Though many things are being said about Vivek Chibber’s new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, it is unlikely at this point that anyone will call the book boring. It has ignited a fair amount of controversy in its claim that the central arguments emerging from Subaltern Studies are wrong, and that a universalist social theory grounded in Marxism is capable of explaining the phenomena they fail to.
The posting of Chibber’s debate with Partha Chatterjee, one of the main targets of critique in the book, at Historical Materialism New York, will no doubt only intensify the disputes. Indeed, some are already claiming that Chatterjee has closed the book on Chibber’s arguments with his “meticulous demolition” a few weeks ago.
In this post, I’d like to examine one small aspect of the debate, centering around the contending interpretations of Ranajit Guha’s work. It is my contention that Chatterjee, in attempting to defend Guha, misrepresents the latter’s arguments, often strikingly.
Before proceeding, it is worth noting what this post is not arguing. I am not asserting here that either Chatterjee or Guha’s work is worthless or should not be read. Indeed, Guha’s criticisms of the bad faith of colonialist historiography, his portrait of the way aspects of Indian culture were mobilized to support colonial rule, and his emphasis on the brutality of the raj are all valuable and compelling. I am less familiar with Chatterjee’s work, and for that reason do not want anything in this post to be construed as a broader commentary on his other publications. However, the issue of misrepresentation is a serious one, and deserves consideration.
Chibber lays out his side of the argument briefly in an interview about the book published at Jacobin:
Subaltern studies offers two distinct arguments for how and why the universalizing drive of capital was blocked. One argument comes from Ranajit Guha. Guha located the universalizing drive of capital in the ability of a particular agent — namely, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class — to overthrow the feudal order and construct a coalition of classes that includes not only capitalists and merchants, but also workers and peasants. And through the alliance that is cobbled together, capital is supposed to erect a new political order, which is not only pro-capitalist in terms of defending the property rights of capitalists, but also a liberal, encompassing, and consensual order.
So for the universalizing drive of capital to be real, Guha says, it must be experienced as the emergence of a capitalist class that constructs a consensual, liberal order. This order replaces the ancien régime, and is universalizing in that it expresses the interests of capitalists as universal interests. Capital, as Guha says, achieves the ability to speak for all of society: it is not only dominant as a class, but also hegemonic in that it doesn’t need to use coercion to maintain its power.
So Guha locates the universalizing drive in the construction of an encompassing political culture. The key point for Guha is that the bourgeoisie in the West was able to achieve such an order while the bourgeoisie in the East failed to do so. Instead of overthrowing feudalism, it made some sort of compact with the feudal classes; instead of becoming a hegemonic force with a broad, cross-class coalition, it tried its best to suppress the involvement of peasants and the working class. Instead of erecting a consensual and encompassing political order, it put into place highly unstable and fairly authoritarian political orders. It maintained the rift between the class culture of the subaltern and that of the elite.
So for Guha, whereas in the West the bourgeoisie was able to speak for all the various classes, in the East it failed in this goal, making it dominant but not hegemonic. This in turn makes modernity in the two parts of the world fundamentally different by generating very different political dynamics in the East and West, and this is the significance of capital’s universalizing drive having failed.
JB: So their argument rests on a claim about the role of the bourgeoisie in the West, and the failure of its counterpart in postcolonial societies?
VC: For Guha, absolutely, and the subaltern studies group accepts these arguments, largely without qualification. They describe the situation — the condition of the East — as a condition in which the bourgeoisie dominates but lacks hegemony, whereas the West has both dominance and hegemony.
Now the problem with this is, as you said, that the core of the argument is a certain description of the achievements of the Western bourgeoisie. The argument, unfortunately, has very little historical purchase. There was a time, in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, even into the 1950s, when many historians accepted this picture of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the West. Over the last thirty or forty years, though, it has been largely rejected, even among Marxists.
What’s strange is that Guha’s book and his articles were written as though the criticisms of this approach were never made. And what’s even stranger is that the historical profession — within which subaltern studies has been so influential — has never questioned this foundation of the subaltern studies project, even though they all announce that it’s the foundation. The bourgeoisie in the West never strove for the goals that Guha ascribes to it: it never tried to bring about a consensual political culture or represent working-class interests. In fact, it fought tooth and nail against them for centuries after the so-called bourgeois revolutions. When those freedoms were finally achieved, it was through very intense struggle by the dispossessed, waged against the heroes of Guha’s narrative, the bourgeoisie. So the irony is that Guha really works with an incredibly naïve, even ideological notion of the Western experience. He doesn’t see that capitalists have everywhere and always been hostile to the extension of political rights to working people.
These arguments are expanded upon in Chapters 2-5 of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.
