Monday, April 23, 2012

A Couple of Thoughts Re: the French Elections

Many readers will have seen the results from the first round of Presidential elections in France. Predictably, Parti Socialiste candidate François Hollande came out on top with 28% whereas Sarkozy took roughly 27%. What's disturbing about the results, however, is the fact that far-Right Marine Le Pen took nearly 18% of the vote--more than 6.5 million votes--which is a historic high in France. That means roughly a fifth of the electorate is currently buying into racist, proto-fascist politics. Only a few days ago, there was a great deal of excitement around Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon who was polling as high as 19%. The hope was that his strident Left-populist line would undermine the appeal of the far-Right among working-class French voters. But, as it turns out, Mélenchon took no more than 11% of the vote, which is more or less par for the course in French presidential elections.

Evidently, the draw of islamophobia, racism and nationalism proved stronger than the anti-capitalist rhetoric coming out of the Mélenchon campaign. That is something that could change over the course of the next few years. But it is an indication of where consciousness is at right now, and it ain't pretty.

I don't know enough about the facts on the ground to say much about why this happened. I do suspect, however, that the particular form of isalmophobia that exists in France--which manifests itself on the right as well as the left--explains the durability of the hard-Right there. In the coming weeks, others more immersed French politics will no doubt have more elaborate things to say about the results.

One thing is clear, however. The Guardian's (predictably bad) analysis of the victory for Hollande evinces a deep misunderstanding of the balance of forces in Europe. Take the following quotation, for example:
Europe will be watching the final battle closely. A Hollande victory in the second round would be a turning point in European politics, a rare victory for the left in Europe, which has in recent years moved towards the right. It would also leave the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, looking more isolated in her insistence on rigid austerity measures as the way out of the euro crisis.
I find this incredible. As is well-known, the Parti Socialiste is a staunchly neoliberal party that is weak and ever-willing to triangulate to accommodate the Right. The mere fact that Hollande is talking tough on austerity--especially in the face of a Left challenge from Mélenchon--proves nothing about what his government would do in office. His election, in itself, would hardly be a victory for the left.

Let us not forget that Papandreou was the president of the Socialist International. Yet this hardly stopped him and his "socialist" party from implementing a brutal regime of austerity which has eviscerated working class living standards. There are plenty of other examples of invertebrate "center Left" forces ramming through austerity: The PSOE in Spain when Zapatero was in power, for instance. There is nothing--aside from predictable rhetorical posturing during the first round--to suggest that Hollande would do anything different. Nor is there anything, for that matter, to suggest that Ed Miliband would do anything different in the UK were Labour to supplant the current coalition government.

The only thing that will make the difference is the level of organization, confidence and militant struggle among working class people in Europe. I thought the Mélenchon phenomenon was interesting because it seemed to suggest that there was a growing interest in Left responses to the crisis. I think there still is, but the frighteningly high tally for Le Pen should be a sober reminder of the pull that racist ideas have at the moment in France.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Intellectuals and the Struggle for Socialism from Below

I've been thinking a lot of about the role of intellectuals (and theorists in particular) in the struggle for socialism. There has been a lot of ink spilled over this question within the Marxist tradition and beyond. I don't pretend to address this topic in any comprehensive way. What follows are merely a couple of reflections aimed at helping me clarify my thinking about these matters.

One way to get into this problem would be to frame it in terms of theory and practice. To ask what role theorists should play is, in some sense, to ask what role theory should play in revolutionary practice. As far as I'm concerned, some of the best things said about this particular topic are addressed in Alasdair MacIntyre's short pamphlet, "What is Marxist Theory For?". Of course, there are plenty of other, more detailed treatments around. Those theorists interested in working-class self-emancipation tend to give the best accounts here, in my view. Michael Löwy's The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx and Hal Draper's work on self-emancipation, and Norman Geras's excellent essay "Marxism and Proletarian Self-Emancipation" all give detailed treatments of the problematic of theory and practice in Marxism with an eye to do justice to the ideal of working-class self-emancipation. Lenin's discussion of these questions in What is to be Done? is helpful. So is the work of Lukács and Gramsci.

Interesting though these questions are, I don't want to talk about the role of theorists in these particular terms. It's not for any systematic or political reason that I want avoid addressing the problem in these terms. It's just that my particular academic sphere of activity requires that I articulate myself in other ways, and I think it's worth attempting to think through these problems in vocabularies other than the standard Marxist lexicon.

One way to gloss the core of self-emancipation and the notion of socialism from below would be to read it as a democratic approach to social transformation--as opposed to the technocratic, administrative, and elitist approach known as socialism from above. Now, don't misunderstand me. By "democracy" I mean something completely different from the electoral procedures and political institutions that we see in many capitalist societies. In other words, by "democracy" I don't mean bourgeois democracy. Neither do I have in mind the typical liberal conception of democracy--often called the "aggregative" model of democracy--according to which democracy is merely a fair procedure for the aggregation of pre-political individual "preferences" (no different from consumer "preferences"). This aggregative conception understands democracy as a kind of market, takes individual "preferences" as given, assumes that individual preferences are merely private wants, and attempts to "reconcile" these conflicting individual preferences with each other through an aggregative mechanism such as voting. When I say "democratic" I have nothing like the above in mind.

