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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.

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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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‘fashion changes.  style remains’ – coco chanel

In the world of white liberalism, this season’s must have accessory is a Kony2012 bracelet.  Having wandered aimlessly for a bit since the heady days of Save Darfur, the fashionistas of philanthropy have at last discovered an accoutrement which highlights their morality, cosmopolitanism, and general beneficence of spirit.  Though the accessorizing hits different accents this time around (notably a focus on ‘the children,’ which was lacking in the Save Darfur campaign), the essential style remains the same, based on a certain color combination whose potential for customization has proven limitless: white people save brown victims from brown villains.

An interesting development in this season’s iteration of the theme, however, has been the rapidity with which it has met opposition.  Immediately after the line’s immaculately choreographed launch, critics from a variety of quarters pointed out its disconnect from its purported objects of concern, its imbrication with imperial designs on the continent, and the stains of racist discourse discoloring the whole endeavor.

The prominence of this critique has provided for an interesting look into how the liberal interventionist crowd reacts to criticism of their project.  The dominant response seems to be a sort of wounded aggrievement – a shock that one could criticize such a noble endeavor, combined with an aggressive attack on those making the criticism: ‘what do YOU think should be done?’

The stubborn attachment to the ideals of the campaign reveals a bit of the affective dimensions of liberal interventionism.  On one level, the reasons for the attachments formed by the campaign’s supporters are clear enough – they allow them to see themselves as the paragons of morality, they validate nationalist narratives about the world being a place full of problems that America solves, etc.  But as significant as these are, I don’t think they quite explain the ardor with which supporters proclaim ‘something must be DONE!’

To understand this, I think it’s necessary to consider the role this campaign plays  within broader liberal ideology.  For me, this ideology is best summarized by PZ Myers’ response to Terry Eagleton’s argument that liberals refuse to admit that ‘the traumatic truth of  human history is a tortured body’:

If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars.

As a response to Eagleton’s argument, it’s primarily a touching display of the most syrupy naiveté.  But it’s interesting for the way it reveals the liberal refusal to confront the basic truth of Eagleton’s argument: our world is one of massive exploitation, starvation, oppression, torture, and misery.  For radicals, these are the foundational facts that determine our orientation to the world.

The liberal faith in our world’s basic reformability, however, requires that all of this be denied, or at least suppressed.  This is, I think, the role campaigns such as Kony2012 play.  They are strategies of containment, a means of partially recognizing the truth of history while quarantining its radical implications.  No ideology, after all, is ever based on pure falsehood, but rather exists in a complex relationship of repression, misdirection, misemphasis, and exaggeration with people’s lived experience.  The Kony campaign, and liberal moral panics like it, allows a limited acknowledgment of the scale of human suffering that exists in the world.  At the same time, however, it immediately works to contain this acknowledgment.  Here, one is reminded of Domenico Losurdo’s argument that liberalism works by creating sacred and profane spaces – the former are where the rights espoused by liberal philosophy apply, the latter where their negation rules.  In the period of classical liberalism, this allowed philosophers like Locke to create a rights-based system in England, while denying the rights of the indentured servants, Africans, and Indians in the New World.  Today, the logic of the spatialization is slightly different, as it works to contain the reality of oppression to distinct spaces (Africa, usually), reinforcing the appearance of justice in the West and simultaneously positioning it as the agent of salvation of the profane spaces.

This dynamic, I think, explains the fervor with which liberal calls to ‘DO something’ are made.  The limited eruption of the reality of human history into liberal ideology provokes a fevered counter-reaction, in which the oppression glimpsed must be extinguished as quickly as possible.  Once this is accomplished, the world can return to its former happy state.  It’s not perfect, of course.  Crooked timber of humanity and all that.  But once dark blots like Kony are removed, it’s still a beautiful place.

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It’s no secret that Israel has a PR problem.  Even the most fervent Zionists at this point admit as much, and the increasingly frenzied efforts of the Israeli state only confirm the feeling.  The Kushner Affair seems to be only the latest in a string of propaganda catastrophes for Zion.  Yet I also think it represents a turning point of sorts.  While previous incidents like the Mavi Marmara or the Operation Cast Lead helped solidify the growing opposition to Zionist barbarism, Kushner’s blackballing led nearly the whole of the liberal class in the United States to unequivocally condemn the censoring of a critic of Israel.  In what follows, I will attempt to lay out what I think the Kushner Affair represents for Israel and liberal opinion, by contextualizing it in a broader history of liberalism.

In Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History, he argues that liberalism has always been far more compatible with domination than its own self-image would lead one to believe.  Through an examination of the writings of Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, and other leading lights of the tradition, Losurdo shows that liberalism historically has functioned by establishing a ‘community of the free,’ to whom the vaunted promises of rights and privileges correspond, while those outside that restricted community were entitled to no such enjoyments.  Locke, for example, did not believe that Africans or Native Americans deserved any of the rights he so carefully formulated for fellow Europeans.  Tocqueville thought it perfectly appropriate to crush the workers’ rising in Paris in 1848 through the suspension of constitutional order,  that the privileges of the liberal upper class might be preserved.  In other words, for Losurdo, the traditional Marxist critique of liberalism – that it promotes formal equality in the face of substantive inequality – gives liberalism too much credit.  Many of its leading thinkers were unwilling even to extend formal freedoms to those beyond the boundaries of the community of the free.

