Monday, December 10, 2012

Marxism, Exploitation and Racial Oppression

OK, so here are a couple of half-baked thoughts regarding how best to think about racial oppression within a Marxist theoretical framework. I want to focus in particular on the strengths---and the limits---of the concept of exploitation in explaining the oppression of Black people in the contemporary US. What follows is a bit stream-of-consciousness and for that I apologize. Comments, criticisms, questions, and objections are welcome.

We can begin by noting that all workers under capitalism are exploited. Marxism gives us a technical way of understanding exploitation in terms of surplus value extracted from workers by capitalists. We needn't go through the technical details, however, to the get basic gist of the argument. All we basically need to say is that if you're a worker, what your employer pays you in wages is less than the amount of value you're expected to produce on the job---otherwise your employer wouldn't bother employing you in the first place. As Iris Marion Young puts it (summarizing C.B. MacPherson's account), workers are exploited in the sense that, under capitalism, they "exercise their capacities under the control, according to the purposes, and for the benefit of other people", namely the owners of capital.

On this model both black and white workers in a racist society---such as the US---are exploited. But black people are subjected to racial oppression whereas white workers are not. Does the Marxist concept of exploitation explain the difference?

Only partially. It is clear that colonialism and slavery---both central to understanding the origins of modern racism---were exploitative processes undertaken to enrich colonizers and slaveowners. The contemporary prison-industrial complex exhibits many of the same exploitative arrangements. We might also add that mortgage and banking practices have, for decades, through a number of different processes, ruthlessly exploited Black people by preying on their vulnerable position as a racially oppressed group.

And it is also no doubt true that, in general and as a group, Black workers in the contemporary US are subject to more intense exploitation than their white working-class counterparts---this is what is usually called "super-exploitation." The basic idea is that Black workers are subjected to the "standard" levels of exploitation as are all workers in the US, but because they are Black their employers are able to leverage racism to pay them even less and work them even harder than their white counterparts.

Still, despite the centrality of the concept of exploitation to any adequate understanding of racial oppression, it is not clear that the concept explains oppression without remainder. Although it is necessary to explain the oppression of Black people in a racist society, it is also insufficient. Oppression is a complex phenomenon that includes social processes, structures and ideological formations not captured by the mere concept of exploitation alone.

This fact---the fact that the concept of exploitation alone is insufficient to fully explain racial oppression---has led some to conclude that Marxism is simply incapable of giving a satisfying, robust, comprehensive account of racism. It is this conclusion that I would like to challenge here.

I'll begin by expressing skepticism that Marxists concerned to explain racial oppression have any reason to confine themselves to the use of the concept of exploitation alone. To be sure, exploitation has played a prominent role in the Marxist analysis---as well it should, given the important examples we examined above. But, apart from the concept of exploitation and its role in explaining the accumulation of profit---as well as the "super profits" obtained via extra-economic coercion as in slavery and colonialism---Marxists have also made regular use of concepts like oppression, domination as well as the notion of a "ruling class", all of which carry within them complaints against class societies that exceed the complaint that they are exploitative.

After all, a "ruling class" is a class that not only exploits, but one that stands above and dominates those over whom it rules. To be sure, there is a clear causal connection between the facts that a ruling class both rules and exploits---but it remains true that ruling and exploiting are, materially speaking, distinct activities. Apart from being exploited, workers are also dominated in at least two senses: they are both subject to the arbitrary will of a particular capitalist in the workplace and subject to the coercive institutions of the capitalist state. That is to say, apart from being subject to surplus-value extraction, workers are also subject to an institutional power structure---which includes state as well as non-state institutions---that is neither under their collective control nor designed to further their interests.

What the above shows is Marxists also see class relations as power relations whereby one class dominates the others and forces them to submit to social structures that are alien to their interests and beyond their control. This makes clear that Marxists have, in addition to their interest in exploitation, always had interrelated interests in questions of power, domination and political rule as well. So, the dynamics of racial oppression that have to do with the dialectics of power and powerlessness are hardly unintelligible from the Marxist point of view. They can be fruitfully analyzed in terms of social domination, understood as a materially structured relation of power in which one group subjects another to its will. Exploitation, though important, has never been the only tune in the Marxist repertoire.

Let us return more explicitly to racial oppression. Although oppression clearly involves exploitation as well as social domination, we might think that these two concepts still leave us with some unexplained remainders. Take the problem of marginalization, which is in a way the opposite of exploitation. Marginalization is, after all, precisely the condition of being excluded from---among other things---the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. As Iris Young describes it, "increasingly in the US racial oppression occurs in the form of marginalization rather than exploitation. Marginals are people the system of labor cannot or will not use... there is a growing class of people permanently confined to lives of social marginality, most of whom are racially marked." As she describes it, "marginalization... involves a whole category of people who are expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination." Marginalization is in many ways the central theme of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow---and it is also the best concept available to explain the geographical dimensions of oppression that confine many Black people to urban ghettos and shut them out of the formal economy and mainsream social institutions.

Now, Young doesn't dispute the claim that workers are exploited or that many Black workers are super-exploited. The point, rather, is that, almost by definition, to be marginalized is to suffer a form of oppression that cannot be explained by the bare concept of exploitation.

Fortunately, as we've already seen, Marxists have never tried to understand societies in terms of the bare concept of exploitation alone. Though it is central to their analysis, they have always---at least when they're at their best---thought of capitalist social formations as totalities, marked by internal contradictions, structured around the dynamics of capital accumulation, ideological formations and social struggle. Exploitation is one central part of that analysis, but the capitalist system itself is much more complicated than the antagonism between capital and wage labor at the site of production. The Marxist analysis draws the whole web of relations and social processes within its scope and systematically looks at how they function within the material structure of the system. So, there is no reason to assume that Marxism can't make sense of marginalization.

In fact, I highly doubt that we can genuinely understand the political-economic and geographical processes that produce marginalization---of a particularly racist kind---without the tools of contemporary Marxism, which give us an angle on the dynamics of profit, the balance of social forces, the function of the state, and so on. I would think that the sort of political-economic analysis of housing, suburbanization and urban deindustrialization of the sort put forward by David Harvey would need to be part of any fruitful analysis of racial marginalization in the contemporary US. This analysis gives us a critical angle on the scaffolding or, if you like, the racist infrastructure within which abandonment, social/economic exclusion, disenfranchisement, criminalization and so on flourish. I would also think that Marx's analysis of the "industrial reserve army" would be a part of the story as well, although I for one think contemporary Marxists should simply discard his notion of the "lumpenproletariat".

Still, we might think that exploitation, domination and marginalization still don't fully explain racial oppression as it exists today. We might think that there is yet more to be explained---for example, we might think that the problems of cultural imperialism, on the one hand, and violence, on the other, are features of oppression that are not themselves exhausted by an examination of exploitation, domination or marginalization. Cultural imperialism and violence are surely related to those other processes, but they aren't therefore identical with them, so there's still something left to be explained. Is it true that Marxists cannot make sense of these two dynamics without giving up their overall theoretical and practical framework?

I don't think so. Before I say why I think Marxism gives us (arguably) the best critical angle on these dimensions of oppression, let me say a little bit about what they are first. Cultural imperialism has to do with oppressed groups who are, in a one-sided way, subjected to representations, ideas and so on which are alien---and usually hostile to---that group's own self-image, culture, and so on. In Europe, this might take the form of designating as "civilized" and "universal" certain traditional European practices and branding everything else---especially non-European practices---as "other", beyond the pale, "deviant", dangerous, savage, pre-modern, barbaric, particularistic, and so on. A contemporary US example of cultural imperialism that involves anti-Black racism might include any of the various ways in which "Blackness" is devalued and coded as "deviant", inferior, dangerous, criminal, delinquent, ugly, animalistic, "other", low, and so on. "Black is beautiful" was (and in many ways still is) a radical slogan precisely because of the forms of oppression in involved in cultural imperialism. One result is that groups deemed "deviant", inferior, and so on---such as Black people in the contemporary US---are under, among other things, strong pressure to assimilate and renounce their own background as a condition of "success". Groups that are systematically subjected to these interpretations, representations, and meanings are clearly oppressed.

