Friday, September 25, 2009

No Benn-Michaels Takedown in LRB

From what I could see, there was basically no critical response to Walter Benn-Michael's most recent, confused screed against feminism and anti-racism in the newest edition of the London Review of Books (BM's tripe appeared a couple months ago). Disappointing. How many respectable publications are going to give him a forum to write polemical trash without being challenged?

In that piece BM actually argued: "anti-racism and anti-sexism have nothing whatsoever to do with Left-wing politics".

Perhaps I wrong here, tactically, about how best to deal with right-wing elements like BM within the Left (very broadly construed). Perhaps, its better not to take the 'bait' and to let his rants fade into irrelevance. But my sense is that his facile, divisive argument infects more of the Left than we'd like to admit. Hence my disappointment that someone on the socialist Left didn't step up to convincingly reject his nonsense in LRB.

The worst part of his tripe is that it obfuscates the issues it raises, making it difficult for others to put forward the the nuanced point that some struggles against racism and sexism have indeed been coopted and defanged by capitalism.


bob said...

I linked here to the half-arsed defence against BM from the Runnymede Trust

Jenny wrote a comment against BM, citing your criticism of the earlier NLR piece. Here's what I wrote:

Jenny, thanks for comment. I think that Pink Scare is right that Benn Michaels has pretty much recycled his argument from that "Diversity" piece in NLR for the new piece in LRB. I think that Pink Scare is on to something, but oversimplifies Benn Michaels' argument. Similarly, Benn Michaels in the LRB piece oversimplifies the Runnymede Trust's argument...

The Runnymede Trust authors make the correct point that there has been a growing and welcome revival of attention in the UK for the "white working class" [henceforth wwc], who have been revealed as the biggest losers in the socio-economic changes of the last decades. However, a lot of that attention, as the Runnymede authors show, has been based on a wrong idea that the wwc has been losing out TO other groups, notably "ethnic" minorities. Altho there are ways in which certain multiculuralist policies and certain urban regeneration policies have created conditions of competetition between wwc groups and "ethnic" groups, the "ethnic" groups have not exactly been the winners: the winners have been the same as they ever were, the middle and upper classes, who are mostly (if not always) white. Runnymede concede that no amount of race awareness and diversity and race equality policy will ever shift the fundamental class divides in society. In that, they are absolutely right, and this point (which Benn Michaels made in his original NLR article) is very, very important, and represents the limits of equality and diversty policies, and why they are ultimately less important than struggles for real social justice. And why, at times, they do become distractions from struggles for the real social justice, and even justifications for new inequalities. (For example, the Baroness Scotland case, like the Gates case, shows that sometimes now the ruling class is not white.)

In the LRB article, Benn Michaels takes the argument a step further. He says that the Runnymede people, in their attempt to reckon with all this, have come up with the wrong solution: count the wwc as another "ethnic" minority to be protected and celebrated; treat "classism" like all the other bad isms.

To the extent that Benn Michaels is correct in his characterisation of the Runnymede people, this criticism is a valid and important one. The idea of "classism" is dodgy: altho there is real class hate and condescencion from middle clas people (as Bev Skeggs' essay in the Runnymede book shows, for example), I'm not sure that calling it "classism" helps. And removing "classism" won't remove exploitation and injustice. However, I think this is where Benn Michaels oversimplifies the Runnymede authors' position, as what they are saying is slightly more nuanced, which is why they need a better defence than Sveinsson gives them in LRB.

I don't think that his argument infects that much of the left, to be honest. Sure, there are a few old-fashioned orthodox Marxist-Leninists out there who think that anti-racism and anti-sexism are "distractions" from the real struggle. Can you give an example of any significant or widely read figure on the left has said something along the lines BM is arguing? I think that the vast majority of the left spend a lot more time on gender and race issues than they do on class issues. Because of that, I think BM is a useful corrective, even if he is ridiculouly over the top. I think the reason no-one replied is that it did not compute for most on the left. We are so used to the orthodoxies of anti-racism, feminism and identity politics that his position seems like nonsense.

