Friday, October 1, 2010

"Neoliberal Anti-Racism" is an Oxymoron

A purportedly "anti-racist" neoliberal politics is nothing of the sort. The two projects, anti-racism on the one hand, and neoliberalism on the other, are worlds apart. Properly understood, there can be no reconciliation between them.

Are there people who will nonetheless claim that they are for abolishing racism, though they are neoliberals? Sure. But what does that prove? It proves only one thing: that there are people out there who have false beliefs about what the relationship between racism and neoliberalism is.

Since we're talking about racism here, let's focus the discussion. Let's stick with the experience of Black people in the US.

At every point in US history, anti-racist struggle has been multifaceted, diverse in terms of tactics and aims, and mixed in its level of militancy. Some currents have offered flawed analyses, some offered a mixed bag of effective resistance but facile conclusions about what liberation would consist in. This is true of the history of every movement against oppression, by the way.

To be sure, there have been many false starts and wrong turns in the movement for Black liberation in this country. There are the Thomas Sowells and Booker T. Washingtons peppered throughout history. But it hardly follows that any one person who merely purports to struggle against racism has had the last word on what Black liberation requires. That should be something for which one has to argue.

And my sense is that, once we get the arguments straight here, the situation in the contemporary United States is such that racism and capitalism are deeply intertwined, with the consequence that one cannot be overturned without the destruction of the other.

There are many reasons for this. First, racism is exacerbated and consolidated by neoliberalism. Because the bare-knuckles capitalism of neoliberalism is anti-democratic, hostile to social spending of any kind, devoted to eviscerating the public sector, etc. it is impossible to redress the deep structural and institutional basis of historical disparities within neoliberalism. That means that redressing the deep racial disparities in the US is foreclosed as a possibility as long as we have no means to meet people's needs by way of redistribution, increased social expenditure, etc. In our society, peoples needs are subordinated to the demands of capital accumulation for the rich. That is no recipe for abolishing the deep inequalities that persist between white and black people on average.

Second, racism functions to stabilize and legitimize capitalist social relations. That is, the ruling class has often stoked racism in order to divide and conquer. Moreover, the exploitation of oppressed populations has often proved to better maximize the profits of Capital. Capital thrives by seizing upon and exploiting social misery all over the globe; this is what the iron law of profit demands. Furthermore, it is clear that it simply will not be possible to build the kind of broad movement all working people need to fight against Capital if racism continues to divide us and subjugate some to the power of others. This isn't a zero-sum game. It's not as though fighting racism means further impoverishing poor whites. To think that is to buy the racist kool-aid pedalled by the proto-fascists in the Tea Bagger movement. The opposite is in fact true: a stronger, more confident movement to abolish racial hierarchies would necessary require redistribution, resistance to the logic of profit, etc.... in short, things that are to the benefit to all workers.

Third, if one is serious about Black people fighting against racist oppression, then one cannot simply think it's sufficient to have a couple of token Black persons sitting in high positions. If one is serious about Black liberation itself, then one is serious about liberating all Black people, i.e. emancipating the masses of Black people in this country from oppression. That is a necessarily egalitarian political goal, which is ipso facto anti-capitalist. Capitalism is sustained by isolating individuals from one another, convincing them that they are merely consumers who vote with their dollars, etc. When someone starts talking about organizing large swaths of people for a project of collective liberation from oppression... one has departed from path blazed by the individualism of capitalism and neoliberalism in particular.

Fourth, the ruling capitalist mythologies about "pulling oneself up by their bootstraps" help to solidify and further entrench racism. As long as structural and historical oppression and exploitation is widely blamed on the victim due to their "lack of character", "work ethic", or "culture of poverty", then we will not be in a position to fight capitalism or racism. As long as the historical and social dimensions of human life are blotted out in favor of capitalist fantasies about "personal responsibility", we will not be in a position to achieve justice of any robust sort.

