Monday, December 7, 2009

Sexism, Racism and Liberal Political Thought

Consider for a moment how often we encounter "post-racist" and "post-feminist" ideologies. On the one hand, they acknowledge some version of the claim that history is marked by racism and sexism. On the other, both claim that contemporary societies are no longer encumbered by sexism or racism: we now live in a more or less post-racist, post-sexist social order.

Now to the extent that liberal political thought tends to hang its hat on a private/public distinction, it seems to me that it is bound up with the maintenance of the ideology sketched above. Moreover, the liberal tradition (broadly construed so as not to connote the idiosyncratic American sense of the term) has tended to focus intensely on legal and political institutions in lieu of critically engaging ostensibly "private" institutions such as the family, the workplace, the church, schools, clubs and organizations, culture, media and so on. And insofar as this is true, the relationship between "post" ideologies and liberalism should be even clearer.

We should therefore find it suspicious that the women's liberation movement and what is now called the "Civil Rights Movement" are remembered today as more or less legally-oriented and conventionally political movements. The slogan "the personal is political" couldn't be further from the way that feminism is construed today in many mainstream appropriations of the women's movement: today feminism is described as though it ought to be a politics that prizes "choice" above all else. Thus, "private choices" are once again apolitical: it is the job of post-feminism to shield ostensibly private matters from the political scrutiny they received from second and third-wave feminists.

Today, my sense is that the women's liberation movement is remembered as a movement aiming merely to achieve certain legal changes. The same is true of the way that the Civil Rights Movement (as indicated by its label) is remembered: it was just a movement aiming to eliminate certain racist laws and to enforce voting rights.

But as Angela Davis points out, it wasn't clear during the 1950s and 60s that what was under way was a "Civil Rights Movement". Davis claims that in those days, among her comrades in SNCC it was known simply as the "Freedom Movement". While certain legal reforms were obviously part of the movement's goals, it is far from obvious that this exhausted its aims. In fact, the history of the movement itself suggests that the legalistic re-reading of history is dubious.

Consider first of all that the main locus of disagreement between the ostensibly more "moderate" MLK and the more radical Malcolm X (religious differences notwithstanding) was essentially one of tactics, i.e. not in the first instance one of divergent emancipatory aims. Furthermore, even MLK's politics do not fit within the narrow legalistic reading of the movement: MLK was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, American Imperialism abroad and Cold War foreign policy, and he argued forcefully in the last years of his life that the fight against racism was also at the same time a fight against certain socio-economic conditions. We'd need to fundamentally re-think the basic social and economic institutions in capitalist societies, MLK held, in order to have any hope of successfully smashing racism.

But given that this is the case, what does this suggest about the viability of post-racist and post-sexist ideologies? As I see it, there are 3 important conclusions to draw here.

(1) One conclusion that seems clear to me is that these "post" ideologies depend first of all on a re-interpretation of the historical meaning of social struggles. In other words, a condition of thinking that these "post" narratives have any plausibility is that we first of all believe that the goals of the Women's Movement and the CRM were purely legal.

(2) Another conclusion is that the distinction between "de facto" and "de jure" oppression or domination has been obscured by the prevalence of liberal ways of thinking about politics. The point of the distinction is to distinguish between de jure forms of domination that are literally written into the word of law (e.g. aspects of Jim Crow) on the one hand, and de facto forms of domination that derive from non-legal features of social institutions and norms. Thomas McCarthy, in drawing a parallel between what he calls "neoracism" and "neoimperialism" draws the distinction as follows.
"Whereas neoimperialism is a way of maintaining key aspects of colonial domination and exploitation after the disappearance of colonies in the legal-political sense, neoracism is a way of doing the same for racial domination and exploitation after the disappearance of "race" in the scientific-biological sense... just as postcolonial neoimperialism could outlive the demise of former colonies, post-biological neoracism could survive the demise of scientific racism... and just as the shift to neoimperialism required modes of domination and exploitation that were compatible with the nominal independence and equality of all nations, the shift to neoracism required modes that were compatible with the formal freedom and equality of all individuals."(Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development. (2009: Cambridge UP)
I believe something similar could be concluded about sexism. While some (though not all) de jure forms of sexual oppression have been repealed and replaced by important new legal forms, focusing our attention only at this legal level of analysis makes it impossible to understand gender oppression now or throughout history.

(3) And a final conclusion to draw from this phenomenon is as follows. In order to find the 'post' ideologies compelling we must also have an individualist way of thinking about society and politics. After all, the familiar post-racist claim goes something like this: in the past there used to be explicit, de jure forms of discrimination that were restrictive. But now that these de jure forms of oppression have been lifted, there is no fetter on the ability of individuals (of any gender or race) to "succeed" in making a lot of money if they simply work hard enough.

There are many ways to refute this claim, but here's a rather general way of dispatching it. Now I would not contest the claim that in principle, it is possible that any one individual working-class person of any background to become the next Bill Gates. But conceding this trivial claim about what might be possible does not obscure the fact that it must also be true (for the 'individual' claim to work) that the working class is collectively unfree to leave the working-class. In other words, while it is true in some trivial sense that any one person "could" hit it big, it must also be true in capitalism that everyone in the working-class couldn't hit it big at the same time. Capitalism requires that a large mass of working-class people whose cheap labor make the wealth of a small class of people possible. Massive improbability notwithstanding, it is also conceptually impossible within capitalism for everyone to become Bill Gates all at once, since there would be nobody doing the socially-necessary labor that sustains capitalism.

The result is that focusing on the possibilities that a generic "individual" has for social mobility says nothing of the way that the entire society, writ large, is structured. For if the "individual claim" is only true in a situation in which lots of other people are restricted from leaving an oppressed status, then it amounts to very little in the way of dispelling claims that racism, sexism and class oppression are important features of the present.

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