To rebut Chibber’s criticisms, Chatterjee offered four arguments:
1.) Guha’s text is not comparative at all, and does not make any claims about what actually happened during the development of European capitalism. Rather, it simply comments on what liberal historiography assumed would happen in India. Therefore, Chibber’s argument that Guha compares India to a European history that never happened is simply the product of an inept reading. (made at 27:23 in the debate)
2.) Guha is not actually talking about what capitalists did or did not do, but instead is speaking of a much broader anticolonial elite. Therefore, Chibber’s attempt to compare their actions with the actions of European capitalists is an invalid exercise in comparing two very different kinds of social entities. (31:00)
3.) Guha does not hold a Whig view of history. The Whiggish view Chibber criticizes is precisely what Guha is criticizing in liberal historiography. (30:45)
4.) The appropriate grounds of comparison, and the one Guha is actually making, is between England and India of the 1950s, not between the European bourgeois revolutions and modern Indian history. The comparison Chibber makes renders the contemporary history of India nothing more than a replay of Europe’s past, an extraordinarily Eurocentric maneuver. (31:44).
All four of these arguments represent serious distortions of the arguments made in Dominance without Hegemony. In order:
1.) Chatterjee claims that “nowhere in the essay does Guha offer any propositions of his own that might be construed as a historical sociology of bourgeois revolutions in England and France.” What, then, are we to make of passages such as the following?
“liberal historiography has been led to presume that capital, in its Indian career, succeeded in overcoming the obstacles to its self-expansion and subjugating all precapitalist relations in material and spiritual life well enough to enable the bourgeoisie to speak for all of that society, as it had done on the occasion of its historic triumphs in England in 1648 and France in 1789.” (Dominance without Hegemony, 19)
“Much of the specificity of Indian politics of this period derives precisely from the failure of nationalism to assimilate the class interests of peasants and workers effectively into a bourgeois hegemony. Nothing testifies more clearly to the predicament of a bourgeoisie nurtured under colonial conditions and its difference from its opposite numbers in Western Europe…In other words, it was initially as an acknowledgment of the connection between its own interests and those of all the other nonruling classes that the bourgeoisie had led the struggle against feudalism and established its hegemony over the peasantry, whereas in India the influence it gained over the rural population in the 1920s and 1930s did not develop into a full-fledged hegemony because of its reluctance to break with landlordism. Again, in Western Europe, the conditions prevailing under the ancien regime did not allow the interests of the bourgeoisie to be reduced at once to “the particular interest of a particular class.” (ibid 133-134)
“how is it that even after British capital, powered by industrialism, had come of age and the culture corresponding to it had created a homogeneous space for itself by overcoming the resistance of all that was parochial and particularistic in metropolitan politics — how is it that even at its hour of triumph the universalist tendency was resigned to live at peace with the heterogeneity and particularity of the indigenous political culture of an Asian colony?” (ibid 64)
Here, in locations throughout the 1997 text, Guha is quite plainly making claims about what actually happened in Europe during the period of the rise of capitalism. In two of these passages, there is not even a reference to the liberal historiography which Chatterjee claims is Guha’s true reference. Instead, we have what are unavoidably statements about the history of capitalism in Europe, in which it is claimed that the bourgeoisie led the struggle against feudalism, overcame the resistance of the particular, established a homogenous space, and was thus able to speak for the nation. Even in the first passage, which begins by referencing the liberal historiography, the sentence’s final clause implies that the bourgeoisie was actually able to speak for all of society after 1648 and 1789.
Chatterjee’s description of what is in Guha’s text is then quite plainly false. But he also argues that Guha does not require any historical sociology of bourgeois revolution in Europe to substantiate his claims. This is a more complicated argument to adjudicate, as it cannot be settled simply with references to the text. However, I think there are still good reasons to think that Chatterjee is wrong here. It is quite true that the overwhelming bulk of Dominance without Hegemony is not focused on the question of what happened in India versus what happened in Europe. Guha’s explication of the role of Dharma, of the ideological machinations of colonialist historiography, and of the dynamics of nationalist struggle do not depend on any claims about Europe. Indeed, Chibber says as much in the book, praising Guha’s empirical description of Indian history while contesting his theoretical explanation of it. It is this theoretical account which depends upon a comparison between Europe and India. Chatterjee is correct to claim that, for his critique of historiography, Guha only needs evidence a) that the liberal historiography assumes that the bourgeoisie enjoyed hegemony in Europe b) that it also enjoyed hegemony in the colonies c) that Indian liberals saw the postcolonial order as similarly hegemonic and d) that neither the colonial nor the postcolonial regimes enjoyed hegemony. Unfortunately for Chatterjee, however, Guha offers us rather more than a criticism of the historiography. Indeed, in the second passage quoted above, Guha is quite explicit that the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie explains “the specificity of Indian politics.” For this claim to be successful, one must assume the bourgeoisie succeeded elsewhere. If the bourgeoisie failed in Europe as well as in India, how could its failure in India explain the specificity of Indian politics? Guha’s argument does indeed imply claims about what happened in European history, and, as we have seen, he is not at all shy about making these claims.