When I say that socialism from below is radically democratic, it is because it involves a class-for-itself actively participating in and (determining the course of) the struggle to create society anew. It involves the conscious, deliberate action of the mass of working people who bring the basic structure society under their direct democratic control.

Contrast this with two other views of what socialism is and how it is won: utopian socialism and Stalinism. The utopian socialists started off with a blueprint of what a new society should look like down to every last detail. Fourier, for example, had a detailed system for how garbage collection would work that involved only children because, he reasoned, children liked to play in the dirt so why shouldn't they like to be the ones to handle all of the garbage in society? There are lots of things to say about the schemes of the utopian socialists, but what we want to say here is that they were all to some extent elitist or paternalistic. They didn't look to the masses of working people as a source of energy, insight and transformative power. And why should they have? They already had all of the substantive details worked out--what kind of lives people would live in a properly socialist society, what they would do, how they would do it, what they would produce, etc. etc. Accordingly many of the utopians detested genuine democracy. Many of them looked to the powers that be--kings, capitalists, state administrators--in an effort to win them through persuasion to implement their favored blueprint for a new society.

Stalinism is a complex phenomenon, but for our purposes we can boil it down to some rather simple elements. Whereas Marx and Engels distinguished themselves in the 19th Century by opposing the utopians, the Blanquists, and everyone else who chafed against the ideal of working-class self-emancipation, Stalinists cast all this aside. They reverted to pre-Marxist ideas that saw socialism nothing more than a specific form of bureaucratic administration from above. So long as private ownership of the means of production was abolished, and a form of bureaucratic state administration put in its place, a society was "socialist". The only question for Stalinists is: what sort of policies should the administrators implement from above? In some ways, their question had the same structure as the utopians. Both presumed that a layer of elites should sit above the masses and decide substantive matters such as what sort of life people should lead, what should get produced, how it should be produced, etc. etc. Socialism, for both of them, becomes little more than a social-engineering problem best solved by "experts" and technocrats.

In obsessing over the first-order question "what, substantively speaking, should society be like in all its details?" they completely elide the second-order question "but who should decide this?". It is sensitivity to this second question that distinguishes those who advocate socialism from below.

This brings me to the role of radical intellectuals (theorists, academics or whatever).

What we can already see is that socialism from below, in being radically democratic, refuses to put forward a substantive blueprint that pre-empts the collective deliberations of radicalized workers involved in the fight for a new society. Theorists take on an elitist, technocratic perspective when they pre-empt the decisions of a mass movement and propose a substantive picture of what people's lives should be like in a new society. Part of the point of socialism--genuine socialism--is to give the masses of people (for the first time) the power to genuinely control their own lives and determine collectively the course that society will take. It is about bringing the basic structure of society under the collective control of the activated masses. Now, there may be some role for intellectuals to play in proposing various institutional schemes to their fellows in the midst of collective discussions among workers engaged in building a new society. If these proposals find favor then it's possible that they might be implemented. But this is the sort of collective discussion that one has after the revolution. That's not where we are right now.

What, then, is the role of radical intellectuals qua intellectuals? Social criticism has got to be part of what they do. That can take many forms: immanent critique of dominant ideologies, criticism of ideas that function to stabilize or legitimate the status quo, criticism of historical narratives that obscure material conditions and class struggle, etc. Radical intellectuals can contribute to a better understanding of the status quo (the better to change it). But is the role of radical intellectuals purely negative or merely descriptive?

I don't think so. Radical intellectuals--qua intellectuals--can and must do more than criticize. But, and this is crucial, what they say in a "positive" spirit must be mediated by the sorts of criticism outlined above. Whatever they say in a positive spirit must grow out of a critique of the dominant order, it must be rooted in the practical activity of movements engaged in challenging it. It can't issue from nowhere and neither can it be the mere daydreams of the theorist.

What do I have in mind by "positive"? Let me introduce a distinction here to try to sharpen my claims. Call a positive claim "substantive" if it has determinate content that has to do with precisely what kind of life people should live, what activities they should be involved in if they are to flourish, etc. A substantive question might be: "What kind of clothing should be produced in a socialist society?" That is not a question intellectuals can answer a priori--that is a question that people must determine themselves, democratically, in a socialist society. Contrast that with "procedural" claims that are formal and lack determinate content about the good life, etc. Procedural matters have to with form and structure, not content and substance. A procedural/formal question might be: "what form of social relations among persons would have to obtain for a society to properly be called socialist?".

What I want to say is that, by and large, intellectuals (or anyone else for that matter) should not be in the business of deciding substantive matters themselves--substantive matters should be determined by the masses of working people themselves. Procedural matters--that is, formal or structural matters--are better suited to intellectual reflection. Of course, socialist democracy can not be conceived as purely formal or procedural--it would necessarily exclude certain kinds of substantive outcomes (i.e. those that involved oppression, exploitation, alienation, etc.). But socialism from below requires leaving a space open for people to determine the vast majority of substantive matters themselves.