If cultural imperialism is a somewhat complex phenomenon, however, then violence as a form of oppression is relatively straightforward. Black people in the US are systematically liable to be violently harassed, attacked, imprisoned or killed---just because they're Black. The systemic problem of police brutality is only the tip of the iceberg. This is as clear a case of oppression as there is. But does Marxism overlook this dimension of racial oppression? And can Marxism give us a convincing analysis of cultural imperialism?

Let us begin with the problem of racist violence. Marxism seems to me to give us a powerful structural analysis of racial violence inasmuch as it offers us an internationalist approach---which makes clear the role that imperialism plays---as well as a compelling theory of the State. The racist violence and physical abuse meted out by the state---whether by police, prison guards or other officials---is best explained, it seems to me, by the Marxist theory of the state. And I would argue that the international violence against non-white peoples abroad is best understood in terms of the dynamics of imperialism and global political economy. What about vigilante violence? Although technically non-State, I think it should still understood in relation to the forms of State violence we just mentioned. The State has always played a role---whether de jure or de facto, direct or indirect---in lynchings and other forms of violent racist terrorism. Racist violence is never simply a matter of individual hatred or evil persons---it is a social pathology that, like rape, must be understood politically in relation to the material structure of society.

But what about cultural imperialism? On the face of it, this is the aspect of racial oppression least amenable to a Marxist critique. But this conclusion would be hasty. There is, after all, a rich tradition of cultural criticism associated with the Marxist tradition---including figures such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Lukacs, Gramsci, among many others---which begins from the fact that culture is always embedded in material structures that are, at once, political, economic and social. To make sense of cultural imperialism in particular, however, I would use the Marxist concept of ideology, much in the way radical philosopher Tommie Shelby has done. Shelby sees racist images, symbols, ideas and so on as ideologies which stabilize and legitimate racial oppression. This is a big topic, but one thing to say here is that the major means of interpretation, communication and cultural production are under the control of dominant groups, so it's unsurprising, then, that the dominant ideas, cultural products, images, and so on tend to reflect the interests of those groups, rather than the interests of the oppressed. Moreover, oppressed groups---inasmuch as they're oppressed---usually have a hard time changing dominant ideas and images, which can make oppression self-reinforcing in certain respects. That doesn't mean that oppressed groups don't resist these ideas and images---on the contrary, the Black cultural tradition in the US is thoroughly political and, almost without exception, involves a wealth of different modes of resistance against the injuries of racism. But it does mean that dominant representations tend to be imposed on them from above rather than organically produced from below.

Also, I want to point out that---and this is surely a strength of the dialectical structure of Marxism as a theory---all of the features of oppression we've been discussing---violence, cultural imperialism, powerlessness, exploitation and marginalization---are hardly autonomous, separate and fully independent of one another. These "five faces" of oppression, as Iris Young describes them, are all, materially speaking, interwoven and interrelated in real social life. So, any assessment of the strength of Marxism as a means of making sense of cultural imperialism has to take into account that, in addition to drawing on the tradition of Ideologiekritik, it will also draw on the salience of other processes---exploitation, domination, marginalization, etc.---that play a role in the production and reproduction of cultural imperialism.

This is probably as good a place as any to stop for now. I hope I've shown that the Marxist analysis is far more sophisticated and richer than is usually supposed. As I say, this is all very provisional and I'm open to comments, criticism, objections and so on.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Not voting Obama--And it has nothing to do with privilege

One of the most upsetting arguments I've heard this election season (well, the most upsetting not to come from the right), is that those who don't vote Democrat this election are exercising some sort of identity-related privilege in not doing so. Most disturbing, is that this argument has not just come from the usual tepid liberals, but from those who might call themselves leftists, from those who, in their usual, non-election season, non-swing state personas would probably be the first to call Obama a one percenter, or maybe even a war criminal.

So, if my Asian immigrant, male comrade, with no job and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt makes the case for not voting for the lesser of two evils, it's not out of a principled political position, but because he has the male privilege not to have to care about what happens to his reproductive rights.

And if I, a white woman with a low-income job, whose reproductive rights are under immediate threat, discuss my decision to vote for a third party candidate, then this is because I have the straight privilege to not have to worry about marriage rights. Or, perhaps it's because I have health insurance and don't have to worry about what Romney would do to the health insurance industry.

"Surely," this argument seems to imply, "if you had it bad like me, or bad like them, you'd share my politics."

This tortured reasoning came out in Mother Jones about a week ago, as the writer directs an absolute stomach-churning screed against radicals:

In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it's that the people in question won't be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.
An undocumented immigrant writes me, "The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with." Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, "Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters."
I want to try to get past the incredibly asshole-ish tone of the piece (you'll see what I mean, if you read more than just that tid bit; she actually calls this left-wing voter suppression) and finally unpack this argument, because it's now the fourth time I've had it directed at me or a friend in the past months.

Here are a few of the wrong assumptions this argument rests on. I'm going to start with the least serious and work my way to the most serious:

Assumption #1: That the reason any progressive would disagree with the progressive-in-question's political assessment must always be his/her identity.

The absurdity of this assumption, of course, is demonstrated by the scenarios I laid out to start about how the argument shifts and transforms based on who the person is who doesn't want to vote Obama. If, by definition, not voting for the democrats is looked at as a privileged position, then you'll always be able to find out what privilege it is that any person who doesn't vote Dem has and chalk up the decision to that.

There's no real way to disprove privilege in this case either, since, within privilege theory, it's the ability to engage in privileged behaviors that classifies you as privileged. So, no matter how disadvantaged I am, and no matter how much that informs my political consciousness, I can never convince a person I am leading with my sense of disadvantage, rather than privilege. Once you've made the conversation about identity, there is no way for ANY person to win the debate and defend themselves against this charge, which should lead us to suspect that maybe this has nothing to do with identity at all!

People with a very diverse set of privileges and disadvantages have a diverse number of political positions on this election. So, let's go ahead and say things are more complicated than that and actually engage the political questions, shall we?

Assumption #2: That privilege theory itself would condemn the person not voting Obama rather than the person voting for Obama.

I don't usually go in for this reasoning, because of point 1. This is a good way of proving nothing, dodging political questions, and, in a way, moralizing people into your viewpoint, rather than genuinely winning them to it. But, it should be noted that I could easily turn the logic of privilege back on the Obama voter by bringing in the greatest possible degradations created by Obama policies, and fault them for having too much privilege to care about this degradation. For instance, I might suggest that someone only supports a president who drone bombs innocent children in Pakistan, because they have the privilege of not being one of those children. Once we've reached this point, how can they possibly defend themselves against the charge that they are indeed more privileged than these children? They can't.

"Okay, drone bombing is bad, and that's something we need Obama to stop, but--but--" No. No buts about it. By their own logic, which said, no matter what valid complaints we might share about Obama's policies, nothing excuses the privileged move of letting less privileged people suffer (an assumption we'll get to in a second), because of my privileged political complaints.

It's not such fun territory to be in, is it? Like I said, I wouldn't go down this path for real because it's an irrefutable, accusatory, and moralistic path to go down. But, sometimes bringing this possible route up to your accuser might at least help to shake them of this certainty that everyone who disagrees with them has simply failed to consider the stakes involved.

Assumption #3: That voting for Democrats is a practical way of helping the disadvantaged.

Phew. I'm glad we finally progressed to the point where we can address the actual political reasoning behind not voting for Obama. This is the big, incredibly important assumption that these privilege arguments seem to rest on. Now, I know our Mother Jones writer assures us she knows everything it is we "privileged" leftists have to say about Obama. Yeah, yeah, she insists, she and the other Obama apologists know this stuff too! You don't have to keep "leftsplaining" about drone bombs and attacks on civil liberties and such.