2.) Chatterjee’s claim that Guha is not talking about Indian capitalists, but rather Indian nationalist elites, is wrong on several levels. The argument is proffered as an attempt to rebut Chibber’s claims about the French Revolution, where he argues, in the tradition of political Marxism, that the French bourgeoisie who participated in the revolution was in no sense capitalist, and that therefore the French revolution cannot be taken as an example of the capitalist bourgeoisie succeeding in forging hegemony and speaking for the nation. Chatterjee argues in response that Guha is only describing nationalist elites, not capital. It is unclear what exactly he thinks is gained by making this point. On the surface, there is the obvious effect that this claim, if true, would buttress his general argument that Chibber has misunderstood Guha. However, it does little to rehabilitate Guha’s theoretical claim – namely that the French bourgeoisie succeeded in speaking for the nation, while the Indian bourgeoisie failed. Even assuming that we are talking about non-capitalist bourgeoisies in both cases, Chibber shows that the French revolution was wracked with class conflict, with the bourgeoisie fighting for a very limited set of reforms, while attempting at every turn to restrict and repress the development of more popular insurgencies. As in India, there was no hegemony. Abstracting from the question of capital, the attempt at contrast still fails.
Moving into Guha’s text itself, we find that once again Chatterjee’s attempts to defend Guha run aground on the pages of the very work he purports to be defending. Guha offers an expansive picture of the bourgeoisie in India, encompassing nationalist elites, Indian capitalists, and British capitalists. Indeed, his references to capital’s universalizing tendency throughout the book make clear that his argument is very much about what capital failed to do. Restricting his arguments to cover only nationalist elites is a distortion of the text.
3.) Chatterjee claims that Guha does not hold a Whig view of history, but rather criticizes the one found in the texts of liberal historiography. Yet Chibber’s argument that Guha, by claiming that the European bourgeoisie fought for liberty and democracy, romanticizes the bourgeoisie, finds substantial support throughout Guha’s text. Guha names, among the “achievements” of the bourgeoisie, “democracy” and “liberty” (67). He describes “bourgeois law” as having made “inviolable…the individual’s right to the security of his or her own person” (26). And he describes it as a “paradox” that forms of pre-capitalist oppression were mobilized by “the world’s most advanced bourgeoisie.”
In these statements, the European bourgeoisie receives credit for a series of reforms it actually struggled tooth and nail against. As Chibber notes, by the time the English Reform Act of 1832 was passed, the English electorate was actually smaller than it had been in 1630 (65). Almost two centuries of bourgeois rule yielded precious little evidence that the European bourgeoisie had any interest in democracy. Similarly, the description of the inviolability of the individual body whitewashes the sordid history of the consolidation of bourgeois rule in England, ably recounted in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged and Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. Finally, the utilization of precapitalist institutions in the interest of capital accumulation is hardly a paradox. Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism tells the story of precisely such a dynamic in the United States. In Europe, the consolidation of capitalism often took place in part through a similar process, as in England, where market dependency among peasants was achieved through the assertion of a host of lordly rights to the land. In short, Guha attributes to the bourgeoisie a number of properties – an interest in liberty and democracy, a proclivity to do away with precapitalist social forms, and an investment in the rule of law – which the historical record simply does not support. This is what it means to draw on a Whig view of history. It is view that exists in the texts Guha is criticizing, to be sure, but finds expression throughout his own text as well.
4.) Chatterjee’s last claim is in some ways the most puzzling. The motivation for the criticism is easy enough to understand; it is the familiar postcolonial critique that Marxism too often reduces the history of the colonial world to Europe’s pre-history. Yet, as we have seen, it is precisely Guha who makes this claim, bringing up the revolutions of 1648 and 1789 as points of comparison with the development of capitalism in India. I will only add to this that, in focusing so heavily on the period of Indian independence, Chatterjee obscures both Guha’s text and Chibber’s critique of it, neither of which have anything resembling an exclusive focus on the moment of independence, but consider the history of Indian capitalism as a whole.
Why go through this unfortunately lengthy exercise in correction? A few reasons. First, as I have noted, Chatterjee is already being celebrated for allegedly knocking out Chibber in the debate. It is hard to square such plaudits with the reality of his misrepresentations of Guha’s text.
More fundamentally, however, I think both Chatterjee’s claims in the debate, and the support they have found, are indicative of the state of the left academy. To put it bluntly, bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense, rules the day. Chatterjee’s cavalier misrepresentation of the text he purports to be defending seems a classic token of the concept.
Posted in bourgeois revolution, colonialism, liberalism, ruling class | Tagged anticolonialism, bourgeois revolution, capitalism, colonialism, India, Jacobin, Partha Chatterjee, postcolonial studies, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Ranajit Guha, subaltern studies, universalization of capital, Vivek Chibber | 20 Comments »
Rebecca Solnit has an awful piece on Tomgram today lacerating leftists who refuse to be cowed into voting for Obama by the ceaseless tales of Republican hordes at our gates that are the stock in trade of the liberal punditocracy during election season. Her primary rhetorical strategy centers around the idle psychologizing that is the stock in trade of liberal pundits (see also Melissa Harris-Perry). People disgusted with Obama’s enthusiasm for kidnapping undocumented immigrants, his support for Israeli colonialism, his love for the security state, etc are, for Solnit, locked in a mindset of “fury” and “self-admiration.” She quotes Michael Eric Dyson’s accusation that such people are engaged in “rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation.” They are doing nothing more than “demonstrating [their] own purity and superiority” The problem on the left is “not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude.”
