We live in an age characterized by anxiety and anomie, on the one hand, and hatred and resentment on the other. While the former is a corollary of the hyper-individualizing tendencies inherent in our current economic regime, the latter is the result of right-wing politics. Firstly, neoliberal capitalism has deployed markets in two senses at once, simultaneously enforcing them as the sole rational basis for material distribution and expanding the reach of market-based valuation into non-market spheres as a cultural norm. This has severely eroded collective bases of solidarity, giving rise to social atomism.
Secondly, the contemporary Right has molded these insecurities into what Arjun Appadurai has called “aspirational hatred” . This refers to the redirection of aspirations away from better jobs, more economic security and greater social respectability towards a darker form of rising expectations, in which the new role models are the xenophobic leaders of populist movements. These leaders act as exemplars in the sublaterns’ life, allowing them to dwell in an imagery of empowerment through a discourse of ethno-national purity and cultural superiority. In other words, aspirations become tied to retributive actions against scapegoated identities.
The combination of neoliberal policies on the economic front and neo-fascist actions on the politico-cultural front has certainly signaled a period of defeat for socialist movements. However, there has been little critical introspection on the part of the Left of its strategies and tactics. We have only seen a clamorous call to resist the fascist onslaught against the working class. Behind these urgent claims lies the failure to extricate oneself from the immediacy of what is happening; uncritical immersion in the material reality forecloses any possibility of carefully considering the roots of the Right’s resurgence and transcending the electoral exigencies of parliamentary politics.
What the present-day moment demands is a sustained re-thinking of the ideological devices traditionally used by the Left. Rather than regarding the rise of the Right as an instance of mass irrationalism and peddling the unproductive narrative that the working class was “duped” by deceptive maneuvers, we need to locate the precise reasons which made the Left’s social constituency susceptible to (proto) fascist ideas. In particular, the Right’s use of emotion should not be seen as counterposed to the Left’s support for reason: emotions are part of our everyday reasoning, experience and relation to the world, because they are highly discerning commentaries about our concerns and commitments. Different emotions have different normative structures and analyzing these can tell us something about the situations in which they are produced.
The centrality of emotions and subjective experience is also indicated by the fact that injustices of recognition and redistribution often only reveal themselves in the lived reality of social relations. Ellen Meiksins Wood made precisely this point when she used E. P. Thompson’s notion of experience against Althusserian definitions of class as an abstract structural location: “since people are never actually ‘assembled’ in classes, the determining pressure exerted by a mode of production in the formation of classes cannot be easily expressed without reference to something like a common experience - a lived experience of…the conflicts and struggles inherent in relations of exploitation” . Further explorations into the political status of this subjective-emotional plane can help in the formation of new socialist ideas by delineating how the Right gained power through a molecular, bottom-up process of hegemony-formation.
In his book “The Moral Significance of Class”, Andrew Sayer writes about lay normativity i.e. people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. We are evaluative beings, continually monitoring and assessing our behavior and that of others, needing their approval and respect, but in contemporary society this takes place in the context of inequalities which affect both what we are able to do and how we are judged. Lay normativity is composed of moral judgments, treated not as a system of external, regulative norms/conventions but as based primarily on actors’ moral sentiments, which in turn are developed through social interaction. This feature derives from the fact that morality is serious, that is, about matters that affect people and their wellbeing deeply, whereas mere rules need not necessarily be serious (for example, ways of setting a table). Its seriousness derives from its significance for human well-being and is reflected in the expectation of some kind of justification for its codes.
According to Sayer :
[T]he [moral] rationales are to be found within available discourses, but they are more than mere internalized and memorized bits of social scripts. Discourses derive from and relate to a wider range of situations than those directly experienced by the individuals who use them, thereby allowing them vicarious access to the world beyond them. While they constrain thought in certain ways, they are also open to different interpretations and uses, and endless innovation and deformation, and they tend to contain inconsistencies and contradictions, making them open to challenge from within. Although they structure perception they do not necessarily prevent identification of false claims; for example, just because someone believes that the social world is organized on a meritocratic basis, it does not mean that no experience could ever lead them to have doubts about this.
In further developing the open-ended nature of lay normativity, Sayer critically engages with Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus - which refers to the set of dispositions that individuals acquire through socialization, and which orient them towards the social and physical world around them. In Bourdieu’s analysis, the dispositions characterizing a habitus are understood primarily as instrumental orientations to the requirements of occupying particular positions within a social field: by and large people acquire the necessary dispositions for them to function effectively within the social positions they occupy. This “emphasis on the adaptation of the habitus to actors’ circumstances,” Sayer argues, “exaggerates actors’ compliance with their position and makes resistance appear to be an anomalous form of behavior occasioned only by special circumstances” .
Sayer challenges this general “complicity between habitus and habitat” by arguing that human dispositions to act in various ways are not simply the result of structural conditioning but also of the “internal conversations” of “mundane reflexivity”, and these internal conversations help shape normative sensibilities . Unlike instrumental dispositions which are tightly integrated with our class location, moral dispositions tend to have a relatively universalizing quality to them, particularly as mundane reflexivity interacts with the realities of suffering and flourishing. In the words of Sayer, these universalizing tendencies derive “from the reciprocal character of social relations, from their responsiveness to our human as well as our more specifically cultural being, and partly from experiences of good and bad treatment which are not reducible to effects of class and gender or other social divisions but cross-cut them.”  The existence of these universalistic tendencies is most powerfully indicated by “shame”.  In capitalist societies, the “social bases of respect” in terms of access to valued ways of living are unequally distributed, and therefore shame is likely to be endemic to the experience of subaltern classes. If there were not some degree of cross-class agreement on the valuation of ways of life and behavior, there would be little reason for class-related shame, or concern about respectability.
