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The Culture Wars in the Age of Trump

Laurie Rojas

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 is an edited transcript of Rojas’ prepared remarks.

The first decade of Platypus

Platypus was founded at the height of the anti-war movement in 2006, when Pam and I were in art school in Chicago. We had both been part of LASO (the Latin American Student Organization) on campus and had been very inspired by the massive Immigrant Rights Marches that we attended between 2005 and 2006 — so we had become politicized. In Spring 2005 I took a class with Chris Cutrone on “Adorno and The Culture Industry”. It was mind blowing to think about the relationship of culture to fascism and communism. Then Pam ended up taking a class with Chris that summer as well. He made us read Marx and Rosa Luxemburg and, quite importantly, a correspondence between Adorno and Marcuse on the German New Left where they argued over the limitations and potential of the “radical” student politics of 1968.[1]

This reading sparked some other students to ask Chris to lead a reading group on the politics of the New Left. Chris invited Pam and me among other students to participate. This became the first Platypus reading group: dedicated to reading what we call the “symptoms” of the New Left from a book called The New Left Reader (1969) – a major turning point for the Left. Richard, an older founding member of Platypus, who came up with the idea of the name for Platypus with Chris, had found it in a bookstore in Chicago. This anthology was a brilliant recommendation because it was dedicated to the generation of “radicals” known as the New Left of the 1960s including texts from important ideological and organizational leaders of the New Left such as Malcolm X, Louis Althusser, Franz Fanon, Fidel Castro, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, Mark Rudd and many others.

But reading these texts side-by-side 40 years after they were published was a weird and yet life-changing experience. I remember being blown away by Martin Nicolaus’s text, the “Unknown Marx”[2] — which is still part of our main reading group — and I remember being shocked to learn that Fidel Castro — who, by the way, went to university with my grandmother in Havana and who forced my father’s family to flee to Miami after the Cuban Revolution because “Fidel was coming for their heads” — had nothing to do with Marxism. Imagine my shock after growing up hearing that communism, Marxism and “everything” in Cuba was shit. The hindsight provided from the historical standpoint of 2006 — when the anti-war movement was in full force, and the New Students for a Democratic Society (New SDS), in which Pam and I participated through different leading bodies, was founded — really made us feel like there was something in the air, that maybe something was happening.[3]

Armed with a banner that said, “The Left is Dead, Long Live the Left,” we came out “guns blazing” – that is with heroic confidence. It felt like we were touched by the angel of history or the ghost of Marxism. We took nothing else for granted, we took no political positions, as they would have been inconsequential, we only proclaimed: “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!”

However, this moment also came with a negative lesson. History began to weigh like a nightmare on us the more we were exposed to the so-called Left and the more we learned about its history. The provocation “The Left is Dead” began to feel palpable despite huge protests and the growth of student activism. We began to feel deeply ambivalent about the Left as this slogan became more of a statement of fact than a mere provocation, while, at the same time, it strengthened our determination to learn more about the history of the Left and its aspiration to move beyond capitalism.

That first deep dive into the history of the New Left in 2006, starting Platypus amidst everything that was happening between 2006-2007, allowed us to make some important yet troubling connections between the New Left and our moment. Beyond a complete romanticization of 1968, we found a lot of continuity with the different ideas expressed in The New Left Reader and the politics of the people we were meeting at anti-war protests and in the New SDS. Some of these ideas include: anti-authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism, a complete disregard for Trotskyism and Lenin, infighting over civil disobedience actions, red-baiting against the Maoists (who, honestly, were doing some weird stuff), bad decisions made because of identity politics, and so on. With an elementary understanding of Marxism, we saw that a lot of the problems of the New Left actually persisted, and were not overcome — or even recognized. And, in fact, the problems had gotten much worse.