As is usually the case in these kinds of vulgar ventures into political psychology, the more interesting results come when the analyst becomes the analysand. In this light, Solnit’s portrait of self-righteous leftists seems to contain a good amount of projection. Is there anything more smugly superior and narcissistic, for example, than the sentiment found in the activist she quotes to bolster her case: “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.” Her entire argumentative strategy is, in fact, a displacement of politics. The problem with the left is its mood. If we can replace the mood of despair with the mood of hope, “we could be heroes.” What this narrative elides is precisely the questions of strategy that are absolutely central for the left right now, replacing them with a quasi-new age therapeutic program.
What really roused me to respond to Solnit’s piece, however, was her traducing of the civil rights movement in service of this program. “Can you imagine,” she asks us, “how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough?” Solnit reveals here a touching ignorance about the American civil rights movement, which was, in fact, run by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough. This is why it won.
Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is directed precisely against liberal clergy who were asking for a compromise. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party refused the tawdry compromise deal they were offered precisely because it was not good enough. And of course, John Lewis of SNCC famously wrote in the original text of his speech at the March on Washington that “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late.” Though he was persuaded to remove the line in deference to the sensibilities of A. Philip Randolph, there is little doubt as to the “mood” under which Lewis was operating. Being dissatisfied with the scraps thrown his way by official politics didn’t prevent John Lewis from becoming a hero.
The best argument for that kind of dissatisfaction comes from the culture the civil rights movement developed as it grew. Dorothy Love Coates wrote this song in the midst of the movement, and it gives voice to precisely the feeling of anger and impatience that the left needs if it’s going to have any hope at all.
In the wake of Shulamith Firestone’s untimely death, a number of tributes have appeared praising her work in feminist theory. While Firestone was a creative and risky thinker, unafraid of advancing drastically counter-intuitive ideas, it would be remiss to fail to point out that she hewed quite closely to one of the most central dogmas of our society – white supremacy. Angela Davis comments:
One of the earliest theoretical works associated with the contemporary feminist movement that dealt with the subject of rape and race was Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution.” Racism in general, so Firestone claims, is actually an extension of sexism. Invoking the biblical notion that “. . . the races are no more than the various parents and siblings of the Family of Man,” she develops a construct defining the white man as father, the white woman as wife and mother, and Black people as the children. Transposing Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex into racial terms, Firestone implies that Black men harbor an uncontrollable desire for sexual relations with white women. They want to kill the father and sleep with the mother. Moreover, in order to “be a man,” the Black man must
… untie himself from his bond with the white female,
relating to her if at all only in a degrading way. In
addition, due to his virulent hatred and jealousy of
her Possessor, the white man, he may lust after her as
a thing to be conquered in order to revenge himself on
the white man.25
Like Brownmiller, MacKellar and Russell, Firestone succumbs to the old racist sophistry of blaming the victim. Whether innocently or consciously, their pronouncements have facilitated the resurrection of the timeworn myth of the Black rapist. Their historical myopia further prevents them from comprehending that the portrayal of Black men as rapists reinforces racism’s open invitation to white men to avail themselves sexually of Black women’s bodies. The fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the Black woman as chronically promiscuous. For once the notion is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible and animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is invested with bestiality. If Black men have their eyes on white women as sexual objects, then Black women must certainly welcome the sexual attentions of white men. Viewed as “loose women” and whores, Black women’s cries of rape would necessarily lack legitimacy.
Since reading David Graeber’s Debt last fall, I’ve become interested in the relationship between Marxist economic theory and the heterodox theory of money Graeber supports in his work. Graeber holds to a chartalist position, which argues that money is not, as the classic account in Carl Menger goes, simply the most salable commodity, but rather a symbol that has value because the state requires us to pay taxes in it. Though this theory of money dates back to Aristotle, today it has been developed into the body of theory known as ‘Modern Monetary Theory.’
MMT’s focus on the role of the state in making money gives it a very different emphasis from Marx’s analysis in the first three chapters ofCapital. There, Marx argues for something quite similar to Menger, drawing an account of the way that a society based on commodity production has need for one commodity to serve as a universal equivalent. In other words, monetary theory appears to make for strange bedfellows. On one side, we have the neo-classicals, the Austrians, and Marx. On the other, the left-leaning post-Keynesians. What to make of all this?
Personally, I’m pulled by the arguments of MMT. As I began researching what Marxists had to say on the subject, I was relieved to find a number of them arguing that value theory does not require commodity money, and that Marx himself in the later volumes of Capital appears to recognize this. Others, however, argue that capitalism does require a commodity basis for money. David McNally’s recent work, probably the most sophisticated Marxist appraisal of the current crisis we have, lends support to both positions, in a way. On the one hand, his argument for a neoliberal boom clearly implies that capitalism can go through substantial periods of accumulation without a commodity based currency. On the other hand, he argues that the waves of financialization that accompanied this boom, and lit the fuse for the bust, were themselves a product off capital’s need for a different kind of universal equivalent, since money itself was no longer playing that role.
