Critical authoritarianism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

Immanent critique

Whenever approaching any phenomenon, Adorno’s procedure is one of immanent dialectical critique. The phenomenon is treated as not accidental or arbitrary but as a necessary form of appearance that points beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. It is a phenomenon of the necessity for change. The conditions of possibility for change indicated by the phenomenon in question are explored immanently, from within. The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment.

Everything is taken not merely as it “is,” as it happens to exist, but rather as it “ought” to be, as it could and should be, yielding as-yet unrealized potentials and possibilities. So it is with “authoritarianism,” in Adorno’s view. For Adorno, the key is how psychological authoritarianism is self-contradictory and points beyond itself. Adorno is interested in the “actuality” of authoritarianism: as Wilhelm Reich put it, the “progressive character of fascism;”[1] as Walter Benjamin put it, the “positive concept of barbarism.”[2]

This demands a critical approach rather than a merely descriptive or analytically positive or affirmative approach. For something can be affirmed either in its justification and legitimation or in its denunciation. In either case, the phenomenon is left as it is; whereas, for Adorno, as a Marxist, “the point is to change it.”[3]

So, what possibilities for change are indicated by authoritarianism, and how are such possibilities pointed to by the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis? For Adorno, it is unfortunate that social contradiction has passed from ideology and politics in society to individual psychology (indeed, this expresses a political failure), but there it is.[4] The “F-scale” is misleading, as Adorno notes, in that it might—despite its being posed as a “scale” —be mistaken for a matter of difference in kind rather than degree. Meaning that, for Adorno, everyone is more or less susceptible to fascism—everyone is more or less authoritarian.

The competing aspects of the individual psyche between liberal individuality and authoritarian tendencies is itself the self-contradiction of authoritarianism Adorno sought to explore. In capitalism, liberalism is the flip-side of the same coin as fascism. Individualism and collectivism are an antinomy that express capitalist contradiction. For individualism violates true individuality and collectivism violates the true potential of the social collectivity. Individuality and collectivity remain unfulfilled desiderata, the aspirations and goals of bourgeois society, its emancipatory promise. For Adorno (as for Marx), both are travestied in capitalism—mere “shams.”

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, Jan 15 2016.

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, January 15, 2016.

Authoritarianism is an expression of that travesty of society. Fascism is the sham collectivity in which the sham individuality hides itself; just as liberalism is the sham individuality that conceals the collective condition of society. That collective condition is not a state of being but the task of the need for socialism beyond capitalism. Fascism as well as liberalism expresses that unfulfilled need and tasking demand for socialism in capitalism.

So what would it mean to critique authoritarianism in an immanently dialectical manner? What is the critical value of authoritarianism, in Adorno’s view? How can the potential possibility pointing beyond capitalism be expressed by authoritarianism and revealed rather than concealed by individual psychology? How is society critically revealed in authoritarianism, pointing to socialism?

Psychology

In “Sociology and psychology”[5] Adorno diagnoses the division of psychology from sociology as itself a symptom of contradiction in society—of the actual separation and contradiction of the individual and the collective in capitalism.

In The Authoritarian Personality,[6] Adorno et al. wrote that the fascist personality was characterized by identification with technology, the love for instruments as “equipment.” Here, Adorno found the emancipatory potential beyond capitalism precisely in such identification and imitation: it becomes a matter of the form of individuation. In “Imaginative excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia,[7] Adorno wrote that,

[N]o… faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism the subhuman creature who as dishonour’s progeny shall never be allowed to avert it.

The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.

In “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” Adorno seeks to redeem authoritarianism in his conclusion when he offers that, “Even discipline can take over the expression of free solidarity if freedom becomes its content.” He goes on that, “As little as [authoritarianism] is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if [individual psychology], in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical”[8] — that is, in going beyond capitalism. Here, critical authoritarianism is met by a critical individualism in which “collective powers are liquidating an individuality past saving, but against them only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity.”[9] What are the aims of the collectivity expressed by the identification with technology? What Adorno following Benjamin called “mimesis”[10] Freud analyzed psychologically as “identification.” Adorno wrote that “the pressure to be permitted to obey… is today more general than ever.” But what Marx called the “industrial forces of production” are constrained and distorted by the “bourgeois social relations of production” in capitalism. There is a homologous contradiction within the individual personality.

In “Reflections on Class Theory”, Adorno wrote that,

Dehumanization is no external power, no propaganda, however conceived, no exclusion from culture. It is precisely the intrinsic reality of the oppressed in the system, who used formerly to stand out because of their wretchedness, whereas today their wretchedness lies in the fact that they can never escape. That they suspect that the truth is propaganda, while swallowing the propaganda culture that is fetishized and distorted into the madness of an unending reflection of themselves.

This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. They catch up with the technical forces of production in which the relations of production lie hidden: in this way these relations lose the shock of their alien nature because the alienation is so complete. But they may soon also lose their power. Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.[11]

Society

Karl Marx regarded the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat” as a phenomenon of “Bonapartism” — the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte as a result of the failure of the Revolution of 1848 in France. This was Marx’s difference from the anarchists: the recognition of the necessity of the state in capitalism.[12] Hence one should regard Marx on the dictatorship of the proletariat as a “critical Bonapartist.”[13] Bonapartism expressed an objective societal need rather than a subjective attitude. Bonapartist response to the objective social crisis and contradiction of capitalism pointed beyond itself and so required a dialectical critique, which Marx thought the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon failed to provide by treating Bonapartism as objectively determined, apologizing for it, as did the sentimental socialist Victor Hugo who treated Bonapartism as a monstrous historical accident like a “bolt from the blue.”[14] Fatalism and contingency were two sides of the same contradiction that obscured a necessity that could be addressed properly only in a dialectical way. These are the terms in which Adorno addressed “authoritarianism.”