Because that history of the New Left had become so obscure and opaque by 2006, we could not do anything about it in the New SDS — we tried and failed. There was a very misplaced optimism in that moment, so any attempt to be critical was quickly shut down or not received at all, because it was either too intellectual to raise historical facts or too authoritarian to try to lead the organization. And this problem — honestly — has become even worse in the course of the last 14 years.

This was the way most of the people that founded Platypus began to understand the historical problems of the Left, that is, through thinking about the New Left of the 1960s and its relationship to the founding moment of Platypus. Our work in Platypus — hosting reading groups, hosting panels, publishing our monthly open-submission journal— enabled us to connect our moment with the history of the Left thereby allowing us to experience the birth of the Millennial Left as a moment of potential opportunity that was quickly dispelled.

One of the main features that makes Platypus unique is that it is a project that was born out of the recognition that the Left is dead, that is, that the Left has ceased to be a political force with utopian aspirations. The Left has been completely unable to keep up with historical crises and thus changes in capitalism itself. We consider this recognition of regression our most important point of departure.

In practice, this means we have tasked ourselves to recover a critical history of the Left, or a Marxian philosophy of the history of the Left. We think this is necessary because the history of the Left represents our theory of the present, allows us a means of understanding, and thus potentially changing the course of history. 

It also expresses our foundational insight: the circumstances we face represent only the latest iteration in a long series of regressive repetitions. History does not simply repeat itself in the present, but disintegrates in and through its seeming self-reproduction. The present suffers from unmastered history.

Furthermore, with a left-centric view of history, we could see how through the course of the New Left in the 1970s and 1980s, the Left made repeated concessions and ended up liquidating itself into the Democratic Party. Liquidation is what we call it when the Left abandons its political goals and principles by aligning itself with liberals or reformists, or deludes itself into believing that it can push the most powerful political party in the world to “the Left” while the Left abandons its principles.

Our education on the New Left — in a moment that the Left was much stronger, bigger, diverse, active and international — allowed us to understand and make an informed judgement about our moment — the birth of the Millennial Left — as a missed opportunity. Why? Because our moment fell way below the threshold of the New Left while at the same time it did not see that the New Left had failed, mostly due to self-inflicted problems.

The Millennial Left, outside of Platypus, was refusing to learn from history. As the old saying goes, those who don’t take history seriously are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.  The old Marxist adage that history repeats itself, “first time as tragedy, second time as farce”[4] is truly haunting. We could see the Millennial Left as a reproduction and continuation with a difference, that is, a degraded form, of the New Left. When we began to read history “against the grain” — or, were able to use history to throw a critical light on the present — we could see the same problems repeating themselves in the Millennial Left, particularly through our experience with the New SDS, that they were heading down the same route of liquidating into the Democratic Party, this time via Obama.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, in particular, was used by the Democratic Party as a re-alignment strategy to secure the “black vote.” This was repeated during Obama’s campaign in 2008, but no one except Platypus saw it coming. When Obama got elected even the “most radical” people in the new SDS refused to protest the election of a Democrat on account of him being the first Black President. Like in the 1960s, the Left in the early 2000s allowed itself to be misled by the Democratic Party’s campaign promises. Obama ran as the anti-war candidate but actually became known as the “drone president” because of the exponential growth in airstrikes during his administration. Obama promised to pass a popular labor reform called EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act). Instead, and I know this because I helped, Obama used this to get labor unions to send their members to campaign door-to-door to get the vote out in black working-class neighborhoods in swing states such as Indiana and Michigan. And he won. Almost everybody on the Left was crying with joy. In exchange, Obama forced all the unions to negotiate with him through one unified body completely squashing any potential left-wing “pressure” within the unions. And then, EFCA was thrown away within his first 100 days.[5] EFCA also included special clauses that would have protected illegal immigrants from being deported, one of the big reasons for my support of it and my disappointment with Obama. Obama was eventually also nicknamed the “Deporter-in-Chief.”