Really, I have no idea where I stand in all of this, having nowhere near the requisite knowledge to judge the debate. But I thought while I’m reading up on the question, I may as well post a bibliography to make it easier for other folks interested in doing the same. Here it is.
Lavoie, Don. “Some Strengths in Marx’s Disequilibrium Theory of Money” Cambridge Journal of Economics 7.1 (1983).
Trayvon Martin’s murder has provoked a response unlike anything I’ve seen in my decade or so of anti-racist activism. Though cases like the Jena 6 drew a nationwide response, Trayvon’s case, undoubtedly aided by social media, has served as a galvanizing force that has not remained a lone instance of racism, but has worked to push the cases of the thousands of African Americans slain by cops, judges, and vigilantes into the foreground. Because of Trayvon, we now know about Ramarley, Rekia, and Bo too. This is an extremely exciting development, and while it is still too early to tell, I’m hopeful that this represents the beginning of a new movement against white supremacy in the US, dedicated to tearing down the new Jim Crow.
As always, the rise of a new movement has highlighted important theoretical differences among those fighting racism. The disagreements and arguments that follow from these differences are an important aspect of a democratic movement culture, and are to be welcomed. They give all of us a chance to learn from each other, to figure out what we really think, and to try and craft a strategic orientation for our movement.
In the case of this movement, the debate that has surfaced most prominently concerns the question of white privilege. It was raised primarily by a youtube video, in which a white activist chastised other white activists for wearing ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ shirts. Doing so, she argued, obscures the white privilege of these activists, and makes it seem as if Trayvon’s murder were merely an arbitrary injustice, and not part of a system of white supremacy that relentless oppresses African Americans. Generally, white activists need to recognize their privilege and the fact that they are closer to George Zimmerman than Trayvon. Only by doing so will they be able to overcome the racism with which they’ve been socialized.
The video set off a debate. Sherry Wolf responded with a piece criticizing the notion of white privilege, and arguing that white workers do not, in fact, benefit from racism. Divided as a class by racism, they suffer the exploitation and oppression visited upon them by the capitalist class even more intensely, since they are unable to unite as a class to combat it. Sherry’s post prompted a thoughtful rejoinder from Alex Fields, which has helped to clarify some of the main issues and stakes involved in the debate. Alex and I had a short back and forth on facebook, which I’ve posted below, before agreeing to go public. In what follows, I will respond to the points Alex raised in both his post and on facebook, and try to lay out what I think the most important critiques of white privilege theory are, and why I think the basic position Sherry defends is a robust prescription for anti-racist politics.
To begin with, I thought it might be helpful to lay out what I perceive as the points of agreement between myself and Alex. If I am mistaken about any of these, please feel free to correct me. Alex and I both have caveats or different emphases on these points, but I take this to be the general ground of agreement.
1.) White supremacy is central to contemporary American society. African Americans and other people of color are oppressed in manifold ways, from mass incarceration to being treated as unreasonably angry when they try to bring up racist oppression. This is a system that must be destroyed, and collective political action is necessary for this to be accomplished.
2.) The existence of white supremacy means that white Americans have untold advantages over African Americans in many aspects of life. While the degree to which whites can take advantage of these varies tremendously with class, they nonetheless constitute the material basis of racism among white Americans. If whites were not actually in better funded schools, able to escape the worst ravages of mass incarceration etc, racism would simply not be an effective ideology. In a number of crucial ways, whites have it better.
3.) Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color.
This is a substantial area of agreement on crucial political points, especially in the context of the ideology of post-racial America. I was glad to see Alex’s reply to Sherry written in a comradely (though still appropriately polemical) tone, since the disagreements that exist between these positions should not prevent us from seeing each other as comrades in the struggle against white supremacy. Nonetheless, there do exist disagreements between us on questions that are central to the movement. These center around the relationship of racism to capitalism and working class interests, and the political tendencies of white privilege theory. In a way, this is an awkward debate, since Alex’s critique of my position and my critique of his revolve around what we take to be implied by premises the other accepts, and not as much what the other is actually arguing. In such a debate, there are going to be lots of accusations of burning straw men, which can be frustrating. This is, I think, unfortunately unavoidable. I am going to try and keep such accusations to a minimum, since their proliferation can obscure the real issues in the debate. With that absurdly long exercise in throat clearing completed, it is time to get down to business.