Adorno’s “critical authoritarianism” addresses what the “immanent dialectical critique” of authoritarianism would mean, both in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic categories of description, and in terms of (absent) politics for socialism. Adorno’s Dream Notes records a dream of his participating in a gang-rape, as a primal scene of fascism.[15] The “delightful young mulatto . . . the kind of woman one sees in Harlem” who catches his eye admonishes him that “This is the style of the Institute.” The homosexuality and sado-masochism of authoritarianism in pre-Oedipal psychology; the desire as well as fear to “liquidate the ego” in ambivalence about individuality; critical (as opposed to methodological or affirmative) individualism; the desire and fear of collectivity in authoritarian collectivism; projection, identification and counter-identification providing for social cohesion as well as for separation and atomization —these are the themes of Adorno’s critical approach to psychology in late capitalism.

A similar thought was articulated contemporaneously by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, which characterizes negrophobic racism as “repressed homosexuality” and a “narcissistic disorder.” Fanon describes the Freudian approach to rape fantasies as a masochistic fear and desire that is an internalized projection of parental authority, a self-sadism. One fears what one wishes to happen; a wish is a way of mastering a fear by internalizing it; a fear is a way of repressing a wish. The reason rape is so traumatic is that it activates and violates such infantile experiences. There is the experience of parental seduction harking back to the anal phase of libido development, when the child experiences itself as unable to control its excretion, which is experienced as disturbingly involuntary, a blow to narcissism in the difficulty of toilet training, seeking to please the parents’ expectations. The parents’ cleaning of the infant is pleasurably stimulating, and the child internalizes the parent’s simultaneous desire and disgust, attraction and repulsion, which becomes the complex of feelings, the combination of shame and guilt with pleasure, that the child takes in its own bodily functions. Humiliation at loss of self-control is a formative experience of transforming narcissism into identification. The infant’s desire for the parents is an identification with the feared power.[16] The parents embody the ego-ideal of self-control. This is channeled later through gendered object-libido in the Oedipus complex as genital pleasure, but retains the sado-masochistic qualities of the anal phase, which precedes gender identification and so exhibits more basic, homosexual (ungendered) qualities that prevents the recognition of difference and individuality. In a narcissistic—authoritarian—society everyone becomes trapped in a static and self-reinforcing identity, where the need was actually to allow the opening to non-identity of freedom: the freedom to “overcome oneself” allowed by the healthy ego.

Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

“The madness of an unending reflection of themselves.” Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

Fanon sought to provide an account of how “racial narcissism”—the failure of the individual ego—could yet point beyond itself, specifically in its treacherously dyadic character of Self and Other, to the need that was blocked: “the world of the You.”[17]

Adorno brings into his discussion of The Authoritarian Personality a key background writing for Fanon’s BSWM, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, which assumes, as Adorno does, contemporary anti-Semitism as a norm and not an aberration. He states simply that what needs to be explained is why anyone is “not anti-Semitic.” But this pointed not to a problem of psychology but of society. As Adorno commended Sartre’s treatment of anti-Semitism:

We distinguish between anti-semitism as an objective social phenomenon, and the anti-semite as a peculiar type of individuality similar to Sartre’s exposé which, for good reasons, is called “Portrait of the Antisemite” rather than “Psychology of Anti-semitism”. This kind of personality is accessible to psychological analysis…. It would be quite impossible to reduce the objective phenomenon of present-day anti-semitism with its age-old background and all social and economic implications, to the mentality of those who, to speak with Sartre, have to make their decision in regard to this issue. Today, each and every man is faced with a tremendous bulk of objectively existing prejudices, discriminations and articulate anti-semitic attitudes. The accumulated power of this objective complex is so great and apparently so far beyond individual powers of resistance that one might indeed ask, why are people not antisemitic, [sic] instead of asking why certain kinds of people are anti-semitic. Thus, it would be naive to base a prognosis of anti-semitism, this truly “social” disease, on the diagnosis of the individual patients.

This means that the self-contradiction expressed by (non-)racism is one of society as well: the racist society points beyond itself objectively as well as subjectively, socially as well as individually. Racism as a problem contains the key to its own solution.[18] Anti-Semitic demagogues identified with Jews when imitating their stereotypical mannerisms;[19] white racists of the Jim Crow era performed minstrel shows in black-face. As Fanon put it, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence;” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”[20] Racism will end when black people become white. Or, as Adorno put it in “Reflections on Class Theory,” “Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.” Racism’s abolition will be its Aufhebung: it will be its Selbstaufhebung, its self-completion as well as its self-negation. So will be the overcoming of authoritarianism in capitalism more generally.

The infamous “F-scale” of The Authoritarian Personality is a scale, which means that authoritarianism or predisposition to fascism is not a difference in kind but of degree: Everyone is more or less authoritarian. The most authoritarian thing would be to deny—to fail to recognize—one’s own authoritarianism.| §


Notes

[1] “[T]he mass basis of fascism, the rebelling lower middle classes, contained not only reactionary but also powerful progressive social forces. This contradiction was overlooked [by contemporary Marxists]” in Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as Material Power” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933/46], trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 3–4.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty” [1933], Selected Writings vol. 2 1927 –34, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, Harvard, 1996), 732.

[3] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” [1845], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/>.

[4] See Max Horkheimer, “On the Sociology of Class Relations” [1943] and my discussion of it, “Without a Socialist Party, there is no Class Struggle, only Rackets,” Nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), available on-line at: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. In “The Authoritarian State” [1940/42], Horkheimer wrote that,

Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable. (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gephardt [New York: Continuum, 1985], 95–117.)

[5] “Sociology and Psychology” [1955], originally written by Adorno for a festschrift celebrating Max Horkheimer’s sixtieth birthday, The piece was published in English translation in two parts in the New Left Review, vol. 46, Nov-Dec 1967, 63-80 and vol. 47, Jan-Feb 1968, 79-97.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950).

[7] Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses” an unpublished piece intended for Minima Moralia,[1944–47] published as section X of “Messages in a Bottle,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, New Left Review, vol. 200, July-August 1993, 12–14.

[8] Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” [1938], Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 314.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] See Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34, Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 19989). 720–722: “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but a windmill and a train” (720).

[11] Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory”, in Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 93-110.

[12] See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852] Ch. VII, where he finds that political atomization leads inexorably to the authoritarian state in Bonapartism:

Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection . . . and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them . . . and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The[ir] political influence . . . therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself. (Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm>.)

