Idylls of the Liberal: The American Dreams of Mark Lilla and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Inte­ri­or (Richard Hamil­ton, 1964-5. Screen­print.)

“Nos­tal­gia is sui­ci­dal,” says Colum­bia polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Mark Lil­la, in his new book The Once and Future Lib­er­al. Regard­less, nos­tal­gia is a dri­ving force in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, whether it is the old chest­nut that times were bet­ter “when we actu­al­ly made things,” the long­ing for a return to wel­fare state anchored in a robust man­u­fac­tur­ing econ­o­my, or Trump’s Rea­gan-era neolib­er­al pas­tiche that seeks to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again.” But there is also a nos­tal­gia that takes the form of high fan­ta­sy, one which takes us back sev­er­al more cen­turies and res­onates with an intel­li­gentsia obsessed with Game of Thrones. It is an epic mod­el of pol­i­tics, with noble heroes and das­tard­ly vil­lains, bro­ken alliances and secrets, and a crowd of com­mon­ers left to decide their loy­al­ties.

Mark Lilla’s hard­cov­er blog post, adver­tised as a rebut­tal of “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,” refers to these fairy tales direct­ly with its Arthuri­an title. The lib­er­al, Lil­la recounts, is noble in spir­it and pure of heart, des­tined from birth to save the king­dom from ruin, fight­ing coura­geous­ly against the bar­bar­ian hordes of Repub­li­cans in Con­gress. But alas, it is not always the good and wise king who sits on the throne. The nobles, like Lil­la, have the wis­dom to know who is fit to gov­ern. But the com­mon­ers all too often fail to under­stand. They resent the nobil­i­ty for its priv­i­lege and sta­tus, and they clam­or around fool­ish kings like Trump. This is because the priv­i­leged of birth have left unful­filled their noblesse oblige; they have become cap­ti­vat­ed by the curi­ous doc­trine of “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” and have failed to secure the obe­di­ence of the kingdom’s sub­jects to a wise and prop­er sov­er­eign.

But it would be unfair to mock Lil­la for liv­ing in a world of his own imag­i­na­tion. Such fan­tasies are shared by his crit­ics, most notably Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates has a more sin­is­ter tale to tell. In an omi­nous fable called “The First White Pres­i­dent,” Coates reveals that Trump’s ascen­dan­cy is thanks to a “bloody heir­loom” called “white­ness.” Trump has tak­en the left-hand path fur­ther than all the sor­cer­ers before him, inher­it­ing their “ances­tral tal­is­man” but then “crack­ing the glow­ing amulet open, releas­ing its eldritch ener­gies.”

Unlike in Lilla’s mythol­o­gy, Coates’s sto­ry has no redeem­ing force—only treach­ery. Our noble hero is nowhere to be found. It seemed that Hillary Clin­ton would rise majes­ti­cal­ly from the lake, but we learned too late that her heart was not pure, and in any case she was ulti­mate­ly defeat­ed. Some were led astray by Bernie Sanders, who ven­tured from a far­away land and gath­ered an unex­pect­ed­ly large army. But all along, Coates tells us, Sanders was also a sor­cer­er like Trump, jeal­ous of the king’s pow­er and seek­ing to wield the amulet him­self.

Both Lil­la and Coates need to be remind­ed that we are not liv­ing in the leg­ends of the 5th cen­tu­ry. Pol­i­tics is not a roman­tic tale of good and evil, in which great men raise their swords and lead their king­doms to glo­ry. There is no such thing as mag­ic.

We live, in fact, in a 21st cen­tu­ry cap­i­tal­ist democ­ra­cy. And in our real, mate­r­i­al soci­ety, events do not pro­ceed as they do in the leg­ends. Social change is not made by noble heroes, even if they find them­selves in the right place at the right time to take the cred­it. It is made by the commoners—by those who remain name­less and face­less in the leg­ends, and in the polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies of Lil­la and Coates.


We must grant Lil­la this: he is res­olute in his con­vic­tions. In his book he proud­ly claims the title of lib­er­al, which he goes on to define in the most bor­ing, unat­trac­tive, and unin­spir­ing way pos­si­ble. This is a fatal error, because it is clear through­out the book that his goal is to inspire. What is not clear is who he seeks to inspire. Not the red-staters who he thinks have been let down by the “iden­ti­ty lib­er­als”; to their cred­it, they’re not inter­est­ed in read­ing this book. Not the iden­ti­ty lib­er­als them­selves, since he has made no effort to avoid offend­ing them. Not the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship, who have com­mit­ted to an iden­ti­ty-based strat­e­gy and have no rea­son to lis­ten to pon­tif­i­cat­ing pro­fes­sors. And not left­ists and social­ists, who he dis­dains as out of touch. If any­thing, it seems that the only one who will be inspired by The Once and Future Lib­er­al is the author. Mark Lil­la has writ­ten a polit­i­cal self-help book for him­self.

