For years, I thought I understood my comrades. When they condemned Western imperialism, I thought they were condemning all global inequality. When they opposed the injustice brought by market reforms, I thought they were in favor of justice for all. When they denounced the arrogance of urban elites, I thought they favored respect for all people. When they spoke up for the forgotten working class, I thought they meant the workers of the world. Recent developments make me suspect that my assumptions might have been premature.
A new tendency has formed amongst the left, and it gains in clarity and coherence by day. In countering Western imperialism and global capitalism, it is turning to the nation. It sticks up for the regular, local plebeian, so long-insulted by the cosmopolitan progressives of the metropoles, but it disdains the migrant proletarian who has no home. It sees through the hypocrisy of neoliberal multiculturalism, but instead of calling for cross-cultural resistance, it blames cultural mixing itself for neoliberalism’s sins.
Nationalism, of course, has found its place on the left since the left’s very beginnings, complicating the left’s aim to liberate the entire human race. Still, for the better part of the history of the left, left nationalism has taken the side of the weaker nations against the strong, of the exploited members of the nation against the exploited, and of the excluded against the fences and laws that exclude them. Today we see a rising form of left nationalism that reminds us of the worst aspect of leftist history: that representatives of the left, when defending one set of workers against another, become champions of the very type of exclusion that their movement was born to oppose.
In much of today’s world, the chauvinistic defense of the “white working class” has become the task of the radical right. But parts of the left have also rushed to the cause. In many cases, one can understand left politicians’ willingness to criticize immigration and cultural difference as a tactical calculation, grounded neither in personal conviction nor theoretical justification. In East-Central Europe, and especially in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, an anti-immigrant left has formed that is conscious and proud of how it departs from received images (allegedly received from the West) of the left as the defender of marginalized peoples and cultures. In attacking the “multiculturalism” that liberal elites have championed, this anti-multicultural left positions itself as the defender of the hard-working nation against dangerous outsiders, both rich and poor.
Shocked by events that have brought national interests and xenophobia to question as central issues, we’ve responded with slogans and insults more than analysis.
Those on the left in East-Central Europe who still believe in the principles of internationalism, have been justifiably horrified. But I don’t think we’ve really come to grips with what this new tendency means. Shocked by events that have brought national interests and xenophobia to question as central issues to our current times, we’ve responded with slogans and insults more than analysis. And without really understanding what we’re up against, we find it increasingly difficult to articulate a specifically leftist position at all. Finding ourselves suddenly on the liberal side of the barricades, we risk disappearing entirely from public view—just at the moment when the old neoliberal hegemony is unraveling and we might have finally had our day.
In order to offer a left alternative to xenophobic nationalism—a critique that does not signal the disappearance of the left amidst panicked attempts to “save” Western democracy from its enemies, but which recognizes liberalism’s own role in undermining the projects of enlightened and tolerant inequity around which liberal elites now call for us to rally—we should try to understand that the anti-multicultural left has a point. Its relative success stems from the fact that its criticism of liberalism rings true—despite the conclusions it draws being absolutely, terrifyingly, and tragically wrong.
Hello and Goodbye to the Working Class
The anti-multicultural left isn’t wrong, after all, when one observes that café-loving intellectuals have been nearly just as prejudiced toward the underprivileged masses of their own countries as they believe local masses are toward the underprivileged rest of the world. And nowhere did this particular contradiction develop more acutely than in Central Europe after 1989, when the liberal elites spoke in one breath of the need for market reforms and minority rights, of privatizing national assets and opposing nationalism, of cutting social welfare and respecting the multiple cultures of those whose welfare they cut. Since those same elites consistently delegitimized attempts to articulate internationalism and cultural difference in leftist terms, it is little wonder that large parts of the population came to associate neoliberalism with the multiculturalism that was held up as neoliberalism’s exculpatory human face.
The anti-multicultural left accepted the constructs of liberalism, simply inverting the hierarchy of values attached to them.