In her essay, Sherry argues that racism serves to divide black and white workers, making both more vulnerable to capital. Thus, accepting racist ideas is not in white workers’ interest (note: this is different from claiming there is no material basis for the racism of white workers. Every ideology has material basis). Though she does not explicitly state this, she assumes (correctly, I believe) that racism is itself a product of capitalism. Alex argues that this perspective is mistaken, and leads to bad political conclusions. He describes two:
If by overcoming capitalism we get rid of both capitalism and the core of racism, but by getting rid of racism we only do damage to the capitalist system without ending it, it seems clearly to follow that it’s more worthwhile to struggle directly against capitalism. Second, there’s a difference in HOW we ought to struggle against racism on these competing views. Sherry pretty explicitly says that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress workers, and that white workers do not materially experience privilege. If she’s right, then it follows that anti-racist struggles are just a struggle against racism in the capitalist power structure, and not struggles against racism within working class institutions, for example. This is a huge difference, and I think the former position is only a little bit different from saying that we really ought to just be struggling against capitalism, and not against racism as independent from capitalism.
I do not believe either of these actually follow from Sherry’s argument. In fact, her argument explicitly contradicts both of these claims. Sherry argues that white workers cannot pursue their class interests successfully (at least not very far) so long as they are divided (or divide themselves) from black workers by their racism. It follows ineluctably from this assertion that the only way white workers can pursue their class interests successfully is if racism is destroyed or significantly weakened. In other words, there is no struggle directly against capitalism. It is impossible to successfully confront capitalist class power without smashing the barriers to working class unity. If this is not done, we can forget about getting very far in expropriating the expropriators.
The second conclusion attributed to Sherry’s argument does not follow for much the same reason. Racism in working class institutions prevents those institutions from effectively damaging capitalist class power. Therefore, if we want those institutions to do their job and play a role in helping us stick it to the bosses, we need to purge them of racism. Only by doing so can we forge the institutions we need to both defend our basic class interests and, hopefully, go on the offensive.
Simply put, neither of the baleful political conclusions Alex argues are entailed by Sherry’s argument actually follow. If white workers’ class interests are damaged by racism, only by attacking it viciously wherever it reveals its head can those interests be pursued. In Alex’s original reply, he argued that this line of argument makes little headway against privilege theory, as “White privilege analysis does not say that working class white people are better off under racist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy than they would be under an alternative system like socialism; it says rather that within our current system of racism, white people in all classes are given real privileges that people of color are not.” But as my explanation of these points implies, this is misleading, since the comparison is not only between a socialist society and our current one. Even reforms which would leave white supremacy and capitalism in place, such as ending the drug war and mass incarceration, would be of benefit to white workers. They would weaken the role of war on crime rhetoric in binding white workers to the state, and free up money to be spent on redistributive programs that would weaken market dependency and thus strengthen labor’s hand. In other words, even within our current system of racism, white workers would benefit not from racism being strengthened, but from it being damaged.
As a final point on this side of the debate, it is curious that Alex asserts these conclusions follow from Sherry’s basic argument, given the political practice of the organization she is a part of. A quick glance at socialistworker.org reveals that the ISO devotes easily as much time to issues of racial oppression as it does to ‘direct’ struggles against capital. If it is a logical conclusion of the theory that the ISO holds that struggles against racism are less important than struggles against capital, what are we to conclude from the fact that their political practice seems to include no recognition of this? I have no doubt the sectarian trolls of the left have all kinds of speculations on this point, but if you accept, as I think Alex does, that comrades in the ISO are committed Marxists and sincerely dedicated to overthrowing white supremacy, this is a real question.
On the white privilege side of things, the debate centers around the political tendencies operative in privilege theory. I argued that there is a tendency to focus on changing white behavior, and that collective political action fades to the background. Since such action is the only way the institutions of white supremacy in the US are going to sustain much damage, this emphasis on changing behavior inhibits the struggle against racism. Alex replied, quite correctly, that while such an emphasis may predominate in some white privilege theory, that doesn’t invalidate the theory any more than the sometimes stiff structural focus of Marxists invalidates it. I want to argue, however, that this focus is actually dominant in white privilege theory. To understand why, I think it is worth stepping back for a moment and contextualizing the theory.
Critics of white privilege theory often argue that it is a result of diminished expectations. They often do so, as Sherry does, by asserting that things like the right not to be shot down while walking in a neighborhood are rights, not privileges, and it constricts our horizons to categorize them as such. I think it’s right to categorize privilege theory as the product of diminished expectations, but that this is a fairly weak example. Rather, I would argue that white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action. In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change. Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power. Not all of this, of course, was detrimental. Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism. But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation. Again, I’m not arguing that some of this wasn’t necessary and important. What is problematic is the way this focus excludes political action. It’s legible in the video Sherry is responding to. There, whites are encouraged to ‘critique norms,’ ‘give access to discourse,’ ‘raise children without indoctrination’ – important tasks both, but there is no mention of the need for collective political action. Some might say. as Alex has, that this is not in contradiction with such action, which is true. But, like white privilege theorists themselves often assert, silence is itself symptomatic.
