The hackneyed leftist narrative that I myself have spouted on occasion is that the counter-cultural upheavals of the 1960s deserve the lionshare of credit for the increasing tolerance of modern society. Decades of identity politicking has only furthered this cause. But is this really the case? Has a fragmented and marginalized left actually had that much of an impact on society through our lingering influence in NGOs, the media and academia? I don’t think so. I believe that our limited success in attacking ideological (not structural) manifestations of racism, sexism and homophobia owe much more to the force of modern capitalism.
As Walter Benn Michael puts it:
An obvious question, then, is how we are to understand the fact that we’ve made so much progress in some areas while going backwards in others. And an almost equally obvious answer is that the areas in which we’ve made progress have been those which are in fundamental accord with the deepest values of neoliberalism, and the one where we haven’t isn’t. We can put the point more directly by observing that increasing tolerance of economic inequality and increasing intolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia – of discrimination as such – are fundamental characteristics of neoliberalism. Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics. The increased inequalities of neoliberalism were not caused by racism and sexism and won’t be cured by – they aren’t even addressed by – anti-racism or anti-sexism.
The neoliberal ethos stands on similar terrain as the broad left against the reactionary and nativist sentiments of the populist right. Michaels gets a bit hyperbolic when he claims that anti-racism and anti-sexism have “nothing to do with left-wing politics” and he does gloss over the way divisions on the basis of race and gender have traditionally been used to divide the working class, but there can be no doubt that the cosmopolitan nature of the modern production process and the capitalist enterprise fueled growth of mass communication, deserve much credit.
The words of the Communist Manifesto come to mind:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade.
Organizing marginalized groups should still be a focus on the left, but on what basis should this organization happen? The Human Rights Campaign, for one, is the largest advocacy group for the LGBT community in the United States. The HRC is awash in corporate funds and has even openly touted its relationship with Reynolds America, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which it also gave a perfect score to in its 2009 Corporate Equality Index. It has extensive ties with the establishment of the Democratic Party and is firmly an establishment entity. There is no doubt that leftists should support the Human Rights Campaign against the reactionary right, but they are an iconic example of neoliberalism's erstwhile anti-discriminatory spirit.
What’s exclusively the job of the left is the task of organizing the most marginalized members of these groups, combating structural racism and sexual oppression, campaigning against economic inequality and protesting the tyranny of capitalist social relations. We just shouldn't be too self-congratulatory when speaking of the progress we've already made.