No mat­ter. What is inter­est­ing for our pur­pos­es is to deter­mine what this hon­or­able title means. It is not the inter­pre­ta­tion of clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism which hails from Aus­tria, the one which views the indi­vid­ual as the supreme real­i­ty and sole good. In fact, Lil­la accus­es iden­ti­ty lib­er­al­ism of being an extreme indi­vid­u­al­ism. He advo­cates a lib­er­al­ism on the mod­el of Roosevelt’s New Deal, not because he advo­cates a pol­i­tics of the redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth, but because this redis­tri­b­u­tion was part of a shared sense of nation­al pur­pose and a com­mit­ment by the nation to take care of its cit­i­zens. “We’re all Amer­i­cans and we owe that to each oth­er,” Lil­la pro­claims. “That’s what lib­er­al­ism means.” Lib­er­al­ism, in oth­er words, is a kind of benev­o­lent patri­o­tism, which rein­states an edenic gold­en age as a vision for the future.

To explain how this lib­er­al­ism declined, and end­ed up replaced by iden­ti­ty lib­er­al­ism, Lil­la presents us with an impres­sion­is­tic Leave It to Beaver nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. In the 1950s, the sto­ry goes, Amer­i­cans all bought cars, TVs, and refrig­er­a­tors, and moved to the sub­urbs, where they lis­tened to Pat Boone and spread may­on­naise on white bread. This Fordist fan­ta­sy is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a nos­tal­gic mem­o­ry shared by many mid­dle-of-the-road social­ists and social democ­rats, and the apoc­a­lyp­tic pes­simism of those now labelled by the deliri­ous right “Cul­tur­al Marx­ists.” In Lilla’s top­sy-turvy Frank­furt School-inflect­ed account of the one-dimen­sion­al soci­ety, it is indi­vid­u­al­ism rather than con­formism which takes root in the sub­urbs. The roman­tic rejec­tion of this soci­ety which ris­es from the Beat­niks and flour­ish­es in the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture is only a vari­a­tion on the theme, when birth con­trol pills and divorce split apart the only remain­ing source of col­lec­tiv­i­ty, the nuclear fam­i­ly. It was a response to the “iden­ti­ty cri­sis,” as psy­chol­o­gist Erik Erik­son had it, pro­voked by this para­dox­i­cal con­formist indi­vid­u­al­ism. “We have become a hyper­indi­vid­u­al­is­tic bour­geois soci­ety, mate­ri­al­ly and in our cul­tur­al dog­mas,” Lil­la laments.

“Amer­i­can” is rather a broad cat­e­go­ry to describe this par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence. It is not the expe­ri­ence of black peo­ple dur­ing the long “Great Migra­tion” which brought them from the South to the north­ern inner city. It is not the expe­ri­ence of the poor Appalachi­an whites who engaged in their own par­al­lel migra­tion. It is not the expe­ri­ence of immi­grants who came from Latin Amer­i­ca or Asia. Lil­la seems to have mis­tak­en his auto­bi­og­ra­phy for Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

In one of the many bizarre inter­views about his book, a Slate reporter remind­ed Lil­la that the peri­od he describes as one of nation­al pur­pose and uni­ty was also the peri­od of legal seg­re­ga­tion. Telling­ly, Lil­la respond­ed, “I’m not talk­ing about the real­i­ty on the ground. I’m talk­ing about the way we thought about the real­i­ty on the ground.” Lil­la may dis­dain the (high­ly per­ti­nent) ques­tion of who exact­ly this “we” is, but even he should acknowl­edge that his­tor­i­cal analy­sis can­not pro­ceed accord­ing to non-fal­si­fi­able state­ments about how every­one in a giv­en decade thought.

What is left out, of course, is the real­i­ty of the social move­ments which trans­formed the social struc­ture, and whose devel­op­ment takes place com­plete­ly out­side of the way Lil­la thought about the real­i­ty on the ground. Lil­la has a lot of trou­ble with the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. It is on the one hand a kind of “good” iden­ti­ty lib­er­al­ism, accept­able giv­en the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion: “Iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics on the left was at first about large class­es of people—African-Americans, women—seeking to redress major his­tor­i­cal wrongs by mobi­liz­ing and then work­ing through our polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions to secure their rights.” Yet at the same time, he insists that the civ­il rights move­ment was based on an impulse com­plete­ly con­trary to iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, because it addressed “the coun­try as a whole,” “work­ing to force Amer­i­ca to live up to its prin­ci­ples”: “The lead­ers of the civ­il rights move­ment chose to take the con­cept of uni­ver­sal, equal cit­i­zen­ship more seri­ous­ly than white Amer­i­ca ever had.”

Like every oth­er white main­stream polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor in the Unit­ed States, Mark Lil­la invokes Mar­tin Luther King Jr., and reduces him to an emp­ty mas­cot. For Coates, too, King is a mascot—”the bloody heir­loom remains potent even now,” he writes, “some five decades after Mar­tin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Mem­phis bal­cony.” Miss­ing from both accounts is the King who advanced an inter­na­tion­al­ist and social­ist pol­i­tics, who spoke out force­ful­ly against the Viet­nam War and Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, who saw the con­tin­u­a­tion of the strug­gle for civ­il rights in the Poor People’s Cam­paign and the san­i­ta­tion work­ers’ strike by AFSCME Local 1733, which he had gone to Mem­phis to sup­port when he was mur­dered.

