Monday, May 28, 2012

Left Strategy and the United Front

Warm weather, among other things, has brought with it a partial rejuvenation of the Occupy movement and the forces of the Left in the US. Months ago it appeared as if the political energy generated by Occupy was, at best, dormant, and, at worst, withering and wasting away. Now the situation--from Quebec to Chicago, from Athens to Frankfurt--is heating up again.

Many Leftists in the US--myself included--have been closely following the developments in Greece. It's impossible to feel the excitement of a possible SYRIZA victory and not think: "what does the success of the anti-austerity Left in Greece say about the prospects of the Left--particularly the anti-capitalist Left--here at home?" Given that we (in the US) are about to be thrown into the suffocating spectacle of presidential campaigning--with all of the apolitical bile, lesser-evilist calculation, and wishful thinking that accompanies these corporate-driven media events--this question is especially pressing.

It seems to me that there are two pitfalls awaiting the Left here. On the one hand, there is the danger of opportunism. On the other, there is the problem of abstentionism. Let's examine each in turn.

Opportunism means diluting one's political principles in certain circumstances for the sake of winning credibility with mainstream forces. Often the motivation for opportunism is to draw larger numbers of people into one's orbit at any cost. This can take many concrete forms. Imagine, for example, a socialist group who, although committed to anti-capitalist politics, pitched their arguments in terms of the concepts, language, and politics characteristic of mainstream Democrats. Or, imagine a group which, though ostensibly socialist, refused to publicly defend socialist politics for fear of alienating people, preferring instead to defend the line toed by mainstream Democratic candidates for office because this appears to have a certain credibility in "respectable" circles. This is "tailism" pure and simple: such an approach is inherently conservative because it leaves things as they are and encourages accommodation rather than resistance or struggle. But, pace CPUSA and other organizations who pursue this conservative line, the job of socialists isn't to respect the status quo as it is and allow themselves to be tossed to and fro by the ephemeral swells of mainstream opinion. The job of socialists is to change the world, to push struggles forward, and to participate in movements with an eye to increase their self-confidence and move them left.

But if the shoals of opportunism are to be avoided, so too must socialists avoid the reefs of abstentionism and the fetishization of abstract political purity. Abstentionism--or, if you like, ultra-leftism--is the pitfall opposite opportunism. In an overcompensating effort to avoid merely tailing the mainstream forces already in motion, ultra-left abstentionism recommends an abstract rejection of all things mainstream. Ultra-leftism comes in many flavors, but the basic mistake common to all its permutations is a misunderstanding of objective conditions and the need to assess them in a concrete way. "Insurrectionists" make just this mistake when they ignore the balance of forces and objective conditions (levels of struggle, consciousness, economic forces, etc.) on the ground and, abstractly, propose tactics and strategies appropriate to a revolutionary situation. So, too, do many "revolutionaries" who, abstractly, oppose all trade unions--their rank and file included--on "principle" alone. Both ignore objective conditions and propose a purely subjective "solution" to the perils of opportunism: abstain from mainstream struggles and reject the need to build mass movements, the better to maintain "purity" on the fringes of society.

To forge a way forward, socialists have to navigate these--interrelated and dialectically intertwined--political pitfalls. Neither of these errors is primarily a matter of their immediate political content--ultra leftism and opportunism look different in different contexts. Both errors have the form of responding badly to actual conditions--whatever they may be. In different conditions, the same tactic--participation in parliamentary elections, say--could be ultra-left in one case and opportunist in another. Only a "concrete analysis of a concrete situation" can decide the matter.

The need to discuss and avoid these pitfalls is hardly unprecedented. In fact, socialists were faced with many of the same exact problems in the early 20th century. Obviously, conditions have changed considerably, so analogies between then and now must be drawn carefully. Nonetheless, I think there is something really important about understanding the debates around the "united front" tactic in the Third International in the 1920s. Understanding what was at stake in those debates, I think, helps us get a lot of clarity about the situation in Greece and, for that matter, in the US.

What is the "united front" tactic? No one has summarized it more concisely than Duncan Hallas:
The united front tactic is more frequently misunderstood than almost any other element of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It is a method of struggle for influence and support in a defensive situation and it presupposes the organisational and political independence of the revolutionary organisation. The tactic starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organisations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organisations, which it can do under favourable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organisations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind.
There's a lot packed into this paragraph, so its worth pulling apart for a moment. First of all, a united front is a broad alliance of working-class organizations and groups. It is not a proposal for collaboration with ruling-class organizations or parties.

Second, the united front is a coalition built on the need to secure unity in action around a set of concrete demands--it is not a call for programmatic or ideological unity around basic political principles. Thus, a united front presupposes the political and organizational independence of the coalition members--it is not a proposal to dissolve revolutionary groups into a reformist melting pot.

Third, it is a tactic appropriate only to certain conditions, mainly in developed capitalist societies in which a majority of working people aren't already revolutionaries--the coalitions that form in the course of anti-colonial and national liberation struggles often require a slightly different analysis. From this it follows that in a properly revolutionary situation it would be downright reactionary to advocate a united front of revolutionary and non-revolutionary forces.

Finally, the basic goal of a united front is for revolutionaries to connect and engage with the rank-and-file workers involved in reformist unions and workers organizations--it is not primarily an effort to win over the existing leadership of those groups. In fact, the whole point is to force tepid, reformist leaders to commit to concrete demands--e.g. an immediate end to austerity, say--so that if they fail to secure them they are compelled to out themselves as incapable of fighting for the interests of their own members. Moments such as these can only help radicals by bringing political clarity to complex situations--surely the rise of SYRIZA and the sharp decline of PASOK is an example of this sort.

This last point--regarding the use of the united front as a way of pushing the struggle forward and winning workers to a radical perspective--was put well in an argument advanced by the Comintern in 1922 when it called for:
...the establishment of a united front of all parties supported by the proletariat, regardless of the differences separating them, so long as they are anxious to wage a common fight for the immediate and urgent needs of the proletariat ... No worker, whether communist or social-democrat or syndicalist or even a member of the Christian or liberal trade unions, wants his wages further reduced. None wants to work longer hours ... And therefore all must unite in a common front against the employers’ offensive...
In short, the united front tactic is a "determined attempt to force the leaderships of the reformist and centrist organisations into limited co-operation on concrete issues by winning their followers for unity in action." The goal of winning the followers of reformist organizations through struggle is key--this distinguishes the united front tactic from opportunistic, class-collaborationist strategies such as the "popular front" which do nothing to advance working class self-activity or facilitate radicalization. (As a side note, I don't think the "popular front" was originally intended to do anything of the sort--it was rather a self-serving policy designed to benefit the ruling group around Stalin).

In order to be effective in doing this, revolutionaries have to be independently organized and settled on a shared set of politics with their comrades. Otherwise, the pressures and disorienting messiness of coalitions are likely to tempt socialists into opportunistic accommodation or dilution of their political principles. This is why the united front presupposes an independent, politically developed group of revolutionaries, who participate in it as open revolutionaries. Without this, revolutionaries will have little hope of either pushing the coalition leftward or of winning new workers to a radical perspective.