Marx’s discussion of the French peasants of the mid-19th century also applied to what he called the “lumpenproletariat” as a constituent of Bonapartism, and so would apply to the working class in capitalism today without a political party organized for the struggle to achieve socialism. The “sack of potatoes” or of “homologous magnitudes” is what Adorno, among others, characterized as the “masses” in the 20th century. (For instance, Benjamin wrote in the Epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] that fascism gave the masses the opportunity to express themselves while depriving them their right to change society.)

Adorno paraphrases Marx here when he writes that,

The masses are incessantly molded from above, they must be mulded, if they are to be kept at bay. The overwhelming machinery of propaganda and cultural industry evidences the necessity of this apparatus for the perpetuation of a set-up the potentialities of which have outgrown the status quo. Since this potential is also the potential of effective resistance against the fascist trend, it is imperative to study the mentality of those who are at the receiver’s end of today’s social dynamics. We must study them not only because they reflect these dynamics, but above all because they are the latter’s intrinsic anti-thesis.

The manifestation — and potential resolution — of this contradiction of the masses in capitalism that otherwise resulted in Bonapartism was through the politics of socialism: Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be achieved by the mass-political socialist party. Marx broke with the anarchists over the latter’s refusal to take “political action” and to thus consign the working class to merely “social action.” i.e. to avoid the necessary struggle for state power.

[13] See my “Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism,” Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015), available on-line at: <http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1064/proletarian-dictatorship-and-state-capitalism/>.

[14] Marx, Preface to the 1869 edition of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/preface.htm>.

[15] Adorno, “New York, 8 February 1941” in Dream Notes (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), 5-6.

[16] See Anna Freud, “Identification with the Aggressor,” Ch. IX, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence [1936].

[17] Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, [1952], trans., Charles Lam Markmann, (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 181.

[18] This is because, according to Adorno, “Those who are incapable of believing their own cause… must constantly prove to themselves the truth of their gospel through the reality and irreversibility of their deeds.” Violent action takes the place of thought and self-reflection; but this suggests the converse, that critical thinking could prevent such disastrous action. See Adorno, “Education after Auschwitz” [1966], in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. and ed. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 191–204.

[19] See Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” [1951], in The Culture Industry (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 132–157.

[20] Fanon, Black Skin, 178.

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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A “rational kernel” of racism?

A reply to disingenuous “critics”

Chris Cutrone

 

 
I must speak to my alleged “rational kernel of racism” comment, which has been deliberately distorted in its meaning. I did not mean that somehow it is reasonable or otherwise acceptable to be racist.

By this statement I was applying Marx’s comment about the “rational kernel” of the Hegelian dialectic, which aimed to take it seriously and demystify it, not debunk or dismiss it. The same is true in addressing racism as ideology — as the “necessary form of appearance” of social reality. I was trying to address the issue of supposed “racism” in terms of the Marxist tradition of “ideology-critique,” or the immanently dialectical critique of ideological forms of appearance, or, explained more plainly, the critique from within of ideologies according to their own self-contradictions, in the interest of seeking how they might be changed.

In this, I follow Wilhelm Reich, who wrote in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46) that Marxists had failed to recognize the “progressive character of fascism” — by which he meant of course not that fascism was itself progressive (Reich was a Communist), but that fascism was a new ideology that met a new historical situation more successfully than Marxism did, and that Marxists were wrong to dismiss fascism as irrational, by which they tried to alibi their own failure to do better politically. The point was why did members of the working class, to whatever degree, support an ideology that was against their interests? Reich thought that Marxists needed to be more like Marx in his critique of ideology.

So, what I meant by the “rational kernel of racism” was the need to address why otherwise rational people would have racist ideologies. It won’t do, I think, to try to dismiss racism as irrational. Rather, the question is, why are people racist? What social realities do racist ideologies express? What social needs are expressed, in however distorted form, by racist ideologies? For it is not a matter that those with racist attitudes have them in their own self-interest. Quite the contrary, it is against their better interests.

In other words, I think that racist ideologies need to be addressed not as straightforward expressions of interests, which concedes too much to the realities of competition of some workers against others, but rather as phenomena of self-contradiction, of living in a self-contradictory society, “capitalism,” which is something real that needs to be changed, not merely ethically deplored, and moreover changed from within: as Lenin put it, capitalism needs to be overcome “on the basis of capitalism itself;” as Marx thought, according to capitalism’s internal contradictions. Racist ideologies need to be regarded as part of this.

However, it must be admitted that nowadays racist ideologies are not nearly as centrally important a part of the social reality of capitalism as they once were. Racism is no longer considered anywhere near as reasonable as it once was. And this is a good thing — though it does present challenges to the “Left’s” own ideologies about the nature and character of social reality. Culturalism is not the same as racism, and what is often called “racism” today is actually culturalism, not biologically based: such cultural chauvinism would also be subject to a Marxist ideology-critique as a phenomenon of capitalism.

Beyond that, there is the issue of the actual politics of “anti-racism,” which my old mentor Adolph Reed has helpfully pointed out leads nowhere today, and so recommends junking present strategies of “anti-racist politics,” in favor of struggling against the concrete social and political disadvantages people face. There’s no point to a “politics” that tries to change people’s attitudes, where the real issue is material circumstances. But it does suit the “Left” today very well, in its own subcultural lifestyle consumerist taste community and paranoid authoritarian moral hectoring to focus on racist attitudes, as a substitute for real politics. | §

Published as part of a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker, June 6, 2013.

Left Forum NYC 2010: On anti-black racism in the U.S.

The American Left and the “black question” — from politics to protest to the post-political

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Tim Barker (Columbia University), Benjamin Blumberg (Platypus) and Pamela C. Nogales C. (Platypus) at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, March 20, 2010. Audio recording available at: <https://archive.org/details/PlatypusAtLeftForumNyc2010TheAmericanLeftAndTheblackQuestion>

The black American political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. recently wrote an essay on “The Limits of Anti-Racism” for the Left Business Observer, in which Reed stated that anti-racism as politics has clearly failed.  Earlier, Reed had written about the Hurricane Katrina disaster that pointing to racism may prove to be an unacceptable “distraction” from more substantial politics.  Reed also pointed out, however, that “race is a class issue,” thereby bypassing, productively, the usual “race vs. class” antinomy that has long plagued the American “Left.”  Considering that, at present, anti-black racist attitudes have appreciably diminished, while the social conditions for the vast majority of black Americans have worsened and not improved since the 1960s, seen clearly in declining statistics of social welfare and employment, as well as more spectacularly in mass criminalization and incarceration, this raises serious issues for problems considering the question of American “race and class” for the “Left.”  But perhaps this question has passed into history, now.