Well, apparently we do. Because this is one you don't hear us on. Let me be clear.

Not voting for Obama is not just a symbolic move, or a decision I make to reinforce my sense of moral superiority. It is a protest against a party that causes great harm, that crushes and paralyzes mass social movements, thus keeping in place a system that has devastated nations, the earth, and countless individuals on a daily basis, that prevents the turning of the political tide to a different world. It is a protest against a two-party system that will continue killing and destroying lives unless we, a mass of people, stand against this sham masquerading as democracy.

The Democratic party does not protect my reproductive rights. Its failure to protect those rights is a direct cause of the ease with which the right could go on a full-force offensive against them over the last two years, and of my inability to actually access or afford many reproductive services even now (because of restrictions and economic inequality they don't even pretend to want to address).

The Democratic party will not give us federal gay marriage. The Democratic party will not protect social security or medicare or any other of these important programs the working-class in this country has won. We may get those things, and it may be while Democrats are in office, or it may be while Republicans are in office. But they will have come from mass movements that force the parties into these concessions, not from the parties themselves. Parties don't give us things out of kindness; they give them when they are demanded. And what pressure do the Democrats have on them to give us anything when they know that no matter who they drone bomb and how often, or how much money they redistribute to the 1%, progressives will vote for them loyally, as long as the Republicans exist?

So, these progressives can go ahead and vote Democrat. I'm not going to assume they do so out of privilege, but because we have a legitimate debate about how change will occur and about the fundamental nature of the Democratic party.

In truth, I live in a swing state, and I'm tired of talking about it. I don't think it's the most pressing question of our time (or even near the top). Building the mass movements that move the world is at the top of my agenda. And so, whatever will bring you back to those movements as soon as possible, is what I advocate that you do.  So, let me simply end with this note a friend of mine posted online after social networks exploded with ranting and raving about last night's debate:
Will you join my N7 movement?

It's actually not a new one, but an age-old one rebranded for right here, right now. The November 7 movement, that is. The people who recognize that on the day after the US election, no matter who wins, the social, political, and economic inequalities we are fighting against will continue to exist...and the solution will continue to be grassroots organizing against these representatives of the 1%. 

60-100 or so schools will still be on the chopping block in Chicago. Palestine will still be under occupation. Unions will still be in decline and under attack, even though union jobs are better-paying and more secure jobs. Brown and Black people, LGTBQ people, anyone who is marginalized and oppressed, will still be seen as less than normal, less than equal, and will face direct and indirect targeting. Women will still have legal abortion rights but limited access--and all of those issues which are inseparable from women's rights (jobs, health care, education, wars, poverty, etc.) will continue to be devastating the lives of women. And on and on.

You want to put aside your reservations and vote Obama because Romney is so #@!#$ right-wing? Well ok, I get it. But join the N7 movement, too. Because we can't be blackmailed like this again, and again, and again, and again...


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Some Posts on Election 2012

Here are a couple of posts on election 2012 that may be of interest, given that the corporate media's obsession with "the most important election of our time" is in high gear.

First, here is a post that diagnoses a general attitude of "wishful thinking" that the Democrats cynically encourage (the better to exploit at election time) among people who want to see progressive changes. The occasion for the post was Obama's executive order re: immigration, but this is hardly the only example of this problem.

Next, here is a post asking the question "do the 2012 elections matter?". My answer is, basically, no they don't. Of course they "matter" in some minimal sense---but measured against where we are and where we could easily be with the aid of mass direct action and struggle, the elections are of little importance. Should Obama be re-elected, we will immediately be confronted with all the same questions we're confronted with now: how can we organize to stop austerity, how can we stop imperialism abroad, how can we fight to beat the New Jim Crow, how can we re-build a fighting labor movement, how can we win genuine health reform that works for the 99% rather than the 1% insurers, how can we stop environmental destruction and end off-shore drilling, etc. etc.

Then, there's two posts (one, two) which attacks the elections as "non-political". It's not just that I reject the narrow "political" options on offer. I make the stronger claim that the election itself---dominated as it is by a two-party duopoly whose wide area of agreement pales in comparison to their disagreements---is one of the least political things happening right now in our country. So, contra anarchists who oppose certain forms of "politics" on principle, I argue, instead that the working class absolutely should have a political and not simply an economic/industrial strategy. But for a political strategy to be "political" in any meaningful sense, it has to actually stand the chance of seriously changing the status quo and opening up the possibility of winning reforms. The presidential election does no such thing---hence I polemically attack it as "non political". What's political is what's happening with warehouse workers, with what happened with the teachers strike, with occupy, with anti police brutality struggles and all the rest. The success or failure of those movements is infinitely more important---and more political---than the narrow electioneering PR fight between two parties struggling to better represent the 1%.

Finally, I'll throw out a post on what I call "PR politics". This is the conception of politics that we see in much of the consensus for-profit media. It equates politics as such with "rooting" for one or other of the two sanctioned teams, standing on the sidelines, and internalizing the campaign's narrow PR strategies. It equates politics with horse-races and participation with cheering and strategizing from the sidelines. This demobilizes people and encourages them to adapt to their surroundings rather than change them. No reforms were ever won in this way---all of them, without exception, were won because mass independent movements acted outside the electoral arena to pressure those in power to act.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

That's right. You'd better be scared—and you'd better be prepared to give up everything to get Obama re-elected. Ryan is an Ayn Rand fanatic and he has an evil vision for America that threatens to roll back every single progressive gain in our history. The only way to avert complete disaster is to silence every conceivable criticism of Obama and the Democrats, ignore everything they've done for the past four years, forget about everything going on around us, and go all-out to campaign to stop Romney/Ryan from winning in November.

Well, that's what Obama and the Democrats want you to think, anyway. But how much of it should we actually take seriously?

Now, don't get me wrong. I do think that Paul Ryan is awful. I have nothing but scorn for everything he stands for—more on that in a minute. But why does that admission mean that I should give the Democrats a free-pass, drink the Kool-Aid and engage in a long list of delusions—that Obama and the Democrats will fight the Right, that they'll pass progressive reforms, etc.?

If liberals are right to strongly oppose what Ryan stands for, they'd do well to oppose those same stands when—which is often—Obama and the Democrats take them. Let's do a little compare and contrast.

Here's a paraphrase of what has to say about Ryan in a Facebook meme that you may have seen:
  • His economic plan would cost Americans 1 million jobs in the first year alone. 
  • He'd slash and burn Medicare and Social Security.
  • He'd cut taxes for the 1% and raise them for working-class and poor people. And meanwhile he'd give subsidies to big corporations.
  • He's an anti-choice extremist. 
  • He takes lots of money from the 1%. 
  • He opposes LGBT equality. 
Now, of course, all of these measures serve the interests of the 1% at the expense of the rest of us. Broadly speaking they are strong stands in favor of austerity and maintaining existing forms of oppression.

But the bait-and-switch here is to insinuate—as surely intends to do—that Obama and the Democrats stand for the opposite of every one of these measures. If only it were true.

First of all, the Democrats and the Obama Whitehouse are highly tolerant of soaring unemployment for the 99%. The fact is that the Democrats are hypocrites on outsourcing and unemployment. Since 2008, Obama and the Democrats have presided over an economy enduring extremely high unemployment—especially high in communities of color—and they took no bold measures to do anything about it except a weak-sauce stimulus package which, besides being weighted heavily in the direction of corporate tax breaks, had already run out of steam by mid 2010. It was like getting a band-aid for a broken limb.