The key is that the united front is built around concrete demands--not ideological unity--so that revolutionaries aren't forced to renounce their basic politics and dissolve themselves into the mediocrity of reformism. The idea is that, in a non-revolutionary situation, the fight for concrete demands can serve both as training ground for workers in struggle and as a way of improving their immediate life conditions. A small victory can, by showing that it is possible to fight and win, be a part of an extended dialectical process of radicalization for large groups of people.

Within a united front, revolutionaries have to do more than simply propagandize and project their political perspective discursively. They have to also show others through action that they are committed to doing the hard work that it takes to organize a movement capable of winning. They must organize and fight alongside all of the most dedicated activists in the movement to win their respect in practice. People's ideas change in response to political dialogue and argument. But they change more rapidly in the course of struggle--so active participation in the movement is just as central as putting forward a clear political perspective to attract newly radicalizing people.

Abstentionist-minded ultra-leftists are likely to oppose united front tactics because they confuse them for opportunism. But this is a grave error. As Trotsky once put the point:
Unity of front consequently presupposes our readiness, within certain limits and on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions with those of the reformist organisations, to the extent that the latter still express today the will of important sections of the embattled proletariat. ‘But didn’t we split with them? Yes, because we disagree with them on fundamental questions of the working-class movement. ‘And yet we seek agreement with them? Yes, in all cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in a joint struggle together with the masses that follow us and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of struggle ... in many cases and perhaps even in the majority of cases, organisational agreements will be only half-attained or perhaps not at all. But it is necessary that the struggling masses should always be given the opportunity of convincing themselves that the non-achievement of unity in action was not due to our formalistic irreconcilability but to the real lack of will to struggle on the part of the reformists.
Trotsky hits the nail on the head here. Revolutionaries must avoid the "formalistic irreconcilability" that is sure to accompany ultra-left mistakes. But they must be just as determined to avoid opportunism by keeping in mind that they do, at the end of the day, disagree with reformists on "all of the fundamental questions of the working class movement".

There is no question that a lot depends on the concrete demands that get adopted as the basis for unity. Some demands, no doubt, cannot serve as a basis for recruiting reformist organizations--e.g. the immediate overthrow of the system. By the same token, some demands, though supported by reformists, might be too conservative for revolutionaries to sign on to. A racist or xenophobic demand, for example, or one that defended imperialism in any form, would never, under any circumstances, be one that revolutionaries could endorse. The question of which demands make the most sense is only one that can be answered with respect to a specific balance of forces. 

It seems to me clear that this discussion of the united front has a lot of relevance to contemporary struggles. But it is no blueprint. As Hallas once put it: "There are enormous practical difficulties in applying this approach in any actual appropriate situation. Each such situation is different; each has, inevitably, unique factors. There is no substitute for the ‘knowledge, experience and ... political flair’ of which Lenin wrote, in solving complex political problems. The simple reiteration of the formulae will not suffice."


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Brenner and Harvey on Imperialism

For as long as I've been politically aware, I've been against Washington's wars and occupations abroad. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a formative moment for me and I can still recall being overwhelmed and deeply distressed by the run-up to war (I was in high school at the time). I started out "neutral", but quickly realized that all of the best "arguments" for intervention were either disingenuous or wildly implausible. Shortly thereafter I began reading Chomsky's voluminous writings on US foreign policy, which got me thinking critically about the parallels between the Vietnam war and Iraq/Afghanistan. Since then, I've been a stalwart skeptic about the possibility of Washington doing anything that doesn't further interests of the 1% at home while dominating the 99% abroad. I've never looked back.

But it has only occurred to me in the last couple of months that I have generally lacked a theoretical framework to make sense of international affairs. Of course, I think of myself as a Marxist, so I had basic premises to begin thinking critically: e.g. that economic competition among nation economies leads to geopolitical/military competition as well, that the Marxist theory of the state in capitalism helps us to understand the institutional basis for foreign policy decisions, that expansion and the conquest of foreign markets is an inbuilt feature of global economic competition, etc. But these general premises are nothing like a theoretical framework.

So, in the last couple of months I've been trying to read contemporary theoretical approaches to imperialism that build on the basic arguments advanced by Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg in the early 20th century. I just finished Harvey's 2005 book The New Imperialism and I've been looking at various reviews of the book's argument to aim my critical evaluation of it. Robert Brenner's review essay from Historical Materialism is probably the best assessment I've seen thus far. In this post I just want to share some of what I've taken away from these two figures writings on imperialism. I'm now looking at Callinicos's Imperialism and Global Political Economy, Mészáros's Socialism or Barbarism and some other assorted writings on imperialism from Monthly Review folks (esp. stuff on the "development of underdevelopment" thesis). I have also meant to read Richard Seymour's book on "humanitarian intervention" for some time as well. (Note: if you have other suggestions about theoretical works on imperialism, please let me know in the comments!) At some point, I want to write a post trying to synthesize all of this information into some sort of overall critical assessment. But as this point I neither understand the lay of the land, nor do I have anything like strong views about the relative merits of competing theories. With that said, let's take a look at what Harvey and Brenner have to say.


One of the great things about Harvey's work--and Marxist scholarship in general--is its historical breadth. Harvey's main argument is that imperialism assumes a "new" form after the neoliberal turn of the early 1970s. He carves up the terrain here as follows. Classical imperialism includes the phase between 1884-1945. This period is marked by expansion, territorial conquest, colonial domination, and, of course, inter-imperialist rivalry and competition which produces two world wars in close succession. The postwar era, however, represents a new conjuncture marked by superpower rivalries which, after the profound global crisis of profitability in the early 70s, leads to a new form of imperialism that finally comes into its own after the fall of the USSR and the triumph of market fundamentalism in the early 90s. Harvey's basic goal in the book is to give a Marxist account of the military interventions lead by Bush I and II in the 90s and early 00s.

To do this, Harvey introduces a distinction between two different "logics" at work in contemporary imperialism. The first is the "territorial logic of power", which, says Harvey, represents a (putative) tendency for states to expand and acquire control of more territory and power. This logic is set in motion by state officials who have an interest in the expansion of the power and influence of the state apparatus over which the rule. The second logic is the "capitalist logic of power", which grows out of the global economic processes driving capital accumulation. This logic is set in motion by capitalist firms which aim to further their interests in the global arena.

Now, with this distinction Harvey is clearly on to something important. As Brenner points out, Harvey is clearly correct that there is a danger here in too mechanistically deriving imperialist foreign policy from the short-term imperatives of capital accumulation. As Harvey puts it, we cannot understand Vietnam or the invasion of Iraq "solely in terms of the immediate requirements of capital accumulation."