Lil­la, despite his igno­rance of the actu­al his­to­ry of the civ­il rights move­ment, claims to hold high stan­dards for patri­ot­ic knowl­edge of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Among the hodge-podge of phe­nom­e­na blamed for the rise of iden­ti­ty lib­er­al­ism is the decline of lib­er­al edu­ca­tion, now replaced with self-cen­tered and nar­cis­sis­tic ped­a­gogy. (Imag­ine: a woman in a women’s stud­ies class!) In fact, Lil­la even implies that a poten­tial mod­el for the edu­ca­tion of youth is the civics test giv­en to aspir­ing citizens—you know, the one you take after swear­ing that you have nev­er been a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. In Lilla’s world, lib­er­al­ism will suc­ceed by sub­ject­ing stu­dents to more tests.

Con­tin­u­ing his focus on edu­ca­tion, Lil­la presents a curi­ous his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive to explain why he focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on uni­ver­si­ties. It seems more like­ly that he focus­es on uni­ver­si­ties because he works in them; but there is noth­ing wrong with talk­ing about uni­ver­si­ties, since, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, they are part of the “real world,” and they are places where many peo­ple for­mu­late and dis­sem­i­nate ideas. We are pre­sent­ed with descrip­tions of a sti­fling cli­mate in the Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty: stu­dents who are afraid to speak, because they might be “called out”; dis­cus­sions of any top­ic nar­cis­sis­ti­cal­ly referred back to the speak­er and their iden­ti­ty; denun­ci­a­tion of peo­ple who vio­late taboos.

It is ced­ing no ground to Lilla’s lib­er­al­ism to acknowl­edge that these phe­nom­e­na are real, and they are destruc­tive. There are indeed tox­ic cli­mates in uni­ver­si­ties which, by reduc­ing every­thing to an individual’s iden­ti­ty, inter­fere with the abil­i­ty of peo­ple to think, learn, and teach.

How­ev­er, Lil­la is mis­tak­en to think this is some­thing new. Uni­ver­si­ties have always been sti­fled by tox­ic iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics; it’s just that in the past, the iden­ti­ty was that of white men. As Coates cor­rect­ly points out, in Lilla’s world “all pol­i­tics are iden­ti­ty politics—except the pol­i­tics of white peo­ple.” For a long time, stu­dents of col­or were afraid to bring up ques­tions of race, because they would be accused of chang­ing the sub­ject; women found them­selves con­de­scend­ed to and silenced by enti­tled male aca­d­e­mics, if not open­ly sex­u­al­ly harassed with impuni­ty; and crit­i­ciz­ing the Euro­pean canon was seen as blas­phe­mous at best, illit­er­ate at worst.

Now the white male iden­ti­ty can­not be assumed; while racist and sex­ist abus­es per­sist, pro­gres­sive change has insist­ed on the recog­ni­tion of mar­gin­al­ized iden­ti­ties. But the unfore­seen dilem­ma we now face is that there is noth­ing to pre­vent peo­ple of mar­gin­al­ized iden­ti­ties from engag­ing in the kind of tox­ic behav­ior once monop­o­lized by white men.

It is a mad­den­ing and debil­i­tat­ing fea­ture of our con­tem­po­rary aca­d­e­m­ic cli­mate that we are asked to choose between dif­fer­ing forms of tox­ic dis­course. Good rid­dance to the racist, sex­ist regime that was clas­si­cal lib­er­al edu­ca­tion; now it is time to tack­le the under­ly­ing struc­ture of lib­er­al dis­course, one that fos­ters indi­vid­u­al­ism and com­pe­ti­tion and incor­po­rates new iden­ti­ties into its repres­sive cli­mate.


Lil­la snide­ly invokes the com­plex his­to­ry of the term “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” with a quo­ta­tion from the 1977 Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive State­ment, the first use of the term in its con­tem­po­rary mean­ing, under a chap­ter head­ing he titles “Pseu­do-Pol­i­tics.” Whether “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” is still a use­ful term for the anti-racist, fem­i­nist, and social­ist pol­i­tics of the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Collective—in a forth­com­ing book I argue that new terms are needed—it seems cer­tain that Lil­la knows absolute­ly noth­ing about that organization’s actu­al polit­i­cal prac­tice. As Col­lec­tive mem­ber Demi­ta Fra­zier recalled in a 1995 inter­view with Sojourn­er:

I nev­er believed that Com­ba­hee, or oth­er Black fem­i­nist groups I have par­tic­i­pat­ed in, should focus only on issues of con­cern for us as Black women, or that, as lesbian/bisexual women, we should only focus on les­bian issues. It’s real­ly impor­tant to note that Com­ba­hee was instru­men­tal in found­ing a local bat­tered women’s shel­ter. We worked in coali­tion with com­mu­ni­ty activists, women and men, les­bians and straight folks. We were very active in the repro­duc­tive rights move­ment, even though, at the time, most of us were les­bians. We found our­selves involved in coali­tion with the labor move­ment because we believed in the impor­tance of sup­port­ing oth­er groups even if the indi­vid­u­als in that group weren’t all fem­i­nist. We under­stood that coali­tion build­ing was cru­cial to our own sur­vival.