The Nancy Fraser article is good. We need more people like her! And reading the Runnymede Trust report a little more carefully in the wake of BM's attack, I think it deserves to be read widely.

Todd said...

I can't see any difference between what WBM is saying and someone like Paul Krugman. The point is simple: if you get rid of all discrimination and racism tomorrow the difference between the rich and the poor remains untouched. And that difference, since 1968 has been growing steadily every year. According to Krugman and many other economists we just beat 1929 in terms our income gap. So fight away about gender and race as we plunge further into poverty. Because curing the former will do nothing for the latter. You celebrate diversity -- you end poverty.

Arvilla said...

Todd, an economically just society cannot exist while race and sex stratification remain in place. You CANNOT end poverty while racism and sexism exist.

This is not about celebrating diversity, and the fact that you frame it that way shows how trivial you think issues of racism and sexism are. This is about justice across races and sexes, and that cannot be separated from the economics and poverty you're talking about. There's more at play in those inequality statistics you mention than just lower class and upper class. Care to look at how those divides are for women and men and white people and people of color? Those gaps exist too. Face it. Poverty is raced and sexed. I'm sorry it inconveniences your movement to admit as much.

Peter said...

T, I would modify your point to read that MOST anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles have been coopted. If an analysis or an activism is only willing to address monetary inequality in order to highlight how it is raced and gendered, then the work being done is not truly anti-capitalist. As if capitalism could be reformed! Benn Michaels sees the matrix as being very simply constructed, and I would tend to see the convergences and cross-solidarities as affinities to be incorporated into the struggle against capital, but the fact is that he is NOT WRONG about what he is identifying. Of course, all forms of oppression are not predicated by capital; however, there has to be a point in time when a mass movement - a movement that refuses to tolerate inequality of any kind - militates for the removal of this nihilist system.

Ross Douth's point in the Atlantic Monthly that Benn Michaels neglects to ask the question whether "money-equality" is more useful that "civic-equality" makes the same blithe assumptions that Benn Michaels is writing against. If "black" or "female" or "transsexual" or "working class" people access the political structures, they necessarily concede to the premise that structures serve to support: capitalism. That is why parties of the left always disappoint; to quote Badiou, "Again and again, when left-wing parties come to power, they bring with them the the themes of disappointment, broken promises, and so forth. I think we need to see this as an inflexible law, not as a matter of corruption. I don't think it happens because people change their minds, but because parliamentary subjectivity compels it." (Politcs and Philosophy)

Ain't nothing wrong with a polemic.

Peter said...

"As if capitalism could be reformed!" I scoffed. I should have elaborated to say that the appearance of reform is perfectly consistent with the universalism (albeit one beholden to self-interest rather than egalitarianism) that capitalism makes evident. We ARE all the same to capital. The prevailing profile of the capitalist and politician remains that of the white man, but the defense of the privilege accorded by those two categories is not at all identical to the defense of capitalism's ongoing and largely unaddressed crimes. The crimes of prejudice and exclusion are engendered by pure identitarianism. It may be an identity inherited from imperialism, but it is still just tribalism that motivates it. It is this rank bigotry which accounts for the continued resistance to women, people of colour, and gays in the "halls of power". Modern liberal Capitalism is a different monster. I absolutely accept Benn Michaels' claim that the "black lesbian" CEO is more amenable to capitalism than the old white guy. She is better because, one, she is competent. The bottom line never disappears. And two, because her race, gender, and sexuality help defend capitalism from charges of bigotry even as those categories create new markets amongst groups who have felt they have been brought into the fold. The rejoinder to this that only dumb people of colour, women, and queer people would be fooled by such cynical strategies is really not much of one. Contingent identities do not necessarily confer critical acumen, although they may help us to see how we're being fucked.