But while agreeing on this point, Brenner dissents from Harvey's bifurcation of the global arena into a logic of territorial expansion, on the one hand, and a logic of capital accumulation on the other. As Brenner puts it:

"Individual agents of capital operating in a field of many capitals have an overriding interest in reinvesting their surpluses [and, thus, in expansion], because their survival in competition depends upon it. As a consequence, the logic of capital accumulation is readily grasped as a tendency... for the expansion of the global scope of the system. But it would be hard to argue that individual states operating in a field of many states face a parallel constraint and therefore have a corresponding interest qua states in territorial expansion. As a consequence, the "accumulation of control over territory as an end in itself" which Harvey introduces as the expression of the logic of territorial states, lacks a raison d'etre and there seems little empirical warrant for it."

Moreover, as Brenner explains, it is doubtful that Harvey would want to say that:

"the US State Department, or the CIA, or even the Department of Defense have an interest qua foreign-policy bureaucracies in pursuing overseas expansion... they do not themselves make the foreign policy, but serve the foreign policy-makers. On the other hand, is there any reason to believe that the officials who actually do make foreign policy--the President, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and so on--constitute a group with a distinct interest deriving from their social positions in the state, an interest leading in the direction of a...specifically expansionist foreign policy?" 

This seems to me exactly right. As an aside: something analogous is surely true of the hysterics from right-wingers who interpret the Federal Reserve as a purely self-serving "root of all evil"--as if the Fed had any interests separate from the interests of the capitalist class whom it serves! I really do mean this purely as an aside--I don't intend to equate anything Harvey says with the nonsense pedaled by the confused supporters of Ron Paul.

It seems to me that Harvey would be sympathetic to Brenner's remarks given that he puts forward a classic Marxist account of the state, according to which "the state, in both domestic and overseas policy, is dependent upon capital, because those who govern (whoever they might be) will tend to find that the realization of their own interests (whatever they are) depends on the promotion of capitalist profits and capital accumulation, as the latter are the sine qua non for economic growth and financial solvency, and thus for stability domestically and strength internationally."


Still, having said all of this, Brenner (correctly in my view) does concede that there is a sense in which there sometimes arises a "significant gap between a state's foreign policy and the needs of capital [overall]." The root of this divergence emerges from the historical lineages of the modern nation state system. As Brenner puts it, "the nature of capital itself--the social relationships among capitals and between capital and labor--cannot account for this form of state." The reason why is that the multiple-state global system emerged "against the background of a system of multiple feudal states, and, in the course of its development, transformed the component states of that system into capitalist states but failed to alter the multi-state character of the resulting international system."

For Brenner, it is likely that one global state would better serve the interests of capital accumulation on a global scale than a system of competing nation states tied to particular capitalist formations. But, he argues in a characteristically "political Marxist" fashion, history is not merely the unfolding of the logic of capital accumulation, it is also, at the same time, the unfolding of social conflict, struggles that erupt in an uneven and combined global constellation. There is something to this when one thinks of the enormous destruction and hits to accumulation caused by inter-imperialist wars like WWI. However, I'm not so sure we should quickly concede this point to Brenner. We need to also be clear that capital also benefits in certain ways from the competition among states--the threats of capital flight and the so-called "race to the bottom" on taxation among states are important examples. Moreover, the destruction of surplus value represented by the World Wars needs to be taken into account--although I tend to chafe against these claims inasmuch as they seem to me a touch too "functionalist" and therefore too dissociated from the interests of the ruling class and state agents involved.

Still, Brenner points to an important point about historical materialism as a theory. That is, historical materialism does not claim that everything today is explained by capitalism pure and simple. Rather, it offers us a dialectical way of understanding the uneven and combined developmental paths--inflected by social struggles and geographical contingency--that led to the present global conjuncture. This necessarily requires us to look to the ways in which elements of pre-capitalist social formations persist and continue to structure some of the elements of the global capitalist system.


Both Brenner and Harvey see the current global slump as a kind of "long downturn" in which the deep economic crisis of the 1970s has yet to be solved. I am agnostic about whether they are right about this--I will say, however, that I read David McNally's Global Slump and thought his arguments were very convincing. Still--whatever the differences between Harvey and Brenner--the basic point they're making here is compelling enough: the basic contradictions of capitalism that produced the 1970s slump have not been resolved and are at the heart of the global economic crisis today.

The connection between economic slump and imperialism is an important one. For Harvey, as for Luxemburg and others, the "classic" phase of imperialism arose out of a deep economic crisis in the late 1840s, which was followed by huge "state infrastructural expenditures [which] detonated the great wave of capital expansion of the third quarter of the nineteenth century." This lead to a huge over-accumulation of capital and, thereby, necessitated expansion in order to pry open and create new markets outside of Europe. The colonial scramble for Africa--which Harvey calls the "spatio-temporal fix" aiming to redress the economic problems plaguing European powers--must be understood in this light. This form of imperialism, Harvey argues, persists from 1884-1945.

Something similar, he claims, is at work in the "new imperialism", which begins around 1973 with the onset of global economic crisis. For Harvey, this crisis came about through over-accumulation and, like in the 1870s, made it rational to seek a "spatio-temporal fix" for the economic woes of the core capitalist states.

This seems to me an interesting argument and it is likely a very fecund basis on which to understand imperialism during the "neoliberal" period of capitalist development from 1973 to the present crisis. But what about 1945-1973? How do we make sense of that period?


On this point, I find Brenner's argument more convincing. For Brenner, Harvey gives short shrift to the "almost permanent (Washington-lead) interventionism, across boom and downturn, in the developing world" during the Cold War." Harvey himself is aware of the atrocities committed by the US during this epoch, but he doesn't theoretically incorporate them into this basic framework.

Harvey argues that Chomsky, Pilger, Blum and others tend to overemphasize the militaristic imperialism of this era, leading them to generally ignore "softer" forms of imperialism involving degrees of consent and cooperation from states subordinate to Washington. But--and here I also agree with Brenner--Harvey errs in understanding this distinction--between "hard" and "soft" imperialism--as a temporal one. In reality, it has to be understood geographically, since the "soft" approach was generally favored for advanced industrial nations whereas direct domination or militarism was favored for the poorer countries in the global South. Washington intervened all over the global South from 1945 through the 1980s to brutally destroy not only the Left--in all of its forms--but even moderate nationalist movements that merely sought independence from the domination of the US. While the policies deemed appropriate for the South differed from those of the North, it remains true that both approaches should be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Both represent different forms of imperialist domination--thus, their class content remains the same even if they differ in structure.


What about Iraq? How does the theory of imperialism explain it? Brenner and Harvey are sharply at odds with one another here. For Harvey, the basic point is this: "whoever controls the Middle East controls the global oil spigot and whoever controls the global oil spigot controls the global economy." Thus, for Harvey, the US moves to intervene in the Middle East after 9/11 to gain control of oil to counter US economic decline. As Harvey describes it: "what better way for the US to ward off that competition and secure its own hegemonic condition than to control the price, conditions, and distribution for the key economic resource upon which its competitors rely?".