The present moment may be a good occasion for a thorough and critical reconsideration of anti-racism as politics, both with regards to today, and retrospectively, as regards the history of the American Left, in what Ben Blumberg has termed its “Unmet Challenge.”  The point is that if the problem of anti-black racism in the U.S. has been an “unmet challenge” perhaps it will remain so, as it has now passed into history.  Today, it may be less a matter of an existing challenge for the Left, but more the legacy of a historically missed opportunity for the American Left, a missed opportunity for which we continue to pay a steep price in the attenuated possibilities for a social-emancipatory and anticapitalist politics today in the U.S.

Clearly, the historical problem of anti-black racism in the U.S. has been resolved to a certain extent, but in the most politically conservative way possible.  What the historical phenomenon of the Obama Presidency symbolizes with regards to the problem of anti-black racism is the historical result of a combination of: 1.) middle class anti-discrimination initiatives; with 2.) the post-1960s economic downturn (in which real incomes have declined for the American working class by as much as 40%) and labor union decimation; and 3.) culturalist politics.  It has meant a naturalization and not an overcoming of the supposed black-working class divide.  The “Left” since the 1960s, especially since the Black Power turn, has played into this supposed divide, with terrible results both for the vast majority of black Americans and for the American working class and Left politics as a whole.

I am going to offer a very provocative formulation of this problem: that what was most specific and peculiar about American anti-black racism historically was also an expression of its greatest emancipatory potential regarding capitalism.  There is a great historical paradox in that the worst, most thorough-going historic racism in modern history, that of the condition of blacks in the Jim Crow-era Southern United States, coincided with the historic height of working class political movement and empowerment.  I wish to raise this paradox as a question: What was the relation between the development of working class organization and politics and the exacerbation of racist divisions in American society?  How was the “racial” division of the American working class an expression of the self-contradictory character of working class politics under capital? — Relatedly, how was it that CIO unionism in the 1930s, which meant challenging segregation through inter-racial organizing, became, by the 1960s, the spectre of labor unions as conservative institutions: as white working class job trusts, excluding black workers?

Rather than taking on this very important question directly, I want to point out that, to my mind, there has been a false resolution of this historic problem in the transformation of American racism since that time, away from its sui generis “race color-caste” character (as in the “one drop rule” etc.) to harmonizing with the more globally typical racism associated with ethno-cultural divisions in society.  In the post-1960s era, specifically, there was a romance of alternative models of racial identity, for instance in Brazil.  But Brazil is a very brutal place for black people, if for different reasons of political history than the U.S. is.  The degree to which the U.S. becomes more like Brazil in its racial dynamics, with a stark distinction between conditions for black middle class and (sub-)working class people, I think that this represents a regressive and not progressive trend.  Let me explain.

The transformation of black Americans from a “race color-caste” into an “ethnic” or “culturally” distinct group, for instance seen in the substitution of “African-American” for “black,” has meant the passing of an opportunity to overcome the specifically racist (and not “cultural”) division of the American working class, in a potential transformation of working class organization and politics in a progressive-emancipatory and anticapitalist direction.  Combating racist divisions was once an issue around which it was possible to organize workers for radical politics.  No longer.  The task of working class political integration was displaced into middle-class integration through the model of ethno-cultural “diversity.”  Whereas race was once a class issue, an issue for the American working class as such, it is now much less so, and hence it has ceased to be the same kind of issue — and challenge — for the Left and American society it once was.  It has become the more direct matter of poverty.

Racism could have been a revolutionary issue, but was depoliticized, at least as an issue for the working class and for an anticapitalist Left.  Now more than ever “race is a class issue” (in Reed’s sense), but it is now so in a way that (as Reed has noticed) can only be addressed effectively in purely class terms, as an issue of the black working class and so-called “underclass.”

There is an irony of the earlier turn-of-the-20th century American socialist Eugene Debs’s declaration that socialism had nothing to offer blacks apart from their interests as workers. This was (mis)taken, especially by the 1960s “New Left,” to be, not merely inadequate, but some evidence of American “Old” Left or working class racism.  But this formulation by Debs turns out to have been the actual historical task — long since failed — of the Left, up to the present.  The problem is: how do we fulfill Debs’s task today?  How do we make “racism” into a “class issue,” as Reed put it, after racism per se seems to have been defused as a political issue in American life? — Perhaps we don’t!

It may seem that the W.E.B. DuBois/NAACP and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. program (of supposed “middle class” integrationism) has been fulfilled, but really it was the Booker T. Washington program of accommodation to an invidious class and “racial” situation which has ultimately succeeded.  The black working class has been effectively “handled” by increasingly effective middle-class black political leadership (primarily in the Democratic but also the Republican Party), while its grievances have been successfully neutralized as a political matter in American social life.  We have not only Obama but, more significantly, a host of black cops and prison wardens (not to mention U.S. military commanders) supervising the degradation of social life.  These are not Uncle Toms or “house Negroes,” according to the old imagination, but rather a new, post-1960s black middle class of managers of American poverty.  This is the deeply conservative-reactionary character of social politics in our time.

For black Americans did not want recognition of their supposed “cultural” differences (think of Obama listening to Jay-Z on his I-Pod while shooting hoops at the White House), but have demanded, more basically, increased life-chances in American society.  They have received one but not the other.  We have gone all the way back to the beginning, in this sense.  This is the way in which Debs’s formulation haunts us today.

It is not the 1960s-era politics of “Black Power” and cultural politics of the ’70s–’80s that comprise our open wound in the present, but rather the deeper post-Reconstruction era failures of American working class politics, which has shadowed historical developments ever since.  It is not the historical figures of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers or Marcus Garvey who stand accusingly over the present, but rather Fredrick Douglass and Paul Robeson — and hence MLK and DuBois, but in the less familiar guise of a labor-Left and not a “racial” politics.  MLK’s “dream” has only apparently been realized; his core demand for “jobs and freedom” (the slogan of the 1963 March on Washington) for all Americans has clearly not.  What was supposedly a “reformist” demand turns out to be the most revolutionary of all. | §

Obama and the “Left”

Progress or regress?

