“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.”
“But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle…One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”
Ibram X. Kendi
In a twitter exchange late in 2020, Tim Miller derided Josh Hawley for worrying before the election that Joe Biden would empower radical Marxists while lamenting after the election that he had nominated too many “corporate liberals.” Hawley responded that corporate liberals were woke capitalists who were fond of “warmed-over Marxism.” At first blush, Hawley’s claim does seem strange. Marxists, after all, are notoriously hostile to capitalism, advocating, as they do, for its eventual destruction. While woke capitalists, as the name suggests, seem to like capitalism just fine.
This apparent strangeness disappears, however, if we recognize that many modern progressives aren’t traditional, class-based Marxists; rather, they are ethnomarxists. By ethnomarxist, I mean that they have substituted class-based concerns for ethnic-based concerns. Like traditional Marxists, ethnomarxists see society as a strife of competing interests between oppressors and oppressed and like traditional Marxists, they see ideology as a veneer that disguises and rationalizes the pursuit of group-interests. But whereas traditional Marxists view class conflict as the driver of history, creating a world of oppressor (capitalists/rich) and oppressed (labor/poor), enthnomarxists view ethnic conflict as the driver, creating a slightly different world of oppressor (whites) and oppressed (people of color).
Both kinds of Marxism are militantly Manichaean, as the conservative author, Rod Dreher, aptly put it. That is, they both tend to see the world as a dramatic and inescapable clash of good and evil, saints and sinners, perpetrators and victims. In the midst of such a momentous battle, neutrality is wicked; apathy is evil; silence is complicity; and not being racist is racist. Furthermore, both kinds of Marxism are convinced that false consciousness is pervasive and that liberalism itself is a kind of ideological tool of oppression.
This might seem unnecessarily crude. Surely most progressives, most ethnomarxists, are more subtle and sophisticated than the preceding suggests? In some ways, almost certainly. But it is worth noting that the human mind, though staggeringly complex in many ways, often generates judgments from simple frameworks called heuristics. For example, if somebody asks, “A person died in the ocean in Florida yesterday. What killed him?” then most of us will answer by using a mental shortcut known as the availability heuristic, in which we base our response on immediate, often vivid examples that come quickly to mind. Thus, we would be more likely to answer “shark attack” than actual evidence (base rate of shark attacks) merits because it is easier for us to recall vivid examples of shark attacks than of drownings or boat crashes.
My argument is that the ethnomarxist framework is a kind of mental shortcut, a heuristic that structures and guides the cognition of modern progressives. Like the crossed staves of a scarecrow in a field, it can be fleshed out and refined by adding various decorations — caveats, nuances, “not exactlys,” and “approximatelys.” But the underlying simpler structure still shapes the nature of the resulting thoughts and judgements.
The ethnomarxist framework asserts that (1) ethnic groups have shared group interests; (2) society is a strife of ethnic conflict; (3) white people are the dominant ethnic group (oppressor), and people of color are the exploited ethnic group (oppressed); (4) whites promulgate ideologies that justify their hegemony, such as “color blind” liberalism; and (5) even whites who are not consciously racist or bigoted participate in a racist system and benefit from its privileges. (It’s worth noting that people are not often conscious of all the features of the heuristics that guide their cognition — a very Marxist point.)
Understanding progressives as ethnomarxists might help to explain:
1.) Why many apparently innocuous phenomena or events are seen as incontrovertible evidence of racism by many progressives. Thus, for example, when the tennis broadcaster, Doug Adler noted that Venus Williams (a black female tennis player) was dominating her opponent, saying, “Venus is all over her. And you’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on, charging,” progressive railed against him for calling Venus a “gorilla.” He was eventually fired for this perfectly innocent description of Venus’s tennis style. Readers can find myriad similar examples by doing a Google search with almost any word followed by “are racist.” For example, “pets” and “are racist” yields a number of baffling but hilarious results.
2.) Why progressives vigorously promote affirmative action despite the fact that it arguably benefits wealthy black people while hurting impoverished white people. In the ethnomarxist framework, the fundamental conflict in society is not between classes but between ethnic groups. Wealthy blacks are less privileged than poor whites and deserve recompense for their suffering. Redistribution (equity) is no longer primarily about transferring resources from the rich to the poor or from perpetrators of specific acts of injustice toward their victims; rather, it is about transferring resources from white people to people of color. And affirmative action is a kind of transfer that takes a limited resource (college admissions at elite universities) from white people (poor and rich) and gives it to people of color (predominantly affluent).
3.) Why disparities between demographic groups are seen as evidence of systemic racism by many progressives, but only if the disparity “favors” whites. In a free market system, individuals will have vastly different outcomes because they are different from each other. The same is true of sexes and ethnic groups (whatever the underlying causes of the differences). And any serious analysis of outcome disparities must control for differences in traits, behaviors, skills, and cultural differences if it is to make any causal claims.
