Philadelphia has a large population of black, disaffected youth. It also has a black mayor. But when some of these young people began to spontaneously protest the obscene level of urban segregation and systematic poverty of the city with “flash mobs,” it was Mayor Michael Nutter who launched the counter-attack, imposing the disciplinary measure of an earlier curfew in wealthy white areas. Curfews, as George Ciccariello-Maher points out, “have historically served as a racist weapon for the containment of Black bodies” – but Nutter himself made the point by accompanying this measure with an ideological assault on black Philadelphians in general. In a speech at a church, he said:
Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt… Comb your hair. And get some grooming skills… Running round here with your hair all over the place. Learn some manners. Keep your butt in school… And why don’t you work on extending your English vocabulary… beyond the few curse words that you know, some other grunts and grumbles and other things that none of us can understand what you’re saying.
We want to juxtapose this with a complementary story that took place in Europe, when the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik set out to attack “cultural Marxism.” In spite of the fact that he shot young white socialists, Breivik conceived of this project as systematic with the destruction of “multiculturalism.” The importance of his project for capital was appreciated by the bourgeois press, who made a considerable effort to argue that this terrorism was only an extreme expression of “legitimate concerns about genuine problems” resulting from widespread Muslim immigration.
What these strange events – a black élite perpetuating racist stereotypes to attack the poor, and a neo-fascist murdering white leftists on the basis of racist ideology – seem to suggest is that racism, as a strategy of controlling and dividing the working class, exists today in an abstract but still powerful form. By abstract, we only mean that racism can’t be reduced to individual acts of discrimination; it’s part of the dynamic logic of capitalism. There is, of course, a dramatic empirical history; Stephen Steinberg has recently described how the right-wing backlash against affirmative action, alongside the stigmatization of “the black family,” served as the foundation for the bipartisan “counter-revolution” that would dismantle the welfare state for all races.
But what we’re interested in here is the structural role of racism. Throughout Europe the Right has clearly connected its projects of privatizing society and destroying the power of labor with the attack on immigrants and the brutal disciplining of the banlieue population. Étienne Balibar has pointed to “the heterogeneity of the historical forms of the relationship between racism and the class struggle” in Europe, ranging “from the way in which anti-Semitism developed into a bogus ‘anti-capitalism’ around the theme of ‘Jewish money’ to the way in which racial stigma and class hatred are combined today in the category of immigration.” From this history he concludes that “each of these configurations is irreducible,” that it is ultimately “impossible to define any simple relationship of ‘expression’ (or, equally, of substitution) between racism and class struggle.”
It’s hard to find evidence of European leftists who see the right-wing racist backlash as a “legitimate concern about genuine problems” with the “multiculturalist” ideology of neoliberalism, and who go on to conclude that multiculturalism is the main enemy. In fact, many of them have turned to American debates on “whiteness” and “border crossing” to understand their own political situation. But strangely enough, such theories are gaining attention here.
The most vocal representative of this tendency is a literary critic named Walter Benn Michaels, who wrote in a New Left Review article called “Against Diversity” that “American liberals feel a lot better about a world in which the top 20 per cent are getting richer at the expense of everyone else, as long as that top 20 per cent includes a proportionate number of women and African-Americans.” Michaels’ argument is that in spite of major legal and cultural measures against racism and sexism, economic inequality has only grown. This indictment of liberal apologies for capitalism is powerful enough. But the argument is taken much further: political struggles against racism and sexism are not only distractions from the struggle against inequality, they are justifications for inequality, the guilty conscience of neoliberalism. As he wrote in the London Review of Books, anti-racism and anti-sexism “have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and… insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing.”
To really understand what he means by this, we should step back to Michaels’ earlier work. He became well-known for a manifesto co-authored with Steven Knapp called “Against Theory” – Michaels is apparently fond of such titles – in which he argued that the deconstructivist interest in the “materiality” of signs mistakenly separated the meaning of a text from the author’s intention. “Theory,” as a set of methods that addressed how to interpret things in general, was a useless project, Michaels argued, precisely because the meaning of the text and the intention of the author are the same. In other words, because there is no space, or slippage, between the two, there should be no need for “theory.” His elaboration of this view claimed that the emphasis on interpretation rested on a concept of identity: who the reader is matters more than what the text says. What really counts, Michaels claimed, is ideas, the beliefs elaborated by authors independent of their identities.