Lil­la not only shows him­self to be pet­ty and igno­rant in describ­ing this impor­tant activist work as “pseu­do-pol­i­tics,” he also under­mines the whole premise of his argu­ment. The Com­ba­hee Riv­er Collective’s prac­tice was not strict­ly lim­it­ed to the iden­ti­ty of indi­vid­ual activists, but was rather about form­ing coali­tions and expand­ing the scope of what could be demand­ed polit­i­cal­ly.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, how­ev­er, illus­trates the debil­i­tat­ing lim­its of what “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” has now come to rep­re­sent, some­thing far from the rad­i­cal and coali­tion­al prac­tice of the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive: a mor­al­iz­ing dis­course which monop­o­lizes the dis­cus­sion of race, yet fails to pro­pose either a coher­ent the­o­ry of racial oppres­sion or a viable pro­gram for elim­i­nat­ing it. Coates deploys his con­sid­er­able eru­di­tion and rhetor­i­cal flour­ish in ser­vice of sheer obfuscation—the sto­ry of white­ness as mag­ic and Trump as sor­cer­er. Despite the gin­ger­ly placed his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, in Coates’s telling white­ness has no his­to­ry. It is a malev­o­lent force which surges from the nether­world in moments which can only be iden­ti­fied by the inten­si­ty of Coates’s own feelings—the Amer­i­can Dream become Coates’s per­son­al night­mare.

Coates goes as far as to make the extra­or­di­nary claim that before Trump, white­ness lay dormant—when in fact our very first pres­i­dent owned slaves while in office, the first of eight to do so (four more were slave­own­ers while not in office). That Coates goes on to be disin­gen­u­ous should not sur­prise us. If white­ness is mag­ic, it has no real his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty, no clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able social effects, no lim­its on its scope of action, and no struc­ture which can be dis­man­tled. In Coates’s leg­ends, there is no point in resis­tance to evil. There are no moments in which white­ness is opposed. The noble heroes are all found want­i­ng, per­haps to leave room for one of Coates’s pref­er­ence in the future.

Yet we know, from read­ing the same his­to­ry books as Coates, that there was resis­tance. And indeed, the com­plex evo­lu­tion of white suprema­cy is marked by this resistance—first and fore­most the resis­tance of slaves, who from Saint-Domingue to Vir­ginia refused to accept the notion that one per­son could be the prop­er­ty of anoth­er.

Lil­la also eras­es this his­to­ry of resis­tance when he relies on a sen­ti­men­tal notion of “cit­i­zen­ship,” com­plete­ly elid­ing the his­tor­i­cal com­plex­i­ty of this cat­e­go­ry and its rela­tion­ship to the class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion that accom­pa­nied the for­ma­tion of mod­ern nation-states. In fact, Lilla’s notion of cit­i­zen­ship is tar­get­ed specif­i­cal­ly against social­ists and Bernie Sanders-style pro­gres­sives who would base pol­i­tics on class. “Cit­i­zen­ship is not an iden­ti­ty in the way we cur­rent­ly use the term, but it pro­vides one pos­si­ble way of encour­ag­ing peo­ple to iden­ti­fy with one anoth­er,” Lil­la writes. “There is good rea­son why pro­gres­sives should stop fram­ing their calls for eco­nom­ic jus­tice in terms of class and start appeal­ing instead to our shared cit­i­zen­ship.” (Astound­ing­ly, he adds in a foot­note that if pro­gres­sives “want to become a major force in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics again” they should ignore “the lat­est books from Ver­so Press” and instead read Ted­dy Roo­sevelt.)

What Lil­la asks us to repress is what San­dro Mez­zadra describes as the “struc­tur­al nexus between cit­i­zen­ship and labor.” Mez­zadra writes: “Labor sta­tus (‘free labor’ as it was imag­ined and con­struct­ed by the legal doc­trine of free­dom of con­tract) was tied since the ear­ly days of the Repub­lic to cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus, to the recog­ni­tion as a full adult cit­i­zen.” Cit­i­zen­ship “emerged as an abstract legal and polit­i­cal frame­work” that tied peo­ple who oth­er­wise con­crete­ly belonged to a plu­ral­i­ty of regions, cul­tures, and lan­guages, to the bor­ders of the nation and the sov­er­eign­ty of its state. “Free” wage labor, along­side the cat­e­go­ry of the cit­i­zen, “was imag­ined as sev­er­ing all but the mon­e­tary bond between employ­er and employee”—that is, remov­ing the fet­ters of cus­tom and law that tied serfs to lord and manor.

How­ev­er, this imag­ined fig­ure of the free labor­er did not cor­re­spond to the real­i­ty of waged work. In fact, even in Eng­land, work­ers were com­pelled by var­i­ous “extra-eco­nom­ic” pres­sures to work. The cat­e­go­ry of “free­dom” was not sim­ply bestowed as a legal gift, but was the result of bit­ter and pro­longed strug­gles. Free wage labor came into being because it was imposed by the refusal of work­ers to accept the legal sub­or­di­na­tion for­mal­ized in con­tract law. Accord­ing­ly, free wage labor in the Unit­ed States only came to exist as a func­tion of the strug­gles against inden­tured servi­tude and slav­ery, in the com­plex and con­tra­dic­to­ry his­to­ry by which “cit­i­zen­ship” came to be formed. In oth­er words, cit­i­zen­ship itself is part of the his­to­ry of the for­ma­tion of racial cat­e­gories and their inter­min­gling with the exploita­tion of labor. Yet Lilla’s only men­tion of the pol­i­tics of immi­gra­tion and refugees is con­fined to one huffy foot­note. “I will not be dis­cussing such mat­ters here,” he says, refus­ing to engage in any dis­cus­sion that may trou­ble his sen­ti­men­tal cel­e­bra­tion of cit­i­zen­ship.

