (race, gender, sexuality) and with faux-decolonial fussing over English literature curriculums. The complaint is that these affectations have served to deradicalize radical politics.
“In the absence of a clear legal or political strategy, we traced back almost all of society’s problems to the media and the curriculum,” Klein laments.
And so our battlefields were sitcoms with gay neighbours who never got laid, newspapers filled with pictures of old white men, magazines that advanced what author Naomi Wolf termed “the beauty myth,” reading lists that we expected to look like Benetton ads, Benetton ads that trivialized our reading-list demands… Over time, campus identity politics became so consumed by personal politics that they all but eclipsed the rest of the world. The slogan ”’the personal is political” came to replace the economic as political and, in the end, the Political as political as well…The backlash that identity politics inspired did a pretty good job of masking for us the fact that many of our demands for better representation were quickly accommodated by marketers, media makers and pop-culture producers alike.
No Logo thus tells of how radicalised youth, led by women, rejected faddish “political correctness” (PC) in pursuit of something more authentic. Cynics are entitled to wonder whether Klein’s generation of disenchanted Gen-X-ers truly overcame the phoniness they detected in the PC wars. And doubtless, the habit of seeking out “authenticity” in the struggles of other people is as old as youth culture (indeed, this is reflected in the original 1950s meaning of “hipster”). No Logo can certainly be read as a type of adventure tourism, the tale of an intrepid young journalist, burnt out on Western academic decadence, seeking a slice of real life in the union squats of Southeast Asia.
But the point is not to judge phases better or worse. No Logo testifies, more importantly, to the circular nature of activist enthusiasm and disenchantment. Klein’s generation of campus activists took political correctness very seriously. They thought they could change the world by “challenging discursive tropes”, by introducing hornier gay neighbours to sitcoms, by making adverts that looked more like Benetton. Campus professors reared in the seventies taught them that this “cultural turn” was fresher and more subversive than hoary old “class reductionism”. And doubtless, by some measures, they scored real successes in shifting dominant culture and marketing; PC’s achievements were far from uniformly negative.
Nonetheless, memories of the period carry the risk of self-serving delusion. Mythology holds that 1990s political correctness was dethroned by a conservative backlash. The myth survives because it forms a crucial part of the narrative of both wings of the political class. Like most myths, it has its moments of truth. But it disguises the less convient and more important fact that PC simply fell from fashion; and those shifts in style were doubly pronounced among those who had really believed PC was about changing the world. The unserious were content to accept a more sterilised corporate culture, where one would refer to unmarried women as “Ms” and to black coffee as coffee without milk. Conversely, the anti-PC backlash was not about “conservatism” so much as a rebellion against phoniness that crossed ideological divides.
The point is not to decry political correctness, but rather to appreciate the necessity of its demise. PC burned out, as did the activists, because these many cosmetic changes proved more than compatible with reproducing the dominant, vicious logic of neoliberal capitalism. Some abandoned pretences of changing the world; some succumbed to disenchantment; but a crucial minority sought authenticity elsewhere.
The aftermath was complex. On the one hand, the new seriousness epitomised by No Logo: away with all our discursive mumbo-jumbo and our Western consumerism – focus on real material oppression, in the Indonesian sweatshops. On the other hand, the unleashing of chaotic, anarchic masculine energies, visible not just in South Park, Jackass and nu metal, but also in splenetic anti-capitalist riots. The excesses of that era are vividly displayed (if histrionically narrated) in the recent Netflix documentary about Woodstock 99. Its many idiocies are undeniable. But that can’t disguise the keenly felt exhaustion that propelled it.
The first phase of political correctness ended in the sterilised mega-hypocrisies of nineties centrist politics. It reached the height of absurdity when the glitterati of American feminism were shuffled on stage to defend Bill Clinton, who, to critics, had not only cheated on his wife and monstered Monica Lewinsky, but also bombed a Sudanese medical plant to distract from the scandal (it didn’t help that the excellent satire Wag the Dog was released a month before the bombing). Hypocrisy breeds exhaustion: and PC succumbed to it.
What came next was not always better, or smarter. But the transition from one to the other testifies to the circular knot of left-wing fads driven by the pursuit of status and subcultural legitimacy.
We tend to imagine today’s “culture war” as a unique departure from an earlier phase of mass politics. There’s truth in that, since today’s technological and political-economic realities do tend to accelerate the influence of faddish and subcultural trends on leftist consciousness. But this also risks becoming a new mythology. In truth, the left has been both plagued and energised by subcultural youth consciousness for generations: since at least 1968. The result is that leftist history often parallels, or overcompensates against, fashion trends derived from youth culture. Certain themes we consider “new” are better considered as grandchildren parading in the costumes of their grandparents.
Take gender nonconformity and virtue politics, the two trends most synonymous with the faddishness of contemporary internet cultures. Also take the emerging backlash against these voguish trends. Are there not obvious parallels here with the shifts between the feminine, right-on, officially-virtuous (“peace and love”) youth culture politics of the late sixties, and the subsequent punk rock backlash? In punk mythology, hippies are untrustworthy precisely insofar as they claim pure intentions, in stark contrast to the truth of the sixties counterculture (death, depravity, drug overdose). Punks, by their own account, were engaged in demythologisation and a politics of brutal honesty, pitched against the earlier hypocrisies of hippy virtue which ended in so many health fads and lifestyle businesses.
There are parallels in American black culture. Mythology on both sides imagines the rebellion against disco as a white trash backlash against the simultaneous rise of gay and black subcultures (as with the “disco sucks” slogan). But the reaction was just as keenly felt among cultures of black militancy, and the subversive history of rap music is inextricably bound to a revolt against insipid, consumerist music made by black people for white people. Rap was styled as its contrary: seriousness, separateness, authenticity and an autonomy rooted in masculinity.
Yet for all these precursors, the trends that people variously call wokeness or identity politics are products of a less heroic age. The sheer randomness of leftist trends is unimaginable outside of the post-1989 “end of history”. As a philosophy, identity politics reflect the realisation, routinisation, radicalisation and (crucially) Americanisation of the postmodern ideas that dominated humanities research in the 1990s. I have sometimes called it “banal postmodernism”, insofar as it kept the framework of postmodern thinking while abandoning the Grand Theory pretences (long excurses on Heidegger, De Man, Nietzsche and Foucault are no longer PhD prerequisites; indeed, all four are, to varying degrees, “cancelled”). It is banal also insofar as it forms part of human resource management, legal bureaucracy and administration. Conversely, the psychology of “woke” is anything but banal. What defines the trend is thus a curious combination of extremist psychology with practical accommodation to political-economic order.
Today, this “wokeness” feels vulnerable precisely because, culturally, it has become all-encompassing. Given how much it has been propelled on the shoulders of fashion, the logic of stylistic fluctuation suggests that mass acceptance prefigures its downfall.
Judgements of good or bad, better or worse, are not my purpose. Instead, we should understand the long and troubled history of efforts to pursue politics through subcultures, or to confine cultural innovation to exterior political agendas. Subordinating politics to culture, or vice versa, works to denigrate both. Culturally, the outcome is innovation by numbers (X number of minority characters leading to X number of positive Guardian reviews) with results that are both formally sterile and incapable of real subversion. Politically, the outcome is a fanatical, perpetually outraged psychology that not only masks persistent inequality, but actually helps reproduce the system’s rhythms at their most vicious.