Radical theorists, as I say, have no business pre-empting the democratic deliberations of workers by attempting to settle substantive matters ex ante. There are normative and epistemic reasons why they can't do this. Normatively speaking it is elitist and paternalistic, as we've seen. Epistemically, however, theorists can't know everything they'd need to know in order to get these questions right. Many of the concrete practical questions of how to build certain kinds of new, radically democratic social institutions is not one that can be fruitfully addressed from where we stand today.

However, radical theorists should, I think, see themselves as involved in the project of thinking through formal questions such as "what sort of social relations would obtain among persons in a socialist society?". Now, the way they address such questions cannot be abstract or idiosyncratic. It must be closely tied to the critical enterprise and the practical activity of movements on the ground. We only learn about what kind of social relations we want by seeing, in practice, what we don't want: exploitation, oppression, domination, etc. Only a critical analysis of exploitation and oppression in all of their material richness could put intellectuals--or anyone for that matter--in a position to address questions about the form of relations that would characterize some of the basic structural features of a socialist society.

Defenders of capitalism and the status quo attack socialists for advocating an impossible ideal. They say that there is no possible or desirable alternative to the market. They say that a complex society cannot be structured in any other way. They say that genuine socialist democracy would be nothing but the rule of the ignorant and irrational, so they extol the virtues of "experts". Others argue that socialist democracy is itself oppressive because it elides difference.

Radical intellectuals can and must see their role--in part--as dispatching these claims. Socialism is not impossible, and it is a worthwhile exercise to say why not. Genuine democratic planning of production is both possible and desirable, and there is nothing utopian or elitist about attempts to show that that is so. Showing that democracy is desirable involves clarifying and defending the democratic ideal. It doesn't involve giving a blueprint of socialist institutions, but it does mean explaining that democracy is not aggregation of fixed individual preferences. It does mean distinguishing real democracy from the institutions of bourgeois elections. It means showing the epistemic benefits of real democratic deliberation as embodied in practices such as collective assessment. It means emphasizing the collective learning process that occurs in and through mass movements that democratically self-determine their course of action.

Real democracy is deliberative and takes as a basic assumption that people's individual "preferences" aren't fixed. It assumes, rather, that they can change in the course of argument and debate (and through struggle). This model of democracy doesn't, of course, mean that the way we ought engage with the ruling class (or any oppressor) through patient argument and deliberation. The ruling class has to be removed by a movement that forces them out. But within that movement, and within the new society brought under the democratic control of the working class, we need democracy. We don't need "neutral" or "fair" procedures that attempt to reconcile fixed individual preferences. Democracy is much more than the simple act of voting. Neither is it mere discussion--because not all discussions are democratic. We need collective, deliberative processes aimed at producing action, whereby the better argument carries the day, where all of the relevant perspectives and experiences and ideas can be put forward free from oppression, marginalization, and all the rest. Clarifying our thinking about basic form socialist democracy--while steering clear of pre-empting matters of substance best decided by workers themselves--does not seem to me out of the reach of the radical intellectual engaged in the struggle for socialism from below.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Trotskyist Tradition and Black Liberation

Afro-Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James
A commonplace caricature of Marxism teaches us that Marxists are crude class-reductionists who have nothing interesting to add to the understanding of (or the struggle to overthrow) the oppression of Black people (or any other oppressed group for that matter). To be sure, it's quite true that some self-proclaimed "Marxists" have endorsed colorblind, and even racist views. Indeed, as is well-known, the majority of the Second International socialist partiesthe "Marxist" German Social Democratic Party includeddefended chauvinism, nationalism and imperialist war when WWI broke out. Then there's the legacy of Stalinism and its offshoots. It is undeniable that there have been people with terrible views who have called themselves Marxists.

But all this shows is that the Marxist tradition is, like any tradition worth engaging with, a contested one. It would be nothing but unthinking Cold War slander to paint the whole tradition with one brush, for this overlooks and ignores the sharp debates and disagreements within the tradition itself. To be a Marxist today is to stand for the best that the tradition has to offeraccording to some view about what "best" means. It means putting some view forward about what's essential to Marxism, about what the "real" Marxist tradition is. That is unavoidableone cannot stand for everything that has claimed the mantle of Marxism for that would mean embracing an incoherent jumble of opposed views.

Still, while it is important to acknowledge the presence of colorblindness and even outright racism within the Marxist tradition, it is nonetheless important not to make it sound as if the tradition has mostly been on the wrong side of such questions. That is not so, and to insinuate that it is would be to concede too much to the caricature of Marxism that many endorse today.

Whatever its faults, the Stalinist line in the 1930s embodied in the political work of the Communist Party of the United States, was that Black people constituted an oppressed, colonized nation which stood in need of national self-determination. The CP took this line seriously and fought against racial oppression and did some remarkable political workin spite of its top-down organizational structure and awful political line on other matters. Likewise, Maoism in the United States should be criticized for many things, but (in general) ignoring the oppression of Black people and colonized peoples is not one of them. What this shows is that there is a rich tradition within Marxism of rigorous theorizing about racial oppression and a long track record of waging a fierce fight against it.

The Trotskyist tradition within Marxism is no exception. This tradition has some of the sharpest and most nuanced treatments of the question of Black liberation in the United States. It's uncompromising internationalism and defense of socialism from below is one of the reasons for its continuing vitality. Let's glance at a handful of important interventions that document some of the early ideas about Black liberation in the Trotskyist tradition.

