The thread running through this issue of Catalyst is, to quote Frantz Fanon, the “pitfalls of national consciousness.” Fanon had in mind the elite nationalism that so many intellectuals gravitated toward in the era of decolonization, which he correctly viewed as an obstacle to genuine social emancipation. In substituting the fictive notion of a national community in place of a popular class project, this ideology served the aspirations of an emerging domestic elite, which, while happy to oust the colonial masters, did so mainly in the hope of taking power for itself. It was a conservative brand of nationalism that substituted the language of community for that of class.
In the American left today, this orientation lives on as “identity politics” — a politics ostensibly committed to liberation but in fact limited to the interests of elites within the dominated groups. The main difference between the earlier form of national consciousness and the current identitarian tendency is that, today, the elite ideology has a stronger hold on the political left. In earlier decades, identity politics had to contend with a socialist current that was not only organized but had a mass base in subaltern classes. That is not the case today, and it has enabled the elite brand of identity politics to have a more pervasive influence on progressive politics.
There is no more conspicuous example of the change in left intellectual culture than the interpretation of Fanon himself. This acerbic critic of cultural nationalism and race reductionism has been turned into an icon of those very phenomena. When Fanon wrote his key works at the time of the Algerian liberation struggle, it was uncontroversial that he criticized European colonialism not simply as a colonial subject but as a socialist. As Bashir Abu-Manneh shows in his essay on Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, by the end of the century, Fanon had been reduced to being an advocate of violence and an abstract “colonial” identity. His biting critique of the indigenous elites, of cultural nationalism, and of a narrow race consciousness had largely been erased by a “quite willful misreading” propagated by theorists from postcolonial studies.
Abu-Manneh’s essay goes a long way toward excavating Fanon’s class politics and restoring it to its rightful place in Fanon’s work. In so doing, Abu-Manneh shows that the West Indian socialist remains highly relevant, as a critic of the very trends that are so powerful within today’s Left. As Fanon argued, what was damaging about the nationalism of his time was not its displacement of class by a focus on the nation, but rather how it interpreted the nation. The latter was conceptualized so that it became a proxy for domestic ruling classes, leaving out the needs and aspirations of the laboring classes. Hence, what was at stake was two competing visions of the “nation” — one that identified it with the elites seeking to simply take the place of the colonial overlords, and the other that identified it with the laboring masses. This is, of course, the very debate that is unfolding on the Left today and that makes Fanon our contemporary.
In the colonial world, one of the central social bases of nationalist politics was the state functionaries and urban educated elites. So, too, in the United States today, it is the salaried middle classes and educated professionals. Benjamin Y. Fong and Melissa Naschek undertake a subtle analysis of the massive growth of these strata through NGOism over the past half century, of their links to the corporate community, and, most important, of the peculiar political culture that is generated within their ranks — a culture that obsessively invokes the language of empowerment, community, marginality, and justice, but that carefully avoids a confrontation with real power. Fong and Naschek trace the evolution of this “third sector” and make a powerful argument for why its primary function is ideological: to deploy the language of empowerment and transformation while obscuring both the real fount of power in capitalism and the strategies to challenge it.
The bizarre marriage of radical-sounding rhetoric and the interests of the middle class was on display in a recent event at an elite American college. As Catherine Liu explains, a black student was questioned by staff about her presence in a closed building, an action that evoked such outrage on her part that she accused those involved (and some not involved) of racism. The staff were not only punished but publicly humiliated, with the college president leading the charge. A subsequent investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, but it was too late. The damage was done.
The event is significant in that it offers a window into how these elite spaces, which train and socialize their students to enter the ranks of the American upper class, much as they did in earlier decades, now utilize the language of identity and marginality to pursue the same narrow class agenda they always have. But while they were more forthright in their social mission before, today, they drape it in the language of an ostensibly emancipatory commitment. After the episode was covered by the New York Times, the journalist Ryan Grim, one of the few voices of sanity, made the telling observation that, whereas in earlier times the Left would have come to the defense of these workers, now it stood silent at best, and more frequently joined in with the public shaming. But then, this should not be entirely surprising, for this political culture is precisely what an elite-dominated “national consciousness” amounts to: the creation of a social identity around the very specific worldview — the class culture — of dominant groups.
These are the strata that still overwhelmingly populate the ranks of the contemporary left, and until socialists find a different anchor and embed themselves within the class they claim to be fighting for and alongside, they will continue to be a sideshow on the political scene.