However, progressives heed these obvious truisms only when the inequality in question benefits white people. For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA), an incredibly high paying league, is dominated by black people (74.2%). But progressives never cite this as evidence of systemic racism because they recognize it probably has a number of causes, none of which are actually racist. On the other hand, they often do cite disparities in arrests, incarceration, college admission, pay, et cetera, as evidence of systemic racism blacks. From the ethnomarxist framework, whites are the hegemonic ethnic group and thus only they can benefit from systemic racism. They are the oppressors. And disparities that favor them therefore are almost certainly a result of their pernicious exercise of power and privilege.
4.) Why implicit association tests and other measures of subconscious, unconscious, or otherwise hidden racism are so popular among progressives. Despite a spotty track record and dubious validity, many measures of hidden or disguised racism are forwarded as evidence that most whites, even those who profess to be racially progressive, are racist. Rationally, one might expect the weak performance of these measures to temper the enthusiasm of divisive claims about pervasive racism, but if one’s worldview is that ethnic groups zealously protect and promote their own ethnic interests, then it is perfectly sensible to believe that whites, the hegemonic ethnic group, are deeply racist even if they assert otherwise. In fact, according to the ethnomarxist framework, many whites likely suffer from a kind of false consciousness in which they believe themselves to be racially enlightened and cosmopolitan but are actually working to promote the interests of their own ethnic group by subtly subjugating and exploiting other ethnic groups.
5.) Why many corporations have become enthusiastic supporters of “Marxism” in the past several years. As Josh Hawley noted, many corporations seem to have grown fond of a kind of revolutionary Marxism. Some, like Tim Miller, contend that this is risible nonsense. Corporations and Marxists, like oil and water, cats and dogs, tooth paste and orange juice, are in eternal enmity. This is indeed true of traditional Marxism, but not of ethnomarxism. In fact, ethnomarxism is not only not hostile to corporate interests, but it might be helpful. It actively distracts attention from economic inequalities while simultaneously creating or exacerbating fissures in the working class between whites and people of color. This is what woke capitalism is about: turning revolutionary energies into fuel for the engine of profit. Every corporate Black Lives Matter slogan is thus a combustion explosion that turns the crank of consumerism while concomitantly driving a sledgehammer wedge into labor solidarity.
6.) Why progressives see silence as violence and complicity. Ordinary white people might think that not supporting biased policies, not promoting invidious prejudices, and not judging people based on their ancestry would be enough to avoid the stigma of racism. But according to progressives, they would be wrong. To many classical liberals and conservatives, this is perplexing. But according to ethnomarxism, whites are inevitably a part of a hegemonic group that benefits by exploiting and oppressing other ethnic groups. Therefore, even if a particular white refrains from promoting racist policies or beliefs, he or she is still a member of a racist group that dominates society. The only way to behave morally is thus to become an anti-racist and a race traitor who seeks to “abolish whiteness.” From this perspective, abolishing whiteness doesn’t necessarily mean abolishing the white race, although one could certainly be excused for believing this; rather, it means abolishing the hierarchy of ethnic exploitation that persists in Western societies.
A few factors explain the recent and rapid rise of ethnomarxism. Like traditional Marxism, ethnomarxism appeals to educated elites who believe that they will be among the vanguard who help to bring about a post-hierarchical society in which ethnic-group conflict is eliminated. However, ethnomarxism likely better appeals to second and third generation educated elites who grew up in affluent homes with parents who were college professors, lawyers, accountants, or other professionals, because they are less aware of and less sympathetic to the plight of the modern working class. Furthermore, unlike traditional Marxism, ethnomarxism is very appealing to business and corporate elites, who see it as a useful distraction from class-based concerns and a convenient wedge to sunder the working class into mutually suspicious and bitterly competitive ethnic groups.
The human mind is susceptible to simplistic, Manichaean narratives of good and evil. This is not a unique failing of one political persuasion. Populists are susceptible; conservatives are susceptible; liberals are susceptible; and progressives are susceptible. But some ideologies encourage and incentivize such dichotomous thinking, praising what is a cognitive and moral failure as a virtue. Ethnomarxism is a relatively recent addition to the already overfilled basket of Manichaean ideologies, offering a powerful vision of a perverse society of ethnic exploitation waiting to be saved by the elect who can penetrate the veneer of liberal individualism and recognize the white supremacist hierarchy that hides beneath.
The trick for those who find ethnomarxism an unhelpfully reductionist and anti-liberal ideology is to fight it without slipping into the very same simplistic rhetoric and behavior, without becoming merely anti-woke or anti-anti-racist. The world is full of many hues. How limiting it is to see only in black and white.