The first we'll examine comes from some of Leon Trotsky writings on Black Nationalism from the early 1930s. Trotsky criticizes the Stalinist line that Black people in the US constitute an oppressed nation who, in order to be fully liberated, need to win their own separate nation on the basis of self-determination. His complaint is, first of all, that this line is abstract and paternalistic. Whether it make sense to frame liberation in terms of "national self-determination" depends on what it is that Black people themselves want and are willing to struggle for. As Trotsky puts it:
"We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for. We say: If the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves. The fact that they are today not a majority in any state does not matter. It is not a question of the authority of the states but of the Negroes."
If Black people themselves stand up and demand national liberation, then that is what socialists should help fight for. But the role of socialists isn't to demand that Black people form their own separate nation. Whether that makes sense is a question of Black consciousness, levels of struggle and, most importantly, what the masses of Black people themselves demand.

Mugshot of a young Leon Trotsky
 Trotsky also argues that:
" the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for ‘social, political and economic equality’ would undoubtedly mean progress..."
This flies in the face of the claim that Marxism, as such, denies that white workers play a direct role in the oppression of other workers. It denies no such thing. Neither does it deny that some working men play a direct role in oppressing women. The claims to the effect that intra-working class oppression benefits the ruling class do not negate thisthey merely set it in context and show an important social function that oppression plays. Marxists are interested not merely in describing who does what to whom, but in understanding how social relations function within the system.

Trotsky also explicitly denounces colorblindness:
The argument that the slogan for ‘self-determination’ [for Black people] leads away from the class basis is an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers. The Negro can be developed to a class standpoint only when the white worker is educated. On the whole the question of the colonial people is in the first instance a question of the development of the metropolitan worker.
Trotsky's argument is that solidarity in the struggle against the ruling class is only possible on the condition that white workers reject racism and enlist themselves actively in the fight against racial oppression. To say that the struggle against racial oppression distracts from class, says Trotsky, is a concession to the racism of some working class whites. There is much more to say about this interesting document, but this should suffice to undermine the common misconception that Marxists have (traditionally) had nothing to add to the understanding of Black oppression. On the contrary, Trotsky's incisive contributions to these debates are still important today.

Another interesting document from the Trotskyist tradition is CLR James's "The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States" (1948). James, one of the most important Marxist theorists of the 20th century, is perhaps best known for his monumental work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. Here is a representative quotation from James's resolution that gives you a sense of the basic line he defended on racial oppression:
We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.

We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.
This piece, written in 1948, proved to be remarkably prescient. The "Civil Rights Movement" proved to have a powerful influence upon progressive struggles of all kinds. It rejuvenated an ailing Left recovering from the lacerations of McCarthyism and gave inspiration and impetus to struggles as diverse as the Women's Liberation movement as well as the American Indian Movement.

To be sure, James wrote this document in an effort to distinguish the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) line from others on the Left. There was someone to argue with, which implies that James's line was by no means universally accepted across the broader Marxist Left.

But, as I said above, to be a Marxist todayas in the 1940sis not to try to redeem everything that everyone who ever called themselves a Marxist did or said. Such a project would make little sense. To be a Marxist today is to stand for the best that the tradition has to offer.

First edition of Lenin's Imperialism
We've taken a look at what Trotsky and James had to say about racial oppression and black liberation. But there are many other important works on these topics in the Trotskyist tradition, broadly construed. Lenin's theory of imperialism, for example, was a huge contribution to the Marxist tradition and was (and continues to be) the best basic framework for understanding colonial domination, neo-colonial practices, war, the exploitation of people in the global South, and so on---all of which are central understanding modern racism. Lenin's text was a fierce polemic against the positively awful politics of those so-called "Marxists" who chose to support their "own" national governments in inter-imperialist struggles. It was this analysis of imperialism that paved the way for a new international---the Third, specifically Communist International---that decisively broke with the nationalist, reformist and Euro-centrism of the Second International.

It's hard to overstate the importance the theory of imperialism has had for anti-colonial and self-determination struggles in what was called the "Third World". Inasmuch as the rise of modern racism is linked to slavery and colonial expansion, the Marxist theory of imperialism has been a massive contribution to the struggle for the liberation of non-white peoples all over the world. Lenin's views on self-determination and colonialism are also important and enduring for those thinking through the dialectics of black liberation today.

In a similar fashion, Trotsky's theories of uneven/combined development and permanent revolution are also important to making sense of the complex, global nature of modern racism. With a wooden, linear "stagist" version of Marxism in hand---such as that adopted by some Second International socialists and, later, by Stalinists---one comes dangerously close to "classic" apologies for colonialism by Europeans (e.g. such and such people are not yet "ready" and need to go through a definite stage of capitalist development which we will provide from above, etc.).

This "stagist" interpretation of history entails that oppressed colonial and semi-colonial peoples must first undergo a classic bourgeois revolution, followed by a lengthy period of capitalist development, at which point then---and only then---will they be "mature" enough to take control of their own destiny through socialist revolution. Trotsky breaks completely with this mechanical schema. In giving a dialectical analysis of international relations and their combined and uneven development paths, Trotsky paved the way for thinking critically about how to relate working class struggles in the highly developed capitalist nations to the emancipatory struggles of poor peasants and workers in oppressed, colonial and semi-colonial nations.