Superficially, I'm inclined to agree that Harvey is basically correct. But Brenner's criticisms are formidable here. Brenner expresses skepticism about the "it's all about oil" argument because, he claims, it is implausible to think that the world oil corporations would allow themselves to be regulated by Washington's military apparatus. He adds to this skepticism that Washington could, even if it wanted to, control the prices or distribution of oil--even OPEC couldn't do that from 1980-2000. Finally, Brenner finds it implausible that other states would allow themselves to be so blatantly screwed by the US when it concerns such a vital resource for the global economy.

Brenner's skepticism is well placed in certain respects. But I think he misses the mark here. First of all, I find his objection about regulation of the oil industry to be a non-sequitur. Washington's intervention in Iraq need not be interpreted as a kind of regulatory move in order to be seen as a power-play to secure access to oil. As Brenner himself points out by way of criticizing Harvey, it is implausible to think that the state has separate interests that totally diverge from the interests of capital. Thus, Washington's foray into Iraq can be seen as a way to open up access to oil resources to multinationals by removing obstacles in their way--such as a recalcitrant regime like Hussein's that still favored some form of nationalization.

A recent NLR article on Afghanistan bears this out. Washington's intervention is not to be read as serving the interests of Washington qua state apparatus. Rather, the Iraq War should be read as a move that furthers the geopolitical interests of the ruling class in the US as well as more specific economic interests--in particular, by opening up investment and control opportunities for US-based oil firms. How this brushes against the grain of neoliberalism is beyond me--I don't see Brenner's point here.

But something about what he's saying is important. A crude "Washington wants to control the spigot" view sounds to me too realist and not Marxist enough. To be sure, Harvey veers too close to such a view by emphasizing a stand-alone "logic of territorial expansion". But Brenner overcompensates by excoriating the "its about oil" argument in the way that he does.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Pushing the Struggle Forward in Greece

The recent Greek elections have been exciting for the global Left, primarily because of the sharp ascendancy of SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left. The vote clearly represents a strong "no" to the austerity and class warfare from above being imposed by European ruling classes--but it also represents a huge opening for Left politics in a period of increasing struggle and protracted economic crisis.

Now, for those who harbor illusions that society can be transformed from top to bottom merely by electing the right people to parliament in a capitalist society, the "end game" here is rather simple: all the Left needs to do is find a way to increase SYRIZA's vote tally until it has majorities big enough to reform its way to a different kind of society in which ordinary working people lay claim to the commanding heights of the economy.

But this perspective is flawed, first of all because--as history shows us rather clearly--there is no parliamentary road to socialism. The state in capitalist society is both an organ of ruling class dominance and an institution that functions to secure the conditions for capital accumulation. As such, it cannot be reformed. It must be fully dismantled so that new, radically democratic institutions--such as workers councils and popular general assemblies--can take its place in the transition to a society that is genuinely of, by and for the people. The basic problem with the pure-electoralist perspective is that it confuses a mere vehicle for struggle--participation in parliamentary elections--for an end in itself. Participation in capitalist electoral systems is a tool that revolutionaries should have no principled opposition to making use of in certain conditions (more on that below).

But the pure-electoralist perspective is also flawed because it fails to acknowledge how the SYRIZA breakthrough came about through massive extra-electoral mobilizations, general strikes and a large general upswing in struggle from below. A single-minded focus on increasing the vote tally as such would actually fail to capture the social processes that yielded the favorable results for SYRIZA in the first place. Seeing electoral strategies as a potential tool for revolutionaries should never entail counter-posing it to extra-electoral struggle.

But if these pure-electoral perspectives are flawed, the following question remains: what, then, exactly is the point of getting excited about the recent Greek elections? It would be easy to mistakenly assume that if one thinks that a social revolution is needed to replace capitalism and all of its global effects (e.g. manufactured famine and starvation, global crisis and instability, imperialist war and conflict, neo-colonial exploitation, etc.), then bourgeois elections are, in principle, worthless as vehicles of struggle. The thought would be that revolutionaries, as such, must--everywhere and always--be opposed to electoral interventions. If the State is always a class-state, then operating within its scope simply gives it a legitimacy it doesn't deserve.

This argument commits a grave error. Just as electoral strategies should not be fetishized, neither should they be inflexibly and abstractly negated as possible means of advancing struggle from below. Sometimes revolutionaries should boycott parliaments and other times they should participate--only a concrete analysis of the concrete balance of class forces and objective conditions can yield the right verdict. And, as far as legitimacy is concerned, shattering the legitimacy of the existing state formation is an achievement that revolutionaries should fight to win by building mass participation in struggle. The State already enjoys some form of de facto legitimacy among the working population--if it didn't, we'd be in a revolutionary situation and talk of parliamentary participation would be worthless. The question has to be: how can we shatter that appearance of legitimacy and galvanize struggle? It seems to me rather obvious that when workers aren't already revolutionary, participating in electoral movements can be a way of winning new layers to a revolutionary perspective.

The key is to see participation in elections as a mere means of galvanizing working class militancy and the kind of extra-electoral struggle that really does have the power to transform society. The revolutionary case for participation is not, in the first instance, so that parliamentary representatives can enact the right legislative reforms. Those reforms--such as those in the 5-point plan put forward by SYRIZA--are important because they will improve the immediate life conditions of millions of workers and because they will increase the confidence of workers to fight for even more. But the goal is not reform as such. The goal has to be to do whatever it is possible to do from within parliament to thwart class enemies and encourage workers' struggle in the streets.

But how exactly does one do that? There is no blueprint for how to handle such situations, but some general principles stand out. First, as the disastrous history of the opportunist, right-wing "popular front" tactic has shown us, SYRIZA shouldn't compromise its basic demands for the sake of putting together a ruling coalition at any cost. The goal, as we've seen, is not to get SYRIZA into a position of "power" in parliament come hell or high water; the goal is to advance the class struggle, full stop. Thus, SYRIZA is right on target in holding firm to its "5-point Plan" and using it as a bludgeon to expose the pro-austerity collaboration between European Capital and the mainstream parties. The more SYRIZA does this, the better. If mainstream parties agree to it--they won't, but set that aside--then they must hold to a firm anti-austerity Left platform on pain of public humiliation if they fail to implement it. If they don't agree to it, then they are forced to show their true colors and reveal their inherent conservatism. This has several important political effects.

First, it brings political clarity to the situation in Greece and shows Greek workers who is on their side and who isn't, who is willing to fight for their interests and who isn't. The significance of this increase in clarity is not confined to the walls of parliament. This effect is likely to bring larger numbers of workers into the orbit of the radical Left in general--which will surely have the effect of opening up new and ever greater avenues for extra-electoral struggles.

