Post-Pogressive Christianity: Part 10, Class

I won't rehash it all here, but there's been a lot of commentary about how liberal politics has shifted over the last twenty years. Painting with a broad brush, classic liberalism focused on issues of class, about wealth and its uneven distribution. However, since the '90s liberalism has shifted away from class to focus more on identity, with a particular focus on race, sexuality and gender.

In fact, I'd argue that the change of labels from "liberal" to "progressive" reflects this change. The label "liberal" hearkens back to the days when the Democratic Party was the party of the blue collar working class, the party aligned with organized labor. The ascendant label of "progressive," however, points less to labor than to a greater focus on issues of race (e.g., support for Black Lives Matter) and sexuality/gender (e.g., advocacy for the LGTBQ community).

To be clear, this is not a hard and fast distinction. Classic liberals have always pushed for racial justice and have advocated for gay and transgender rights. Conversely, progressives care hugely about economic inequality. However, there has been a shift away from class to identity on the political left which has created conflict.

If you'd like an illustration of this divide go back to the 2016 Democratic primary and ask why Black Lives Matter protested Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. As Vox explained at the time, Sanders was acting as a liberal, focusing on economics, while Black Lives Matter was progressive, focusing on race. From Vox:
The activists didn't feel that Sanders — and, just as importantly, his supporters — are keeping racial justice front and center. Sanders has become a progressive hero for his economic populism, but at the beginning of his campaign he talked about racial inequality, if at all, as a symptom of economic inequality.

To Black Lives Matter activists and sympathizers, who've spent the last year or more calling attention to the deaths of young black men and women (many at the hands of police), Sanders's attitude toward race was all too familiar: Generations of white progressives have kept economic issues at the center of progressivism and issues that affect mostly nonwhites at the margins. They've challenged Sanders to make racism and mass incarceration as important to his campaign as Social Security.
For a longer meditation on this clash between class and identity on the political left, see also Mark Lilla's book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

To be sure, these are troubled waters as many class-focused liberals (like Lilla) have criticized the identity-focused progressives for opening the door for Trump's economic populism, which gave Trump a boost in Rust Belt states in 2016, traditional bastions of organized labor. Obviously, progressives don't appreciate being blamed for Trump, and since many classical liberals are white men (see, for example, Bernie Sanders and Mark Lilla) the accusations are doubly galling.

All that to say, this class vs. identity clash is a real thing that does divide the political left. I don't think I'm making this contrast up.

Which brings me to my post-progressive shift.

As progressive, I applaud the rise of intersectional analysis, bringing into view the interlocking and intersecting matrix of oppression, how oppressions related to race, sexuality, class, and gender "stack up" and reinforce each other. Truly, oppression is a multi-headed hydra.

And yet, as a post-progressive I contend that class has far too often been left out of the intersectional conversation. More, I would argue that when it comes to resisting the matrix of oppression economic justice is by far the greatest route to liberation and emancipation. Racial bias and animus is almost impossible to banish from the human heart, no matter how often you tell white people to "check their privilege," but economic reparations is something that can help move us in the right direction. Sexism will likely always be found in the workplace, no matter how many HR sensitivity trainings we make people attend. In the meantime, given the wage gap between men and women, we can fight for strengthening our equal pay laws.

My point here is that, by ignoring class and focusing so much on identity, progressives often falter or sputter when it comes to concrete policy recommendations. And let me push even harder here. Many progressives decry moral solutions to address systemic injustices. And yet, when you look at what many progressive recommend by way of justice they tend to recommend what they object to: Moral imperatives to solve systemic problems. For example, the frequent calls to "check your privilege," "educate yourself," "be a better ally," or "stand in solidarity" are moral imperatives rather than systemic policy fixes. Shifting focus to economics may look like you're taking your eye off the intersectional ball, but I'm convinced that economic justice is the quickest, most effective, and most direct path toward empowerment for all oppressed groups.

To be clear, this isn't to say we reconcile ourselves to prejudice and bias in the world, just the simple observation that prejudice and bias dwell in the human heart. Prejudice and bias are moral problems that require moral solutions. We call this in the industry "repentance." No policy or systemic fix can forcibly reach into the human heart to change it. 

Let me also shift gears to raise another point. Many diverse progressive spaces are often very homogeneous when it comes to class. I once heard a progressive Christian author, an expert on race and a racial minority himself, confess and lament how he attended a very multiethic and multiracial church, but that the church was very homogeneous when it came to educational level and income. I've been to a lot of diverse, progressive churches who are very homogeneous when it comes to class. It's a huge progressive blind spot. Two people of different races or sexual orientations can quickly find lots of things in common when they are wealthy and share graduate degrees compared to two people of the same race or sexual orientation who are from very different economic strata.

And lastly, on another different note, a focus on class brings us closer to the imagination of Jesus. As has been pointed out a million times, Jesus talked about money more than anything else. According to Jesus, liberation theology begins with economic inequality. Woe to the rich, Jesus preached, and blessed are the poor. 

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe there is a intersectional matrix of oppression at work across race, sex, gender, age, and class. Liberation work must focus upon all these vectors of power, oppression, and privilege.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe the reigning intersectional consensus at work among progressive Christians has tended to ignore or marginalize the role of class and economic inequality. Taking our cue from Jesus, we should restore and privilege the role of class and economics in justice work, not at the expense of identity, but as the systemic lever that is the most concrete, practical, effective, and direct route to justice and emancipation for all oppressed groups.

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