Fifth, the tendency in advanced capitalist societies is to view other human beings in terms of greed and fear. This instrumentalizing, objectifying way of thinking about human beings characteristic of industrial capitalism (what Marx, Lukacs, and other came to call "reification"), was what Martin Luther King, Jr. was picking up when he said:
When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together...A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them, make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments... and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say "America, you must be born again!".
We must also point out that all of this "neoliberal anti-racist" bullshit depends on a fallacious conception of what racism is. It is not mere "individual prejudice" or "intolerance" or whatever, as WBM would surely like to pretend that it is. Nor is anti-racism about getting a few token members of color in positions of power within the US ruling structure. That is ultimately an "anti-racism" of fools. Can anyone really believe that if Andy Stern or some other Capital-friendly trade union bureaucrat got a token position in the Obama Administration, that it would therefore be reasonable to say "Ahh, but this proves it: the entire labor movement is neoliberal!". Of course not. (Yet, incidentally, this is precisely WBM's way of making his case).

Racism isn't some surface-level problem of "prejudice". It is institutional and ideological. Racism, most of the time, has little to do with the intentions or prejudices of individuals. As the political philosopher Tommie Shelby puts it:
Rather than focus on the mental states of individuals without regard to
their sociohistorical context, which can often lead us astray, I would suggest
that we view racism as fundamentally a type of ideology. Put briefly and
somewhat crudely, “ideologies” are widely accepted illusory systems of belief
that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression. We
should also note that these social illusions, like the belief that blacks are an
inferior “race,” are often, even typically, accepted because of the unacknowl-
edged desires or fears of those who embrace them (e.g., some white workers
have embraced racist beliefs and attitudes when they were anxious about the
entrance of lower-paid blacks into a tight labor market.) Racial ideologies
emerged with the African slave trade and European imperialist domination
of “darker” peoples. These peoples were “racialized” in an effort to legitimize
their subjugation and exploitation: the idea of biological “race,” the linchpin
of the ideology, was used to impute an inherent and unchangeable set
of physically based characteristics to the subordinate Other, an “essential
nature” which supposedly set them apart from and explained why they were
appropriately exploited by the dominant group. This ideology served (and
still serves) to legitimize the subordination and economic exploitation of non-
white people. Even after slavery was abolished and decolonization was well
under way, the ideology continued to have an impact on social relations, as
it functioned to legitimize segregation, uneven socioeconomic development,
a racially segmented labor market, and the social neglect of the urban poor.


Richard said...

I don't disagree, but who are these "neoliberal anti-racists"?

Anonymous said...

The strawpersons constructed in every one of WBM's pieces, for example. Right?

Richard said...

and, who might they be?

t said...


I'm not if you're trying to be cute, but it's not doing it for me. I think it's rather obvious that the WBM view is that "neoliberal anti-racism" is redundant, rather than paradoxical. Perhaps it's best just to quote him here:

"They think that their commitments to anti-racism, to anti-sexism, to anti-homophobia constitute a critique of neoliberalism. But if you look at the history of the idea of neoliberalism you can see fairly quickly that neoliberalism arises as a kind of commitment precisely to those things." - From interview

"...they [i.e. anti-racism and anti-sexism] currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics" - From his LRB article

"After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the us today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow. Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor." - From his NLR piece

"Race isn't a fact of nature or a social experience, it's an intellectual fantasy..."
"There [is] no such thing as race, including the social construction of race..." -interview

etc. etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

hey richard- strawpersons aren't real people... they're made of straw. does that answer the question?

Richard said...

Actually, I'm not trying to be cute, I'm trying to understand if this is an actual, existing social and intellectual perspective within the US, and, if so, who are the proponents of it. After all, if "neoliberal anti-racism" is bogus, and I see a post about it, I get curious, who are they, what do they do, who are they trying to reach?

Seeing no one mentioned in the article, I thought I would ask. If the purpose of the article was to deal with WBM again, it would have helped to make that more clear. Maybe, I missed it.

t said...

Sorry, I took it (perhaps hastily) that that much was obvious, given the thread raised by the "WBM strikes again" post, and the arguments made by WBM himself and those who came to his defense.

Anonymous said...

i think it's interesting that the post opens with a picture of Huey. isn't that picture, conjoined with its historical/political significance, itself a refutation of the Benn-Michaels project?

Will Shetterly said...