Or take Social Security and Medicare. According to Obama himself, "Democrats do not receive enough credit for their willingness to accept cuts in Medicare and Social Security". Or consider that Obama's failed "grand bargain" in 2009 included a willingness to simply take Medicare away from 65 and 66 year old Americans. Or consider that Obamacare includes a series of cuts to Medicare totalling nearly $500 billion over the course of several years. Or consider that Obama himself—and other high-ranking Democrats—have on more than one occasion broached the idea of privatizing Social Security. A staunch defender of Medicare and Social Security Obama is not. Both Obama and Ryan are of one mind about austerity—their only disagreement is about how deep to cut the social safety net. 

Or take the issue of tax breaks for the rich. As everyone knows, Obama campaigned in 2008 promising to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich. But as President he and the congressional Democrats warmly embraced those tax breaks and extended them--making them the Obama Tax Cuts for the rich. Of course, liberals haven't bothered to rename them. It is well-known that raising the marginal tax rate on the 1% would be both highly popular and an easy way of saving public sector jobs and staving off the push for austerity. But the Democrats and Obama have no intention of doing any such thing.

Why not? One reason is that the Democrats—like Ryan and Romney—take loads of money from the 1%, if they're not outright members of the 1% themselves. Recall that in 2008, the Democrats pulled in the lion's share of corporate campaign donations—they were, as the LA Times put it, "Wall Street's Darlings". As is well-known, the 1% hedges its bets and always gives enormous sums to both parties. There's a lot of alarmist nonsense floating around in liberal circles these days about how Super-PAC's are funnelling lots of money to Republicans—as if the Democrats are some kind of grassroots underdog that operates on online donations or something. The fact is that the ruling class spends enormous sums on the campaigns of both parties, and the politics of both parties reflects that fact. It takes considerable chutzpah to uncritically support the Democratic Party, on the one hand, and complain hysterically about the corporate money accepted by Republicans on the other.

Now, it is true that Obama and some Democrats are not the out-in-the-open anti-choice, homophobic extremists that the Republicans are. But that doesn't mean that they are allies in the fight for women's rights and LGBT equality. At best, they slowly erode gains on those fronts and compromise with the Right. At worst, they propose many of the same policies as the Right—think of the Stupak amendment, for example. But we can't afford to passively support an entity which barely holds the line, at best, and pushes things backwards at worst. The only time that the Democrats move at all on women's rights or LGBT equality is when movements pressure them to act. We should devote all of our time, money, resources and political energies to those movements—not the Democrats—if we want to carry those struggles forward.

And think of all the things that meme didn't mention. They might have said that Ryan also supports war and imperialism abroad. But, of course, so does Obama. They might have also said that he supports the destruction of the environment, offshore drilling, and the appointment of high-ranking corporate polluters to regulatory positions in government. But, then, so does Obama. To this we could add other abominations such as the "War on Drugs", the New Jim Crow, the mass deportation of Latin@s, corporatized education policy, keeping Gitmo open for business, and all the rest. And, of course, Obama supports all those things as well. It doesn't do any good to pretend that this isn't so.

So, where does this leave us? We need to build the social movements, participate in the struggles of the 99% and be part of constructing a new Left that can actually fight for our interests. This isn't a new idea. It's how every single major progressive gain was won. Again and again we've seen that the Democrats are a political black hole. They suffocate struggles rather than carry them forward. They take and take and give nothing back in return. The time to cut them loose is now.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Recycled Posts

Here are a couple of recycled posts from the archives that might be of interest:

A critical analysis of nostalgia film. 
What's the point of education supposed to be, anyway? 
On the politics of black vernacular speech. 
A withering critique of "sociobiology". 
A compare and contrast of Hegel and Marx's ways of thinking about freedom.
Trotsky and Luxemburg on political organization and tactics
Marx's critique of what he called "crude communism". 
On the importance of movement democracy
The politics of Paul Simon's "Graceland" on its 25th anniversary. 
 Is there a right to private property? No, as it turns out.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"The Exhaustion of Utopian Energies"

This phrase--repeated rather often in certain left-academic circles--was coined by Jurgen Habermas in 1990. It is often cited as a definitive statement that the "old Left" ideas of class struggle, emancipation, socialism, and so on are no longer viable. Those ideas--inspiring though they may be in the abstract--have lost their pull and can no longer be an effective political force in contemporary capitalist societies (or, as they are more often called by theorists who run in these circles: "post-Fordist societies", "post-industrial societies", etc.).

I'd just like to offer a few reasons why I think this phrase is bullshit.

First, it makes it sound as though the "utopian energies" of the radical Left simply gave up the fight and ran out of steam on their own. It makes it seem as if radical social transformation was just an idea some of us had that became exhausted because of some fault internal to the idea. It makes it sound like the Left just threw in the towel sometime in the 1980s and 90s because it's ideas "lacked energy".

Now, of course, it's not false to say that the 1980s and 90s were generally speaking rather dark decades for the Left. But it's absurd to say that they were dark simply because certain ideas--of revolution, of class struggle, etc.--simply lost their luster and became "exhausted". That lets the capitalist system and the ruling class off the hook. Materialist histories of neoliberalism--David Harvey's is generally quite good, but there are plenty of others--explain rather clearly why this narrative doesn't hold water.

Also, Habermas might as well have called much of the post-War era one in which "utopian energies" were exhausted, inasmuch as capitalism was booming and the radical Left was far weaker on the whole than it had been in the inter-war period. And, of course, during this time the real Left was marginalized by the hegemony of Stalinism internationally. And, as we know, plenty of people did at this time proclaim the "end of ideology", the emergence of a "post-industrial society", and all the rest. There was a sense that capitalism was "fixed" by technocratic Keynesian counter-cyclical maneuvers, and many proclaimed the radical Left moribund. Then they were caught off guard in the 1960s when class struggle exploded on a mass scale. The same mistake was made by those who bought into the big lie that "there is no alternative" in 1989.

This brings me to the second reason why this phrase should be tossed in the dustbin of history. As anyone who has a pulse has surely noticed, the last two years have been packed full of episodes of escalating global struggle. From Tahrir to Athens, from Spain to Mexico, from Quebec to the Occupy movement, and so on and so forth, there has been an explosion of social struggle all over the world on a scale unwitnessed in the last 30 years. It doesn't mean a victory for the Left is inevitable. Nor does it mean a defeat for neoliberalism is sure to follow. But it does mean--beyond the shadow a doubt--that the Left has an audience and that the opportunities for renewal and growth are bigger now than they have been for a generation.

In this context, only the most out-of-touch, ahitorical cynic could still rationally cling to the analysis that the "exhaustion of utopian energies" limits the horizon of what's possible for the Left.

Third, I don't share Habermas's despair at the events of 1989--they were a deliverance from a repressive system that held back workers struggles and strangled the Left. On this question, Alex Callinicos's The Revenge of History is a must-read. The uprisings of 1989 briefly offered the possibility for new forms of struggle, but they were quickly crushed under the boot of neoliberalism from above administered by Washington. The badness of neoliberalism, however, does not imply anything good about the repressive, state-capitalist formations that fell in 1989. There was nothing "utopian" about them--they were top-down, bureaucratic formations that were locked into international competition with advanced capitalist nations. For most of the Left, they had long since ceased to be a source of renewal and inspiration. 1989, then, wasn't a surprise blow to a glowing beacon of Leftist hope, but rather the predictable collapse of an exploitative system under its own weight.

Yet Habermas claims that this event signals a defeat for Marxism as such. This is nothing but Cold War propaganda. It implies that Stalinism and Marxism are synonymous and papers over the long, well-established Left tradition that opposed those societies from the late 1920s onward. Strangely, Habermas and the Frankfurt School were part of that tradition who proclaimed "neither Moscow nor Washington!", so I find it baffling that Habermas could act so forlorn when Stalinism collapsed when it did. In retrospect, he would have to agree that he was being pulled along by the general ideological distortion of the age--namely the narrative for which Fukuyama became famous which posited an "end of history" and a perpetual present of neoliberal capitalism.