Coates traces a his­to­ry famil­iar to any­one who has seri­ous­ly stud­ied the his­to­ry of racism, or the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism: the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between two forms of forced labor (inden­tured servi­tude and slav­ery), which came to be racial­ly cod­ed. But he does not account for the sec­ond episode: the point at which African slaves, legal­ly eman­ci­pat­ed, were inte­grat­ed into a racial­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed cap­i­tal­ist labor mar­ket, now “free labor­ers” who con­front­ed the exploita­tion of wage labor along­side the sur­vivals of slav­ery which divid­ed them from white work­ers. The sur­vivals of slav­ery grant­ed cer­tain priv­i­leges to white work­ers while con­tin­u­ing to impose racial­ized vio­lence on black work­ers; but this does not change the fact that black and white work­ers also shared a com­mon antag­o­nism to their boss­es, which, in many cru­cial moments, they clear­ly rec­og­nized.

In fact, as Peter Linebaugh and Mar­cus Rediker’s The Many-Head­ed Hydra recounts, such alliances exist­ed even dur­ing times of slav­ery, when the “mot­ley crew” turned the world upside down at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. In an account of the col­lec­tive rebel­lions in the ports of New York in the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, they write:

The mul­tira­cial water­front posed a polit­i­cal prob­lem for New York’s rulers. The coop­er­a­tive nature of work in the port had cre­at­ed dan­ger­ous insur­rec­tionary con­nec­tions between slaves of African descent… “and scum and dregs of the white pop­u­la­tion”… The author­i­ties approached the sol­i­dar­i­ty with a tri­dent in hand, each of its points care­ful­ly sharp­ened to punc­ture the pre­vail­ing mul­tira­cial prac­tices and bonds of pro­le­tar­i­an life in Atlantic New York. First they went after the tav­erns and oth­er set­tings where ‘‘cabals’’ of poor whites and blacks could be formed and sub­ver­sive plans dis­sem­i­nat­ed. Next they self-con­scious­ly recom­posed the pro­le­tari­at of New York to make it more dif­fi­cult for work­ers along the water­front to find among them­selves sources of uni­ty. And final­ly, they endeav­ored to teach racial lessons to New York’s peo­ple of Euro­pean descent, pro­mot­ing a white iden­ti­ty that would tran­scend and uni­fy the city’s frac­tious eth­nic divi­sions.

We have, then, a series of omis­sions, eli­sions, and cher­ry-picked tar­gets. It is easy to get bogged down in cir­cu­lar debates on par­tic­u­lar details while miss­ing the larg­er ques­tion: why does Coates deem it impor­tant to under­mine the cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism? Why this tar­get, when since the 17th cen­tu­ry the resis­tance to racial oppres­sion and cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion have gone hand in hand? Why this tar­get, when anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics, despite their recent growth, still remain polit­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al, their meek­est expres­sions repressed by the bureau­cra­cy of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty? Why this tar­get, when mem­bers of every mass social­ist orga­ni­za­tion appear at anti-fas­cist demon­stra­tions to put their bod­ies on the line against racism?

Indeed, as peo­ple of col­or, anti-racists, anti-fas­cists, and prison abo­li­tion­ists with­in social­ist orga­ni­za­tions are ded­i­cat­ing time and resources to the bat­tle against white suprema­cy, Coates decides to stand with Lil­la on the side­lines and crit­i­cize them tout court. Social­ist pol­i­tics only appears in Coates’s essay as an alter­na­tive to racial pol­i­tics, one which begins and ends in white­ness:

An imag­ined white work­ing class remains cen­tral to our pol­i­tics and to our cul­tur­al under­stand­ing of those pol­i­tics, not sim­ply when it comes to address­ing broad eco­nom­ic issues but also when it comes to address­ing racism. At its most sym­pa­thet­ic, this belief holds that most Americans—regardless of race—are exploit­ed by an unfet­tered cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my. The key, then, is to address those broad­er pat­terns that afflict the mass­es of all races; the peo­ple who suf­fer from those pat­terns more than oth­ers (blacks, for instance) will ben­e­fit dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly from that which ben­e­fits every­one.… This notion—raceless antiracism—marks the mod­ern left, from the New Demo­c­rat Bill Clin­ton to the social­ist Bernie Sanders.

But by speak­ing exclu­sive­ly of a race­less anti-racism, and ignor­ing the his­tor­i­cal exis­tence and present resur­gence of social­ist anti-racism, Coates both dis­cour­ages new­com­ers from join­ing and deep­en­ing socialism’s anti-racist com­mit­ments, and con­tributes to the McCarthy­ist rhetoric of the main­stream media that has con­sis­tent­ly been used to under­mine anti-racist activism in gen­er­al. Anti-com­mu­nism has a long his­to­ry as a weapon of white suprema­cy, so for Coates to adopt its bias­es is trou­bling. As Robin D.G. Kel­ley recounts in his vital book Ham­mer and Hoe, “anti-Com­mu­nism was also a veil for racism,” illus­trat­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly by the poster Kel­ley repro­duces read­ing: “NEGROES BEWARE: DO NOT ATTEND COMMUNIST MEETINGS… The Ku Klux Klan is Watch­ing you.”


