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Archive for April, 2012

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.

Foley, Duncan K. “On Marx’s Theory of Money: The Theory of Money and the Theory of Value” Social Concept 1.1 (1983).

Lapavitsas, Costas. “Money as ‘Universal Equivalent’ and its Origins in Commodity Exchange” (unpublished) (2003).

Lapavitsas, Costas.  “The Emergence of Money in Commodity Exchange, or Money as the Monopolist of the Ability to Buy” (unpublished) (2002).

Lavoie, Don. “Some Strengths in Marx’s Disequilibrium Theory of Money” Cambridge Journal of Economics 7.1 (1983).

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Chs. 1-3.

Moseley, Fred. “The ‘Monetary Expression of Labor’ in the Case of Non-Commodity Money” (unpublished) (2004).

Moseley, Fred (ed). Marx’s Theory of Money: Modern Appraisals.  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Nelson, Anitra.  “Marx’s Theory of the Money Commodity”  History of Economics Review 40 (2004).

Weeks, John.  “The Theory and Empirical Credibility of Commodity Money”  Science & Society 76.1 (2012).

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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.

 

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Prelude

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.

Alex’s reply:

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.

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