In Platypus, we teach the history of the Left negatively, in terms of what the Left has forgotten. We call this teaching a sensibility towards history. And this sensibility, alongside the recognition of ever deepening historical regression through the course of the 20th century comes from Marxism the immanent critique of the Left. The history of Marxism, including its failure, serves as a guide to thinking. We teach “against the grain” of its reception, especially by the New Left, by posing Lenin against so called Leninism, Marx against so-called Marxism, etc. So, we teach with a different spirit than the “Left” even though our readings are very much selected from the same “leftist canon".

But we are not just negative about leftists because they are insufficiently Marxist. Rather, the Left is itself a negative image. We read the history of Marxism against the grain in order to pose questions for the present that the present seeks to avoid. We also raise Marxism itself as a question rather than an answer. Marxism’s self-understanding and its failure leaves a whole different set of questions. Such as: why is the world the way it is? And what should, can and must be done about it?

Our Platypus education has taught us that the death of the Left was self-inflicted. That the liquidation of the Left and the abandonment of the Left’s political goals, such as international socialist revolution, has a long deep history. It is not limited to the US either. The Left in the UK which had liquidated into the Labour Party long before Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair shares this history. The liquidation of the Left into the establishment parties has been happening repeatedly for at least three generations, possibly a problem that goes all the way back to the Social Democratic Party of Germany voting for War credits in 1914, or even deeper into Marx’s own time. But now, this regression is happening in an even less sensible form than with the New Left.

Chris Cutrone, who published several pieces critical of Obama articulated how deep this problem went.

...“[T]he present crisis of post-Fordist/"neo-liberal" capitalism points not to the end of neo-liberalism, but rather to its transformed continuation. We will be mov­ing into a period in which are accumulated and recon­figured the historical legacies of all previous periods of capitalism: the liberal one of the mid- to late 19th century; the era of monopoly capitalism and imperial­ism of the late 19th to the early 20th century; the Fordist era of the high/middle 20th century; and the neo-liberal era of the late 20th century. The question is whether this compounding of the problems of capitalism since Marx's time makes it more politically and theoretically intractable.”[6]

The crisis of neoliberalism: 2016 as an inflection point

2016 marked 10 years of Platypus. Over the course of Platypus’s first decade, through Occupy, up until the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn which preceded Brexit and Trump’s election, we saw multiple examples of how the Millennial Left was stillborn. From the moment of our founding, and still to this day, our experience has shown that history ceased to weigh like a nightmare upon the brains of the living but only because the living had ceased to dream. Perhaps, Platypus is the only exception.

In his 2017 article, “The Millennial Left is Dead,” published on the occasion of the hundredth issue of the Platypus Review, Chris Cutrone charted the death of the Millennial Left from the its origins in 2006 — the anti-war movement, the re-founding of the New SDS in 2006 — to the rise of Sanders in the 2016 election, and the 2017 Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention in the aftermath of the election. This includes Corbynism and Momentum as a parallel development to Sandersism and the DSA in the United States. But this points back to before the 2016 phenomena, namely, to all the ways in which the Left collapsed in the face of the economic crisis after 2008. As Cutrone puts it, the Millennial Left has been subject to “the triple knockout of Obama, Sanders and Trump.”[7] This is reflective of the experiences that we had in the first decade of Platypus between 2006 and 2016.

2016 also marked the political crisis of neoliberalism which was characterized by two opposing phenomena: on one side, the supposed revival of socialism with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and, on the other side the rise of the Right with Brexit and Trump.

Platypus’s first decade focused on the Left and now in its second decade we have turned our attention to socialism. Although the Left saw Sanders and Corbyn as its greatest opportunity in decades, the Left’s turn to socialism seems to have already run its course. Thus, it has become more important to inscribe our founding moment. In reality, the last four years were not about socialism but about capitalism, about our ability to interpret the present and grasp, however dimly, continuity and change in the present. The task is to grasp the new, however conservative and reactionary it may be, even if we have no way of directly fighting against it.