Both Lil­la and Coates reflect on the ques­tions of race and iden­ti­ty in order to explain the Trump pres­i­den­cy. Lil­la sug­gests that the fail­ure of lib­er­als to pro­vide a com­mon vision, one cen­tered on respon­si­ble cit­i­zen­ship, left an emp­ty space that was filled by the per­verse vision of Don­ald Trump. Lib­er­als, caught up in iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, drove away the ordi­nary white peo­ple whose eco­nom­ic anx­i­ety had left them sus­cep­ti­ble to Trump­ism. Coates has an easy point to score against this argu­ment. Since black peo­ple and oth­er peo­ple of col­or have suf­fered from even more eco­nom­ic anx­i­ety, why have they not joined the Trump coali­tion?

The answer he pro­vides, of course, is white supremacy—which is com­plete­ly obvi­ous to any­one who is not as active­ly self-delu­sion­al as Mark Lil­la. It is no great insight on Coates’s part to rec­og­nize that Trump explic­it­ly framed peo­ple of col­or as nation­al ene­mies and gave them no rea­son to vote for him. He appealed to the white suprema­cist impuls­es that are still pow­er­ful for a por­tion of the white pop­u­la­tion (not a major­i­ty, but the por­tion of the white pop­u­la­tion which votes, and the por­tion with­in that which vot­ed for Trump).

There is no deny­ing this. How­ev­er, writ­ing vol­umes of florid prose which right­eous­ly assert this point does noth­ing to pre­vent Trump and his ilk from dom­i­nat­ing the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal scene. Dif­fi­cult as it is for peo­ple of col­or (includ­ing me) to come to terms with, we are not about to get rid of white peo­ple. This coun­try is full of them. Coates is not wrong when he implies that inso­far as they are caught up in the social for­ma­tion of “white­ness,” they are an intrin­si­cal­ly reac­tionary force. The rel­e­vant ques­tion is how to sub­due this force.

For­tu­nate­ly the answer is clear: the abo­li­tion of white­ness. This is not the same thing as the abo­li­tion of white peo­ple. In fact, it is impos­si­ble to abol­ish white­ness unless the peo­ple cur­rent­ly cod­ed as white rec­og­nize their respon­si­bil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in this project—in short, becom­ing “race trai­tors.”

Trea­son to the white race, in fact, is in the inter­est of the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple clas­si­fied as white. This should not be tak­en to mean that the priv­i­leges grant­ed to white peo­ple by white suprema­cy are not real—they are all too real, and many white peo­ple enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly par­tic­i­pate in white suprema­cy to pre­serve these priv­i­leges. How­ev­er, for the white peo­ple who are not own­ers of cap­i­tal, white priv­i­lege is a poi­soned bait. As the black com­mu­nist Har­ry Hay­wood wrote in his 1948 book Negro Lib­er­a­tion:

It is not acci­den­tal… that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the posi­tion of the whites is also most degrad­ed. Facts unearthed and wide­ly pub­li­cized… have thrown vivid light on the “par­adise” of racial big­otry below the Mason-Dixon Line. They expose the stag­ger­ing price of “white suprema­cy” in terms of health, liv­ing and cul­tur­al stan­dards of the great mass­es of south­ern whites. They show “white suprema­cy”… to be syn­ony­mous with the most out­ra­geous pover­ty and mis­ery of the south­ern white peo­ple. They show that “keep­ing the Negro down” spells for the entire South the nation’s low­est wage and liv­ing stan­dards. “White suprema­cy” means the nation’s great­est pro­por­tion of ten­ants and share­crop­pers, its high­est rate of child labor, its most degrad­ing and wide­spread exploita­tion of women, its poor­est health and hous­ing record, its high­est illit­er­a­cy and low­est pro­por­tion of stu­dents in high schools and col­leges, its high­est death and dis­ease rates, its low­est lev­el of union orga­ni­za­tion and its least democ­ra­cy.

These words could be writ­ten again today with only the most minor mod­i­fi­ca­tions. And they explain why Mark Lil­la and Ta-Nehisi Coates are ulti­mate­ly mir­ror images of each oth­er, in their fail­ure to rec­og­nize that over­com­ing white suprema­cy is not an “iden­ti­ty” issue, one which is restrict­ed to the inter­ests of a par­tic­u­lar racial group, but rather at the cen­ter of a uni­ver­sal pro­gram for eman­ci­pa­tion.

White­ness is not mag­ic. It is also not a psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tion or a par­tic­u­lar type of body. It is a mate­r­i­al social rela­tion, as mate­r­i­al as that of class. It is absurd to try to deter­mine in the abstract which of these rela­tions is pri­ma­ry. It is instead nec­es­sary to study a very spe­cif­ic con­crete history—the his­to­ry of plan­ta­tion slav­ery and the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism in the Unit­ed States—to explain both kinds of social rela­tion. Cap­i­tal­ism is a fun­da­men­tal tar­get of any eman­ci­pa­to­ry strug­gle not because of some kind of pri­or­i­ty of the “eco­nom­ic” over the “cul­tur­al” (what­ev­er these would mean as essen­tial cat­e­gories), but rather because in actu­al his­to­ry, racism has been an inte­gral com­po­nent of cap­i­tal­ism.

