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The Cancel Wars: The Legacy of the Cultural Turn in the Age of Trump

Pamela C. Nogales C.

Platypus Review 131 | November 2020

Pamela C. Nogales C. and Laurie Rojas are both founding members of the Platypus Affiliated Society. On October 28, 2020, Rojas and Nogales hosted a teach-in for the Platypus chapter at the University of Jena for student orientation week. This issue of the Platypus Review contains an edited version of each of their presentations. The following article is an edited and expanded version of Nogales’ presentation.

Today, anti-civil society revenge fantasies under the guise of “justice” provide an outlet to the hopelessness and despair festering after the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump. In this new public discourse, “blackness” is to be protected from appropriation, female sexuality is a passive victim to a pathological male sexuality, and we must all fight the bigoted cis-white male cop inside of us. But this unseemly Twitter reality offers little for emancipatory politics. Like in the election of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the Left is once again looking for culprits and finding it in the bigotry of the voting public. In the 1960s and 70s, New Leftists attributed Nixon’s ‘68 victory to the prevailing “white skin privilege” of the working masses, with some dating its origin story as far back as Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77). Reiterating the “white supremacy” thesis after the 1980 election of Reagan, “whiteness studies” academics argued that America's perennial problem was, again, to blame for the election outcome. Today, we are facing the same dilemma: Who is to blame for the catastrophe of 2016? Who is to blame for the crack-up of the neoliberal order, the loss of employment and greater political instability? At the outset of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, public outcry denounced white American women who voted for Trump as complicit with white, male supremacy. In the new cancel wars, the finger points back to the public’s biases and tabooed thoughts as the source of the problem. In our lifetime, cancel culture marks a turn against the civil subject. In a pandemic economy and a tense election year, the threat of being cancelled has generated anxiety among powerful institutions. Universities, museums, even the financial giants of Wall Street want to steer clear from risk. Cancel culture punishes the culprits as reparation for centuries of historical wrongdoing. This false resolution masks the present political degeneration, which we have yet to truly understand and therefore cannot change.

Cancel culture emerged as an American phenomenon, but has recently spread to parts of Europe, and seems to have a hold on the popular millennial imagination as a new form of “radical” practice. Cancel campaigns are a tactic deploying social media bullying to displace people from positions of power for their “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic” behavior, all in the name of “justice” for a “community,” e.g., black women, gay people, etc. It is a means to “de-platform” the culprits, that is, to block their capacity to speak freely in the public sphere. While civil society requires the free exchange of ideas, today’s liberals are divided on who gets to speak: accused racists, sexists, homophobes are out. Cancel culture expresses a kind of frustrated liberalism, a liberalism at odds with its very conditions of possibility: the use of public reason. Today, these liberals and those on the Left that tail behind them, have turned against civil society. According to this perspective, free speech has become a liability because it may give reactionary perspectives a hearing. In response, liberal activists have rallied to exclude conservatives from university events, “outing” people for their opinions on social media, and called to censor art with “offensive” art. As of late, these cancel campaigns have also targeted regular people to oust them from their jobs. Twitter activists put pressure on hiring institutions by calling out employers for hiring or promoting sexists, racists bigots, thus encouraging a “woke” capitalism through the mass mobilization of shame and fear. The crisis of neoliberalism manifests today as a tribal competition over jobs, cloaked under a progressive agenda. 

Cancel culture hinges on the (neo)liberal idea that capitalist society should serve the interests of different groups. Cancel campaigns aim to give marginalized people a seat at the table, and promise to establish a moral threat to employers in order to better allocate who gets what. It is still about jobs, jobs, jobs: who should get them, who shouldn't, and who gets to hire and fire people. In this way, cancel culture plays into the “woke” rackets of the neoliberal status quo. Calls to “buy black” in support for #BlackLivesMatter protests did not signal the “cooptation” of the movement, rather, they expressed the underlying harmony between the managerial ideology of neoliberal discontent with the Millennial Left’s resistance politics. Whatever frustrated libidinal energy poured into the streets over the summer of 2020 has been reintegrated into the current social order through the aesthetics of cultural radicalism. Today, Beyoncé and the Black Panther Party are now two sides of the same coin. This token or aesthetic egalitarianism, wherein representatives of a community are chosen on the basis of their “authentic” cultural experience to speak on behalf of the rest, was built on the inherited ideas of the Cultural Turn in the late sixties and early seventies. The pre-history of the cancel wars is the Left’s accommodation to defeat in these decades, to the lowering horizons for political change which today’s Millennial Left has inherited unconsciously under the guise of cultural liberation. Like the unhappy Phil in Groundhog Day (1993), fourteen years after the founding of Platypus, we find ourselves once again facing the frustrated liberalism of 1968.