The very strength of this liberal-conservative position in post-communist Central Europe should be proof against the orientalist notion that this region is still stuck in atavistic nationalism, and that it “never fully absorbed liberal democratic values.” It was precisely the uncritical absorption of those liberal democratic values that would make them so short-lived. Once the values of democracy and human rights were tied – in the popular mind – to the plundering of national wealth, it wasn’t hard for the champions of the plundered nation to align themselves against the false idols of democracy and humanity. Once the impoverishing and belittling of the local working class had been carried out in the name of universal ethics and intercultural exchange, it was easy for the defense of the working class to become a defense of the nation against the universal and the intercultural. Liberal democratic discourse had already constructed the urban elites as culturally tolerant and progressive, while having constructed the working class as provincial, conservative, and opposed to “reform.” The anti-multicultural left accepted the constructs of liberalism, simply inverting the hierarchy of values attached to them. In spite of its professed radicalism, on this point and others the anti-multicultural left stands out most of all for its lack of political imagination.
The anti-multicultural left undertakes a righteous struggle against the hypocrisy and arrogance of urban elites. But it itself is not content with this. It declares an array of other figures guilty by association: not only liberals who ostentatiously love foreign and minority cultures, but also those cultures themselves; not only foreign and minority cultures, but also the immigrants and minorities who bear them; and not only immigrants, but also those who defend them. And so the anti-multicultural left declares itself in opposition to a “liberal” and “cosmopolitan” left which, by allying with immigrants and minorities, has allegedly given up on the working class. Ľuboš Blaha, a member of the Slovak Parliament for Smer – SD (Direction – Social Democracy), appears to have made it his task to be the anti-multicultural left’s (or in his terms, the “national left’s”) most systematic defender in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He writes of “liberal” leftists:
“They are interested in lifestyle, in recognizing minorities, in self-realization, the environment, in short, in post-materialist themes. […] And so the priorities of the liberal left change—from workers, or poor employees, to urban intellectuals, minorities, gays, lesbians, activists. […] Instead of the interests of workers and the struggle against capital, this ‘left’ expends itself in struggles for the recognition of difference, the celebration of diversity, multiculturalism, and the rights of sexual minorities. Goodbye, socialism.”
Every defense of immigrants and minorities, regardless of its justification and political perspective, is rebutted with polemics against liberalism.
No doubt such people exist. The radical left has been telling them for years that identity politics alone won’t overcome exploitation and alienation, and that elitism will never unite the oppressed masses of the world. But the anti-multicultural left almost never argues with the radical, internationalist left. Every defense of immigrants and minorities, regardless of its justification and political perspective, is rebutted with polemics against liberalism. Every criticism of racism and homophobia is met with the accusation that such criticism is liberal, and how dare one speak of such things when workers are struggling to make ends meet? The rhetorical effect is clear: we must choose between a national left that sides with workers and a cosmopolitan left that sides with “intellectuals, minorities, gays, lesbians, and activists.” In this vision, the possibility disappears that workers might ally with—or even be—intellectuals or activists, lesbian or gay, foreign or migrant. This vision accepts as established fact the conservatism that is disparagingly ascribed to workers by liberal elites. And it concludes that the left, in order to win over the workers, must cater to this conservatism and even directly foment it (if we are to judge by the political campaigns that this tendency supports, such as Smer – SD’s regular mobilization of anti-immigrant, anti-Romani, and anti-Hungarian sentiment). Because workers don’t like minorities and immigrants, the argument goes, the left should not only de-emphasize liberal identity politics but should directly adopt the conservative identitarian politics ascribed to workers. In order to defend the working class from the distracting identities of others, the left is supposed to awaken in the working class an exclusivist identity of itself.
Old Left, New Right
On the basis of their support for workers and their opposition to identity politics, the anti-multicultural left likes to present itself as a revival of the “Old Left.” So Blaha calls for a return to the movement that “was always based in working people, who often had rather conservative and authoritarian political views.” And against the elitist dismissal of working-class conservatism, which often leads progressives to form dismissive opinions of workers themselves, Blaha writes, “The historical role of the left, after all, is the struggle against capital, not the struggle against workers!”
But it has not been the historical role of the left to simply assume and accept that workers are conservative. The movement may sometimes have expressed the long-standing prejudices of its members, but its central idea—the principle of solidarity—meant that in the process of organizing around economic questions, workers could also achieve new social consciousness. The movement was majoritarian in its target but was at the same time countercultural in its vision. It offered structures through which workers could develop new values in opposition to the values that were handed to them by others and which contributed to their domination. It enabled workers of all sorts—conservatives and radicals, conformists and bohemians, locals and foreigners—to come together. And in course of their collaboration and mutual confrontation, in the course of struggle against conditions that affected them all, they could, together, become something new.