This is why, even when oppos­ing the most reac­tionary expres­sions of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, social­ists should nev­er make the mis­take of think­ing Mark Lil­la is on their side. If social­ists fail to active­ly oppose white suprema­cy, they allow cap­i­tal to wield one of its dead­liest weapons. In order to build a mass anti-cap­i­tal­ist movement—in order to fos­ter the kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty, com­mit­ment, and col­lec­tive action that is required for social transformation—it is nec­es­sary to oppose every expres­sion of racial hier­ar­chies and divi­sions which are vis­i­ble in our soci­ety and reassert them­selves in our move­ments. This is not to make move­ments “safe spaces,” but to make them expan­sive and pow­er­ful; it is not for white peo­ple to act as “allies,” but for them to reject the priv­i­leges con­ferred by white­ness in order to be able to act as com­rades. Wher­ev­er racial oppres­sion threat­ens the safe­ty of a por­tion of the mul­tira­cial work­ing class—whether it is an ICE raid, a police killing, or a fas­cist rally—socialists must be at the front lines in our col­lec­tive defense.


Iden­ti­ty lib­er­als, Lil­la claims, have missed the most impor­tant les­son of the Roo­sevelt peri­od: the polit­i­cal pri­ma­cy of win­ning elec­tions. “They remain under the spell of move­ment pol­i­tics,” he com­plains. Marx­ism and social­ism, Lil­la argues, are ulti­mate­ly to blame for the hege­mo­ny of move­ment pol­i­tics, ever since they arrived on our shores after the 1848 rev­o­lu­tions.  Lil­la would rather that we appre­ci­ate the bril­liance of “the framers of our Con­sti­tu­tion,” who ensured that achiev­ing jus­tice “would require a lot of tedious, incre­men­tal work.” Today, Lil­la tells us, we should get back to the tedious, incre­men­tal work:

A pop­u­lar wave from the left has risen up to resist a pop­ulist one from the right, and it’s encour­ag­ing to observe. But “resis­tance” will not be enough. Our short-term strat­e­gy must be to direct every bit of that ener­gy into elec­toral pol­i­tics so we can actu­al­ly bring about the change we pro­fess to seek.

Part of the dam­age done by iden­ti­ty lib­er­als is that “at a time when it is cru­cial to direct our efforts into seiz­ing insti­tu­tion­al pow­er by win­ning elec­tions, we dis­si­pate them in expres­sive move­ments indif­fer­ent to the effects they may have on the vot­ing pub­lic.” In sum: “We need no more marchers. We need more may­ors.”

For all his oppo­si­tion­al tone, Coates turns out to be unable to move beyond Lilla’s elec­toral­ism. This is not because he advo­cates an elec­toral strat­e­gy, but rather because his cloak-and-dag­ger nar­ra­tive fix­ates on politi­cians, using them to sym­bol­ize entire polit­i­cal ten­den­cies, analy­ses, and move­ments. Social­ism appears in Coates’s analy­sis sole­ly as the per­son­al vision of Bernie Sanders, which not only buries the long his­to­ry of anti-racists who saw social­ism as an inte­gral and nec­es­sary part of their mis­sion, but also reduces mass move­ments to famous indi­vid­u­als. What Coates seems to ignore is that polit­i­cal fig­ures are not sim­ply mouth­pieces for the uni­tary views of their sup­port­ers, and their sup­port­ers are not sim­ply sheep who will fall in line with their sup­posed leader’s every dec­la­ra­tion. What was sig­nif­i­cant about the Sanders cam­paign were not his per­son­al views or his con­gres­sion­al record, but the fact that a wide range of con­stituen­cies with a wide range of demands iden­ti­fied with his call for “polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion.” The unique demands of these dif­fer­ent groups were made equiv­a­lent through their shared oppo­si­tion to the exist­ing polit­i­cal sys­tem.

We now know that black Amer­i­cans were a fun­da­men­tal­ly impor­tant link in this chain. Sanders is extreme­ly pop­u­lar among black vot­ers—in fact, more reg­is­tered black vot­ers view Sanders favor­ably than any of the oth­er “racial” demo­graph­ics sur­veyed by the Har­vard-Har­ris Poll, and more black vot­ers have a “very favor­able view” of Sanders than they do of Hillary Clin­ton. Yet, while crit­i­cal of Hillary Clin­ton, Coates claims that she “acknowl­edged the exis­tence of sys­temic racism more explic­it­ly than any of her mod­ern Demo­c­ra­t­ic pre­de­ces­sors.”