The New Left popularized the notion of politics as an expression of authentic personal experience. As Adolph Reed Jr. has written, this idea “derives from the faulty premise that membership in a group [or “community”] gives access to a shared perspective and an intuitive understanding of the group's collective interests.”[1] Today, this logic has been further internalized. “Allies” are encouraged to fight oppressive cultural influences within themselves, giving a new meaning to “the personal is political.” According to the new “woke” normal, our opinions, tastes and even the choice of romantic partners shows how we have been indoctrinated, molded, “constructed” by colonialist, imperialist, racist, sexist forces—the enemy is within us. Calls to decolonize are everywhere: decolonize the museum, decolonize your syllabus, decolonize your mind! Fight the straight, cis, white, toxic, male, cop inside of you. A friend of mine recently recounted that after matching with a black woman on Tinder, she sent him a link to her PayPal account. A donation to her “reparations fund,” she informed him, was a precondition for the first date. The “personal” is “political” has turned into an avoidance of politics altogether.

In the half century that has passed between 1968 and today, the New Left’s oppositional politics of cultural authenticity have become the model for a neoliberal social management. “Racial” or “gendered” democracy has been established as a way of managing discontents in capitalist society. A narrative of inclusivity helps to channel anxieties about who gets what back into the status quo. A celebration of “blackness,” “Latinx” pride and gender diversity is at the forefront of the corporate world. At the same time, political opposition to the “billionaires and millionaires” calls for more inclusivity and representation. Both sides actually agree, while the concentration of poverty in black neighborhoods, mass detention of illegal immigrant laborers, and unequal wages between men and women persist.

One of the legacies of the New Left’s Cultural Turn is that essentialist claims are the basis of the truth-content in politics. This stands in sharp contrast with earlier conceptions of historical consciousness as key to political imagination. According to this Marxist relic, each generation inherited the task of advancing a free and universal humanitythe goal of socialism. Throughout the twentieth century, the transmission of this task has been interrupted by holdovers from previous battles, passed down — often in distorted form — from previous generations to the next. After each defeat, generations inherited the mission under new, politically impoverished, conditions. Old problems accumulate and our understanding suffers as a result of political defeats.[2] The same can be said for the New Left, who inherited the task of socialism after the distortions of the Stalinist left and the liquidation of Marxism.

The New Left in the United States in the 1960s and 70s included the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Maoists, the New Communist Movement, Second Wave Feminists, and the Black Panther Party, among others. In this period, anti-colonial movements that grew in Africa and Asia amidst the declining French and British colonial empires had a profound impact on black resistance in the United States. What resurfaced in this time was the “Black Belt” thesis from the 1930s Stalinist left in America, led by the Communist Party. This Black Belt formula was first developed in 1928 and it was instated as the official Party policy in 1930. The idea was that the black population in a portion of the United States constituted “a nation within a nation.” Communists were compelled to advocate for the national self-determination of the “Black Belt.” The thesis was elaborated during the same years that Stalin's theory of “Socialism in One Country” naturalized the nation-state as the “organic boundary” for revolutionary politics. Here, we already see a reversal. For Marx, the revolution was, by necessity, an international fight for socialism. Yet, already in the 1930s, what would have been seen as a defeat from the standpoint of the mid-nineteenth century is presented as a victory.

The New Left reached for the black nation thesis just as it was coming up against the limits of the Civil Rights Movement. This was the birth moment of the New Left, when self-proclaimed radicals pushed against the limits of liberal reform. The Civil Rights movement had done away with de jure racial segregation and voting restrictions for black Americans, but Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society reforms failed. Poverty and unemployment persisted. And some of the same liberal reformers who helped pass legislation against voting restrictions and racial segregation had, on the other hand, supported the Vietnam War. The New Left was born from frustrations with liberal political leadership, it pushed against the limits of the administered society inherited through the New Deal. In their efforts to create a radical opposition to the liberals in power, they reached for oppositional ideologies. What they found was the idea of black self-determination. As Ben Blumberg wrote for the Platypus Review in 2010,