Second, the hard argument for the 5-point plan shows workers outside of Greece that austerity is neither inevitable nor natural. It can be fought and there are obvious, concrete ways of avoiding it entirely if only the political proxies of the ruling class are challenged. The great result for SYRIZA has given the Left a global platform to make arguments that weren't given a hearing only weeks ago. This, too, has the possibility of advancing the struggle and raising anti-capitalist consciousness around the world.

Third, the victory of SYRIZA has the potential to increase the confidence of the radical Left in Greece and beyond. The victory for SYRIZA is a small victory for Greek workers. But Greek workers need all the small victories they can get after two years of brutal austerity and class warfare from above. Small victories can accumulate quantitatively to produce qualitative shifts in the character of the struggle. A series of electoral victories need not remain on a linear course of purely-electoral struggle. They can also lead to breaking points where new forms of struggle erupt from below.

We have to be clear here: none of these positive effects would have been produced had SYRIZA taken a wooden, abstentionist anti-electoral approach to the Greek elections. There is, to be sure, a time and place to boycott elections and opt for entirely non-electoral vehicles of struggle--but that time and place was not last week in Greece. The possibilities for the Left created by the elections are a testament to the possibility for revolutionaries--in certain conditions--to participate soberly in elections to advance class struggle.

But surely someone will reply that I am hypocritical. Readers of this blog know that I have no love for the Democratic Party and oppose all Left strategies to enter, participate in or support the Party at any level. Moreover, I have often said that the Presidential campaigns between Democrats and Republicans in the US are basically "non-political" and virtually meaningless as far as the Left is concerned. Can I coherently praise SYRIZA and maintain my stiff anti-Democratic Party line in the United States? Yes, I believe I can.

The Democratic Party is a particular kind of formation that resists comparison with even the most opportunistic and neoliberal "center-Left" parties in Europe. The electoral procedures in the US are profoundly undemocratic and also make it difficult to compare with parliamentary systems such as what they have in Greece. All the same, let us compare PASOK and the Democrats to help illustrate my argument. In 2010 or 2011, someone could have said: Don't support SYRIZA, don't build groups like Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), you have to organize where the workers are, namely, inside of PASOK which enjoys the support of the majority of the working-class. They might have continued: we have to work within PASOK because it is the most credible party that has the potential to beat the Right.

Of course, that would have entirely unconvincing as an argument. Indeed, the results of the election--in which PASOK got pummeled--bear this out. Yet the same tired arguments are made in defense of working within the Democratic Party--a party more ruthlessly committed to austerity and war than PASOK. Of course, the pull of "lesser-evilism" is stronger in the US because of the much greater dominance of the two main parties, the suffocatingly conservative procedures, the relative weakness of the anti-capitalist left, etc.

But the absurdity of the argument remains. We have seen what happens when the Democrats get elected to all levels of government with crushing majorities. The policies of Bush continue, expectations are pushed down from above through ideological means, and nothing is done to facilitate struggle from below--on the contrary, moves are made to contain it and rein it in. The Democratic Party is funded by the ruling class, its leaders are drawn from the ruling class, and its policies nakedly benefit that class. The Democrats offer little opportunity for reform of any kind and they are part of the ruling class duopoly that dominates US electoral politics. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements, not a facilitator of struggle. The dialectic of lesser-evil is a key aspect of how the political shell of US capitalism functions. Interestingly, Greek politics had a similar dynamic for many years, where governmental power oscillated between the center-Right New Democracy and the center-Left PASOK.

As I wrote in the Fall, the electoral mechanism in Greece--and the installation of technocrats by the EU--seemed to function like a "safety valve", containing struggle rather than encouraging it. This remains true as long as the working-class has no viable, independent representation and two neoliberal mainstream parties dominate. But the meteoric rise of SYRIZA has burst asunder this stale dialectic of lesser-evils. It has caused a serious realignment and new possibilities have come to the fore as a result. Nothing of this kind could ever be brought about through participation in a party--like the Democrats--dominated, funded, and run by members of the ruling class. If a viable Left third-party challenge to the Democrats was on the horizon, revolutionaries should consider working with it in order to "pull a SYRIZA" and tear apart the constricting grip of the two-party straitjacket. But working within such an independent push should never be seen as a substitute for extra-electoral struggle--in the US, Greece or elsewhere. The whole point of participating--while building independent struggles at the very same time--is to create conditions favorable to an up-tick in the self-organization and confidence of the working class.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Against Robert Reich on "Socialism"

This anxious, unsettled response to Hollande's electoral victory has been circulating on the internet in liberal circles. I feel compelled to respond because it is explicitly framed as a way of turning left-minded people away from "socialism" (something that is becoming more and more intriguing to growing numbers of young people) and back toward the system―capitalism―which has engendered a global slump so deep and protracted that even many bourgeois economists are looking to Marx for answers.

Reich's frantic "don't give up on capitalism" piece is a response to the victory of François Hollande in France, who is hardly a socialist by any stretch and very much an advocate of the capitalist system Reich desperately clings to. Reich's argument is that "socialism is not the answer" because what we really need is a "capitalism that better distributes the benefits of the productivity revolution." The rest of his rather unlettered article is nothing but an elaboration on this formula: better distribute the benefits of productivity and capitalism is a swell system that works for everyone.

I think it's telling that in the article Reich doesn't say a single thing about what "socialism" means. And why should he? He doesn't want to seriously engage with genuine alternatives to the present―he merely intends to leverage the Cold War connotations of the word to help buttress his argument for a slightly reformed status quo. Moreover, if the only problem with capitalism was that it just happened to distribute "benefits" in a unequal way―as Reich suggests―there wouldn't really any need for socialist politics.

It would be nice if that were the only problem with capitalism. Unfortunately, this is only a symptom of its deeper problems, a mere surface-level indication that there is something very wrong at the core of capitalism.

But before I say anything about those deeper problems, let me be clear: the distribution of material wealth in capitalist societies is both highly unequal and highly unjust. But―pace Reich―this problem is not the result of a lack of "political will" to change things. First of all, ordinary people want things to change, but the political system offers them no means of changing things. A vote for Obama, as we've seen, means tax breaks for the rich and austerity for the 99%. Now, I'll concede that changes in tax policy that benefit the ruling class--such as a drastic cut in the marginal rate of income taxation―certainly had an effect on the increase in income inequality during the period from 1981 to the present. But the tax code is not even the main cause of income disparities. The good ol' capitalist system is.

Reich doesn't bother to say what capitalism (or socialism, for that matter) is, or what socialists see as wrong with it, so let me do that really quickly. Think of it as a rushed version of Marxism 101.

Capitalism is a system in which the basic means of production―factories and industry, productive technologies and instruments, raw materials, workplaces, banks, and so on―are the private property of a small class of the population. Call it the capitalist class or, if you like, the 1%.