Anti-colonial militants during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya
His analysis has been less influential than Lenin's work on imperialism among contemporary thinkers working in the area generally known as "post colonial studies". But it is surely true that the (relative) marginalization of Trotsky's approach here follows from the general marginalization of Trotskyism worldwide during the period of white-hot anti-colonial struggle in the 60s. Still, be that as it may, the theory of combined and uneven development (and permanent revolution) have been one of many ways of developing the core of Marxism to adequately address questions of national oppression, colonialism and its afterlives, imperialist competition and north/south relations, or what some Marxists would call core/periphery relations. To the extent that the black freedom struggle in the US takes on a stridently internationalist character each time struggle reaches a fever pitch, Trotsky's theories of global capitalist development merit consideration as contributions to the project of Black liberation.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Still More on Privilege

See previous posts on "privilege" here (the first instalment) and here (the second). 

Marxist Marginalia has prompted really excellent discussion (and debate) on the concept of privilege that is worth reading. It has helped me clarify a lot of my own thinking about these matters and the general analysis put forward by herrnaphta seems to me basically correct.

Stressing points of agreement at the onset--as herrnaphta does at the beginning of the post--is important because, as I tried to argue in a recent post, all too often debates about privilege track the wrong issues and leave the most important ones unaddressed. To be fair, there are plenty of defenders of colorblindness out there who respond caustically and abrasively to the language of privilege, so proponents of the privilege framework can hardly be blamed for taking a generally defensive position when criticisms are leveled at their perspective. And, of course, one finds these colorblind types on the left as well as the right, so a generally wide scope of suspicion here seems to me justified as well. We shouldn't assume that these points of agreement are shared by everyone in radical circles, especially since there are colorblind analyses circulating around on the left. Marxists should be forthcoming about where they stand and should do their best to stave off misunderstandings by actively, explicitly pushing against colorblind forces on the left.

Be that as it may, there are important political questions left over after we agree that colorblindness is a toxic (racist) ideology that papers over oppression and silences its critics. There are still important questions left over after we agree that people of color endure forms of oppression that white people do not. I think the discussion at Marxist Marginalia does a great job of fleshing these questions out.

If there's one important point that I'm willing to concede that the privilege-based approach seems to emphasize more often than many Marxists, it is the following point:

Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color...How can white people stop acting out their privileges? Obviously there are important ways that this can be done: realizing that you, as a white activist, need to shut the fuck up once in a while and that not everyone always wants to hear what you have to say is a good start, and a lesson that every white person needs to learn in general.
This accords with Trotsky's argument that black workers "can be developed to the class point of view only when the white worker is educated", i.e. only when white workers are disabused of racist beliefs, when racism is smashed within the labor movement at all levels---formal and informal, explicit and implicit. This is why he argued for a "merciless struggle against... the colossal prejudices of white workers [which] makes no concession to them whatsoever". Trotsky's uncompromising anti-racist position seems to me exactly right.

We could, of course, generalize from this argument. For instance: Men in a society marked by gender oppression have to learn how to shut the fuck up once in a while as well. Why? Because gender oppression is multifaceted and, as is well known, operates through the socialization process by way of certain norms and expectations about how "ideal" women and men are to comport themselves, interact conversationally, dress, behave, and so on.

One toxic element of that process is this: men, from a young age, are expected to be more vocal, more self-confident in expressing their opinions, more likely to sound off without paying attention to how long they've been speaking, and so on. The corresponding social expectations for women here encourage deference, listening patiently to what men have to say, doubting that one has the right to speak authoritatively, feeling unjustified in being self-confident, and so on. Unless we resist these default aspects of gender socialization in an oppressive society such as ours, the result is that men tend to dominate discussions and women don't get the opportunity to speak their mind. The result is patronizing, sexist "men who explain things" or, if you like, "mansplainers". These aren't inevitable characteristics that all men and women share, but this what we're up against if we're fighting for the liberation of women in society today.

This is a familiar problem for any conscious teacher who has to lead class discussions. I regularly have a number of male students who, though they have nothing particularly brilliant to say, have a very low threshold for raising their hand and feel quite comfortable pontificating and sounding off for long periods of time. There is also a tendency for male students to be dismissive toward the contributions of female students. On the other hand, many times I'll have a number of  women students who are far less willing to speak in class, even when they have very good things to say.

Unsurprisingly, female students seem more likely to express self-doubt that they have something valuable to add, whereas male students are far more likely to have a devil-may-care arrogance about them in virtue of which they feel confident raising their hands and speaking over and over. These are not timeless features of human beings. These tendencies are produced by unequal social relations and oppressive norms specifying how gendered persons are to behave, comport themselves, interact socially, etc. What's more: these oppressive relations and norms are not free-floating, they are historically emergent and institutionalized and---most importantly---they are inscribed into the material structure of our society.

Liberation, of course, requires exploding these oppressive expectations and relationships---in all of their material richness---through collective struggle. No amount of inward-looking reflection or attitudinal change will fundamentally uproot these forms of oppression. Only collective action which sets itself the goal of transforming the basic structure of society can end oppression. As I put it in a recent post:
The language of privilege can sometimes make it sound as if the only obligation of, say, white people in a racist society is to individually acknowledge their privilege and apologize for it.