An effec­tive polit­i­cal prac­tice involves, as Judith But­ler puts it, “estab­lish­ing prac­tices of trans­la­tion” between the dif­fer­ing demands of the groups that form a coali­tion, and even­tu­al­ly find­ing that “despite any appar­ent log­i­cal incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty,” these demands “may nev­er­the­less belong to an over­lap­ping set of social and polit­i­cal aims.” Today, this process of trans­la­tion has led far beyond the Sanders cam­paign and the elec­toral are­na in gen­er­al, with young peo­ple seek­ing out alter­na­tive modes of orga­ni­za­tion and polit­i­cal strug­gle. Coates, how­ev­er, is pri­mar­i­ly inter­est­ed in tear­ing apart Bernie Sanders’s lan­guage, and thus dis­cred­it­ing those of his sup­port­ers who are in the process of dis­cov­er­ing new polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. Every com­ment Sanders makes about “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” is pre­sent­ed as if it shows the blind spot of any cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism, as if it illus­trates the impo­tence of class strug­gle in over­com­ing white suprema­cy.

Here once again there is a yawn­ing gap in the nar­ra­tive. As his­to­ri­an Jacque­lyn Dowd Hall has demon­strat­ed, it was the “black-labor-left” coali­tion of the 1940s which lay the ground­work for the leg­isla­tive achieve­ments of the 1960s, famous­ly rep­re­sent­ed by Social­ist Par­ty Mem­ber, pres­i­dent of the Broth­er­hood of Sleep­ing Car Porters, and core orga­niz­er of the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton A. Philip Ran­dolph. Hall offers us a cor­rec­tive to the reduc­tive nar­ra­tives of both Lil­la and Coates:

His­to­ri­ans have depict­ed the post­war years as the moment when race eclipsed class as the defin­ing issue of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism. But among civ­il rights union­ists nei­ther class nor race trumped the oth­er, and both were expan­sive­ly under­stood. Pro­ceed­ing from the assump­tion that, from the found­ing of the Repub­lic, racism has been bound up with eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, civ­il rights union­ists sought to com­bine pro­tec­tion from dis­crim­i­na­tion with uni­ver­sal­is­tic social wel­fare poli­cies and indi­vid­ual rights with labor rights. For them, work­place democ­ra­cy, union wages, and fair and full employ­ment went hand in hand with open, afford­able hous­ing, polit­i­cal enfran­chise­ment, edu­ca­tion­al equi­ty, and an enhanced safe­ty net, includ­ing health care for all.

By ignor­ing social move­ments and fix­at­ing on politi­cians, Coates dis­torts both the his­to­ry of mass anti-racist move­ments and the poten­tial for their con­tem­po­rary growth. Social­ist move­ments exist in the Unit­ed States due to the coura­geous efforts of black social­ists, com­mu­nists, and trade-union­ists. It is a lega­cy which must be car­ried for­ward today, and Coates does the strug­gle against white suprema­cy an enor­mous dis­ser­vice by hid­ing it behind the lib­er­al con­tempt for Bernie Sanders.

The red her­ring on which this manip­u­la­tive nar­ra­tive turns is the ques­tion of the “white work­ing class.” Coates cites every­one from Sanders to Lil­la as apol­o­gists for the “white work­ing class,” whose racism and com­plic­i­ty in Trump’s pow­er they deny by point­ing to eco­nom­ic anx­i­ety and frus­tra­tion with elites.

Here Coates makes a pecu­liar move. He demon­strates con­clu­sive­ly that this argu­ment of Lil­la and Sanders is wrong. He points out that a Gallup study of pre-elec­tion polling data shows that vot­ers “who sup­port­ed Trump gen­er­al­ly had a high­er mean house­hold income ($81,898) than those who did not ($77,046),” and they were “less like­ly to be unem­ployed and less like­ly to be employed part-time.” In oth­er words, as Coates cor­rect­ly con­cludes, “when white pun­dits cast the ele­va­tion of Trump as the hand­i­work of an inscrutable white work­ing class, they are being too mod­est, declin­ing to claim cred­it for their own eco­nom­ic class.”

But despite prov­ing that the so-called “white work­ing class” is not actu­al­ly Trump’s base, Coates insists that for whites, racial sol­i­dar­i­ty takes prece­dence over any oth­er polit­i­cal inter­est, cit­ing the fact that Trump’s sup­port was high­er among whites as a whole than any oth­er demo­graph­ic. Once again, this is hard­ly a stun­ning new insight, so we have to ask why Coates empha­sizes it. It becomes clear, as his argu­ment unfolds, that Coates’s goal is to inval­i­date the pos­si­bil­i­ty of class sol­i­dar­i­ty across racial bound­aries. Even after show­ing the research which should shat­ter any belief that this mono­lith exists, Coates clings to the chimeri­cal fig­ure of the white work­ing class, in order to exclude it from anti-racist strug­gle.

This is because Coates appears to lack any inter­est in see­ing that strug­gle suc­ceed. His demand is for moral repen­tance, not lib­er­a­tion. But instead of ask­ing whites to feel guilty, we should demand the abo­li­tion of white­ness, a project in which they have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to active­ly par­tic­i­pate. As long as Coates is unwill­ing to embrace the mul­tira­cial mass move­ment that can abol­ish white­ness, he and Lil­la will for­ev­er be left to fight over the throne of a king­dom that remains unchanged. As usu­al, it is up to the name­less and face­less com­mon­ers to make his­to­ry, rather than to appeal to the con­science of the king.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).