The capitalist class earns its living by owning, by employing other people to work. Because capitalists own the means of production, as a class they assume direct control over the direction of investment, whether ordinary people find work and under what conditions, the organization of the workplace, the distribution final product, and the profits reaped by selling it on the market. This, unsurprisingly, gives capitalists a great deal of economic power over the 99%. But their control of the means of production also translates into tremendous social and political power as well. It's worth emphasizing that theirs isn't an elected post. Though their decisions―about employment, investment and so on―have massive impacts on our lives, they are not democratically accountable to us whatsoever.

Capitalists also own the goods that workers produce in the workplace―which includes all of the basic goods that we need in order to survive. Thus, we―the 99%―are forced to depend on capitalists both to employ us and to sell us the basic necessities of life; as I've said, and as the Occupy movement has made clear, this gives capitalists enormous social, political and economic power.

Capitalists have a basic interest in keeping the wages of the 99% as low as possible while keeping workers' output as high as possible; low wages and high productivity mean big profits. Given that society is forced to depend on capitalists for employment and the basic necessities of life―not to mention the tax revenues that fund the State―the small capitalist class wields an enormous amount of undemocratic political power over the rest of us. For this reason, Marxists refer to the capitalist class as the ruling class in capitalist societies.

Finally, because of fierce market competition among capitalist firms, individual capitalists are forced to try to accumulate not just any level of profit, but maximum profit by any means necessary. Capitalists, then, don't screw over the 99% because they're evil. A capitalist who doesn't drive wages down, maximize profit, and reinvest in expanded production is not likely to remain a capitalist for long. They are likely to lose market share and go under to more ruthless competitors. Although I won't get into it here, this ruthless "anarchy of production" that competition among capitalists engenders, makes capitalism a remarkably crisis-prone system that is marred by internal contradictions. Mainstream economists―like Reich―seem to still think, however, that capitalism is a system that tends toward harmony and equilibrium.

So, by its very nature, capitalism empowers a small ruling class to appropriate the lion's share of the social surplus for themselves. This essential feature of capitalism is the source of distributive inequalities in the US. Whether or not ordinary people can get a larger share of that surplus under capitalism depends on their levels of organization and militancy. Working people have succeeded in securing the biggest gains following period of mass, extra-electoral struggle―strikes, sit-downs, factory occupations, mass demonstrations and the like. The bosses only give up fractions of their profits when we force them to―power concedes nothing with out a struggle. But as long as the basic structure of the economy is owned and controlled by the 1%, there will be pressure from above to undo all of these gains the minute that struggle subsides. 

Contrast this with the basic goal of socialists. Socialists begin from the idea that the productive wealth of society should be under the democratic control of the people. This means no more bosses over our heads, no more ruling classes lording over us from above, deciding for us, pushing down our living standards. Also, rather than using the massive productive power of modern societies to line the pockets of a small ruling class, socialists advocate using that productive power for the fullest development of human talents and potential. That is the meaning of the slogan "People Over Profit!". Finally, rather than allowing the planet to be destroyed by the scramble for global profits, socialists advocate structuring production in a way that is ecologically sustainable.

Reich, however, finds these ideas intolerable. They are, for him, emphatically not the solution. Rather, we should place our faith in capitalism and the Democratic Party and hope that they will heed Reich's advice and increase the marginal rate of taxation. I must say, like the millions of other Americans who are beginning to look favorably on socialist ideas, I simply don't find this very persuasive.

To whom is Reich's article addressed? On the surface, it is addressed to left-leaning people to exhort them to stop thinking critically about all of the things we've just examined so that they can to make their way back to the tired old platitudes about the virtues of the "free enterprise system" modulo a few reforms here or there. On a deeper level, however, Reich's argument is addressed to state officials, not the 99%. He doesn't call on ordinary people to take the situation into their own hands and struggle--from below--for their own rights. He calls on the existing layer of politicians and technocrats to make a slight change in course―from above―by tweaking the tax code.

But I look elsewhere for change to happen. I look to ordinary working people. I look to developments like the Occupy movement―and its predecessors such as the 1930s labor movement, the civil rights movement and others―which tend to see political and economic problems as linked, rather than separate. My view is that we need to organize ourselves and be prepared to struggle independently of the two major corporate parties―just as the Occupy movement has done―if we are going to win even modest reforms such as taxing the rich and increasing spending on education and healthcare. In fact, we will need organized resistance if we are going to even hold the line against the waves of austerity be administered from above by Democrat and Republican alike.

But what about the Soviet Union? Didn't socialism fail in 1991? These are important questions to ask. We certainly don't want a redux of the bureaucratic, top-down, hierarchical societies that characterized the Stalinist east bloc. But given how we just defined socialism above, my answer to these questions should be obvious: Stalinist Russia had nothing to do with socialism because ordinary people had no say over their own life conditions (whether that was in the workplace, in the home, or in society writ-large). State ownership is just as bad as capitalist ownership if ordinary people have no control over the State. Stalinism merely replaces the capitalist 1% with a bureaucratic 1%. The goal of socialists is to abolish all ruling classes no matter what form they take.


Monday, May 7, 2012

The Politics of Paul Simon's Graceland

The 25th Anniversary of Paul Simon's Graceland has been an occasion for celebration but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the controversies that the album produced when it came out in the 1980s. Many of the details are addressed in a recent article by Robin Denselow in the Guardian.

I can't help but feel ambivalent about the record. On the one hand, I grew up listening to it and I readily admit that it was because of that record that I got into South African music in general. I'm sure other people--particularly people in the US--had this experience or something like it. As many of the musicians involved in recording Graceland have gone on to argue, the record gave black South African music an unprecedented level of international exposure.

But things are not as simple as that.

Graceland appeared against the backdrop of a global solidarity effort with black South Africans aiming to topple the apartheid regime through sanctions, cultural boycotts and divestment strategies. There was growing international consciousness about the injustice in South Africa at the time, buoyed by coalitions of artists and musicians all fighting to draw attention to the oppression of black South Africans and the collaboration of imperialist powers (especially Washington) in perpetuating that oppression. As Denselow explains:
There had already been a batch of songs attacking the brutality of apartheid, from Stevie Wonder's It's Wrong to Peter Gabriels' powerful Biko and Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA's classic protest song, (Free) Nelson Mandela. And there were campaigns to stop musicians performing in South Africa, with the likes of Dylan, Springsteen and Bono joining Steve Van Zandt in the recording of Sun City, attacking those who performed in the South African entertainment complex in the so-called "homeland" of Bophuthatswana.

Those who did so were accused of breaking a UN-approved cultural boycott, which had been in effect since December 1980. After all, the wording of Resolution 35/206 was surely clear: "The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa."

The resolution was enthusiastically endorsed by the Artists Against Apartheid movement, and offending musicians including Rod Stewart and Queen, who had been attracted by generous fees to play at Sun City, all promised not to return.
So there is some question as to whether Simon broke the cultural boycott of South Africa and thereby wounded the international solidarity effort. Moreover, there is the question of why Simon--as opposed to numerous other musicians--didn't take an explicit, strident position of opposition to the white-run apartheid regime. Simon himself says, variously, that he didn't want to speak on behalf of the South Africans by saying anything political or that he simply wasn't interested in the politics but only the culture and the music. The former is surely a rationalization, since there was nothing paternalist about condemning the oppression of black South Africans and heeding their own calls for solidarity. The latter claim is probably closer to the truth but, as we will see below, this ostensibly "non-political" stance is itself political.