For the Old Left, “workers” was not a category circumscribed by sociological characteristics and national borders.
For the Old Left, “workers” was not a category circumscribed by sociological characteristics and national borders. The workers’ movement was not meant to be a movement of one part of humanity against other parts. In the struggle to transform the conditions of their labor, workers stood on the front lines in a war that included all people. There, workers would learn first-hand that they were not alone in the world, that their own success depended on the support and success of others. And so the notion of solidarity was linked to the notion of internationalism. “The working class” became an expansive category, meant to indicate a position around which the vast majority of humanity could gather—until, at last, as the song goes, the workers’ movement “will be the human race.”
Although some representatives of the anti-multicultural left may accept that workers could, in the long run, shed some of their conservatism, they consign this process to a distant future and remove it from the actual practice of the contemporary left. For the time being, they insist, their role is rather to protect the workers from change (and, in practice if not always in theory, to encourage them to become more conservative). But if this tendency deprives the working class of its former counterculturalism and internationalism, if it understands the working class as static and fixed, capable only of struggling for its particular interests as a culturally homogeneous entity isolated from the rest of the world, then it is not the Old Left that the tendency is reviving. This essentialization of the conservative worker may not be quite the position of classic fascism, whose millenarian visions are largely absent from this unambitious contemporary tendency, but it is clearly close this is to the position of the new (“extreme,” “populist,” or “identitarian”) right: a hard-working, white-skinned, national working class is held up against the cosmopolitan elites and their minority friends; the welfare state is defended, but only for those who deserve it; and the national (capitalist) economy is presented as a bulwark against global capital. To be sure, I am slightly less frightened by a (“left”) movement that claims to adopt these positions for pragmatic and strategic reasons than by a (“right”) movement that adopts them out of deeply held hatred, but once the positions are naturalized, taken to be the only possible basis for social politics, I’m not sure that underlying motivation makes a big difference. “Goodbye socialism,” indeed.
The Material of Nationalism
The anti-multicultural left claims to be concerned with economic questions, in contrast to a liberal left that cares only about culture. But how does the anti-multicultural left really understand economics? It does employ the classic categories of Marxism, but it does so with important qualification: Capital is appears nearly always as “transnational” capital. Workers appear as the workers of a specific nation, contrasted with those of other ethnicities and nations, who are not recognized as real workers. Absent is a picture of the larger social whole that makes capital appear translational while isolating workers between national borders, making it possible to obscure the difference between “workers” and “nation.” Instead of formulating a struggle that is as broad as capital itself, the anti-multicultural left presents one part of the capitalist world—the national—as the answer to another—the global.
One oppressive institution is affirmed over another, while the task of criticizing institutions and building new ones disappears from leftist politics.
It may well be true, as Blaha writes, that “when we get rid of the national state, the only actual, realistic alternative is the unlimited domination of transnational corporations, not some cosmopolitan, global (socialist) welfare state.” Because transnational institutions are de facto controlled by transnational capital, he declares himself in favor of national institutions, and he joins a chorus of voices calling for the defense of “national interest.” There may of course be good reason to favor certain national structures over certain international structures in instances where international structures are so patently undemocratic while national structures are slightly less patently so. But by formulating the problem in these terms, Blaha once again highlights the conservatism-of-vision of the anti-multicultural left. The anti-multicultural left accepts actually existing institutions as they are, and it asks us to choose from among them. One oppressive institution is affirmed over another, while the task of criticizing institutions and building new ones disappears from the arsenal of leftist politics.
But in some of its manifestations the anti-multicultural left goes still further in grounding its conception of labor in a national-conservative worldview. So Eduard Šebo, a businessman and patron of the nationalist left in Slovakia, who identifies himself as a “conservative socialist,” distinguishes his position from that of those “eurosocialists” whose “focus on minorities and difference tears them away from reality and real people” Here minorities are placed in opposition not only to “workers,” but to “real people.” According to this vaguely outlined ontology, whole sectors of society appear unreal, and this unreality is taken as justification for ignoring them or, if necessary, actively excluding them. But the distinction between the real and the unreal is defined culturally, as a distinction between “concentration on minorities” and concentration on the dominant nation. (In spite of the fact that, when observed from a global perspective, “minorities” make up the larger part of the total social reality.)