We saw that in the absence of a viable socialist politics, numerous social movements with radical potential were channeled into identity-based and interest-based political constituencies that have been integrated “democratically” as objects of the state primarily in the United States through the Democratic Party with its claims to represent the “black community,” the “gay vote,” “Latino interests,” etc. Meanwhile, on the opposing side of the “culture wars,” the Republican Party appears to have tapped the discontents of many suburban and rural working-class whites. All such identitarian appeals, despite their apparent liberalism, remain deeply authoritarian, an index of the Left's failures.

One of the important lessons we drew in Platypus before Obama’s presidency came from our reflections on the 40th anniversary of May 1968. Platypus founder and SDS leader Ben Blumberg cited the New Leftist Daniel Cohn-Bendit in his review of Artforum’s May ‘68 anniversary issue in the Platypus Review.[8] Cohn-Bendit was notoriously known as Dany Le Rouge during the student protests of the late 1960s and has since become a co-president of the Greens in the EU Parliament. Reflecting on 1968, Cohn-Bendit said in 2008 that “We succeeded culturally. We succeeded socially. And we lost politically.… I always say: ‘thank God!’”[9]

But to say that they won “culturally” and “socially” — whatever that means — but not politically, of course, means that they won nothing at all. And yet they called it a victory.

This is evocative of the “cultural turn” which, at least since the 1960s, represents a depoliticization and abandonment of the political task of the Left. It should come as no surprise that the so-called Left was going to double-down on identity politics in the face of the liberal shock and disorientation in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump.

With feminism or other forms of identity politics — such as #MeToo — we see the consequences of the failure of the Left. If we go back to the New Left, the 1960s women’s movement crystalized the process by which feminism became an ideology of the “left wing” of liberal individualism. The cultural turn (and identity politics more generally) represents an adaptation to lowered horizons of potential social transformation and reinforces those lowered horizons by focusing on the individual’s transformation as opposed to society as a whole. 

This lowering of horizons continues today in the feminism of #MeToo which demands the state — and, by extension, the legal and police forces that represent the rule of capital — protect women from sexual advances and persecute and criminalize individuals for bad sexual experiences. As Yasmin Nair once put it, “...liberal feminism is, by and large, also a carceral feminism: wedded to the idea that the only way to protect and preserve the rights of women is to turn to the prison–industrial complex as the final enforcer of gender justice.”[10] What could the “carceral feminism” of #MeToo amount to? Justice? A few men went to jail, several men lost their jobs and became exiled from society. But sexual freedom is a broader, long-standing discontent within capitalism which has been expressed either as demanding “more sex”, i.e. greater sexual freedom, or demanding “less sex,” i.e. protection from sexual advances and recrimination and persecution for bad sexual experiences.

Marxism had once tried to understand these countervailing discontents as two sides of the same process: a revolutionary society which yields new forms of freedom and new possibilities for women — in the 1960s we might think of, for example, the advent of advanced forms of contraception and birth control emancipating sex from its biological role in reproduction — and, yet, the constant crisis and disintegration of these new possibilities and potentials — for instance, these same advanced forms of contraception would go on to become important austerity measures in neoliberalism.

In the modern era, sexuality and gender roles have taken a variety of forms, but all have nonetheless remained problematic and ultimately constraining of social possibilities for developing greater human potential. The forms of possibility and discontent that have come out of each crisis in capitalism have helped shaped the next stage of capitalism, without resolving or advancing the core problems conditioning these possibilities and discontents. #MeToo will not change any of the underlying conditions but simply set the stage for a post-neoliberal capitalism.

What Marxism could provide a viable emancipatory politics is an immanent dialectical critique of the various efforts to overcome the discontents expressed in the various forms of what was once called the “women’s question.” Unfortunately, #MeToo falls far below the threshold of a worthy object of critique. #Metoo was nothing but the Democratic Party doubling-down on its decades long strategy to win elections by capturing minority votes through identitarian appeals.