Denselow spends a lot of time examining the question of whether Simon broke the boycott and this can begin to feel a touch technical: Simon didn't perform publicly, he just recorded, so does that constitute a violation of the boycott? But this misses the main issue: the question of how to relate to the oppressive, racist regime in power. Simon's decision to go to South Africa and record with musicians there should be evaluated in that spirit--that is, in the spirit of judging whether what he did advanced the struggle for the liberation of black South Africans.

Denselow suggests that Simon should have contacted the ANC and attempted to seek their approval (something he said he did but in fact didn't). That sounds right to me, but the mere fact of ANC approval would not have redeemed the entire album from all criticisms.

At any rate, Simon argues that he was right to refuse to seek the approval of the ANC:
"Personally, I feel I'm with the musicians," he said. "I'm with the artists. I didn't ask the permission of the ANC. I didn't ask permission of Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed. The guys with the guns say, 'This is important', and the guys with guitars don't have a chance."
I find this argument deeply unsatisfying. It shirks the issue and then tries to appeal to some kind of extra-political artistic neutrality by invoking a Cold-War opposition ("the radical Right and the radical Left are both equally bad: what we need is American "moderation" and "freedom", etc.). But there's no way to be neutral here--to ignore the apartheid regime's oppressive character while nonetheless intervening in South African culture is itself a political stance. Taken at face value, Simon appears to be saying to those for or against apartheid: "a pox on both your houses... stop making this about politics... if either of you get what you want the artists will get screwed."

To be sure, in the name of the Left, Stalinism destroyed artistic freedom and crushed the radical, avant-garde cultural movements that arose in the wake of the revolution. Radical artistic currents such as constructivism were banned and a monstruous ultra-conservative neo-classicism was mandated from above by the new ruling class of bureaucrats led by Stalin that had crystallized by the late 1920s. And, of course, the fascist assault on modernism on grounds of "cultural Bolshevism" is well known. In both of these cases, the artists did get screwed (along with a long list of other groups, I might add, from the working-class and the Left to national minorities and other oppressed groups). The cultural reaction embodied in Stalinism, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other, has traditionally been used by Cold Warriors to exonerate the US and slander any attempt to radically re-think the relationships between art and society. It has been used as a powerful means of insulating the status quo from any form of radical criticism. Simon's point that the "artists always get screwed" by "extreme" politics is, at rock bottom, little more than re-articulation of that Cold War trope.

These are interesting questions, but they still don't get to the heart of the matter. Whether or not Simon asked permission from the ANC, whether or not he had a song with a lyric or two explicitly denouncing apartheid, and whether or not he actually broke the boycott, important (social and political) questions about the nature of the music itself remain.

What, for instance, should we say about the cultural/artistic encounter between Simon, the white American musical star, and the black South African musicians with whom he collaborated? What were the power relations between them and what were the basic assumptions that grounded their interactions?

Collaborative though it was in many respects, it was still a Paul Simon record. Simon gathered together recordings of South African musicians, remixed them, and added his own melodies and lyrics on top of them in some cases. Simon had final say over every artistic detail on the record. Alone with other American engineers in a studio in New York, Simon spliced together things he liked and discarded things he didn't. The final record reflected the perspective of Simon vis-a-vis the South African cultural landscape he intervened in and drew from. It wasn't a dialogue among equals, and neither was it (as Simon sometimes claims it was) an attempt to showcase South African music to the world. It was Paul Simon's perspective that defined the contours of the final cut of the record, for better or worse.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Does it evince a kind of top-down approach in which Simon saw himself as standing above and, to some extent, using the others?  The truth is likely to be a complicated combination of both. The fact that Simon could casually fly in, cherry pick here and there according to his own artistic judgments, and use what suited him draws our attention to a big asymmetry in power between them. But, of course, Simon himself can hardly be blamed for the structural relations of domination that were in place in Apartheid South Africa and, indeed, between powerful imperialist powers and less powerful countries in the Global South. That he chose to work with cultural materials drawn from black South Africa was both a personal (for Simon) endeavor as well as a public project whose meaning is multi-faceted and surely not 100% bad.

But to say that Paul Simon did South African music a service by drawing international attention to is a complicated matter. As a matter of fact, his record did draw attention to South African music and many musicians unknown outside of Africa subsequently launched successful international careers. Still, Jonas Gwangwa's remark that "so it has taken another white man to discover my people?" is apt because it captures the fact--rooted in the oppression and marginalization of black South Africans--that it took the social power of a wealthy North American record label--and a well-known white musician--to enable South African music to receive some modicum of recognition for what they had been doing all along. A state of affairs in which a well-known, wealthy white musician from North America is needed to grant subaltern musicians access to international audiences is wrong. But the wrongness of that state of affairs is one thing, and the question of what individuals do to act within it is another. Simon cannot reasonably be held responsible for that state of affairs, but his actions within this context are eminently criticizable.

As I see it, the most problematic political element of the Graceland phenomenon pertains to the following point made by Marxist critic Fredric Jameson about the:
"...need for the first world to constantly cannibalize fresh sources of cultural production. Hence the vogue of black vernacular speech in the United States. Black language is still alive, and is constantly reinventing itself. The white cultural power structure cannibalizes that, draws on it, co-opts it, if you like, and re-invigorates itself. This is now going on in the world writ-large; if you look at music, for example, the way in which black music, South African music, is being used int he first world. It's probably wrong to call it completely exploitative. the argument has to be more complicated today. Paul Simon's Graceland is not only plagiarism, cultural theft, or whatever, it's also a form of cultural diffusion which is comparable, if you like, in mass culture to what the Romantics did for world culture in the early nineteenth century. It's a complicated matter that has many positive features, but it also signals the exhaustion of the capacity of first world societies to produce their own culture."
This analysis seems to me right on target. As I've said, it would be wrong to simply see in the Graceland phenomenon nothing but pure exploitation and cultural appropriation. It would be wrong to see nothing but an encounter structured by imperialist global relations. A touch of ambivalence is required for several reasons--not least of which the danger lurking here if we simply render the South African musicians who played on Graceland as mere victims. As many have said (e.g. Ray Phiri), they used Paul Simon in some ways just as he surely used them. This isn't to suggest that we read the cultural encounter here as one of complete symmetry--what I've said above still stands and clearly militates against such a facile conclusion. But it does introduce a degree of complexity that acknowledges the agency of South African musicians operating in a field that is structured by imperialism and neo-colonial power relations at the global level.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On "Hipster Racism"

(I apologize that this post is a little late to the game... I wrote this a few days back but, for personal reasons, had to delay finishing it until today).