In the name of returning to “material” questions, the anti-multicultural left has instead turned from one kind of cultural question to another. Questions of “minority” culture are presented as fundamentally separate from economic concerns, while questions of “national” culture are presented as an essential part of economic reality. And, in the end, no one on the left speaks more frequently of culture than they. It is they who raise the specter of multiculturalism every time another leftist mentions, even in passing, that other cultures should not worry us. It is they who come to the passionate defense of national culture when they see it undermined by internationalist leftists and immigrants. What counts as “material,” in anti-multicultural leftist discourse, has been thoroughly nationalized.
The Fetish of Multiculturalism
The anti-mulcitultural left began with a critique of culture analogous to Feuerbach’s critique of religion, into which people placed all their hopes and soul while they neglected their material being. Czech sociologist and Social Democratic MEP Jan Keller, drawing uncritically on the national-conservative Quebecois author Mathieu Bock-Côté, goes so far as to call multiculturalism a “political religion.” Yet even as people like Keller turn from the multiculturalists’ castles in the sky to their hard-nosed concern for “real people,” they find themselves immersed in the same kind of alienated idealism that they set out to oppose. Much like Feuerbach himself—as Marx argued in his critical “Theses” on his erstwhile hero—the anti-multicultural left criticizes one partial attitude (the “religious” or “cultural” one) but falls back on another (the “material” one), failing to see their interconnection in a structured whole.
The anti-multicultural left takes each aspect of the system separately, rejecting out of hand internationalist talk of interconnection.
In this respect the anti-multicultural left accepts, once again, the terms set by that liberalism which it sees as its chief competitor. The central principle of liberalism is the principle of separation—the insistence on looking only at one sphere of social reality at a time, and on looking at entities within these spheres as separate entities pursuing separate interests. The anti-multicultural left likewise takes each aspect of the system separately, rejecting out of hand internationalist talk of interconnection. In principle, the anti-multicultural left opposes the “system,” but in practice it opposes the system’s partial manifestations. It sees no complex set of articulations among the different parts of the system; it enumerates the system’s parts and then classifies each on one or the other side of a great divide. On one side there is capital, urban elites, minorities, immigrants, and cultural mixing. On the other side there are workers, “real people,” and nations. The relative roles played by these different elements in holding the system together, and the relative ability of different elements to effect change, are of little concern.
“The system,” for the anti-multicultural left, appears without systematicity. Rather than seeing the system as a totality of concretely interconnected structures and mediations (what Marx and, following him, Karel Kosík, called a “concrete totality”), the anti-multicultural left takes the system only as an abstract starting point, from which it proceeds immediately to the system’s concrete expressions. From the critique of “capitalism” it moves to the critique of “neoliberal” and “global” capitalism. Then the critique of neoliberalism in general is carried out as a critique of neoliberal ideology. Then one aspect of this ideology, “multiculturalism,” stands in for the whole. And then alleged agents of multiculturalism—immigrants, minorities, liberals and the “cosmopolitan” left—stand in for the idea. Symbols are elided with structures, appearances with essences, effects with causes. We have a variation on what Moishe Postone, in his analysis of modern antisemitism, has called “foreshortened anticapitalism”: the system becomes personified, and opposition to the system transforms into opposition to entire categories of people.
It may be too early to tell whether the personification of anti-systemic sentiment will lead to the practical elimination of its symbolic targets, but it should be clear that the targets are thoroughly incommensurate with the problem at hand. Neither the ideological elimination of liberalism and “cosmopolitan leftism” (whether through democratic discussion or other means), nor the demographic neutralization of immigrants and ethnic minorities (which is difficult to imagine enacted without force), would seriously undermine the workings of neoliberalism as a social system. And the economic nationalism that is supposed to oppose “global” capitalism does not in itself guarantee that any of the wealth hoarded within a nation’s borders will be more fairly redistributed, nor that exploitation and alienation will be made easier to bear.
Multiculturalism has become a negative fetish for the anti-multicultural left as much as it has been a positive fetish for the liberal center. Neither filling the fetish with pins like a voodoo doll, nor worshiping it as a god, will save us from the conditions that drive us to seek out fetishes.
The article was originally published in the A2 (#7/2017) biweekly magazine. You can read it on A2larm’s website.