Considering the future of Leftist politics under Obama

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the Platypus Affiliated Society public forum on “Progress or regress? Considering the future of Leftist politics under Obama,” with panelists Stephen Duncombe (New York University), Pat Korte (new Students for a Democratic Society), Charles Post (Solidarity), and Paul Street, New York University, December 6, 2008. An edited transcript of the forum was published in The Platypus Review #12 (May 2009).

I am Chris Cutrone, and I am speaking for Platypus, which organized this forum.

First, I would like to clarify: I don’t think that the topic should be what the Left can or should do under an Obama administration. Rather, we need to admit that there is no Left today. And we need to consider and explore the conditions of possibility for a Left coming into existence some time in the foreseeable future, perhaps under Obama.

Obama’s election is a good occasion for the clarification of several issues that block the reconstitution of a Left adequate to the present and future.

For it is Platypus’s contention that “the Left is dead!” We say this so that one day there might be a living Left, a force in the world for social emancipation that is lacking today. We regard the present absence of a Left to be a matter of consciousness, a lack of recognition of the actual progressive-emancipatory possibilities in the world as presently constituted. We consider the “Left” today to be a mere relic of past forms of consciousness that are either no longer adequate to the present or were inadequate even in their original historical moments.

So we in Platypus consider the “Left” as it exists today to be actually a pseudo-“Left,” an agglomeration of perspectives and notions — a set of more or less coherent but mostly incoherent ideologies — but not an authentic, coherent and powerful consciousness or set of recognitions and ideas, and certainly not a social force.

The confusion with which today’s pseudo-“Left” is faced around Obama has multiple registers, and several layers of historical roots, some of which I wish to lay out and discuss, now in my opening remarks, as well as later in the Q&A.

Before that, however, I wish to use myself as an example. From the moment Obama announced his candidacy, I felt strongly he would be the next President. This is because I — unlike those on the “Left” — recognized that a historical shift — a generational passing — had taken place, which had made most of the reasons one might suppose Obama to fail superceded and obsolete. — Obama, by contrast, was a shrewd enough politician to recognize in himself an instrument adequate to the historical moment, one that he has played to great effect.

Generationally, Obama is free in certain key respects from the symbolism of the 1960s that has subsumed politics for more than 40 years. In the process of the election, and as a result of the financial crisis, the hitherto predominant symbolism, for instance, Iraq for Vietnam, has passed in favor of the 1930s Great Depression and FDR. But already earlier in the campaign, Obama had represented an unwinding of the 1960s era and a return to the imagery of either Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Kennedys. History had already begun to unwind from 1968 to the 1963 March on Washington or more precisely to 1960 and JFK’s election. We have evidently gotten beyond the endless repetition of 1972 and Nixon vs. McGovern only to arrive back at Camelot! The 1960s New Left and its aftermath have become historically bracketed, and after 40 years, this was none too soon!

Such regression, the degree to which it has freed the social imagination from the trap of the late ’60s, has been, if not “progressive,” then at least salutary.

For instance, on the issue of “race” in America, Obama has been neither a traditional “black” politician nor has his victory been “post-racial.” Rather, Obama has expressed a transformation in the way “race” and racism function, a definite end to the period of post-Jim Crow, post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power forms of social consciousness and politics.

The “Left” has responded to this shift Obama has represented with as much fear as desire. There has been a great deal of anxiety generated about the nature and character of this change. For the most part, there has been anxiety and regret on the “Left” about the end of “black politics” as it has functioned since the 1960s.

Worse still, virtually everyone on the “Left” seemed to harbor either an explicit or secret skepticism or disbelief at Obama’s chances. This incredulity was rooted in the “Left’s” mistaken understanding and imagination of the ways anti-black racism actually function in America today, and how they have functioned historically leading to the present.

The U.S. is no longer racist in the ways it has been, either in the Jim Crow era nor in the ’60s period or its aftermath. Unfortunately, this does not mean a change beneficial for the majority of black people, but it does mean the need for a new social imagination and politics. Obama’s election didn’t change anything, nor will it, but it did reveal a change that had been long underway. As Bayard Rustin pointed out in the 1960s, black people don’t suffer from bad attitudes but from bad social conditions. Attitudes may have changed but social conditions have not improved — in fact, in many respects they have worsened, and the ways social conditions work against black people for instance have changed: poverty and other forms of disempowerment of the working class function differently today than in the 1950s–60s Civil Rights era, and to the detriment of politics.

But the “Left’s” incredulity about this change means only one thing: that the “Left” is more racist than the general population — without this meaning that the greater populace is more “progressive.” This is because the “Left” is more ideological and more conservative-reactionary in its outlook, trapped in a set of historical blinders that the greater society has long since overcome.

The fact that such changes have not been unambiguously — or indeed at all — “progressive,” in the sense of social emancipation and empowerment, does not mean that the changes have not taken place or that a Left perspective could afford to ignore them.

The fear with which this significance of Obama’s victory has been met by the “Left” is rooted in an attempt to avoid or ward off recognition of the obvious: that an earlier form of politics, specifically “black politics,” of the post-Civil Rights and post-Black Power period, from the 1970s through the 1980s and ’90s, was defunct — if indeed it had ever had any viability at all.

The question is how to respond to the evident depoliticization that Obama represents. — For Obama in no way stood at the head of a “movement” but only of an effective electoral strategy. Obama’s electoral organization cannot be put to other ends, or transformed into a social movement. It cannot be force for change, let alone transformation.

If this inherently conservative character of Obama’s victory is faced, what will it mean for conceiving a “Leftist” politics that can and must reckon with the changed conditions of social politics Obama’s success has revealed?

This is the question that the “Left” tries to avoid.

Instead, the Left has become enthralled by the court politics of Obama’s Cabinet appointments and other such clues into which they can try to read his intentions.