T said...

At worst, Benn Michaels is a more sophisticated Pat Buchanan. At best he is the tepid liberal par excellence. He thinks that the only problem is income inequality (which, we must recall, is part of the superstructure, not the economic base itself which includes production relations). Benn Michaels complains that neoliberal "anti-racist" ideologies are insensitive to income inequality, and (stronger) that they enable and exacerbate income inequality. This is the worst blame-the-victim logic imaginable. Is it the fault of, say, the feminist movement and the black liberation movement that Reagan and Thatcher came riding in to destroy the gains of the 1960s? Is it the fault of MLK, who came out against the Vietnam War and against capitalism in the late 60s, that the neoliberal cabal of the late 70s took hold across the globe? This sounds to me like facile scapegoating.

Anti-racist struggles, whenever they reach a peak of militancy and radicalism, are anti-capitalist struggles. The Black Panthers were staunchly anti-capitalist, and saw the struggle for Black Liberation as a struggle to overthrow capitalism. They saw their struggle as coextensive with class struggle, because they took racism to be inscribed into the basic institutions that constitute society. And if society is capitalist, then capitalist institutions will have to be smashed. Real anti-racist struggles in history have taken this lead (see malcolm x's political evolution, or see the Panthers, or see anti-colonial struggles in Africa in the late 1960s (e.g. tanzania and Nyrere)). The apologetics pedaled by the likes of Jesse Jackson are not robust anti-racist politics. Now, there are always high and low points of struggle in any movement: this is no less true of the labor movement than the GLBT liberation movement or the women's movement. The labor movement is very, very far from revolutionary in the US at the moment. But does that mean that trade unions are to be condemned, broken up and attacked as "tools of the system"? Should we expunge unions from left wing political movements? That seems to me to be a batshit crazy idea, and one that doesn't adequately grasp the concrete material conditions of the present.

T said...

You cannot have an egalitarian, anti-racist liberation struggle from below unless you oppose capitalism. Moreover- any viable working-class movement to challenge capitalism as such will need to be multi-racial. That is to say, destroying racism is a precondition to building a revolutionary movement to destroy capitalism. As long as the ruling class can divide and conquer the oppressed by stoking racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, or sexual oppression... then there will be no hope of building a mass movement for a just society.

Benn Michaels, as far as I can tell, doesn't understand what racism is. He talks about racism as though it were just a subjective "prejudice" against some other person. He has no analysis of how class and race are intertwined, how racism is both ideational (i.e. an ideology) and institutional (i.e. concretely inscribed within the structure of capitalism). He sounds, to me, like an angry white man who's bought into the divide-and-conquer logic of the ruling class. He sounds (to my ear) like someone who doesn't grasp what the real problems with capitalism are, and he sounds like someone who doesn't know what it would take to build a movement capable of transforming society. Benn Michaels basically, in the NLR piece and also in his article in the London Review of Books, just wants to return to the Keynesian reformism of the Postwar era. He seems to think that all we need is more LBJ and FDR (or maybe he buys the racist argument that LBJ was bad because he passed the Voting Rights Act which was really just a "boon to big business" or some such nonsense).

Sure, a certain marketized, individualistic "anti-racism" will certainly be helpful to the maintenance of capitalism now that anti-racist ideas have gained ground after periods of struggle. But this marketized "anti-racism" fails on two grounds. First of all it cannot deliver on its promise to liberate, say, the masses of black people in the United States, because capitalism is implicated in their continued subordination. Second, this individualist, basically conservative "anti racism" thwarts the possibility of building mass movements of any kind, which are necessarily egalitarian (that is, any social movement built around solidarity and collective self-emancipation is egalitarian). And of course, a mass movement is the only way to overthrow capitalism it seems to me. Capitalism won't simply implode on its own, nor will a just society mechanistically arise from its ashes unless the groundwork is laid for a society without exploitation and oppression.