But individual-level concepts such as apology, guilt, acknowledgement, repentance, responsibility and so on fail to capture the historical, social, political and structural features of racial oppression. Racial oppression is not a set of ideas or attitudes individuals have (although ideas and attitudes play an essential role in reproducing and justifying it). Oppression refers to asymmetrical social relations among groups of persons involving power, domination, exploitation and so on. Oppression is an ongoing social process whereby certain groups are systematically criminalized, brutalized, marginalized, exploited, or denied access to the necessities of life. So our task isn't merely to strike up this or that individual attitude toward this state of affairs; our task is to talk about how this social process works so that we can build social movements to decisively smash it once and for all.
However, reflection on these micro-political instantiations of macro-level oppression is still important for a number of reasons. After all, we don't want to reproduce---intentionally or not---these attitudes, practices, norms, cultural forms, and expectations in radical movements aiming to overthrow oppression. As is well known, the New Left movements of the 60s had a lot of deep problems with gender oppression in their ranks. Women were often ridiculed, slandered, or cast aside when it came time to decide who would occupy leadership roles. That was in spite of the fact that many, though not all, of these same organizations---on paper---had progressive positions regarding women's liberation.

We have come a long way since then thanks in large measure to the struggles of the women's liberation movement of the late 60s and early 70s. So it isn't inevitable that sexist ideologies will infect our movements, but it is will remain a strong possibility as long as we're living in a sexist society. Thus we have to consciously, actively, explicitly work against it on all levels if we're to avoid reproducing and consolidating it. The same is true of racial oppression and, I would argue, class domination (e.g. see this recent post on the revolutionary party that addresses the question of radical consciousness and class pressures).

But these problems---problems of building radical movements dedicated to linking different struggles against oppression on the basis of socialist solidarity---are not problems that are taken seriously by all. Some doubt that such movements are either possible or desirable. Others turn away from political movements entirely and propose that we lose ourselves in the inner-workings of micro-level oppression. I attempted to criticize this inward-looking, individualist approach in my first post on privilege. I think Marxist Marginalia does a good job of criticizing it as well, and I generally agree with analysis there that:
...white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action. In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change. Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power. Not all of this, of course, was detrimental. Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism. But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation.
This seems to me right on the money. The privilege analysis gets a lot right, and maybe even brought to light micro-political elements less well addressed by system-level theorizing, but in many guises it simply expresses a pessimism about the possibility of challenging the system. But in times such as these, such pessimism wears its implausibility on its sleeve. We shouldn't be sanguine about the challenges of building a multi-racial radical movement under conditions of racial oppression. But neither should we be confident that such a goal is neither possible nor desirable. As Marxist activist Duncan Hallas once put the point, "isn't the working class... under the influence of racist, sexist, nationalist ideas [and so on]? All that is true... but it can be changed in struggle. It is a long, hard and complicated struggle. But it is also the only cause worth fighting for."


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Once More on Privilege

Perhaps some of you were brave enough to wade through my long-winded, meandering series of reflections on the concept of "privilege" that I posed a couple of weeks back. Readers interested in this topic may have noticed a couple of debates recently that touch on this topic. The topic has been on my mind a lot lately.

I'm thinking about doing something more extensive on privilege, something that actually engages more closely with the concepts most sophisticated defenders. The target of my recent critical post did not really have in mind people like Noel Ignatiev or contributors to Race Traitor. Instead, I had in mind the large set of radical (and radicalizing) people committed to anti-racist struggle who frequently make use of the concept.

Right now, however, I'm not interested in a thorough consideration of the concept of privilege. Instead, I simply want to point out a problem that seems to surface whenever debates around the concept emerge.

As I pointed out in my critique, there are plenty of people who buy into the ideology of colorblindness and, because of their endorsement of colorblindness, chafe against the language of privilege for all the wrong reasons. Though I take myself to be a critic of the concept of privilege, I share nothing politically or philosophically on these matters with colorblind critics, and I harbor special ire for those colorblind critics who profess to be representatives of the Marxist left.

Yet, all too often the defenders of the language of privilege respond to critics as if they were all defenders of colorblindness. That is counterproductive and distorts the discussion considerably. There is a lot of room for debate on pressing political questions--e.g. what kind of movement do we want to build? are multi-racial socialist organizations worth fighting for, is solidarity in the fight against oppression possible or desirable?--that take for granted that colorblindness is bullshit, that we don't live in a "post-racial" society, that racially oppressed people are, as such, subject to forms oppression that white people are not, etc. Fighting colorblindness is crucial, but among those who are already won to fighting it, many questions remain (such as those I mentioned above).

Take the following quotation from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's Socialist Worker article "Race, Class and Marxism":

Oppression is not just an ideological tool to divide groups of workers, but has real material consequences as well. Because of racism, for example, the median household income for white families as of 2006 was over $50,000 a year. For Blacks, it was just under $32,000. By every measure of the quality of life in the U.S., whites are on the top and Blacks are on the bottom.

