Congress has become the front office of the ruling class, but the corporate-funded big media broadcast the official faction fights with all the frenzy of gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum. Those who truly fight and die do so in wars beyond our borders; but the American empire is justified as a horn of plenty, pouring forth democracy and all good things upon the world. If we happen to build our military bases near oil and mineral deposits, then any question raised about American morals and motives must be an outright slander against the soldiers who sacrifice limbs and lives. Career politicians do not just wrap themselves in the flag; they wrap themselves in the flags draped on the coffins of dead soldiers. For every John McCain or John Kerry who showed real courage in battle, however misguided the war, there are scores of politicians who never served in uniform and yet campaign for votes as professional militarists.
The bloody sacrifice of the young is enshrined in national rites and monuments, so the roots of the next war always extend far back into our immense military cemeteries; and the bloody fruits of empire seem always within reach. The partisan spectacle is a fact of public life, but just as surely a grand distraction. Once in a while the news breaks that criminals exist in executive offices; but the systematic criminality of the corporate state is a subject that never needs to be censored since it would never be raised in a bipartisan debate.
In the 1980s, the triumph of reaction was blamed not only on the Republican Party but also on feminists, gay people and anti-racist activists—namely, on people who were often fighting for our lives and for basic democracy. A whole crew of straight white men cranked out columns deriding “wedge issues” and “identity politics.” Their common complaint was spelled out at greater length in books such as “The Twilight of Common Dreams” by Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky’s “Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America.” Even Christopher Hitchens (who had not yet become a fellow traveler of the imperial right) was quoted in the February 1997 issue of The Progressive as saying, “I remember the first time I heard the slogan ‘the personal is political.’ I felt a deep, immediate sense of impending doom.”
In “The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy” (South End Press, 1997) I suggested those writers were defending their own brand of identity politics. The danger of playing any identity as a trump card in a political poker game is real, but any claim to represent “the universal left” must also remain open to question. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize the case for a social democracy founded on social pluralism with a quote from Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and Jew,” written just after World War II:
“What we propose is a concrete liberalism. By that we mean that all persons who through their work collaborate toward the greatness of a country have the full rights of citizens of that country. What gives them this right is not the possession of a problematical and abstract ‘human nature,’ but their active participation in the life of the society. This means, then, that the Jews—and likewise the Arabs and the Negroes—from the moment that they are participants in the national enterprise, have a right to that enterprise; they are citizens. But they have these rights as Jews, Negroes, or Arabs—that is, as concrete persons.”
If we are serious about the human dignity of “concrete persons,” we must defend fair wages and all due legal protection for immigrant workers in our country today. There is an abysmal contradiction between exploiting the labor of immigrant workers and putting targets on their backs as alien invaders. But this contradiction also serves the interests of many employers, since a work force that must pass through barbed wire fences and police dogs will have a tougher time forming a labor union. In this way bosses can have their cake and take bread from workers, too.
True, a police raid on a restaurant kitchen or a tomato farm may be a problem for an employer on that very day. But this kind of random social terrorism is also money in the bank, since the long-term suppression of wages and labor organizing is not an accidental side effect. The lords of agribusiness have a working coalition with the local police chiefs. Otherwise we must explain why fruit and vegetables keep appearing so magically in supermarkets and on dinner plates. Or why so many front lawns and golf courses remain so well tended by landscape workers from Mexico or Guatemala. Or why so many hotels, hospitals and office buildings are cleaned by people who do not earn a living wage.
Here in the southwest region of the United States, this contradiction is a Grand Canyon between liberal ideals and actual ruling-class power. In reality, the number of undocumented workers crossing over our southern border has gone down. That is not surprising, given the deep recession and the recent political campaign to give police in Arizona the power to demand identity papers at will. Even so, the fantasy of a bunker state with an Iron Wall is a convenient exit from reality, since capitalism is an essentially porous and diffuse system of profit. Corporations (and politicians of both corporate parties) placed the mobility of capital above all other considerations.