Finally, as Habermas himself argued in earlier work, it isn't quite right to call the radical Left "utopian". He himself opposed "Utopian socialism" for all the right reasons in the 60s and 70s: because it's elitist, because it rejects workers self-emancipation and struggle, because it is unconnected to a critical sociology of the present, etc.

But seen from the present, the only genuinely utopian aspect of Habermas's 1990 proclamation is the idea that neoliberal capitalism can persist forever. That idea--not the idea that we can radically change society--is what's incredibly unrealistic. I hesitate to say that "TINA" is exhausted, but it's clearly panting heavily under a great deal of stress. Most of the Left is eager to deliver a knock-out blow to that dogma in a context where youth the world over seem to be unshackled by it. In this context, repeating this mantra of the "exhaustion of Utopian energies" does nothing except out oneself as out of sync with contemporary events.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ecology, Technological Innovation, and Capitalism

There is a common neoliberal dogma about technological innovation which teaches us that the "dynamism" of "competitive markets" is inherently creative and innovative, whereas any alternative necessarily stymies "progress". Given the ubiquity of this dogma--propagated by Democrats as often as Republicans--it's unsurprising that it is also billed as the definitive solution to the our planet's profound ecological crisis. But what is it that's actually being said when people associate "innovation" with "competitive markets" or "free enterprise"? And how might this relate to the ecological problems we face?

First of all, "competitive markets" is a euphemism, not a social-scientific term that picks out a real-world economic system. What defenders of "competitive markets", or "free enterprise", or whatever actually mean to defend is capitalism. They mean to defend a profit-driven social system in which the means of production are the private property of a small class. This isn't a merely semantic point. "Free enterprise" is so obviously ideological that even apologists for capitalism are smart enough to avoid it these days--after all, whose "freedom" are we talking about here, and what's "enterprising" about a fat cat who extracts profit from thousands of workers who do all of the actual work? But "competitive markets" has an intuitive pull for many, so it's worth examining more closely.


The intuitive pull derives from the fact that some alternatives to "competition" require that we embrace unfairness, punish the diligent, and reward the undeserving. There is something to this idea inasmuch as there clearly are--and even socialists concede this much--specific contexts in which competition is a good thing, where it would be unfair not to reward the "winner", and so on. For example, there are many sports-related contexts--here the "context" is defined by the particular rules of the game or practice--where we would reject any alternative to fair competition. So competition isn't inherently bad and we may even prefer it in certain specific contexts--games, contests, awards and honors, music and film auditions, etc.

So, the ideological move here isn't to invoke competition per se, but to vastly over-extend it to all spheres of social life, i.e. to assume that competitive interactions are the model for all human interactions. You'll notice, of course, that even many liberals accept this move and couch their claims for redistribution in the language of "leveling the playing field." This accepts the competitive-game metaphor but rejects the idea that the players are equally prepared to play. But, pace liberals, it is anything but obvious that competition is desirable outside of the rather specific contexts I named above. It strikes me as rather perverse to think of decisions that have profound effects on people's lives--and on the future of the planet!--on the model of a fair game. "Who should be granted access to medical care?"... "I don't know, why don't we have a big ping-pong tournament and whoever makes it to the finals gets health insurance... The rules of the game are fair, aren't they? And winners deserve to be rewarded, don't they?".


Still, because of the "intuitiveness" of neoliberal norms of "fair competitive play", defenders of capitalism find it useful to argue that the system tends to actually embody those norms. But what exactly is the relationship between capitalism and "fair competition"? I'd like to suggest that, upon close examination, there  isn't much of a relationship at all.

Competition happens at many levels throughout capitalist societies, but always in highly concrete and class specific ways. For examples, workers don't compete with capitalists--they may struggle against one another, but there is no meaningful sense in which they compete against one another since they each have divergent interests and goals. They're playing different "games", so to speak. Of course, within each class they both compete amongst themselves. But, as we'll see, there is no sense in which the abstract concept of "fairness" applies to their respective competitions.

When workers are pitted against one another in an individualistic struggle for scarce employment--which is often, but not always--it is anything but fair since racism, gender oppression, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression are operative. Moreover, this competition among individual workers tends to increase the bargaining power of the employer and drive down wages--again, clearly not a "fair" consequence for the working class writ large. And, of course, when capitalists are pitted against one another in a struggle to maximize profits--which leads them to try to cut costs and soak up as much market share as possible, lest they are eclipsed by competing firms--there is no sense in which this is fair either. This becomes especially obvious when we look at the global economy where military and non-economic forms of power are wielded by blocs of capitalists against others. To be sure, under capitalism there are other forms of competition--among municipal, state and national governments for business investment, for instance, which often fosters a "race to the bottom"--that we could talk about. But the fact remains that to praise the abstract notion of "competitive markets" is to talk in vague terms the obscure the actual class contexts of real competition.

But what about our main topic--namely, the link between "competitive markets" and innovation? As I say, the notion of a "competitive market" is vague and abstract. Which competition are we talking about here? My sense is that when people say "competitive markets create innovation" they clearly aren't referring to competition among, say, municipalities or among workers for scarce jobs. On the contrary, they're speaking from the perspective of capitalists, so what they mean to say is that competition among capitalists forces them to innovate. Once this is established, they prey upon the formal, abstract nature of the idea of "innovation" to argue that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to produce new technologies that improve the lives of all--and make the world "greener" and more efficient.


Now it is true that competition among capitalist firms forces them--whether the agents who run them like it or not--to try to maximize profit. It's also true that this competition forces capitalists to take a large portion of that profit and re-invest in expanded production, since a firm that fails to do this--other things equal--will tend to lose out to firms that do. This often leads capitalist firms to try to look for technological innovations which will lower costs and increase output--all the better to accumulate more profit than competitors.

But that is where the link between capitalist production and innovation ends. There is no general sense in which capitalism can be said, abstractly, to be "innovative". It puts pressures on certain specific classes to try to secure very specific kinds of innovations--just as it creates pressure to avoid (or even to destroy) other kinds of innovations. The innovations capitalism creates incentives for are those that maximize profit--e.g. those which reduce labor costs, increase output, and so on. There is no necessary link between this kind of innovation and the kind of innovation that improves human well-being and creates a more sustainable world. In fact, capitalism creates massive barriers to innovations that could have the potential to vastly improve our lives and save the environment--all because they are not profitable at all, or not profitable in the short term, or because they actually threaten existing profits.

The ideological here confusion arises when "innovation" is emptied of content and praised in an abstract way. But nobody values innovation as such. I don't think we need more innovative ways of killing human beings, for instance. And neither do I think we need more innovative means of cutting down trees or mining the earth for fossil fuels. Moreover, I could care less about innovative new ways to count the number of grains of sand on the planet or the number of blades of grass in Harvard quads. Innovation as such is pretty worthless. We only give a shit about innovation if it pertains to something we already value.

So, we have to ask two questions: first, what is it that capitalists are competing and innovating for, and, second, is that thing itself good? The answers are simple: to the first: profit, and to the second: no, it's not so good if you care about the planet and the human beings that live on it.

After all, it is highly profitable to destroy the environment in the short-run. And any serious attempt to stop environmental destruction would threaten the investments--topping out in trillions upon trillions of dollars--of entire industries and, indeed, of entire blocs of industries associated with nation-states involved in imperialist struggles against others. It is, as Lenin once wrote of the attempt to moralistically demand peace among warring imperialist states, a mere "pious wish" to think that we can stop ecological destruction within the confines of capitalist competition.


One final thought: Surely a defender of "competitive" capitalism could retort: but if socialism--i.e. the democratic control of production--is to succeed, won't there have to be competitions for which ideas are best? Won't democratic assemblies have to consider and weigh alternative proposals and won't this process need to be competitive if its to succeed in selecting the best course of action? And isn't this rather like capitalist markets?