Marxists do not deny that these differences exist, nor do we deny that oppression means the lives of some workers are actually worse than others. For Marxists, the question is the cause of the differences. Are the disparities the result of white workers benefiting directly from the oppression of Black workers? That is, do white workers make more on average because Black workers make less?

To accept this explanation means to ignore the biggest beneficiary in the disparity in wages--employers and bosses. That employers are able to use racism to justify paying Black workers less brings the wages of all workers down--the employers enjoy the difference.

This is not to deny that white workers receive some advantages in U.S. society because they are white in a racist society. If they did not get some advantage--and with it, the illusion that the system works for them--then racism would not be effective in dividing Black and white workers.

This last bit is most important, because it is precisely this point that defenders of the language of privilege almost always charge Marxists with denying. The question isn't whether or not white workers enjoy certain advantages that black workers do not, given that we live in a racist society. White people of all classes are spared certain forms of racial oppression that non-white people endure. To say this is simply to restate the fact that we live in a racist society, a fact not contested by (genuine) Marxist critics.

The root of the debate is what framework best explains how this situation came about, how it is reproduced over time, and how we can change it. It seems to me that the language of privilege is substantially worse on all three counts when compared with a framework that focuses on oppressive social relations and the ways in which they are structured by the social system writ large.

Lots of white workers are racist. That is a sociological fact. White workers, insofar as they're white, are not racially oppressed. That is also a sociological fact. Because non-white people endure racial oppression in a racist society, they live with specific burdens that white people do not have to live with (e.g. consider the tribulations of raising black children (see here and here) in a racist society). Again, another fact.

But neither (genuine) Marxists nor those committed to the language of privilege deny these claims. So acknowledging these facts does not decisively speak in favor of the privilege framework as against other competing theories of oppression such as that advanced by contemporary Marxists. More, as we will see below, needs to be said in order to defend the privilege framework. My guess is that its dominance and wide currency during the 1990s has lent it kind of default credibility among many of today's radicals. But, like any worthwhile political framework, it should have to earn this credibility by showing that it is better than other competing approaches.

It seems to me that the basic questions here are as follows. By what social process do racist white workers come to hold racist beliefs? How is racist ideology--by ideology we mean "false consciousness"--produced and reproduced over time? What social function does it play? And, finally: Does the fact that certain groups are subjected to special forms of oppression under capitalism mean that workers of different groups cannot unite and fight for liberation from class exploitation and all forms of oppression?

I won't argue for these claims here, but the (genuine) Marxist response here would, first of all, be to locate the origins of racist ideology in a historical process of development that grows out of the need to legitimate slavery, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, primitive accumulation and so on. The continuous reproduction of racist ideology would be explained by its entanglement in a dialectic of ongoing social processes rooted in material conditions. The function it plays, of course, would be various and shifting, but basically geared toward maintaining oppressive social relations and staving off the possibility of a multi-racial challenge from below. And, as for multi-racial struggle, Marxists would say that it is both possible and necessary for us to fight for. Multi-racial struggle and solidarity is not historically unprecedented, but it is, to be sure, quite difficult to achieve under racist conditions. It can only be built upon an uncompromising commitment to completely uproot all forms of oppression. A colorblind multi-racial radical movement, on the other hand, is neither desirable nor possible. It would be a contradiction in terms and would serve to perpetuate racial oppression rather than challenge it. Genuine solidarity means taking seriously the principle that an injury to one worker is an injury to all.

These answers seem to be correct. But they are controversial and worth debating out within the growing radical movement in the US. Better to debate these questions than to cast aside all critiques of the language of privilege on the grounds that they are motivated by colorblind ideology.


Friday, April 6, 2012

A Thought About Rights

In an article on equality, political philosopher Thomas Nagel writes:

[Rights] do not provide an assessment of overall results [of social processes]. Instead, they determine the acceptability of actions directly. The moral equality of persons under this conception is their equal claim against each other not to be interfered with in specified ways. Each person must be treated equally in certain definite respects by each other person...Rights may be absolute or it may be permissible to override them when a significant threshold is reached in the level of harm that can be prevented by doing so. But however they are defined, they must be respected in every case where they apply. They give every person a limited veto over how others may treat him...they limit what one person may do to another...There cannot in this sense be rights to have certain things--a right to medical care, or to a decent standard of living, or even a right to life. The language of rights is sometimes used in this way, to indicate the special importance of certain human goods...A right not to be killed, for example, is not a right that everyone do what is required to insure that you are not killed. It is merely a right not to be killed and it is correlated with other people's duty not to kill you....
This seems to me exactly right. Strictly speaking, talk of a "right to medical care" is dubious. Politically, or if you like tactically, I endorse such rights-talk in many contexts because it often means nothing more than "people should unconditionally be guaranteed access to medical care", a claim with which I strongly agree. But, at bottom, the idea that "there is a right to medical care" seems to me to rest on nothing (and, tactically speaking, this presents a problem in that it begs the objection "no there isn't", to which we can only reply "yes there is!" and thump the table...between such stale claims only struggle decides). But the conjunctural tactical issue is complex, because the language of human rights has also acquired such hegemony that successfully designating something a human right gives it a kind of credibility or urgency. But, of course, navigating the shoals of ultra-leftism and the reefs of opportunism is complex and difficult to do. And I think we forget at our peril that there are multiple questions here to address and multiple contexts of application (e.g. political/tactical vs. principle, etc.).