While this account has some problems (it seems difficult to differentiate liberalism and conservatism on this reading.  Symptomatically, Losurdo includes Burke firmly in the liberal tradition), it is also tremendously suggestive.  Losurdo demonstrates how liberalism’s naturalization of its social vision – the privileges of a restricted community – inevitably produces the pathologization so characteristic of liberal polemic.  The right to dispossess the natives is obvious, and you’d have to be a madman or mohammedan not to recognize as much.

Though much of the book concentrates on the changing definitions of the community of the free, Losurdo is equally interested in the conflicts internal to liberalism and their consequences for the tradition’s future.  The American Revolution is his first case study.  Here, he shows how restrictions on those accustomed to considering themselves part of the liberal community – the colonists – led to fissures with England, which since the Glorious Revolution had been the standard bearer of liberalism.  The course of the conflict itself involved debate over how this community should be defined.  Samuel Johnson’s pithy reprimand to the colonists (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) is representative of the ways that British liberals sought to both brand the rebels as hypocrites and reinforce their own liberal self-presentation.  At the same time, the colonists responded by pointing to the English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, a practice the rebels held to be far more odious than merely owning a slave.  In this way, both sides of the conflict attempted to brand their opponents as the illiberal force threatening to crush precious liberty.

This same pattern reoccurs in the American Civil War.  Here, the slaveowners, who conceived of themselves as the most democratic and liberal ruling class in history, argued that the various Northern initiatives to limit the expansion of slavery constituted unacceptable aggressions against liberty.  The rhetoric of the planter class, which represented abolitionists as deranged fanatics, fits the pattern as well.  However, the Southern counter-offensive, whether in the form of the Gag Rule or Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act, worked to antagonize the North all the more.  Each of these Southern responses could be, and were, read as infringements on the Northern community of the free.  As John Ashworth has written:

In the mid-1830s southerners were able to count upon some northerners to aid them in their war against the abolitionists.  Again, however, the consequence was to strengthen the forces of antislavery.  The pressure on northern legislatures to act against abolitionists alarmed many northerners who were themselves quite unconcerned about the plight of the slave but very concerned to maintain freedom of speech.  The anti-abolitionist riots of these years, conducted by men who were taking their cue from the leaders of southern opinion, also created deep disquiet and tended to confirm the abolitionist claim that slavery disorganized the entire nation.  Charles Sumner in 1836 wrote that ‘we are becoming abolitionists in the North fast: riots, the attempts to abridge freedom of discussion, and the conduct of the South generally, have caused many to think favorably of immediate emancipation who have never before been inclined to it.’ Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol I 143.

While Sumner exaggerated in describing the results of Southern maneuvers as increased abolitionism, it is certainly the case that the South’s efforts increased Northern antipathy.  Both North and South conceived of themselves as liberal societies, but the planter class’s strategy for maintaining control only put more ammunition in the hands of those who sought to portray them as enemies of liberty.

In a nutshell, I think something similar is happening today with Israel.  Like the Southern planter class, Israel defines itself, crucially, as part of the community of the free.  This is an endlessly repeated theme in the hasbara – Israel is the only democracy in the region, Israel has women’s rights, Israel has gay rights, etc.  Though Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians has led many to argue that this self-image is a farce, Losurdo’s account demonstrates that, at the least, it is not an anomalous combination in the history of liberal states.  At the same time, however, it is undeniable that Israel has, in seeking to preserve its status as the liberal utopia among the barbarians, adopted a whole slew of blatantly anti-liberal policies – a new set of gag rules.

In the US, this comes in the form of the attack on Kushner.  Though censorship of criticisms of Israel is nothing new in the US (see Edward Said’s brilliant essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ for some perspective on how total this censorship once was), CUNY’s treatment of Kushner provoked an unprecedented outcry.  The New York Times, no friend to Palestine, was on the case immediately, issuing an editorial denouncing CUNY and publishing an interview (with the wonderfully understated title ‘A CUNY Trustee Expands His View of What is Offensive) with the the lead Zionist bully that was clearly written to make him appear every bit as disgusting as he actually is.  Other important liberal venues have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

As in the case of the conflict between North and South, the sympathy for Kushner in these publications has not, by and large, been based on sympathy for the Palestinians.  Rather, it stems from outrage over  the treatment of one of the finest representatives of liberal America.  Kushner himself is no radical on Palestine, and he has repeatedly affirmed his support for Israel’s continued existence and his opposition to BDS.  Indeed, his very timidity on the question has made CUNY’s offense all the worse in the eyes  of the liberal class.  If Israel’s defense is now coming at the expense of people like Kushner, it signals the potential for major conflict on the question within the liberal community.

This doesn’t mean that Israel is finished, or anything nearly so final.  Rather, I think it is an important moment in the struggle against Zionism, and one whose structure is familiar in the long duree of liberalism.  It signifies the moment when the actions of those outside the community of the free – abolitionists and slaves in the nineteenth century, Palestinians and solidarity activists today – succeed in pushing their demands to the point where they begin to create a crisis for the rulers.  Then and now, the outcome of that crisis is uncertain, but its arrival is unquestionably to be welcomed.

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The New Face of Homelessness – White People!

They look just like you and me!

“No longer a condition reserved for the margins of society, for drug addicts and the mentally ill, homelessness has infiltrated the heart of America.”

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