“Ideological issues posed by black nationalism were “rediscovered” by the New Left in the 1960s. But because this younger generation failed to address the theoretical failures and political impasse of the Old Left they ultimately ended up reproducing the same ideological shortcomings… What the New Left found was an attenuated form of ideology relevant — albeit in problematic ways — to historical, sociopolitical, economic, and cultural conditions that had since undergone significant change.”[3]

The New Left found ways of thinking about the challenge of race and racism that corresponded to the period of the 1930s and ‘40s, characterized by a segregated industrial workforce, which was superseded by the Civil Rights Movement. This temporal lag between political reform and changes in capitalism also characterized the delayed March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom from 1963. The march was supposed to happen in the 1940s, that is, before the integration of the industrial working class. Perhaps, in the ‘40s, the march could have consolidated the social forces for an independent Socialist Party. But this was too risky at the time, when the Democratic Party was bound by the New Deal Coalition, a progressive capitalist alliance of liberal capital with middle-class conservatism, which communists in the United States helped to consolidate under the Popular Front. The concession to the Roosevelt Democrats secured the success of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the mass union organization of the American working class, but it also granted political to leadership to the Democratic Party, who oversaw the mass integration of the American workforce as well their mobilization for the war against fascism — and later the Vietcong. It was under the Stalinist Popular Front when Communists became cheerleaders for FDR’s New Deal, working closer to the Democratic Party than any previous American radical could ever have imagined leading to a subjugation of organized labor to the state.[4] The “People's Front” was defended at the 1935 Seventh Congress of the Communist International and was predicated on the Communist Party self-censoring in order to maintain unity. Notably, the Communists expressly shut down anything that could harm the war effort, including black organizers like A. Phillip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and among the original architects of the March on Washington.[5]

In his article, “Intersectionalism, the highest stage of western Stalinism?” Mike Macnair argues that the Popular Front policy had led the Communists for the first time to treat the official women's movement leaders and official black community leaders as legitimate representatives of group interests, wholly separate from the class interest of the working class. Through this disarticulation, they began to elaborate class, gender and race as a kind of “trinity.” Labor, one interest group among the many, was represented by the Communist-Party affiliated unions allied with the Democrats. Macnair sees parallels here to what Lenin critiqued as a form of “trade union consciousness,” that is, the petty-bourgeois consciousness of the working class. This formulation requires some unpacking. What Macnair means here is that it was under the Popular Front when the communists turned socialism into the social management of labor discontents through union representatives, for whom they fought to get a seat at the table. But the goal of socialism, namely, the task of political leadership of an independent working class working towards the abolition of class society, receded into the background.[6] Macnair treats Stalinism as a capitulation to liberalism, as a liberal conception of interest driven politics. When today’s Millennial Leftists call for a “New New Deal,” they commit the same error. Both neo-social democracy—contemporary nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s among the Millennial Left—and the frustrated liberalism of cancel culture are two sides to the same problem. 

By the 1960s, the permanence of unemployment meant that some people still had to be at the bottom of the pile, and the structure of unions as seniority-based job trusts also meant that comparatively new recruits were sacrificed. The problem of racism persisted but underwent a transformation as a result of the success of the CIO and the Bonapartist turn led by the American Communists. Within this context, the New Left’s call for independent black organization had acquired a new meaning. Black Power explicitly rejected integration and marked a retreat from the original goal of a unified working class against capital. Soft versions of Maoism emerged in the later 1960s as a kind of anti-colonial internationalism. The Maoists retained the idea of the Popular Front but also borrowed what they understood as creative Maoist ideas for class consciousness. The black nation thesis figured for the New Left as form of anti-imperialism, a colonial struggle at home. The New Left also inherited a hardened concept of the labor aristocracy, and saw the trade unions as an irredeemable privileged cast. There was a kernel of truth in this perspective: the unions, with the help of the Communist Party had sold out the workers to the state and facilitated the suspension of strikes during the World War. In the 1970s, to bring the anti-colonialist struggle home, New Leftists adopted “consciousness-raising methods” borrowed from Chinese Maoists. Through the women's movement, they imported the organizational practice of “speaking bitterness” which called for tapping into personal trauma as a way of understanding one’s oppressed social condition. This was an important organizing tool for Chinese Maoists, who used it in the mass mobilization for the Civil War against the Nationalist government and the political organization of peasants in land reform campaigns. By tapping into peasants’ personal trauma, Maoists were capable of building a common bond among the ideologically disparate peasant population and gain their loyalty to the party. Chinese Maoists encouraged peasants to confess their worst experiences, and presented the party as the tool for retribution, as the only means available to avenge themselves of the great injustices they’d experienced throughout their lifetime. However, when the New Left in the 1960s took this up, they did so without a mass party. This may help to explain why, today, this revenge-fantasy has been even further internalized as a kind of self-castigating consciousness, an ever-present, consuming and paralyzing guilt among a new generation of activists.