It’s a strange notion, since “who you are” clearly has a lot to do with the languages you speak, and the ideas contained in a text you write are no more “real” than “who you are.” Surely, after all, ideas don’t have primacy on their own; unless you believe that ideas make the world, you’ll be interested in studying the historical process that these ideas are a part of, which involves who’s speaking, who’s listening, and how they’re communicating. Antonio Gramsci put it this way: “The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and of ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory.”
And in fact it was the argument of Fredric Jameson that Michaels’ practice as a literary critic in a work like The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, by absorbing itself in historical detail, ended up rediscovering these theoretical questions: studying the constitution of identity “on the model of private property,” asking whether the logic of the market in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie could be considered ideology or critique, reinterpreting the naturalist fantasy of “some Utopian space outside the dynamics of the market” as an ideological supplement to the market itself – recapitulating themes familiar from Lukács to Adorno, but without the self-critical perspective often called “theory.” This conspicuous absence, Jameson concluded, is exactly what led Michaels to dispassionately analyze market logic as the logic of American culture, and ignore the Marxian critique that begins with the “primacy of production,” ultimately oriented by the political project called “socialism.”
But since Michaels has extended this argument to the more visible and practical issues of American politics, many on the Left have signed on with this odd ideology. It’s the same argument: political movements that are based on the demands of particular groups are just locked into authorial identity. What counts is the right idea – the idea of equality – and not the particularity of the actual subjects involved. Any identity-based movement may change the color of those who suffer inequality, but inequality will remain. This doesn’t mean, Michaels argued in the LRB, that there should be a struggle against “classism” that would offer “positive affirmation for the working classes.” Class is not an identity; it’s the difference between a good life and pure deprivation. For Michaels, turning the poor into an identity to be defended would be reactionary – you’d be celebrating lives that are defined by abjection.
Considering that fostering “diversity” has become a replacement for the elimination of poverty and inequality, especially among academics with large salaries, it’s no surprise that committed leftists are drawn to Michaels’ arguments. It’s certainly important to resist this condemnable tendency on the part of affluent liberals to abandon the white working class, and indeed the working class in general, in favor of politically correct policing of television shows. However, this is no excuse for a distortion of reality, or for abandoning the foundations of radical politics. Just like “multiculturalism,” the discourse of equality can only emerge from a liberal viewpoint. Michaels certainly has the right to a liberal viewpoint. But it’s hard to understand why Marxists would endorse it.
The unique thing about Marxist politics is that it doesn’t aim for a more enlightened distribution of wealth, the Proudhonian dream of a society managed by egalitarian accountants. Marxism breaks from the view that class is a matter of privilege or relative wealth. Class is the fundamental social relation of society insofar as it represents the division between people who own the means of production and those who are forced to sell their ability to work. The consequence is that the capitalist class dominates and exploits the working class. This is a totally different phenomenon from distribution, and the Marxist analysis takes it one admirable step further. The way to change this system is not for intellectuals to decry its moral degradation and administrators to reorganize it more equitably. Instead, it can only be changed when the exploited themselves express their political power – when they abolish this whole relationship of domination and run society for themselves.
An abstract politics of equality on behalf of the poor totally buries the agency of the working class – it falls prey to the ideology of the bourgeois utopians who, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.” Those who define the working class by its deprivation obscure the fact that people make their lives with what they have available to them, often imaginatively refusing the limits imposed on them by capitalism. Most importantly, they forget that what the working class does on a daily basis – work – is what the capitalist class requires to accumulate profit and to build all of society. A purely negative definition of the working class leaves no space for it to struggle for its own emancipation. And perversely, it ends up celebrating the very culture of the rich, the culture of entitlement, that engages in “multiculturalism.” This kind of “equality” seems to rest on the premise that we will one day all become latte-sipping multiculturalists.
What this means is that calling for equality on the basis of class is also a form of identity politics. Michaels illustrates this theoretical twist when he declares in an interview that he comes down on the “redistribution side” of Nancy Fraser’s theory of “redistribution and recognition.” But Fraser’s argument has been precisely that redistribution and recognition should be understood as two elements of one larger framework of justice, which is based on “parity of participation.” This conception of justice is actually derived from Fraser’s reworking of identity politics into “status,” since status hierarchies interfere with the capacity of individuals to participate as “full partners in social interaction.” Whether you’re criticizing unequal distribution of wealth or discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, the normative framework is somewhere between a Silicon Valley board meeting and the “safe space” of a consciousness-raising group. Ultimately, though Fraser rather incredibly describes an ideal politics based on a “combination of socialism and deconstruction,” her socialist utopia amounts to New Deal nostalgia.