In his replies, Alex offers a more nuanced theory of changing white behavior, arguing that it is necessary for white activists to realize their privilege and work to undo it in their organizing work. As he says “collective action and attempts at solidarity will usually fail if the white folks involved are unable to challenge the racist patterns in their own thought and behavior.” Here, changing white behavior is not a replacement for political action, as it so often is elsewhere, but rather its precondition. This is a much stronger argument, and I agree with much of it. Nonetheless, I think it is overextended, and that this overextension is politically harmful. While it is vitally important to create antiracist spaces in our movements, I don’t think it’s true that movements will usually fail if white privilege is not systematically confronted and resolved within movements. There’s a test case here in the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964. There, thousands of mostly white college students from across the country descended on Mississippi for a voter registration drive. As white privilege theorists would predict, they caused a lot of trouble. Coming from white backgrounds, they didn’t realize the danger that they were asking black folks to put themselves in just by voting. Their privilege blinded them to the fact that they could be putting someone in danger simply by knocking on their door. Many of them had far less developed racial awareness than the majority of white activists today, coming from liberal backgrounds in which the south was conceived as a totalitarian society in contrast to the liberal north. Racism was seen as a regional aberration, not a systemic feature of American society. Yet and still, Freedom Summer was a success. It undoubtedly would have been more effective if the privilege of these students had been confronted and worked through. But their failure to do so did not sabotage the movement.
Now, I am unequivocally not arguing that white privilege in movements is not a problem, or that it does not hamper movements, or anything like that. Whenever it surfaces, it needs to be confronted. But identifying white privilege as one of the most important factors in the failure of collective political action leads to a mistaken political perspective that cannot be a solid foundation on which to build a movement. Rather than white privilege, I would argue that what explains the failure of significant movements to develop is the same thing that explains the general weakness of the left – the defeats of the last wave, the hegemony of liberal pro-democratic party politics, the legacy of Stalinism, the implosion of significant far left groups, etc. If we think that white privilege is the most important thing holding our movements for racial justice back, we’re likely to miss a good deal of this, which makes it very difficult to address successfully. Again, this isn’t to suggest that addressing white privilege in movements isn’t important – it’s crucial. Assigning an improper explanatory role to it (or anything else, for that matter), however, does nothing to strengthen our movements.
I hope this does as well clarifying my position as Alex’s piece did his. These issues are absolutely central to anyone concerned with rejuvenating Left politics in the US, and I am very heartened to see them being discussed and debated among comrades.
Posted in Black studies, liberalism, On slogans, racism, reactionaries, strategy, US Left | Tagged capitalism, i am not trayvon martin, i am trayvon martin, Marxism, race and class, sherry wolf, trayvon martin, white privilege, white supremacy | 39 Comments »
My original response to Alex:
This is, I think, an excellent contribution to the debate. Very thoughtful, and written in a comradely tone. Nonetheless, I think it is off the mark in a few key places.
First of all, you accuse Sherry of attacking strawmen (with some justification), but I think there are some strawmen here as well that we could do without.
“It states that we are all basically the same, and implies that we need only to recognize and express our essential unity in order to overcome our obstaces.”
I don’t think anyone arguing for Sherry’s position has said anything like this, and you can read just about anything you like into an open-ended and obviously metaphorical statement like “I am Trayvon Martin.” While you may have a point at the level of rhetorical effect, I think it’s worth engaging with what people who think it’s a good slogan for white activists actually say they mean when they use the slogan. The white leftists I know who’ve worn the shirts aren’t using the slogan to argue everyone’s the same, and we just need to recognize that sameness. What they’ve said is that the slogan means they will respond to the assault on Trayvon as if it were an assault on them. Now we can argue about whether that’s possible or not, and if it’s not possible whether it’s a harmful stand to take, and this gets us into some important debates about what solidarity really means (though I think it’s worth acknowledging in the context of that debate that such a stand is precisely the one Martina Correia advocated activists take with regards to her brother, a fact I haven’t seen critics of Sherry’s position engage with). That is a debate that is far more worth having than accusing activists of saying “they are really the same as Trayvon Martin, or worse, that they could have been him,” which again, I haven’t actually heard from anyone in this debate.
“If we believe that racism emerges directly from capitalism, that it benefits only capitalists and that it would therefore disappear if capitalism disappeared, then we will marginalize the struggle against racism and try to subsume it within the broader struggle against capitalism.”
This is in some ways a worse strawman, indulging as it does in antiMarxist cliches that circulate in the academy. For one things, the positions don’t imply one another in the way you suggest. One could easily hold that racism is a product of capitalist development and class struggle, and argue that it benefits workers, and has its own dynamic that won’t simply disappear with capitalism. Or that racism predates capitalism, but in our current system it benefits capitalists, and white workers would benefit from its destruction even without the simultaneous end of capitalism. In other words, the positions are severable from one another. This is important, because while Sherry argues for the first two statements, she never says anything that could be taken to imply support for the third. Given that the third position isn’t entailed by the first two, there’s simply no reason to attribute it to Sherry’s argument. The whole point of her piece is that white people need to be in the streets fighting racism. It’s bizarre to think that this means she thinks we just need to struggle against capitalism, and puts anti-racism in the backseat. It’s a caricature of Marxism that circulates widely in the academy, and while some fools like the SEP may give it credence, the position you’re arguing against has nothing to do with it. Sherry’s position does not imply that struggles against racism can be marginal to the struggle against capital, and it’s misleading to imply otherwise. Indeed, the idea that white workers gain when racism is weakened implies precisely the opposite: that antiracism must be at the very center of the struggle against capital.