Obama himself has acknowledged how he functions as a “projection screen” for others’ desires and hopes (and also perhaps their anxieties and fears). Obama’s soft authoritarianism is significant, for it reveals that the “Left” is hardly free of this inherently conservative and depoliticizing aspect of American “politics.”

For it is Platypus’s contention that we not only live today in the absence of a “Left,” but also in the absence of effective politics. Obama is, no less than Bush and Clinton were, the effect of politics in the absence of politics.

Changing this will be a very difficult and manifold task, involving the reinvigoration of organized labor as well as the deep interrogation and transformation of consciousness of present social realities on the “Left.” It will require a radical rebirth of the Left.

But Obama’s victory might at least help sweep away some of the obstacles in social consciousness and imagination that have held back the “Left” for more than a generation. But only if we recognize the opportunity of the present moment for what it is, without either positive or negative illusions. | §


Obama: progress in regress

The end of “black politics”

Chris Cutrone

THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA will be an event. But it has proven confusing for most on the “Left,” who claim to want to overcome anti-black racism and achieve social justice. Rejection of Obama on this basis has been as significant as the embrace of his candidacy. There is as much anxiety as hope stirred by Obama, especially regarding the significance of his blackness.

For instance, the usually discerning and astute black political scientist and critical intellectual commentator Adolph L. Reed, Jr. — he is perhaps the single best thinker in American politics for a generation — has published several articles critical of the Obama phenomenon. Reed’s journalistic criticisms during the Democratic Party primary election season hit some false notes, not least Reed going back on a pledge made years ago to “not vote for a Clinton for anything” when he endorsed Hillary as a “lesser evil” over Obama. Reed has been quick to point out the obvious, that the Obama phenomenon is no social movement, but only a marketing ploy of otherwise typically “centrist” (i.e., not even “reformist”) Democratic Party politics. Reed has been keen to disenchant Obama from early in his emergence in Chicago politics. Reed has pointed to the blindness of enthusiasm surrounding Obama, but Reed’s attempts to scotch illusory hopes raised by Obama went too far in his endorsement of Clinton as some kind of backstop against the Obama effect — perhaps out of Reed’s respect for the fact that Clinton did not pretend to be anything but what she is. Overall, Reed’s criticisms have articulated something that others have been perhaps less open about saying, that the Obama candidacy might be a setback for the political and social interests of black Americans.

Reed’s most recent article, “Where Obamaism seems to be going” (in the Black Agenda Report, July 16, 2008, on-line at: www.blackagendareport.com) marks a deeper and less rhetorical engagement than his prior critique, which had been hampered by hyperbolic accusations, for instance of the “cultish” quality of the Obama campaign. In his recent article, Reed writes that,

An Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy.

This is a serious matter to consider. However, what must be addressed first are the effects of the Obama candidacy on the existing “Left.”

The diminished possibility of substantially linking struggles for racial justice to reforms of political economy needs to be grasped in light of ideology, specifically on the “Left,” which Reed has raised as an issue surrounding Obama more generally. If Reed is correct about what Obama represents, we need to ask why this might be so, and how the “Left” is responsible.

People on the “Left” respond to Obama in ambivalent ways, through idolization or demonization. But neither is appropriate or realistic, and both are equally hysteric in character. The problem that Obama presents for the “Left” is that they cannot decide whether they really want him, or rather fear what he might represent: the obsolescence of their politics. Even Reed evinces this effect.

Obama has not claimed to be anything but a typical Democrat. Despite burnishing credentials as a “community activist” in Chicago when running for Illinois State Senate, Obama has not presented himself as a “movement” candidate, despite what many may wish from him — to pin their mistaken hopes on this or else find him wanting. It seems that the idea of an entirely “mainstream” (i.e., conservative) black political candidate is beyond the imagination of most on the “Left.”

So we are treated to some “shocking exposés” of Obama as a supposed product of the “Chicago School” of neo-liberal economic policy (of the former University of Chicago Professor of Economics Milton Friedman) — see for example Naomi Klein on “Obama’s Chicago Boys,” June 12, 2008, in The Nation, and various articles in Counterpunch — as if any president of the U.S. today would do anything but pursue post-Fordist/neo-liberal policies!

The candidacy and election of Obama will continue to send the “Left” into a tailspin, and in this sense will be “bad” for the Left — but this is Obama’s greatest value.

Hitherto, the “Left” has expected that black politicians should either “represent” — or even “lead” — a fictive black “community.” Conversely, black Republicans have been demonized for being sell-outs or otherwise “race traitors.” It has been a fundamentally racist imagination that denies that black Americans can run the entire spectrum of policy positions and therefore social politics.

As witnessed with Obama, the racist illusion that seems to die the hardest is the notion that black people are especially insightful let alone “progressive” in their outlook on American society. It is an old canard on the “Left” — somewhere between wishful thinking and demagogic propaganda — that the most oppressed are somehow the most critically conscious of social realities. Behind this spectacular illusion the “Left” has spun, however, has been the more prosaic realities of the Democratic Party and the role of “black” politics in it.

Because American politics has been about the struggle for inclusion in the power structure by successive waves of various immigrant and other marginalized groups, it has been perhaps the most destructive illusion that the Democratic Party, which has played the inclusion game of its constituency politics better (especially in urban machine politics) than their Republican rivals, is somehow to the Left socially or politically. — As Gore Vidal once put it, American politics is really a one-party affair, the “party of property,” with “two Right wings.” The Democratic Party is simply the party that tends to include the interests of parvenu bourgeois elements from non-WASP groups, along with perhaps some of the more enlightened WASPs. “Black politics” has been part of this game, especially since the reorientation of American party politics as a result of the Civil Rights movement and the defection of the Southern “Dixiecrats” to the Republicans in the 1960s. Whereas previously the Democratic Party represented the unholy populist lash-up of Southern rednecks with Northern ethnic constituencies and organized labor, and the even earlier phenomenon of blacks voting for the Republican Party of Lincoln and Grant as a matter of course, today it is taken for granted that black Americans naturally find their political interests expressed in the Democratic Party. But this has worked to ill effect, especially as the “Left” has contributed to the charade.