Indeed, the problem is that terms like identity, status, justice, and equality all belong to debates within the same liberal discourse. What they don’t address is the fact that the relationship between the capitalist class and the working class isn’t fundamentally about “inequality”; it’s about power. It was a politics limited to “equal right” and “fair distribution” that Marx railed against in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, contrasting these ideas with the “real relation” that determines distribution.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that demands for equality based on class identity are irrelevant. They are extremely important at the level of propaganda, ethics, and politics, because they mobilize a wide range of people, they alleviate real suffering, and they empower workers. But they are reforms which don’t address the fundamental structure of capitalism. This, after all, is the crucial issue: the fundamental structure of capitalism. White populists are fond of arguing that capitalism has adapted to racial equality. It doesn’t need racism, and now its damage is done purely at the level of class.
This is a peculiar argument. It seems to imagine that capitalism is some kind of beautiful jewel hidden in an uncut stone. If we just carve away all the extraneous and unnecessary trappings, we will arrive at the essence of capitalism, a pure and unadulterated concept that has been waiting since the 17th century to be discovered.
But capitalism isn’t an essence; it’s a social relation that assumes historically specific forms. Race and class are not totally independent layers of exploitation; they constitute different aspects of a reciprocally implicated relationship. Since they are not just externally related but actually interpenetrate one another, it’s ridiculous to argue that combating racism would have absolutely no effect on capitalism. These two struggles have always been related, but the irreducible specificities of this relationship have always varied from one conjuncture to the next.
The other side of the argument that race and class are entirely unrelated is the equally crude assertion that class now includes race within itself: any serious problem suffered by people of color in America results from their class position, not their race. In this view, the complicated relationship between race and class has been abruptly resolved by subsuming the former into the latter. Instead of closely examining the ways in which the relationship between these distinct forms has changed over time, we get a world where all particularities have been swallowed up by an overfed – though paradoxically undernourished – conception of class.
In this light, we have to reconsider the meaning of the movements against racism. It’s inadequate to argue that struggles against racism have now grown irrelevant because they achieved a few victories in the past. After all, capitalism itself has also adapted to a wide range of class-based demands: the eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, safer working conditions. Does this mean these demands, and their continuation or radicalization, are somehow epiphenomenal and irrelevant?
Instead of imagining these struggles as cutting a progressive and irreversible incision through each layer of exploitation, we have to recognize that they addressed specific elements of capitalism’s concrete historical existence. Struggles waged against capitalist domination put forth trade-union demands and forced capital to restructure itself, to adapt to a militant labor movement. Similarly, historical struggles against racism were an attack on the historically specific form of capitalism, which emerged from a racialized slave state. In response, capital restructured the hierarchies imposed on the working class. Instead of unilinear progress, we have to see these actions as part of the dynamic restructuring of a historical relationship.
The same has always been true of gender. “The labour of women and children,” Marx wrote in Capital, “was the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery.” The introduction of machinery, which overcame the need for muscular strength, allowed capitalists to put women and children to work while simultaneously attenuating capital’s previous dependence on male labor. Capitalists could therefore generate more surplus-value and fracture the unity of the working class at the same time. Capital took advantage of the relative inexperience and general political disorganization of these new workers by working them harder and paying them less, ultimately increasing the general level of competition within the working class. With women now able to do their husband’s old jobs for less, capitalists were freed to come down harder on recalcitrant male workers. The men’s political resistance was undermined while women – who now had to balance the waged labor of the factory with the unwaged labor of the household – came to occupy, as the most exploited and least organized sector of the class, the most vulnerable position.
Recent changes in American capitalism attest to the continuing significance of the mutually involved relationship between gender and class. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, men – who were hit hardest by the recession – are actually regaining jobs far more quickly than women. From June 2009 to May 2011 men gained 768,000 jobs while women lost 218,000. But the striking fact is that men are outpacing women because capital is allowing them to take over the very vocations that have been traditionally gendered feminine: health care, education, and services in general. This is nothing less than a destructuring of the workforce. Women are forced to reenter the household as unwaged domestic workers while husbands do their wives’ old jobs for lower wages. The strategy of decreasing real wages and increasing the cost of living attacks the proletariat as a whole, but focuses its terror on unemployed mothers. This restructuring of the sexual division of labor, now coupled with major cuts to services like social security, precisely the services that unpaid domestic workers depend on most, serves to break the unity of female workers by forcing them to absorb the undue strain placed on the rest of the proletariat.