The unresolved problems of the 1930s-40s Old Left and the 1960s-70s New Left have found a new expression in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Founded in 1982, during the institutionalization of the New Left, the DSA is currently leading the “anti-Trump” opposition by the millennial generation. It is the largest and most influential organization of self-described socialists, which reached a new height after 2016, when the Democratic Party sank their presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. In August of this year, the New York DSA steering committee called on the “Afro-Socialist Caucus,” an independent body within the DSA, to cancel an event with Adolph Reed Jr. on the basis of his alleged “class reductionism”. Reed, a prominent Marxist thinker and dissident voice from the New Left generation, doesn't believe that race is something to be celebrated but rather superseded. At the time, the Afro-Socialist caucus claimed that it spoke on behalf of all people of color within the organization. The Afro-Socialist caucus is an example of the liberal “race relations” framework that Reed himself has critiqued as the indigested legacy of the Black Power turn. In response, the self-described “Marxist faction” within DSA, “Class Unity,” wrote in a statement: “Our failure to organize against the liberals in the DSA has left us weak and incapable of defending basic principles of free speech, let alone Marxism.”[7] A basic liberal understanding that civil society includes dissenting political voices, which are not necessarily expressions of cultural experience has been shut down by the so-called liberals themselves. Each side accuses one another of “reductionism”—either “class” or “race”. But as long as the only self-described socialist organization is an appendage of the Democratic Party that hopes to bring different social interests under one “big tent,” progressive “liberal” Democrats block any development of a future socialist leadership.[8] Almost a century later, the problem remains the same.

Cancel culture is the flaring-up of an identitarian management of social discontent at the moment of its disappearance. Today’s divided liberal center expresses a neoliberal order in distress, a crisis of transition to a post-neoliberal politics. Democrats did not learn their lesson in 2016, when they doubled down on identity politics by presenting Obama 2.0 — Hillary Clinton — as their presidential candidate. Now, again in 2020, Joe Biden campaigns as Obama's vice-president. When leftists today tail after the Democrats as they circle the drain, they lag behind new opportunities — they squander the potential to think the world anew. Of course, things can always get worse. However, the real tragedy is that those who aspire to build a Left have given up the little they can do today: to try to understand the present rather than be mastered by the accumulation of defeat. This is the task of my generation and it is why Platypus exists.


[1] Adolph L. Reed Jr., Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: New. Press, 2000), 136.

[2] Chris Cutrone, “Symptomology: Historical transformations in social-political context,” Platypus Review (May 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/05/15/symptomology/>.

[3] This insight is recognized at the onset of the Black Power turn in the late 1960s by Harold Cruse, whose Crisis of the Negro Intellectual we have read in the Platypus Reading Groups. In a chapter called “Postscript on Black Power,” Cruse wrote, “When the direct-action methods [of the Civil Rights movement] failed against hardening barriers, they had to fall back on… the slogan of Black Power, as if to convince themselves that they were taking a revolutionary step forward…. Whatever it is, it is essentially another variation of the Old Communist leftwing doctrine of ‘self-determination in the black belt areas of Negro majority.” Ben Blumberg’s article is available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2010/01/08/an-unmet-challenge-race-and-the-left-in-america/>.

[4] Ian Morrison, “Resurrecting the ’30s: A response to David Harvey and James Heartfield,” Platypus Review (May 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/05/15/resurrecting-the-30s/>.

[5] Thank you to Cam Hardy for helping to clarify some key points in the presentation of this problem.

[6] Mike Macnair “Intersectionalism, the highest stage of western Stalinism?,” Critique, Vol. 46, Issue 4, (November 2018),  541-558.

[7] Spiraling Anti-Marxism in the DSA (Class Unity, 2020), available online at <https://classunity.org/spiraling-anti-marxism-in-the-dsa/>.

[8] Chris Cutrone, “The end of the Gilded Age: Discontents of the Second Industrial Revolution today,” Platypus Review (December 2017), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2017/12/02/end-gilded-age-discontents-second-industrial-revolution-today>.

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