The analogy between democracy and markets is a bad one. Democracy, properly understood, is not a competition among isolated individuals with divergent private interests. It is, rather, a collective, deliberative process among equals--aimed at realizing common goals--where the force of the better argument carries the day. The "medium" of democratic social interaction is public reasoning--i.e. a public process of putting forward considerations for or against pursuing some collective course of action. If democratic interaction is communicative, capitalist market competition is blind and anonymous. It has nothing to do with rational, collective deliberation about a shared course of action for the common good--it's hallmark is atomized, isolated individuals pursuing merely private ends which may or may not be reflective. Bargaining and haggling are what people do in marketplaces, whereas collective assessment and rational debate characterize democratic assemblies.

Moreover, capitalist competition takes place in such a way that no one party to the competition gets to set the basic priorities or ends for which all compete. In capitalism, the basic priority of maximizing profit is fixed in advance--it is not itself one priority among many about which people are allowed to debate. By contrast, in a socialist society, people would consider alternative proposals  in a direct, rational way by debating together--as equals--which is most likely to produce the best outcomes for all. Moreover, a socialist society is, by definition, one in which people have the power to collectively self-determine which priorities society shall pursue and what kind of shared life together they want to live. There's nothing competitive about that at all--there is no individual struggle to see who is the "winner". It's rather more like the process of scientific inquiry, where various hypotheses are put forward by individual scientists who, as a community of rational inquirers, test and evaluate those hypotheses to see which of them is most likely to be correct. Of course, if socialist democracy shares formal characteristics in common with scientific inquiry it is substantively different in that it explicitly emphasizes the fact we must choose and reflectively endorse the basic priorities and goals of social cooperation. But the science-democracy analogy is still, I think, a highly illuminating one.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On "Having it All": Feminism, Work and the Family

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, recently penned a piece for The Atlantic which has already broken all the records for page-views at the Atlantic's website. It has clearly touched a raw nerve. Succinctly put, Slaughter's argument is that women definitely can't "have it all" in the contemporary U.S. By reflecting on the dilemmas she personally encountered trying to build a family and a high-powered Washington D.C. career at the same time, Slaughter lashes out against "feminism" for propagating the false promise of having both. "Feminism has sold young women a fiction", she claims.

The article has already elicited a wealth of critical responses. All of them strike me as more or less correct: First of all, feminism never claimed that "women can have it all" in the first place. This is an invention of advertising executives, not feminist activists. Moreover, "having it all" is an extremely high standard, so its unfair to blame feminism when it isn't satisfied. Also, it's not fair to assume that all women want children and families. Neither is it reasonable to assume that everyone wants to fight her way into a high-powered job at the top--many people reject these conventional (capitalist) criteria of success. This is a class-specific dilemma, some have claimed, specific to the "joyless experience of life at the top", and as such it is not clear how relevant it is to the experiences of working-class women.

Although these criticisms basically strike me as correct, Slaughter still manages to say a number of things that, while not necessarily ground-breaking or original, raise interesting questions.

For example, she is correct to say that sheer determination and commitment--contra prevailing ideologies about personal responsibility and social mobility--are not enough to break out of the gendered contradictions of work and life in contemporary capitalist societies. And while I don't agree with her recommendations for reform, Slaughter is--despite herself--right on the money when she says that "I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured." This is the crux of the issue: it is infeasible (and unjust) to demand that individual women--through sheer will-power and life-style choices--fix what is, in fact, a basic problem with they way our society is structured.

There are, to be sure, prudential questions all women today face given that they have to find a way to navigate things the way they are in the here and now. But no amount of prudential advice or individual maneuvering will change the basic contradictions that generate these dilemmas for women in the first place.

Plenty has been said about what's wrong with Slaughter's argument. But what would a reasonable alternative look like? I am inclined to say that the basic structural problems here are rooted deeply enough in capitalism that only a radical transformation from the ground up could solve them fully. But, short of a social revolution, what kinds of "transitional demands" in the here and now could we put on the table to start to undermine the gender inequalities that prevent women from "having it all"? What demands are most likely to pave the way for even more ambitious gains?

The radical political philosopher Nancy Fraser has done some really interesting work on just these kinds of questions, and I'd like to bring her arguments to bear on this widely discussed issue.

The first thing to say is that the dilemma described by Slaughter is a relatively new one, historically speaking. The emergence of industrial capitalism brought with it the idea of a "family wage" which assumed that people "were supposed to be organized into heterosexual, male-headed nuclear families, which lived principally from the man's labor-market earnings. the male head of the household would be paid a family wage, sufficient to support children and a full-time wife-and-mother, who performed domestic labor without pay. Of course, countless lives never fit this pattern. Still, it provided the normative picture of a proper family."

Thanks in no small part to struggles of the women's and lesbian/gay liberation movements, this model is today more and more contested and is no longer the norm. But the undoing of the "family wage" model wasn't simply the work of progressive movements fighting for an egalitarian alternative. As capitalism became more and more "neoliberal" from the 70s onward, the idea of a family wage was also being undermined by large-scale economic processes as real wages stagnated and part-time, precarious employment became the norm. Also, "women's employment became more and more common (although far less well paid than men's), post-industrial families less conventional and more diverse... Heterosexuals are marrying less and later and divorcing more and sooner, and gays and lesbians are pioneering new kinds of domestic arrangements." This is the backdrop for the issues raised in Slaughter's article.

How do we respond to this state of affairs? Fraser examines two main ways that feminists have attempted to respond: 1) the universal breadwinner model, and 2) the caregiver parity model. On the first, the idea is to secure equity by promoting women's employment (e.g. by instituting anti-discrimination laws, by securing subsidies for child-care to free women from compulsory domestic labor, etc.). According to the second model, the goal is to promote equity by supporting informal carework (e.g. the state provides allowances/stipends to dependent caregivers, etc.). As we will see, Fraser finds both approaches wanting and argues, instead, for a "universal caregiver" model that lifts advantages from both models while adding the requirement that men "become more like women are now" by doing more primary carework.

What criteria does Fraser use to evaluate the different models? She uses seven different principles--all aimed at securing equality--which are worth examining closely in their own right as "transitional demands" that we need to advance the struggle:

  1. Anti-Poverty. As is well-known, rates of poverty are disproportionately high in solo-mother families. This requires immediate relief--in a world of plenty, people should not go without having their basic needs met. But, this principle is not enough, since there are lots of different ways that poverty could be addressed, not all of them acceptable from a socialist/feminist perspective. 
  2. Anti-Exploitation. One reason that anti-poverty measures are important is that they undermine the conditions that render women vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, dependency and violence. As Fraser points out, "needy women with no other way to feed themselves and their children are liable to exploitation--by abusive husbands, by sweatshop foremen, and by pimps." Fraser adds, however, that it isn't enough to simply allocate aid to needy women--it also matters how the aid is given. For instance, if it is highly stigmatized or discretionary, women may simply trade "the exploitable dependence on a husband or a boss for the exploitable dependence of a caseworker's whim." Rather than shuffle women back and forth between these dependencies, we need to get rid of all three. 
  3. Income-Equality. Given that women earn 70 cents for every dollar earned by men, there is reason to press for the leveling of the real per capita income gap. This requires, among other things, requiring that much of the unpaid labor performed by women be compensated. It also means doing away with arrangements where, as is true in the US today, women's income decline by half after divorce, whereas men's tend to double. It also requires, Fraser argues, that we reverse the "wholesale undervaluation of women's labor and skills." 
  4. Leisure-Time Equality. This is central to the questions raised by the Slaughter article. The problem is that women are often compelled to work a "double shift", doing both paid and unpaid carework which leads women to suffer disproportionately from "time poverty". Fraser cites a recent survey in which 52% of women--as opposed to only 21% of men--complained that they "felt tired most of the time." This criterion requires that we fight for equal leisure time between men and women. 
  5. Equality of Respect. Even if we win all of the previous demands, Fraser claims, there is still a need to fight against a culture which "routinely represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of male subjects". Thus, we have to actively fight against cultural configurations--in film, TV, music, news media, and so on--which objectify, deprecate, and trivialize the achievements of women. These tropes combine with the vulnerabilities caused by poverty to consolidate problems of sexual violence. 9 
  6. Anti-Marginalization. Still, even if we won equality of respect, Fraser still thinks it would be possible for women to be marginalized and enclaved in certain spheres. Thus, we should also fight for women's full participation on par with men in all areas of social life--in employment, in formal politics, within social movements, in associations in civil society, etc. This requires, among other things, provision for childcare and the striking down of bans on public breast-feeding. It also requires "dismantling masculinist work cultures and woman-hostile political environments." 
  7. Anti-Androcentrism. Finally, Fraser argues that we also need to fight against the idea that "men's current life patterns represent the human norm and that women ought to assimilate to them." We should not demand that women "simply become more like men in order to fit into social institutions designed for men." Instead, we should fundamentally restructure the androcentric institutions themselves. 
Now, you might worry that these principles overlap in many ways and aren't wholly distinct. I would agree and, I think, so would Fraser. They are best interpreted, I think, as a set of "transitional demands" addressed to activists today, given a certain balance of forces and set of concrete social conditions.