Such intersections of class and social categories mislabeled “identity” are exactly what make it impossible to abandon struggles against racism and sexism insofar as they have a concrete relation to class struggle. Otherwise we lapse into the assumption, as Robert McChesney said in another context, that the American working class is entirely made up of “middle-aged, overweight white men.” The political consequences of such a view are disastrous; imagine a labor organizer going up to North Philadelphia and telling black workers that they should forget about how the cop disrespects them, because what matters is the white workers on strike in Center City.
To avoid such embarrassments, we’ll need to carefully examine prevailing ideas about class and identity, and trace their history. Seth Ackerman has written an interesting article dissecting the numbers in opinion polls. He points out that “racial resentment” is measured, for example, by agreement to statements like “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.” The numbers show that while 59% of white people agreed with this statement, 86% of them agreed with the non-racialized statement that “any person who is willing to work hard has a good chance of succeeding,” a measure of “individualism.” Ackerman argues that the former is merely a consequence of the latter – a “spandrel,” to use the concept made famous by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, an accidental result of a wider structure that nevertheless monopolizes our attention, due to its spectacular appearance. In other words, white people aren’t racist, they are just expressing a much broader individualist ideology.
We only want to suggest that both of these beliefs are spandrels, as indeed are most incoherent expressions of political ideology. The individualist dream of social mobility is not necessarily compatible with a society that is based on the preservation of a systematically exploited working class. In certain cases, it is ideologically effective in encouraging people who are exploited to work hard, as they dream of one day becoming millionaires. But this is a specific expression of individualism, which belongs to a more general conception Marx described in the Critique of the Gotha Programme as “bourgeois right.” After all, it would be impossible for someone to succeed simply as a function of working hard without the wider social value of rewarding people in proportion to their hard work. An individualist conception of “right” like that certainly enables the conservative Horatio Alger theory of society, but it also enables a trade-union demand for better pay for more work, and even, as Marx wrote, serves as a contingent basis for the socialist reorganization of the labor process.
So let’s return to these complementary spandrels. As we have noted, Ackerman points out that 59% of whites believe that black people could get ahead if they work harder, while 86% of whites believe that hard work is rewarded with success in general. Without getting too deeply into the data, let’s accept Ackerman’s argument that the former is an extension of the latter – so 59% of whites believe it is important to specify that this “individualist” logic applies in spite of any history of structural racial inequality. What Ackerman wants us to understand is that black people agreed with the general, non-racialized declaration of individualism even more strongly than white people.
The question is what this intersection of views represents. It would be an oversimplification to conclude that black and white people simply share an individualist false consciousness. It is possible – and in fact highly likely – that the overall ideological meaning of these statements is completely different, depending on who is uttering them. When white people agree with a statement that racializes the individualist sentiment – that is, a statement that introduces race as a variable and dismisses its structural importance – this is systematic with an entire history of racial divisions and hierarchies within the working class, a model in which white success is predicated on black disadvantage. When a black person makes such a statement, it has far greater proximity to a tendency in African-American politics that extends from Marcus Garvey to the Nation of Islam. Though this tendency addressed poor blacks and told them to get jobs, stop drinking, and wear bowties, it did so as part of a black nationalist politics that sought to develop black political power, to fight the wider political and economic structures that kept racism in place.
Just like any other ideological spandrel, this is a contradictory belief – it can just as easily be assimilated into the lineage that goes from Booker T. Washington to Bill Cosby, which tells poor black people to buck up and get to work, while dismissing the structural exploitation that occurs at the nexus of race and class.
In the early 20th century, one of the major tasks undertaken by the American communist movement was to take this “self-help” philosophy of black nationalism and make it part of revolutionary anti-capitalism – the principle, above all, was unity of the proletariat, which was impossible if black people remained in a state of hyper-exploitation, buttressed by the extra-economic coercion that comes from segregation of urban space, hierarchization of the workforce, and policing by repressive state apparatuses.
