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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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‘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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In 1947, Art Preis, author of Labor’s Giant Step, wrote a polemic against the record of the Communist Party in the National Maritime Union, one of the most militant left-led unions in the CIO. Stalinists on the Waterfront calls out the CP for its record of strikebreaking during the war, and for its slanders of the revolutionary program being put forward by the Trotskyists during the same period.

Art Preis – Stalinists on the Waterfront

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A passage from Eugene Genovese which may be of some assistance in adjudicating recent debates about the riots in the UK:

Should the slave revolts, then, be viewed as increasingly futile, pathetic, or even insane efforts doomed to defeat and historically productive of no better result than the inevitable ensuing repression? Should we say of the slave revolts, as Marc Bloch did of the peasant revolts of medieval France, that they qualified as disorganized outbursts which counted for little or nothing when weighed against the achievements of the peasants in building their own communities? The question, however compelling, must be turned around: What could the slaves have accomplished if their masters had had no fear of getting their throats cut?  (Roll, Jordan, Roll, 595)

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Though I have no wish to contribute to the vastly over-inflated role which the Tea Parties occupy in the current liberal imagination, I can’t help but repost this passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where Marx describes the bourgeoisie’s retreat, in the face of proletarian insurrection, from its own previously held ideals.  This narrative of bourgeois ideology would go on to play an important role in Georg Lukács’ theory of the novel, of which more will be said in an upcoming post.  For now, here is Marx.

As monosyllabic on the platform as in the press. Flat as a riddle whose answer is known in advance. Whether it was a question of the right of petition or the tax on wine, freedom of the press or free trade, the clubs or the municipal charter, protection of personal liberty or regulation of the state budget, the watchword constantly recurs, the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: “Socialism!” Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic, bourgeois enlightenment socialistic, bourgeois financial reform socialistic. It was socialistic to build a railway where a canal already existed, and it was socialistic to defend oneself with a cane when one was attacked with a rapier.

Sound familiar?

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