There used to be a day when radically leftist politics was very different. This was decades ago, and in the postmodern politics of the 80s and 90s we forgot it. No, in that politics, it seemed that politics just became about interest groups and that it no longer reflected the dimension of the universal. Instead, one group pitted itself against the other, claiming a hierarchy of grievances, in which others were told that their grievances were less important than those of others.
In another time things were different. The struggles of the few were treated as the struggles of the many. The particular was an instance of the universal. Workers in Detroit might be struggling over something very specific to their local circumstances and geography workers who formerly placed a washer on a screw being fired and other workers required to place that washer on the screw. Such a local management and workers issue, entirely particular to that geographical location, yet leftist everywhere would see this injustice as also being about them and would come to the aid of those struggling. Similarly, women's suffrage issues were also seen as workers issues and right-minded workers would come to their aid on behalf of those struggles. Likewise with civil rights struggles pertaining to race.
Each of these struggles would be absolutely particular, absolutely a matter for those groups, yet they would be seen as issues that pertain to all. And why did these issues so specific to a particular group of workers, women, or people of color pertain to all? Why would issues so specific to particular identities be something of universal concern? Because before the eyes of power, of those who hold the keys, we're all expendable and worthless. The trial and execution of the Rosenberg's might have been their personal affair, but women, workers, those struggling on behalf of unions, people of color, etc., could be treated analogously. The union activist could just as easily experience a fate analogous to lynching as the black man. Each particular injustice reflected universal injustice. And so right minded individuals fought on behalf of all injustices and inequalities, no matter how remote they might be from their own life.
Today we see something very different. We see assertions made about one issue being more important than another, one injustice trumping another. Some will say that race trumps everything due to the profound injustices of race. Others will say that sex trumps everything because of the endless injustices against women. Queer politics, of course, tends to get trampled by all the other groups. "That's just a concern for those queens!" Yet others will say economics trumps all other issues as economic oppression cuts across all the other differences. Ecological issues barely appear on the radar screen of the left at all. One group pitted against another; each group asserting their own political privilege in the order of struggles.
There were significant advantages to the politics of the struggles of the few being the struggles of the many. First, this politics was good at building powerful activist coalitions. If you're a worker implicitly telling black people to fuck off because economic issues are more important than race issues, it's hard to form a coalition with African-Americans who might economically share your struggles. Likewise with race activists implicitly telling those concerned with economic issues to go to hell. I say "implicitly" because no one ever says it outright. They just show it through the form of their arguments, through their actions, and through behavior. We show it endlessly. Hell, I recall back in the days before Obama came around on gay rights people saying "look, there are just more important issues to worry about and besides, this is just too politically toxic right now." Way to build coalitions. If you're genuinely a "pragmatic realist" you recognize there are forms of activism that build coalitions capable of producing change and there are those that weaken us. In my experience, those who have crowd loudest about pragmatic realism are the least pragmatic or realist.
Second, the universalist position is morally superior. It's hard to make a case for your rights if you're not defending everyone's rights. The particularists have always been the conservatives. And "conservative" is not a synonym for republican. There are plenty of democratic conservatives. Conservativism has always been about defending the particularism or privilege of a particular race, religion, economic station, title, etc. If your fight for rights is premised on that group alone, you're a particularist. I shouldn't be, for example, fighting on behalf of gay or jewish rights, for a particular identity, but on behalf of universal rights being applied equally to GLBT and Jewish people. If I ignore struggles of people of color, workers, women, white men, Christians, Muslims, the disabled, and so on, there's something wrong with my position. I speak from a position of moral bankruptcy. Their struggles are my struggles because the only position of moral authority is that of universalism or fairness and equality for all. Not special rights, but universal rights.
Their struggles are my struggles because we all suffer injustice and their injustice is my injustice. Need I mention issues of privacy and civil liberties, concern for which has been recently so vilified as "libertarian". How can I speak with moral authority or persuasiveness if I make such arguments? How can I speak with moral authority if I say to women that their struggles take a back seat to struggles on behalf of climate and economics? No, the only position of moral authority is one where the struggles of the particular are also universal struggles to which I ought to devote myself with as much fervor as my own struggles. I ardently hope that perhaps we can one day remember this form of politics and begin to practice it again. I ardently hope that we will witness the day where the conservatives among us, in the democratic party, disappear and that we cease defending the politics of privilege or the ranking of issues.