For example, William Z. Foster described in 1926 the effect of racial divisions on the class struggle in general:
The policy of the employers is to develop the Negroes as a great reserve army of strikebreakers. They refuse to give the Negroes employment in many industries and trades unless they come in as strikebreakers. They force them to accept the lowest wages and the most terrible working conditions. They leave no stone unturned to exploit the deep race antagonism between whites and blacks in order to force the Negro to scab. And in many great strikes, such as for example the 1919 steel strike, where at least 50,000 Negroes were brought into the mills during the strike, they are only too successful.
This reality was reinforced by the craft unions, whose white chauvinism led them to block black workers from joining. The solution, said Foster, was for white and black workers to struggle together – but this could only be achieved if black workers were able to organize on their own terms, without their interests being subordinated to those of white workers.
Ultimately this led the communist movement to incorporate the demands made by black nationalist movements, represented by Marcus Garvey but also by black communist groups like the African Black Brotherhood. This policy, based on the Bolshevik endorsement of movements for national self-determination, was institutionalized in the 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions on the “black national question,” but what is interesting above all is its practical effect. Communist Party USA members risked their lives to engage in activism that included organizing armed self-defense from lynching in the South, anti-eviction campaigns in Harlem, and the Sharecropper’s Union that won a strike for better cotton prices.
The political importance of this policy was not lost on the rest of the communist movement. Some Trotskyists suggested rejecting the nationalist line in favor of “social, political and economic equality for Negroes.” But Trotsky himself considered this a “liberal demand,” and in fact a “concession to the point of view of American chauvinism.”
“I understand what ‘political equality’ means,” Trotsky said. “But what is the meaning of economical and social equality within capitalist society?” Ultimately he concluded that “the Negro can be developed to a class standpoint only when the white worker is educated.” It was those white workers who fought for black self-determination, who defended black workers from the police, who Trotsky looked to: “those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them.” This struggle against racism was the condition for a class struggle: “The Negroes will through their awakening, through their demand for autonomy, and through the democratic mobilization of their forces, be pushed on toward the class basis.”
The implications of this history must be seriously elaborated. First of all, it would be impossible to speak today of a united labor movement if this early nationalist turn had not laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. But even further, the wider political logic must be continued, since such practical activity has important analogies today. Within the communist practice enabled by the black national question, the anti-lynching movement was inseparable from the “economic” battles against evictions and for unemployment benefits. It’s difficult not to notice that these links are still present – the past year saw the murder of Troy Davis by the prison-industrial complex, and the police brutality against the occupations movements recalls the systematic attacks on black communities. The economic battles of yesterday persist alongside the clearly racialized issues of migrant labor, welfare, and “school reform.” There was and still is no way to organize black workers for their self-emancipation without frankly acknowledging the racist articulations of class power, and it’s clearly the only way for movements against economic exploitation to incorporate the sectors of the working class that suffer the most from evictions and foreclosures.
Obviously, it would be illogical to simply repeat unreconstructed claims about nationalism today. It is crucial to use a Marxist theory of self-determination to confront “essentialist” nationalisms. Black nationalism is a way to defend the interests of one sector of the class, to unify it, ground its autonomy, and strengthen its struggle. But it can also produce internal oppression, artificially homogenize the group, and force the community as a whole to subordinate itself to the representation of one of its segments – say, black men. And these risks are clear from Garvey to Farrakhan.
But from the point of view of the American revolutionaries of the 1920s and 1930s, black nationalism was a weapon that could be strategically reappropriated. What is important is that this classical left practice wasn’t at the level of identity. It confronted the historical specificity of capitalism, which is articulated at the level of the nation-state – and advanced a politics based on the self-emancipation of an agent, therefore the unity of this agent, that social processes have reduced to a certain function. Our historical predecessors recognized that the slogan of self-determination came far closer to the self-emancipation of the proletariat than any liberal platitude about equality.
Such a practice demonstrates the only effective means of combating neoliberal identity politics: a politics based on the primacy of class struggle, which carefully addresses the mediation of class by other elements of the social formation in order to construct the unity of the proletariat. It is this lesson, from the American revolutionaries whose legacy is worth reclaiming, that we should recall as we debate the complex relationship between race and class. We can start by asking a simple question: why have the black youth who participated in the Philadelphia flash mobs been so conspicuously absent from the occupation at City Hall? Projects like Occupy the Hood pose the next question: how can this division be overcome? The future of an anti-capitalist movement depends on the answer.
Asad Haider is a graduate student at UC-Santa Cruz. Salar Mohandesi is a graduate student at UPenn. They are the editors of Viewpoint.