The consequence is that moral dispositions can generate longings for a world at variance with the one we are living in. In a world marked by the relentless seduction of commodities, the glorification of educational advancement and economic success, the pressure to conform to gender norms and be popular, accompanied by economic insecurity, anomie, and loneliness, unfulfilled longings can be extremely powerful. These longings - while socially and culturally mediated by specific contexts - also have a more primitive basis than mere internalization of social influences. Humans are characterized not only by animal lack, as in hunger for food, but desire for recognition and self-respect, which they can only obtain through certain kinds of interactions with others. Taking into account the presence of longings, resistance, then, is not simply the result of exogenous and episodic dislocations of the social field but also of the inherent tensions between instrumental dispositions of the habitus and moral dispositions which are less socially localized in character.
Insofar that lay normativity and public morality are partially structured beyond the limits of social positions, the universalizable dimension of moral frames themselves structure social conditions necessary for different kinds of politics. The Right harnessed the lay normativity of the neoliberal era - torn apart by anxiety, incoherent insecurity, persistent shame and delimited desires for change - to inaugurate a social psychology devoted to the exploitation of the excess of subjective proliferation that sustains on the objective context but refuses to be tied down to it. While the Left was busy emphasizing the instrumental-interest based logic of the working class, the Right was tapping into popular imagination by using and shaping emotions and passions. Singular emphasis by leftists on bare materiality or economic aspects of the problems faced by subalterns fared poorly in comparison to visceral and raw communication with the deeply felt sentiments of fear, gut instincts, anxiety, anomie and alienation.
Again, the example of shame can be given to outline how the Right capitalized on the lay normativity of subalterns. We feel shame as a result of a failure to live up to norms, ideals, and standards that are primarily public. Because of this focus on a (dominant) group’s norms, minorities, lower classes, and marginalized groups are more vulnerable to experiencing shame and to being victims of shame practices. Shame has both a transformative and regressive potential. On the one hand, groups can be persistently stigmatized through shame within society. On the other, shame can be a powerful force in that it incites reactions against such shame practices. By turning the negative experience of shame into a positive feeling of uniting and coming into action, shame can provide groups with cultural and political agency. However, the Left’s insensitivity toward lived experience allowed neo-fascist politics to channelize shame in the direction of symbolically empowering actions against manufactured enemies.
RE-ENVISIONING LEFT POLITICS
As we have seen, lay normativity operates at the cutting edge of universalizing evaluative agreements. In fact, social positions are themselves, at times, made sense of through available moral frames that tend to hold more universal appeal. The Left was unable to engage with these subjective currents by almost exclusively focusing on and extrapolating from the habitus of sublaterns, thus in part essentializing working class identity. In the absence of a normatively convincing narrative about the future and sustained engagement with moral dispositions, the mere highlighting of proletarian grievances proved incapable of intensely politicizing the sublaterns. 
In contrast, right-wing politics played on subaltern longings, creatively mobilizing the latent energy of these subjective frictions. It created a discourse that Ajay Gudavarthy describes as “pro-corporate but anti-modernity”.  It helps push for high-end capitalist growth with all its attendant problems of fragmentation and urbanization while at the same time addressing the communal anxieties that capitalist modernity introduces. The legacy of a pure past - through the invocation of civilizational, cultural or religious ethos - can be enjoined with claims for a radically altered future. These interpenetrating ideological amalgams foreground the need for Left politics to be more imaginative in its fight for socialism. Without the incorporation of an experiential dimension in its mode of praxis, the Left will also be incapable of uniting the various identity-recognition struggles around the “concrete universal” of class.  Concrete universality, unlike the abstract universality of class reductionism, recognizes the lay normativity of identitarian experience yet goes beyond it. The need for such a political praxis can’t be emphasized enough.
Appadurai, Arjun. “A Syndrome of Aspirational Hatred Is Pervading India,” The Wire, 10 December, 2020. https://thewire.in/politics/unnao-citizenship-bill-violence-india.
Gudavarthy, Ajay. “Theorizing Populism: Lessons Learned from the Indian Example,” in The Politics of Authenticity and Populist Discourses: Media and Education in Brazil, India and Ukraine, eds. Christoph Kohl, Barbara Christophe, Heike Liebau and Achim Saupe (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan), 53-69.
Sayer, Andrew. The Moral Significance of Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
---. “Class, Moral Worth and Recognition,” Sociology, Vol. 39, Issue 5, 1 December, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0038038505058376.
Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2002).
Iqbal, Yanis. “The Revolutionary Potential of Hope and Utopia,” Hampton Institute, 10 December, 2020. https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/the-revolutionary-potential-of-hope-and-utopia.
---. “The Rise of the Right in the Neoliberal Era,” Midwestern Marx, 10 May, 2021. https://www.midwesternmarx.com/articles/the-rise-of-the-right-in-the-neoliberal-era-by-yanis-iqbal
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
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