Finally, I think this passage is worth arguing about: “If we don’t even believe that we as white people excluded from the economic ruling class are acting out these privileges, how can we overcome them and stop acting them out?”
For me, this gets to the heart of these arguments about privilege. How can white people stop acting out their privileges? Obviously there are important ways that this can be done: realizing that you, as a white activist, need to shut the fuck up once in a while and that not everyone always wants to hear what you have to say is a good start, and a lesson that every white person needs to learn in general. But as important as that is in our movement culture, it gets us practically no where in dismantling white supremacy, which is what we want. The examples of privilege that you list (not being followed in a store, for example), aren’t actually things that white people can stop enacting. They are structures and forms of oppression that can only be undone through collective political action – no amount of privilege renouncing and socialization overcoming can accomplish the abolition of these forms of oppression. This, I think, goes to the heart of the matter. There is a strong tendency in much white privilege discourse to emphasize the need for whites to change their behavior, as in your argument that whites need to stop acting out their privilege, which is important in a number of ways, but misleading in that it is frequently put forward in such a way as to suggest that such changes in behavior and consciousness could actually change very much without political action.
Briefly (I don’t have much time right now):
1) The first quote from my article that you give is not a strawman because it’s not referring to a position anyone has taken in this debate, but rather to the effect of wearing the shirt. I didn’t mean that the people wearing the shirts INTEND to be sending the message I attribute to them (although actually I think many or most of them are liberals who truly do believe in this message of essential unity), I meant that they actually DO send that message. This isn’t really about what radical socialists think of the shirts or demonstrations where people where the shirts: it’s about what white folks in general think. And I think white folks in general buy into liberal bullshit about a mostly post-racial society with isolated instances of racism a la George Zimmerman. We ought to be challenging that narrative by calling attention to privilege and institutionalized difference, rather than implicitly allowing it to reproduce itself by wearing these shirts or defending people who wear them.
2) I don’t think it’s possible for white people to respond to Trayvon’s murder as if it were the murder of them or another white person, and I do think it’s harmful to pretend we can. We ought to respond to it as though we are white people who recognize that Trayvon was murdered because he was black.
3) RE: family members asking for expressions of solidarity–the wishes of family members are important to consider to an extent, but they do not in themselves settle the question. Family members of victims aren’t necessarily people with a political consciousness who’ve thought through these issues, and as such I think we ought to think more about the spirit of their statements than their literal meaning. So if family members ask us to express solidarity, let’s find politically effective ways to express solidarity. If family members ask us to stay quiet about this issue and let them have peace, let’s take that request seriously. But let’s not take the statements of family members as literal programs for action.
4) First, I think it kindof does follow from the first two points about the connection between racism and capitalism that the struggle against capitalism is primary. If by overcoming capitalism we get rid of both capitalism and the core of racism, but by getting rid of racism we only do damage to the capitalist system without ending it, it seems clearly to follow that it’s more worthwhile to struggle directly against capitalism. Second, there’s a difference in HOW we ought to struggle against racism on these competing views. Sherry pretty explicitly says that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress workers, and that white workers do not materially experience privilege. If she’s right, then it follows that anti-racist struggles are just a struggle against racism in the capitalist power structure, and not struggles against racism within working class institutions, for example. This is a huge difference, and I think the former position is only a little bit different from saying that we really ought to just be struggling against capitalism, and not against racism as independent from capitalism.
I have thoughtfully engaged with race as dealt with by both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions, and I don’t think that my analysis conflicts with Marxism. But if you see the position as anti-Marxist, so be it. I’m not afraid of labels.
5) Not all of the examples of privilege I list are things beyond the control of white people. And of course, there are many examples of privilege that I don’t list–I could go through a long list of ways that I see white people act out their privilege during political meetings that I see every time I go to political meetings with white people. So it’s certainly very important to change individual behaviors.
That said, it just isn’t the case that white privilege analysis limits us to changing individual behaviors. I clearly say multiple times in my article that collective action is absolutely necessary and possible. Granted, some people who use a white privilege analysis might be too obsessed with individual behavior to the point of ignoring collective action, just as some (most?) Marxists are too obsessed with capitalist power structures to the point of ignoring individual socialization and working class racism. But neither analysis implies the exclusion of the other, and it’s misleading to attack the analysis on the grounds of a tendency some folks have to misuse it.
A final point about this: I don’t think it’s the case that changing individual behaviors can make systemic change without collective action, but I do think it’s very much the case that collective action and attempts at solidarity will usually fail if the white folks involved are unable to challenge the racist patterns in their own thought and behavior. Both pieces of the puzzle are necessary if we want real change.