Still, it remains true at the fundamental level that the "right to medical care" rests on shaky conceptual foundations. Either we go with the natural law tradition and say that human beings have certain rights by nature and the right to medical care is one of them. But this approach is dubious and generally falls apart once we reject the religious foundations on which it was erected. Or, we can go the "political" route and designate rights as an index of what has been deemed very important and generally irrevocable by a particular political order. Of course, rights in this "political" sense are likely to reflect all of the struggles, contradictions and configurations of power that the political order rests on. So, for example, much of the content of law will reflect the demands of the system and the interests of the ruling class, but some laws will also reflect the gains of social movements.

But to say that there is a "right to medical care" in this "political" sense is not to give an argument for universal medical care provision. It is to merely state the conclusion we want to reach, namely a state of affairs in which the communal provision of medical care is written into law and socially recognized as very important and generally irrevocable. To be sure, "flying the flag" and seeing who shows up is a useful political tactic, so using the slogan "health care is a right!" has the potential to draw together people who agree with the demand so that a collective fight for it can pick up steam.

But all tactical considerations aside, it's worth keeping in mind (particularly in "academic registers" where such things matter) that the conceptual foundations of the "right to medical care" argument are shaky at best.

I know there are more sophisticated rights-views that I'm excluding here (e.g. Kantian-influenced views such as that of Habermas). But I'm still generally confused about exactly what is being said when people say that there is a "right to medical care" in some philosophically sophisticated sense. Ordinary people mean nothing more by it than "I strongly favor communal provision of health care based on human need", and I agree with this meaning, as far as it goes. But I can't say I agree with the more sophisticated defenders of that claim because I don't think I understand exactly what they're saying.


Fraternities and the Capitalist State

Many readers will have seen this article in Rolling Stone, detailing the horrors of the fraternity system in general, and at elite ruling-class feeder institutions like Dartmouth in particular. The article raises a lot of questions about fraternities as institutions–their role in consolidating gender oppression and facilitating rape, their hard-nosed conservatism, their brutal treatment of members, the nihilism and anti-intellectualism that they encourage and promote, etc. etc.. And, of course, the lurid details in the article about the culture of hazing in the Greek system is repulsive. But another striking element in the article is the role that fraternities play in grooming the ruling class. Here is a representative quotation from the article:

Nestled on a picturesque campus in tiny Hanover, New Hampshire, [Darmouth] has produced a long list of celebrated alumni – among them two Treasury secretaries (Timothy Geithner, '83, and Henry Paulson Jr., '68), a Labor secretary (Robert Reich, '68) and a hefty sampling of the one percent (including the CEOs of GE, eBay and Freddie Mac, and the former chairman of the Carlyle Group). Many of these titans of industry are products of the fraternity culture: Billionaire hedge-fund manager Stephen Mandel, who chairs Dartmouth's board of trustees, was a brother in Psi Upsilon, the oldest fraternity on campus. Jeffery Immelt, the CEO of GE, was a Phi Delt, as were a number of other prominent trustees, among them Morgan Stanley senior adviser R. Bradford Evans, billionaire oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and venture capitalist William W. Helman IV. Hank Paulson belonged to Lohse's fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, or SAE.
Reading this article alongside Marxist work on the nature of the State is worth doing. For example, in What Does the Ruling Class Do When it Rules? Göran Therborn argues that:
The qualities required of the personnel of the capitalist state have always been of a special kind, as can be seen from the filtering processes of education, selection and training... experience of manual labor has never played any role in recruitment; only certain intellectual talents of an openly elitist character have entered into the selection procedure. For example, it was in order to deepen this exclusivist basis that the teaching of Latin and Greek was reintroduced or given renewed emphasis in 19th century secondary schools... The influence of this educational system over the patterning of careers is asserted by the informal criteria of entry into the state machine; by the operation of 'good old boys networks'... The training of state personnel has focused on the systematic inculcation of one particular leadership quality. This is not the capacity to weld together a collective organizational team, but the ability to exercise authority over and ensure the respect of subordinate members of the staff. Boarding schools and the student fraternities of elite universities are devoted to the development of self-discipline and self-confidence in such leadership cadres."
For many academics, it is easy to forget that the university is one institution lodged within a much bigger system–capitalism. It is not a fully autonomous, self-standing entity where only the unforced force of the better argument reigns. Recognizing the university as, in part, an institution that facilitates the reproduction of capitalist social relations is key. This is especially true when universities attempt to brush against the grain of power, e.g. when they attempt to do away with the Greek systems. With so much social power–and wealth–concentrated in the Greek system, it is almost impossible for some universities to do away with them (or even reform them substantially) given the threat of backlash from moneyed alumni tied to fraternities and sororities. My sense is that it would take a movement to successfully defeat the Greek system on the campuses of big universities. Moreover, defeating fraternities would also require a certain high-profile crisis that could be seized on to turn public opinion against them. This, of course, would have to be combined with a critique–one that highlights the racism, sexism, and, of course, their class power–of the role that they play in society writ large.