Many will have seen this Jezebel piece which seems to be getting a lot of play on the internet. There are other iterations of the debate about "hipster racism" out there (the term seems to have been coined by a Racialicious blogger a few years back), but I haven't had time to examine them yet. So, in this post I'll just focus on the Jezebel piece, but hopefully what I say has relevance to the discussion writ large. I think the piece makes some good points (I'll say what I think those are in a moment), which no doubt explains why it has been getting so much attention. But it also evinces some of the contradictions afflicting certain ways of thinking about race, racism and racial oppression.

First, let me say what I think the piece gets right. The thing that is most important, I think, is that the piece attacks the long-standing assumption of many liberals--dating back to the 50s and 60s and before--that racism is merely something that afflicts poor, working-class Southern whites. That assumption was incessantly criticized by radicals in the 60s--Malcolm X excoriated it on a number of occasions--but it continues to live on today as a way of shifting the blame away from powerful groups.

I also think the piece rightly attacks reactionary forms of "irony" that put forward stale status-quo truisms clothed in an apparently self-mocking "critical" exterior. This is a pervasive phenomenon in contemporary capitalist societies. The political antinomies of ironic cultural interventions--which are clearly on display in this debate--certainly casts doubt on the political viability of esoteric po-mo strategies such as "parodic redeployment".

The author of the Jezebel piece has some great examples of this "ironic racism" phenomenon. Basically, a person--who fancies herself an "educated" and enlightened liberal--employs some typical racist argument/trope/attitude/judgment/etc. in a way that is meant to reveal some sort of critical self-awareness that supposedly inoculates it from criticism. Under the guises of social criticism, some racist trope is employed in a way that is meant to garner laughs. But rather than the latter (the joking) doing the bidding of the former (the criticizing), the roles are reversed. The "critical" preface serves as little more than window dressing meant to shield the "jokes" from any pushback.

There are more and less sophisticated--and ostensibly "critical" and self-aware--versions of this phenomenon. The most insidious forms are precisely those that make the strongest claims to critical self-awareness. I've seen it too many times: someone begins with something like "you know, we white people are all so damned racist to the core, blah blah blah" followed by some racist joke or remark which is supposedly "ironic" or cute because it is conjoined with a preface about how racist attitudes are so pervasive. But this "ironic" posture only serves as bludgeon to ward off criticism. This joking attitude implicitly rejects relations of equality, solidarity and respect with oppressed peoples and then paints them as uptight when they get upset about not liking a "joke" whose punchline is at their expense.

Similarly, I've always been bothered by the number of white comedians who have a bit about how it's so "unfair" that white people can't "use" the N-word (hahaha isn't that so funny?). Netflix recently recommended I watch some comic who opened with this line, after prefacing his remarks by saying that he'd hoped the election of Obama would encourage people to "chill out" about race instead of getting so "worked up." I hate this (ostensibly apolitical, but inherently conservative) claim that race is "complicated" or "polarizing", that "we" all just need to sit down and relax and be more tolerant, etc. It is usually accompanied by the absurd (and racist!) argument that there are "extremists" on both sides and the truth represents some moderate, golden mean between the KKK and Malcolm X.

Needless to say, I canned that "comedian" about 2 minutes into his set, but I can't say that he's the only one I've seen doing this schtick. White dude comedy all too often acts as a repository for all sorts of racist tripe that can't be explicitly avowed without the (ultimately dubious) cover provided by the role of the funnyman. There's nothing more reactionary here than complaining that radical criticism should leave culture and comedy untouched--that is nothing but a silencing maneuver meant to enable oppressive ruling ideologies to continue to flourish without pushback. Whatever we say about the Jezebel piece, it certainly does a decent job of breaking this conservative shielding maneuver and opening up critical discussion.

Then there's the awful "stuff white people like phenomenon" which takes an overdrawn class-specific cultural stereotype (the "latte-liberal" "bobos" that conservative hacks like David Brooks love to lampoon) and equates whiteness as such with all of its features (while, at the same time, essentializing non-white people as the inverse image of this absurd cultural stereotype and tacitly excluding working class whites). I think the article does a nice job of smacking down this sort of bullshit as well, although this image of the "hipster" in popular discourse is little different in many respects from the "latte liberal" and performs a similar function. The author says nothing about this or the fact that the label "hipster" itself has a racialized history that's worthy of critical reflection (although, to be fair, this history seems to me only to butress many of the points made in the piece).

But that isn't my primary beef with the Jezebel piece. My main frustration is this: Despite mentioning things like entrenched inequalities and oppression in passing, the article basically leaves us with the impression that racism is nothing more than a matter of individual character traits, gestures, and cultural forms. It comes dangerously close to suggesting that individual people simply need to speak, joke, consume, tweet, and facebook differently than they do and then racism could be overcome. It says nothing about what the structural roots of racism are and how they have been challenged and fought. It leaves us with a basically inward-looking perspective that fails to bring the system into view, despite its passing references to entrenched inequalities and oppression. I dont' say that the author thinks these things don't matter, but I do say that the article fails to make the case for the central importance of these structural factors against the reigning dogma that all racism is mere individual prejudice or a matter of "discourse".

Take, for example, the "wily little bacterium" metaphor that is meant to explain contemporary racism. This makes it seem as though racism today is nothing but an affliction within particular individuals that is difficult to get rid of. But this individualist, inward-looking metaphor obscures the social, structural and systemic ways that racism operates. If it were simply a matter of individuals with bad beliefs, habits, attitudes and all the rest, it would have been destroyed long ago. Racism, unfortunately, is a far worse problem than that--it is a structural feature of basic social institutions, especially policing and incarceration which have recently come under a lot of fire after mass protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin.

This is all to say: Racism isn't just some product that people buy at Urban Outfitters. Racism isn't simply a set of subtle consumer habits, ways of talking, gestures, jokes and so on. Racism murders people on a mass scale and gets away with it. It kills black youth with impunity. It marginalizes, humiliates and devalues millions of lives. It degrades and plunders the cultural and intellectual achievements of people of color. It denies them basic human rights, saddles them with burdens others don't have to bear. It locks millions inside a cage, profits from their labor, and then has the audacity to use this state of affairs to further degrade and attack them. It designates some people as "aliens" who deserve to be subject to raids and vigilante violence. It justifies imperialist wars and occupations that brand Arabs and Muslims as "barbarians" who want nothing more than to destroy "the American way of life."

These aren't side issues. This is the face of racism today. The cultural and discursive (what Marxists would call ideological) functioning of racism is important and must be criticized. But let's not allow Ideologiekritik to come untethered from the material conditions that give it its political force. Let's not forget the system that breeds and reproduces these ideological formations in the first place.

Put this way, it becomes clear that anti-racists have to do a whole lot more than ask ordinary people to try to talk, dress and joke in different ways. They have to demand that all working people throw themselves into the collective struggle to fight for a society free of oppression in all of its manifestations.