The election of Barack Obama represents something very difficult for those on the ostensible “Left” to understand, that since the 1960s the Right (in both its Democratic and Republican Party forms) has been very successful in depoliticizing — effectively defusing — the issues of poverty and other forms of social degradation faced by most black Americans. The Left has played into this very well, doing their own work of replacing style for substance and, as Adolph Reed has put it, “posing” for politics. Thus, the “Left” since the 1960s has actually become a part of the new Right, a key factor in the depoliticization and hence conservatizing of American politics and society, for more than a generation now.

Of course Obama is just as much a product of this conservatization and depoliticization. This should shock no one. — Yet it does, and so this symptom is extremely important to note and understand.

The election of Barack Obama will be an event. It should be a moment for reevaluating American society and politics. It should be an opportunity for throwing overboard illusions the “Left” has sown for at least 40 years about the realities and possibilities for American society and politics. The incredulity with which the Obama election is met, either in hopeful expectation or denial based in fear, is less about his election itself than it is about the confused, mistaken and utterly reactionary consciousness on the American “Left:” it is a measure of the racism of the “Left,” how this “Left” is a key bulwark of racism in American life.

Note how the Obama candidacy has been met with hostility from all the usual suspects, the sexagenarian post-Civil Rights leadership of Jesse Jackson, Sr. (who said he wanted to cut Obama’s balls off!), to the unblushing racist politics of Democratic Party stalwarts like the Clintons (who were “just saying what the Republicans will, anyway”), and those like Rev. Jeremiah Wright who cannot countenance any challenge to the wounded narcissism they’ve made their profession. — Obama was entirely correct about Wright et al. being stuck in the 1950s. The vested interests of black politics are rightfully wary of Obama. Their game is up. The time for reckoning has come.

So what can be made of this campaign by Obama that completely eschews the business-as-usual of the business of racism in the U.S., and one that does not run politically on the basis of “opposing” the racist demagogy of the Democrats (like the black Republicans do, making of their “criticism” of black Democratic hucksterism a business of their own, in their own way: see for instance Shelby Steele on Obama), but rather seeks to bypass such politics?

One catch-phrase that has flown in the wake of the success of the Obama candidacy is “post-racial,” raising the question of the degree to which America has overcome racism. But perhaps the matter is not one of our historical moment being post-”racial” but rather post-racist. Perhaps racism has changed. For the historical racism that plagued the U.S., from the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through Jim Crow until the overcoming of legal racial segregation with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s, is over. But this has not meant the meaningful improvement of conditions of life for the vast majority of black people in America, but rather has accompanied worsening conditions, as part of the broader greater stratification and brutalization of American society in the general downturn since the late 1960s – early ‘70s.

In the meantime, the political issues of racism, as they stood in 1950s–60s, have been rendered obsolete. On the one hand, American society and culture is less “racist” than it has ever been; on the other hand, real suffering is rendered, if not invisible then politically insoluble. There has been “progress” on the issue of “racism” while there has been regress in terms of addressing any problems of greater substance for black people. The hollowed-out politics of “anti-racism” meanwhile has come to serve, at best, the racket politics of black and other Democrats, and at worst a paranoiac narcissistic trap for anyone who might be willing to think radically about political and social change in the U.S.. — The more sensible people have done what the rest of America has, come to avoid the madness — or the simple cretinism — of such politics as much as possible.

The degree to which it has at all, American politics and culture has tried to address the social concerns of black people according to a peculiar and confounding mixture of the older Civil Rights and subsequent Black Power political models — think of the successful conflation of the diametrically opposed politics of MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X by Spike Lee, for instance — for an entire generation, without at all improving the lot of the greater portion of black Americans.

This presents a paradox, and the Obama election is a very good emblem for it. For it is truly the case that Obama does not stand at the head of a groundswell of a social movement but rather only a successful marketing tweak of Democratic Party electioneering. The inability to critique Obama without recourse to de-authenticating his “blackness,” which everyone feels to be a hollow move, exposes the utter contemptuousness of what stands for “politics” today. — In the end, the election really will hinge on whether Obama as an image makes people feel better than John McCain does. This is an outrage, but not especially outrageous given the state of American politics today. But at least now political symbolism has developed so that the image of a “black man” can be one of jejune “hope” (and not only for black Americans), and no longer just a jigaboo bugaboo, as the Republicans (and many Democrats) have made it their cynical trade to ply disingenuously and opportunistically for the past generation, finding it an increasingly less successful ploy to pull off today.

Perhaps young (black) people have embraced Obama precisely because they have become so “sick and tired of being sick and tired” with the politics of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps it is enough that Obama means turning the page, even if the basic story remains the same. Change is its own value — if only because it represents an opportunity. — In this case it is the opportunity presented by the failure of “black politics.”

The election of Barack Obama will not solve the problems faced by the greater lot of black Americans, but it might at least deliver the coup de grâce for a politics that was not working for social improvement anyway. And this should be welcomed — at least by anyone who is honestly concerned with the politics of substantial reform and emancipatory transformation of life in the U.S.

Those on the “Left” who thought it would take a revolution — of whatever kind — to have a black leader have had a profoundly mistaken social imagination. It turns out that racism was not the kind of problem they thought it was. The problems facing black Americans were both less and more intractable than they thought. They have mistaken the political significance of anti-black racism — and black Americans have paid the price for this depoliticization of their social grievances.

The election of Obama will be an event. It is a signal that we need not be held back any longer by the invidious illusions the prior “Left” bequeathed us — amidst the botched world they have made. We have been stifled too long under the weight of their obfuscations and rationalizations, while society has gone to hell — or has gone, if you prefer, to “Nixonland” (the title of a recent book by Rick Perlstein): The “Left” has been complicit in the degradation of politics by mirroring the “culture wars” unleashed by the Right, becoming caught up in symbolic imagery, as in the late-’60s Black Power turn, at the expense of real political progress.

As Adolph Reed has pointed out, Obama might indeed represent the “severing” of the “last threads” potentially linking anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics. But the specific ways these have been “linked” in the social imagination and politics — the ideology — of the “Left,” for more than a generation, have not helped but actually worked to the detriment of either addressing the social problems faced by most black Americans or addressing the problems of capitalism in the U.S.