Having gone through these demands, however, how do the two standard models--Universal Breadwinner versus Caregiver Parity--hold up? Fraser's assessment is that both get different things right and different things wrong. Both do a reasonable job of undermining poverty and exploitation, although neither give us a good way to address the wage gap between men and women. Worse still, however, both seem to be on relatively bad footing when it comes to addressing leisure-time equality, respect, anti-marginalization, and anti-androcentrism.

What we need instead, Fraser argues, is a new model, what she calls the "universal caregiver" model. What does this model look like? Fraser is explicit that she isn't in the business of giving proposals to "policy-making elites." Rather, she sees herself as doing something that is "political in a broader sense", which aims to put forward general transitional demands--not pie-in-the-sky ideal arrangements that fail to come to grips with existing conditions--whose content can be filled in by the people struggling to achieve them.

Still, though she hesitates to give us a detailed blueprint, she does put forward a sketch of what a different model would look like. The main feature of the Universal Caregiver model is that it makes women's current life-patterns the norm for everyone. It demands, in a sense, that men become more like women. Under such a model, we should demand that all jobs be designed for caregivers just as we should also demand a shortening of the work week (without decreasing pay).

These kinds of demands, Fraser argues, could help break down the gendered division between breadwinning and caregiving, which undergirds the present gendered order. This would also mean "subverting the gendered division of labor and reducing the salience of gender as a structural principle of social organization."

As a transitional demand, then, Fraser's Universal Caregiver model speaks directly to some of the questions raised by Slaughter's piece. Fraser isn't demanding that women simply "marry well" so as to avoid the objectionable forms of dependence endured by women locked into marriage with an abusive or overtly sexist husband. She's arguing that we should--through collective struggle--fight to transform the institutional structure that places many women in the dilemmas discussed by Slaughter. It's the system that places women in these contradictory situations, so it's the system that has got to change.

I don't think these are utopia demands by any stretch. Given the increasing severity of the global economic crisis--and the increasingly brutal austerity cuts being instituted the world over--many of these demands will become only more urgent to growing anti-austerity movements. And, as we saw with the explosive international ascendancy of "Slut Walk" mass marches, just as we've seen with the wide readership (and criticism) of Slaughter's piece, there is massive discontent bubbling beneath the surface which could form the basis for a renewed and unapologetic womens' movement. Such a movement would have to see its aims as inseparably linked with (global) struggles to defeat austerity and the political/economic dominance of the 1%.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Moralism, Politics and Recycling

OK, so here are some unsystematic, polemical remarks on the ethics and politics of recycling. Almost nobody--except the cynical corporate marketeers who exploit "green" ideologies for profit--thinks that the individual-level decision to recycle or not will change the world. Whether or not we can stop environmental disaster in the last instance turns on whether or not we can get rid of capitalism. We need "system change, not climate change" as the popular anti-capitalist environmental slogan has it.

The big lie is that making the "green" individual lifestyle  choices (or, what usually amounts to the same thing in capitalist societies: comsumer-choices) are all we can do to stop ecological catastrophe. Sometimes, the big lie assumes a suffocatingly moralistic valence, wherein those who purchase the right goods are virtuous and those don't aren't. This, of course, assumes that "you are what you buy", embraces the atomized, powerless role of a consumer, takes for granted the basic structure of society such as it is, and ignores collective action strategies for social change. This is all well known.

But does it follow that it doesn't matter whether or not you recycle?

I will argue that this conclusion doesn't follow. Of course, I agree that there is no trans-historical, context-insensitive moral obligation to recycle. A lot depends on contextual factors. And, of course, it's better to simply re-use things in the first place but set that aside. My point is that if someone can very easily recycle or not, where there are no immediate costs or burdens associated with doing one thing rather than the other, it's obvious that one has a reason to recycle. That is, you have reason to think that, other things being equal, it's better if your plastic bottle gets recycled rather than deposited in a landfill. To fail to recycle in such a case is, then, simply to fail to do what you quite obviously have reason to do. And that renders you susceptible to criticism by others.

Now, this has nothing to do with politics. Nothing political or momentous hangs in the balance here--whether or not you recycle your bottle has nothing much to do with whether we can do what's necessary to save the planet, that is, defeat capitalism. This is just a rather mundane case of what you have reason to do given certain obvious commitments I think we already have, like "other things being equal, it's better to recycle and re-use things rather than deposit them in landfills." 

Whether we like it or not, we are agents. We can't not act. We have to do something or other. What we do--or don't do--depends on what we reasons there are for doing this or that. Suppose you're at work and you finish drinking a bottle of water--nevermind how you came to have it in the first place--and you decide you have reason to get rid of it. It's taking up room on your desk and you hate clutter. Now, you clearly have reason to get rid of it, but that's not enough to know what exactly you should do with it because there are lots of different ways you could get rid of it. You could, for example, stuff it in the purse of your co-worker who sits ten feet away from your desk. Or you could throw it in a lake outside your building. But you have reason not to do either of those two actions. It would be fucking rude to stuff you trash in your co-workers bag and you think that you have plenty of reasons not to sully the lake with your garbage. If you did either of these two actions you would obviously be susceptible to criticism. Something similar is true of the person who, though she can easily recycle something, fails to do it. You have reason to recycle and, unless you have overriding reason to do otherwise, you should do what you have reason to do--on pain of irrationality.

So when I criticize you, don't feed me a bunch of bullshit about how recycling won't change the world. I never said it would. In fact, as I say above, I think it's a mistake to link large-scale social change with localized, un-coordinated individual actions. But the fact that it won't change the world doesn't mean you're beyond criticism when you fail to do it in many cases.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wishful Thinking and Obama

Many previously disaffected left-leaning people are suddenly glowing after Obama's "bold new move on immigration". I can't tell you how many facebook updates I've seen heaping huge amounts of unqualified praise on Obama. Despite his Administration's consistent pursuit of policies that benefit the 1%—at home and abroad—this act seems to prove for many left-leaning people that Obama really is on "our side."

Yet these people are seeing reality as they want it to be, not as it actually is. They are being encouraged—and don't forget that we are in the midst of campaign season—to project their hopes and desires onto a politician and a party that has no commitment to those hopes or desires whatsoever. Obama's basic campaign strategy is to encourage and exploit wishful thinking—i.e. the tendency to form beliefs on the basis of what's pleasing or agreeable rather than what the facts are.

