Karl Marx once stated, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
This means that when faced with the harsh realities of capitalism, the working-class subject looks for answers and salvation in the divine because this world is too harsh to bear. In this sense, Marx posits that dejected people cling to fantasies — in this case, religion specifically. However, his analysis can be applied further. In our modern case, these “opiates” could be things like social media, celebrity idolization, sports fandom, etc. But there is another far more consequential opiate that is crucial to recognize here: the opiate of white supremacy.
The massacre in New Zealand is only the most recent example. Like many disillusioned 20-somethings in the Anglosphere, the shooter was radicalized through websites like YouTube and 4chan. Fueled by edgy internet memes and a deep hatred of Islamic “invaders,” the shooter’s only recourse was to take revenge for “1300 years of aggression towards the West.” One could dismiss the shooter’s motives as illegitimate and racist; in fact, they are. However, if we want to understand the problem and not merely cast blame — and thereby exonerate ourselves — we need to understand that shootings like these are not the disease, but a symptom of a larger problem.
Political theorist Nancy Fraser asserts that there are two types of interrelated justices: justice of distribution and justice of recognition. Fraser argues that the left has largely abandoned material justice for cultural justice; rather than address the domination of our institutions by capital, the left has instead advocated for more people of color and women in the media, positions of power, etc.
In this light, it is not hard to see the appeal of reactionary rhetoric among young white men. On one hand, young white men have people telling them that their problems are a result of immigration. On the other hand, their problems are their own fault; their problems are because of their white male privilege. White men need their language policed and their privilege checked.
Capitalists have taken advantage of white supremacy to divide populations among racial lines. The co-opting of white supremacy is the most pernicious opiate that has been and is being clung to by economically oppressed whites, an opiate that prevents them from identifying their common enemy: namely, capitalist exploitation.
Marx himself pointed this out over 140 years ago, comparing Irish and English workers, writing “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. … His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. … The Irishman … sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.”
Unless there emerges a viable political left that addresses class issues, the left will keep losing to reactionary conservatism. Perhaps the worthless result of the Mueller investigation will help to convince well-meaning liberals that their institutions are powerless; that their idea of America as a smoothly functioning democracy simply corrupted by a nefarious President Donald Trump is an illusion; that, instead, it is a corporatist plutocracy barely capable of concealing its racial and class antagonisms. But I doubt it.