Since you're discussing this, don't leave Adolph Reed Jr. out. From The limits of anti-racism:

From the standpoint of a neoliberal ideal of equality, in which classification by race, gender, sexual orientation or any other recognized ascriptive status (that is, status based on what one allegedly is rather than what one does) does not impose explicit, intrinsic or necessary limitations on one’s participation and aspirations in the society, this celebration of inclusion of blacks, Latinos and others is warranted.

...But this notion of democracy is inadequate, since it doesn’t begin to address the deep and deepening patterns of inequality and injustice embedded in the ostensibly “neutral” dynamics of American capitalism.

Will Shetterly said...

Oh, and a question I asked on the WBM post that hasn't been answered: "Tony Blair has been called a neoliberal. Would you call him a liberal instead, or something else?"

I'm just trying to find out how people are defining their terms.

t said...

Tony Blair is no Keynesian. New Labour is absolutely a neoliberal phenomenon, which can basically be credited with consolidating and cementing the Right turn that occurred with Thatcher.

I basically did answer your question. I cited Paul Krugman as a good example of a liberal, and I gave reasons for that ascription. If you want to understand neoliberalism, read David Harvey's excellent book "A Brief History of Neoliberalism". Harvey's rigorous analysis will make obvious how little WBM grasps what neoliberalism is.

I don't understand how that short Adolph Reed quote is has any relevance to my argument. I mean, the piece is interesting and I looked it over when it appeared- but I don't see that the quoted passage is relevant or that it constitutes a complete thought. Perhaps instead of citing links to Reed, you could respond to the content of the post?

Will Shetterly said...

t, I've been meaning to read Harvey, so I just reserved that at the library. And thanks for giving your take on Blair.

I'm much happier citing Thandeka and Reed when arguing with anti-racists, 'cause I've run into too many anti-racists who simply dismiss anything a white guy says. WBM has that problem, too.

You say, "I think it's rather obvious that the WBM view is that "neoliberal anti-racism" is redundant, rather than paradoxical." I don't think he's saying it's redundant; I think he's saying that the way it's usually used in the US, by capitalist anti-racists, is redundant. He's certainly not saying it's paradoxical because global capitalism is trumpeting anti-racism everywhere it can. The only step capitalists won't take to end racism is redistributing wealth. They're like the Confederates at the end of the US Civil War, willing to give up slavery if that's the only way they'll survive. But unlike the Confederates, the bastards are still winning the war.

t said...

"global capitalism is trumpeting anti-racism everywhere it can"

If you can say that, then you haven't really engaged much with the four (five?) reasons I gave for why this claim is false.

Will Shetterly said...

Trumpeting isn't trumping. Is there anywhere you can go where neoliberals aren't affirming their commitment to diversity? In the US, everyone's anti-racist in the same way everyone's middle-class. I strongly suspect WBM would agree with your position, as I do: neoliberal anti-racism cannot succeed. The only way to make the distribution of wealth racially proportionate is to redistribute wealth, and no neoliberal will do that.

Anonymous said...

I think t's point is probably that anti-racism isn't about diversity. It's about destroying oppression. I thought that the argument in the post was rather clear on that point: if you are disposed to think that racism is merely about prejudice or lack of diversity, then you haven't yet understood what racism is.

Will Shetterly said...

It might be helpful if we pointed to what we mean when we say "anti-racism." Adolph Reed Jr, WBM, Thandeka, and others are pointing at the Tim Wise/Peggy McIntyre/Judith Katz neoliberal manifestation, which is all about diversity--those antiracists want a diverse ruling class, an American capitalism that "looks like America."

Will Shetterly said...

I'm enjoying Harvey's book enormously, partly because he seems to support WBM and Adolph Reed. From the second chapter:

"Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them."

Will Shetterly said...

Another bit, from just a little further on: "Civil rights were an issue, and questions of sexuality and of reproductive rights were very much in play. For almost everyone involved in the movement of '68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed. And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation; hence the threat to capitalist class power. By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interest could hope to protect and even restore their position. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices. Neoliberalization required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called 'post-modernism' which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as a both a cultural and an intellectual dominant. This was the challenge that corporations and class elites set out to finesse in the 1980s."