In his essay for the Winter 2019 CRB, Bill Voegeli elegantly and insightfully describes the animating core of today’s social-justice left—the core crisis of our time. I intend to underscore the significance of his assessment of where we find ourselves and to venture a concluding suggestion of hopefulness.
Bill judges it “impossible to know whether the unprincipled consequentialism of the social justice Left betrays or honors the original civil rights movement.” I connect these dots more definitely. Although Martin Luther King, Jr. professed admiration for America’s founding principles, his liberalism always owed more to the founders’ Progressive detractors than to the founders themselves. For King, the Social Gospel was the true Gospel, and the Progressives’ idea of rights as material outcomes was the true, teleological meaning of the natural rights doctrine in the Declaration of Independence.
The upshot is that despite his heartfelt professions of color-blindness, King’s ostensibly class-focused progressivism bears a closer connection to the emergence of identity politics than is commonly understood. King’s anti-poverty commitment, increasingly voluble from the mid-1960s onward, moved him to incorporate a disparate-impact notion into his concept of racial discrimination; he became increasingly insistent that socioeconomic disparities across color lines could be eliminated by redistributive policy rather than by cultural reform or assimilation. This error, now prevalent on the Left, engenders support for redistributive race-preference policies that must endure so long as inter-group disparities endure—and given that those disparities must endure so long as their cultural causes remain unaddressed, the implication is a commitment to race-preferences in perpetuity. An intensification of race-consciousness, and with it the rise of racial identity politics, is the predictable result.
Hence arises the fatalist redefinition of racism that Bill diagnoses. In the old understanding, racism was a malady of opinion and sentiment and therefore, deeply rooted as it was, remediable. In the lately emergent view, racism (at least in majority-white societies) is universal, omnipresent, and insuperable. It is present institutionally no less than personally, in our subconscious no less than our conscious minds, in all we have and all we are. In the words of President Obama, it is “part of our DNA.”
Let us underscore the radicalism in this revision. Its claims of “the permanence of racism” notwithstanding, the racially “woke” Left seems to regard itself as the vanguard of a democratic revolution, rising in righteous wrath against a distinctively odious, white-supremacist oligarchy. The democracy so envisioned is not, however, one grounded in equal natural rights. Animated by an ethic of effectively permanent redistribution via permanent race classifications, it divides its population into the creditor and debtor races Justice Scalia decried in his Adarand opinion—a division fundamentally at odds with the principle of natural human equality.
The radicalism of the ascendant dispensation on racism runs deeper still. In Black Power, a seminal text for that new dispensation, authors Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton reject altogether the appeal to principles of justice, instead invoking Lewis Carroll to indicate the new ground of blacks’ claims to moral recognition and respect. They quote a passage wherein Humpty Dumpty boasts that he can make words mean whatever he chooses. Alice then protests, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things,” but Humpty gets the last word: “The question is which is to be master—that’s all.”
The irony of the new dispensation on racism is that in the pursuit of “social justice” it annihilates any intelligible idea of justice. It signifies not a replacement of one partisan idea of justice by a superior, more inclusive idea, but instead the replacement, at the level of foundations, of any commitment to justice with a commitment to power, pure and simple. Where Bill sees the spirit of Clausewitz, he might also see the spirit of Machiavelli or of Nietzsche. On the premises claimed by the vanguard of today’s anti-racism Left, moral truth reduces to “effectual truth,” politics is no more and no less than the art of war, and claims of justice are but expressions of will to power.
On its face, the recent metastasizing of this malignant social justice ideal through what many persist in calling liberalism is dispiriting. What Bill unmasks as a bait-and-switch operation on racism, however, yields a promising implication. On race as in any other issue area, the success of the social justice Left depends on the durability of an inherently fragile coalition, in which a core of extremists appears compelled to alienate the relative moderates whose support and cover they need. In the very nihilism ascendant on the Left, there is cause for hope.
Among the moderates the Left needs are many whites, sincerely anti-racist by the old definition of racism and sympathetic to reasonable efforts to assist the disadvantaged. Many of those white moderates, however, must naturally object to serving as targets in an asymmetrical war in which others are permitted to hurl insults at them and they are forbidden to respond—or even compelled to assent. They must likewise resent being told that their own struggles, however great, are insignificant in comparison with their color-privilege, let alone being told that their relative success traces to a prowess in extraction rather than production. They must resent being told that they “didn’t build that”—with the implication that they don’t own it either but “society” does, whose representatives in the administrative state are free to redistribute its proceeds as they see fit. Also among the moderates the Left needs are increasing numbers of blacks and Latinos, desiring only to be treated justly and awakening to the alternative bigotry and cynicism whereby the Left conceives of them as crippled, effectively objectifies them, and seeks to succor them with the advice that an identity of powerlessness is their only available capital.
At what could have seemed the bleakest moment in the anti-slavery crusade, Frederick Douglass declared in response to the Dred Scott ruling, “my hopes were never brighter than now.” His hopes were bright because he knew, as King and other 20th-century civil rights leaders also knew, that their cause of liberty was blessed by the character of its enemies, whose despotic will to power impelled them inevitably to overreach. Against such enemies, Douglass maintained, the triumph of liberty was “a natural and logical event.” Like yesterday’s segregationists and slaveholders, today’s identitarians may scorn the claims of nature. Yet one can hope, with the ancient poet Horace: “naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret”—You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always returns.”