The epithet “Marxist” is often thrown at America’s far left, but it’s perhaps neither the most accurate nor useful label. This isn’t to wade into a debate about whether or not Bernie Bros “are” or “are not” Real Marxists™, or whether or not Cultural Marxism is a legitimate extension of Classical Marxism (to which my answer to both is “Sure, why not?”). Rather, it is an expression of the fact of political life there are far better ways to understand the phenomenon of the contemporary American left.
First, one must understand that the more economically focused faction around Bernie Sanders has less in common with culture warriors like Elizabeth Warren of 2020 Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris. The line between these two groups isn’t sharp and clear. The Squad straddle the line between both, as do large swaths of people who voted for Sanders in 2020. But the difference, even if it only exists at a theoretical level, is an important one.
At its core, the sexuality and race-obsessed faction of the Democratic Party has less in common with Marxism (though it is certainly informed by the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School) than it does with market-driven neoliberalism. It is more accurate to describe this clique as radical neoliberalism (radical in the sense of “seeking to get to the root of,” or searching for the hard core of neoliberal ideology) or “radlibs” for short.
I would not be the first commentator to note that radlibs have very little interest in economics separated from other concerns, namely race and sexuality. Radlibs sometimes make reference to “classism,” but this is fundamentally a cultural and social criticism that neoliberal economics sometimes makes the lower rungs of the social ladder feel bad than it is the firebrand, blood hungry call for economic social leveling that characterized, for example, either the Occupy Movement or Bernie Sanders of 2016 vintage.
Economic programs are sometimes championed by the radlibs. But in keeping with their ultimately neoliberal ideology, they want these programs to be means tested rather than universally available. Where they differ from a more classic neoliberalism is that the means they seek to test is not whether or not you have too much money to qualify, but whether or not your skin is the right color.
For the ultra-rich and Fortune 500s, racial means testing offers a dual benefit: Targeted benefits are cheaper and racially targeted benefits sow deeper racial resentment, making for a more easily divided and conquered workforce.
When we understand this, we begin to understand why wokeness is so attractive to, for example, Amazon, in a way that the Occupy Movement never would have been. Woke moral posturing is free. Diversity consultants or even rearranging a company’s board of directors to better reflect the privileged demographics of the radlibs costs a pittance when compared to the cost of higher wages, better healthcare or even letting Amazon employees use the bathroom when they please.
We have little evidence that people at the very top actually believe in this as an ideology. On the other hand, we have ample evidence that Jeff Bezos and company have realized the cost of a few diversity seminars and a couple racial commissars on staff isn’t just a bargain compared to actually improving the lives of their employees, it’s a long-term investment in a more easily controlled and precarious -- and thus far cheaper -- workforce.
Whole Foods is one company which is fully aware of the corrosive impact of woke ideology on worker solidarity. Whole Foods, whose parent company is Amazon, employs heat maps of workplace diversity in their quest to prevent unionization. Their data, at least, shows rather conclusively that more diversity means less trust in the workplace, which in turn means less chance that a store or warehouse will unionize.
A significant driver of this distrust is the omnipresent legions of HR department commissars whose raison d'etre is micropolicing every thought, word and deed of their workforces, forcing compliance to the ever-shifting racial and sexual orthodoxies of wokeism. Where the period between the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the election of Barack Obama were marked by an unprecedented coming together of races in America, the period since then has been marked by increasing levels of racial animosity and distrust.
Snitching isn’t just encouraged. It’s been fully industrialized, with Twitter acting as little more than Uber for Maoist struggle sessions. This leads to eroded solidarity not just in the workplace, but in society in general, at a time when we can ill afford such assaults on social cohesion, what with the nuclear family, the Church and civil society all in shambles.
Thus, whereas socialism or social democracy or the welfare state require enormous economic sacrifices on the part of the very wealthy, wokeness requires none. More than that, it offers a massive boon to the financial elite by accelerating both a sense of distrust in the workplace (who knows who might snitch on whom for a real or imagined indiscretion next) and social atomization. Perhaps worst of all, such thought policing doesn’t just pit one race against another, it transforms the workplace into a war of all against all, every man and woman aware that a single wrong word can have them added to a neo-McCarthyite black list.
All of this begins to make sense when you understand the alliance between the economic elites, the HR enforcers in the professional-managerial class and the broad swaths of college-educated aspirants to the latter.
Again, it’s not so much that Jeff Bezos and other economic and cultural elites who push wokeism are necessarily genuine apostles of this secular religion. It’s simply that it makes good business sense, both from the perspective of marketing and public image (people wowed by rhetoric about how “Amazon believes Black Lives Matter” are less likely to spend much time digging around in labor conditions and tax giveaways enjoyed by Amazon) as well as sowing distrust, division and atomization among a restive workforce.
For these people, the model isn’t Venezuela so much as it’s China with Amazon Prime characteristics. When one sees the long-term strategic goal is not a genderqueer Benetton ad, but a Chinese slave labor camp with some woke carrots thrown to the capo true believers which can then be used as sticks against the balance of the workforce, much more about the whys and wherefores comes into clearer focus.
HR department hacks, however, and the broader social class from which they are drawn, are true believers in the Gospel of Wokeness. When one examines the rhetoric of the blue Cheka Twitterati, one sees that their criticism of American business and society is not in the service of any fundamental transformation that will upend the ruling elites. Rather, what they seek is a more consistent application of the rules of their religion. And, being not entirely altruistic, spoils for their patronage networks at the expense of others.
The common point of interest for both is a culture of snitching and distrust. And for the most part, they’re getting their way.
Ten years ago, if I had told the Occupiers that a Republican-controlled National Labor Relations Board made it easier to fire union employees for saying no-no words, this would have been seen as a clear attack on the rights of employees in the workplace. Not anymore, however, as the left has gone all in language and, indeed, thought policing an ever-shifting goal post of religious belief in lieu of what were formerly its bread and butter -- workers, wages and workplace safety.
It is not a coincidence that the new identity of the American far left -- radical neoliberalism, the desire for neoliberalism to simply be consistent about its pretenses -- so effortlessly serves the ruling elite. The more conspiratorially minded of you can surmise from that what you will. But the origins of the ideology are less important than its function. And its function is to immiserate Western workers through atomization and a culture of distrust.
To defeat an enemy, one must first understand this enemy. Conflating the woke stormtroopers of neoliberal capitalism with the Bolshevik hordes of yesteryear is a serious miscalculation that makes both understanding and victory impossible.