Those people who are excited about Obama's "bold new move" have reason to be excited. The Obama Administration has broken previous records and deported more immigrants than Bush's did in his entire two terms combined. Let me say that again. The Obama Administration has deported more immigrants than Bush did in his entire two terms combined. Moreover, Obama's government has expanded the powers of local police—the "polimigra"—to take a leading role in deporting undocumented people. His government presides over a host of opaque, "secret ICE castles" where undocumented people can be detained and imprisoned indefinitely without rights. This in spite of the fact that latin@s formed a huge part of his electoral support in 2008. Any respite in this cruel onslaught against an oppressed and vulnerable population is to be welcomed.

So my point isn't that we shouldn't bill this as a victory—even if it's only a small and highly qualified one. My point is that we need to put it in context so that we don't allow ourselves to be lulled into giving a free pass to a President that has broken all of the records and deported more undocumented people than anyone in the history of the United States. We need to keep in mind that the organizations charged with breaking up families, raiding homes, harassing and detaining immigrants are not an external force that Obama has stepped in to thwart. Those forces are a part of him and the Federal Government over which he presides. Legally speaking, he's the one giving the OK to every single deportation and raid.

What's happened is a little like a bully telling you that he's only going to beat you up three-days-a-week instead of five. Now, that's something—a victory of sorts—but it doesn't obscure the fact that he's still the bully. The power relations haven't changed and neither have the interests of the parties involved. And who knows: maybe that three-day-a-week promise won't even be kept.

So, I'm with everyone who is excited that this recent shift might mean that we're moving closer toward the goal of full citizenship rights for all. But let's be clear that Obama is no ally in this fight—he's the bully responsible for record-high levels of deportations. And let's not forget that the small victory here was won on the basis of a long, determined (and ongoing) struggle by undocumented people and allies to fight for full amnesty and legalization. That's why those in the movement are making sure to keep critical distance from Obama's (as yet unfulfilled) promise.

Nothing Obama does in public is accidental. Every gesture is calculated and, with an election looming, aimed at securing the funding and votes necessary to beat Romney. If you stand for full legalization and support the slogan that "no human being is illegal", then my advice is to hold fast that commitment and see whether or not Obama and the Democrats actually fight for it. Don't graft your own hopes and desires onto a party that actually opposes them—even though the Dems will do everything in their power to encourage you to make that mistake. There is an alternative to the cul-de-sac of two-party duopoly, and we're seeing it right now in Quebec and Mexico, and we've seen it here with the Occupy movement. We need to build the independent social movements which have laid the basis of every major progressive gain in US history.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gender, Sexuality and Capitalism

On the face of it, it is easier to make the argument that class and race are intertwined than it is to make the case for a close link between class struggle and the politics of LGBT liberation. Race—a specifically modern notion—comes into being in the context of European expansion and conquest, the expropriation of indigenous peoples in the Americas and, of course, the African slave trade. Modern racism, then, emerges as an ideology meant to stabilize and justify the accumulation-driven imperialist projects of colonial expansion and slavery. Racism has developed and changed a lot since then, but its entanglement in processes of exploitation, accumulation and class domination remains.

The case of sexuality is less clear at first glance. As radical theorist Nancy Fraser observes, "homosexuals are distributed throughout the entire class structure of capitalist society, [and therefore] occupy no distinctive position in the division of labor, and do not constitute an exploited class." This leads her to conclude that "the social division between heterosexuals and homosexuals is not grounded in political economy... but rather in the status order of society, as institutionalized patterns of cultural value construct heterosexuality as natural and normative, heterosexuality as perverse and despised." In short, the oppression of LGBT people is, for Fraser, fundamentally a problem of mis-recognition.

For those unfamiliar with the politics of recognition, the idea is that I suffer misrecognition when I am not seen as an equal by others—because, for example, I am systematically disrespected or devalued by them, or because I'm subject to cultural patterns of interpretation which are alien or hostile to me, or, perhaps because I'm simply rendered indivisible by dominant "authoritative" communicative/interpretive practices. The oppression of LGBT people is fundamentally one of mis-recognition, Fraser argues, because they suffer injustices such as "shaming and assault, exclusion from the rights and privileges of marriage and parenthood, curbs on rights of expression and association, demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media, harassment and disparagement in everyday life, and the denial of the full rights and equal protections of citizenship."

To be sure, Fraser acknowledges that there are political-economic dimensions to this oppression—e.g. she notes that LGBT people "can be summarily dismissed from civilian employment and military service, they may be denied a broad range of family-based social-welfare benefits, and face major tax and inheritance liabilities". But, sociologically speaking, her argument is that the root of LGBT oppression lies in patterns of misrecognition—not in the economic structure of society. This form of oppression derives from the "status order of society", not the economic structure. Any political-economic disadvantages flow from this subordinate status (and not the other way around).

Incidentally, Fraser would agree with me about racial oppression that it is fundamentally entangled with questions of political economy. Interestingly, she also thinks—and I fully agree with her here—that gender oppression is also fundamentally entangled in the economic structure of society. But, she suggests, sexuality is different.

Gender, Fraser argues, "serves as a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society. On the one hand, it structures the fundamental division between paid "productive" labor and unpaid "reproductive" and domestic labor... On the other hand, gender also structures the division within paid labor and higher-paid occupations... The result is an economic structure that generates... gender-based exploitation, economic marginalization and deprivation."

This, in turn, generates problems of mis-recognition or status subordination, such as "sexual assault and domestic violence, trivializing, objectifying and demeaning stereotypical depictions in the media; harassment and disparagement in everyday life; exclusion or marginalization in public spheres and deliberative bodies" and so forth. But, unlike sexuality, Fraser doesn't see these problems of gender-based mis-recognition as the fundamental cause of the political-economic dimensions of the oppression of women. With gender, her analysis is more conventionally historical materialist.

In an interesting—if slightly unfair in certain respects—response to Fraser, Judith Butler argues against the idea that the oppression of LGBT people is "merely cultural". Of course, Fraser never said it was "merely cultural"—she acknowledges the fact that it has economic dimensions while arguing that its sociological root cause is cultural or recognition-based. That aside, Butler's critique does raise important questions about the relationship between capitalism and sexuality.  

Butler points out that Marx and Engels insisted that their notion of a "mode of production" includes forms of social association involved in reproduction. She quotes a well-known passage from Engels to make her point: "According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence...on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species." The key to understanding human reproduction in capitalist societies is, of course, is the nuclear family. And, as Marxist-feminists have long argued, what's needed is a "socially-contingent and socially transformable account of kinship."

As Butler points out, traditional Marxist scholarship has tended to view kinship relations in terms of how they serve the interest of capital accumulation. They tended to maintain that "a specifically social account of the family was needed to explain the sexual division of labor and the gendered reproduction of the worker." These thinkers examined the sphere of sexual reproduction as a " part of the material conditions of life... a constitutive feature of political economy."

Of course, for the family to play this role in the reproduction of the workforce, it requires the reproduction of gendered persons, of "men" and "women". But—and this is Butler's central point—to be a "man" or a "woman" in this sense is, precisely, to be a heterosexual man or a woman. Gender always was sexuality and vice versa—to be a traditional "man" is, precisely, to be heterosexual. Condensed, the argument is that the family structure is crucial to the social reproduction of the working class, and this reproductive function requires gendered persons and a sexual division of labor, but it then follows that heterosexuality must have been built into this family/gender formation from the beginning (because otherwise it would not have been able to fulfill its economic function).

The key link between gender and sexuality is the family and the social regulation of sexual reproduction. Inasmuch as we can tell a materialist story about the formation and development of the family structure, we can tell a materialist story about formation an development of sexuality. The result is that Butler's argument undermines Fraser's hypothesis that LGBT oppression has no fundamental roots in political economy. If heteronormativity is a constitutive feature of gender which, as we've seen, has roots in the economic structure of society, it follows that sexuality, too, is just as entangled in material economic conditions. If gender
"serves as a basic organizing principle of the economic structure of capitalist society", then, a fortiori, so does sexuality.