Cancelations, “deplatforming” and “cancel culture” more broadly can be understood as a conservative and desperate response to the crisis of neoliberalism under Trump. Cancel culture is a Democratic Party tactic used in the racialized and gendered democratic management of discontents with capitalism. It expressed the liberal frustration with the election of Trump, specifically the defeat of Hillary Clinton who was supposed to be Obama 2.0 with the selling point that the first black president in history would be followed by the first female president in history.

In fact, on the eve of the 2016 US election, when Hillary lost, some in Platypus felt a sense of relief. Maybe, finally, this farcical repetition of the Left’s liquidation through cultural and identity politics was over. Some thought that if Clinton was unsuccessful there would be a political realignment of the Republican and Democratic Parties, and thus, perhaps, some room for the Left. But the Democrats have not learned that it did not work with Hillary representing Obama’s third term. In fact, they are repeating the same strategy now with Biden, Obama’s vice-president. Biden might win the election or he might lose the election. We don’t yet know. We might not even know the results of the election any time soon.

On the eve of 2020 US presidential election, we must ask: are the “culture wars” over? Have the Democrats won that war? Has the Democratic Party succeeded in using cultural sensibilities channeled through “cancel culture” as a means to manage discontents with neoliberalism? In a sense, yes, the culture wars have become completely institutionalized within neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberalism’s foundations were laid through the discontents of the New Left, particularly around issues of race and gender, etc. Precisely, in the crisis of neoliberalism, politically represented by Trump, we are witnessing an exhaustion of the “left wing” of neoliberalism in the absence of new ideas.

In all the excitement, it is important to bear in mind that what is at stake with the election is the future of capitalism and its politics. What is the potential future of capitalism now that the Democratic Party has succeeded in fully institutionalizing the culture wars and the politics of the New Left have been completely institutionalized through neoliberalism? Now that the biggest critics have become the last defenders? With Trump, we have been given the opportunity to ask, negatively, what possibility there is for something new to emerge. Whatever happens next week we must not forget these lessons of the Trump phenomena. Although, I fear that if Trump loses we might have to wait much longer to even consider this.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” in New Left Review I/233 (Jan–Feb 1999): 129

[2] Martin Nicolaus, “The Unknown Marx,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 84-110.

[3] Pam C. Nogales, Carlos J. Pereira Di Salvo, and Laurie Rojas, “Political of the contemporary student Left,” Platypus Review (September 2009), available at https://platypus1917.org/2009/09/30/politics-of-the-contemporary-student-left/.

[4] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm>.

[5] For more on the EFCA and the labor movement during the first year of Obama’s presidency see Laurie Rojas, “Labor struggles today: A report on a recent civil disobedience action in Chicago,” Platypus Review (October 2009), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/10/10/labor-struggles-today-a-report-on-a-recent-civil-disobedience-action-in-chicago/>, and Chuck Hendricks, Aaron Hughes, Abraham Mwuara, and James Thindwa, “Left behind: the working class in the crisis,” Platypus Review (July 2009), available at <https://platypus1917.org/2009/07/01/left-behind-the-working-class-in-the-crisis/>.

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

[7] Chris Cutrone, “The Millennial Left is dead,” Platypus Review (October 2017), available at < https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/>.

[8] Benjamin Blumberg, “To the victor, the spoils: Review of Artforum's May 2008 issue ‘May ’68,’” Platypus Review (September 2008), available at < https://platypus1917.org/2008/09/01/to-the-victor-the-spoils-review-of-artforums-may-2008-issue-may-68/>

[9] Yascha Mounk, “Contagious Utopianism,” The Utopian (May 2008), available online at < the-utopian.org/post/2411719137/contagious-utopianism>.

[10] Yasmin Nair, “Rights Make Might: the dystopian undertow of Hillary Clinton’s elite feminism,” The Baffler (December 2016), available online at <https://thebaffler.com/salvos/rights-make-might-nair>.

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