Perhaps the very attempt to address these two sets of issues in identical terms, as if struggling against racism and capitalism were not only indissolubly linked but were somehow the same thing, fudging the issue of how to articulate them, was the mistake, especially as the struggle against racism and for “black empowerment” came, since the late ‘60s, to take the place of the struggle for working class empowerment and against capitalism.

Capitalist politics since the 1960s has succeeded in effectively separating, neutralizing and eliminating both agendas, empowering working class people and ameliorating social conditions for black people, and both in the name of “black politics,” which today does not require reform but abolition. “Black politics” has done nothing to empower black working-class people, but only to chain them, in a more or less roundabout way, to the Democratic Party and its capitalist politics. So we do not need “better” black politics, but rather to overcome such politics entirely. We have stood sorely in need of a specifically working class politics that can effectively speak to (black) workers comprehensively, to all aspects of their social reality and political empowerment.

This need can be found reflected in the fact that Obama leads in the current electoral polls of all lower-income people, including more than 10 points among “white” workers. — So much for the specter of the supposedly so intractable racism of the “white working class” that the post-’60s “Left” has peddled so hard and for so long! Instead of this, pursuing the chimera of some kind of purportedly “progressive” black nationalism or other distinctly “black” politics has sent the “Left” so far around the bend that it has become unable the recognize the true nature and character — and range of varieties — of black conservatism (including among working class people), of the inherently conservative nature of “black politics” itself. — Hence, Obama.

With Obama we might be able to wake from the nightmarish “dream” of “black politics:” in the “mainstream,” in both the miserable Democratic Party ethnic racket variety and the cynical and phony “sobriety” of black Republicanism; and, among “radicals,” the “revolutionary suicide” of which the Black Panther Huey P. Newton spoke, as well as what Frantz Fanon and the late Malcolm X called the “sickness and madness” of black nationalism — only to perhaps be able to face our grim social realities more squarely. If Obama represents the “end” of “black politics,” this should be welcomed, not least as a salutary — if painful — shock to the bad “Left.”

The surprising “black face” of conservatism Obama reveals ought to send reeling — and finally into the “dustbin of history” — the complex of assumptions involved in “black politics,” so that we can interrogate what it was that it was supposed to accomplish, for it clearly has not, and perhaps never could.

The Obama election will be an event — in that it will not be one. Nothing will change. But this might help the “Left” to change — certainly some for the worse, clinging to ever more demented and ineffectual “black politics,” but perhaps also some others for the better, who might finally extricate themselves from the trap such politics has presented for more than a generation. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #6 (September 2008). 

Exchange on “race”

Aay Preston-Myint and Chris Cutrone

Dear Editors,

I would like to respond to Chris Cutrone’s article, “Review: Angela Davis, ‘How does change happen?’” from the March 2008 issue #3. I agree with Cutrone’s general sentiment that we as a country have failed to productively engage the problem of race, and that an honest critique of capitalism is pretty much absent from American politics. However, one does not necessarily follow the other. I disagree that a discussion of capitalism must necessarily displace a discussion of race, a term which Cutrone disrespectfully frames in quotation marks and describes as a “distraction” and “inadequate category.” I appreciate that perhaps therein lies a desire to transcend racism, but the tone of the article make it seem as if Cutrone wants the rest of us to somehow just wake up and get over race so we can talk about the “real” meat of the issue, capitalism. I do agree that the language of race is often counterproductive, complicated by centuries of taboos, underlying resentments, outward hostility, and fear. However, to further marginalize an already difficult subject strikes me as counterproductive, and quite frankly, a bit lazy.

Cutrone mentions in his article that (non-white) race is often just code for poverty, but is it not the other way around as well? When politicians talk about pursuing criminals in the “inner city” and cutting off “welfare mothers,” are they not pandering to fear and resentment towards people of color, and the assumption that non-whites are in poverty? It is certainly true that not all low-income people are brown, but in a nation (and even a world) where so many of our citizens face poverty because they are brown, any useful critique of capitalism must also incorporate discourse on race. I believe that a lack of such discourse is why people of color often balk at the thought of organizing around race-ambivalent or race-neutral philosophies such as Marxism or Anarchism versus organizing around racial identity, even when they have anti-capitalist beliefs.

We must remember that many of the canonical Marxist philosophers were white and were products of much more racially homogeneous societies than ours, and as such, held significant privilege not to think about race if they didn’t want to. Is it possible that they could not have foreseen how concepts of race and class would affect one another other in a country founded by waves of immigrants from around the world, many of whom were (and continue to be) used as disposable labor?

One can argue to an extent that race is a construct. Furthermore, it is a construct that, within a capitalist context, is often employed to justify class-based oppression, exploitation of labor, and imperialism. But however constructed we may believe race to be, it would be disingenuous, and even irresponsible, to pretend that it is not worth discussing. If I walk down the street and get beaten up by a gang of, say, working-class white kids because I am brown, it is just that — I have not been “beaten up” because I am “brown,” and I certainly haven’t been beaten up for being poor.

The anger, resentment and violence brought about by the victims and perpetrators of racism is real, and to that effect we all must do real work to eradicate it, not just hope that it will be spirited away by sprinkling some scare quotes around the issue. The problem of race affects us deeply on a subconscious level, and it is going to be hard to unlearn. Activists in positions of power and privilege must allow people of color the space to define race and racism on their terms, while educating themselves on why and how organizing tactics and philosophies that neglect race (and other facets of identity) so often fail to build successful coalitions. Those affected by racism must also realize that while organizing around racial identity can be a useful tool, we must also act across lines of gender, sexuality, nationality, and class. We need to be open to radical and critical philosophy, especially with regards to analyzing capitalism’s role in our struggle. We must remember not to confuse our aspirations for equality and justice with an amassing of individual power, prestige or wealth — or we will once again be forced look back in a few generations and realize that our achievements are “not the victory for which we have struggled.”

— Aay Preston-Myint, Chicago, IL, April 17, 2008


Chris Cutrone responds:

Analysis

Black people are not poor because they are black — any more than white people are poor because they are white. Poverty and resulting social disempowerment of black people have been rationalized on the basis of anti-black racist assumptions, and poverty among black people has been successfully isolated — “ghettoized” — and so defused as a social-political issue. Welfare programs were eliminated, while most recipients were white, by reference to the idea that society had tried to help poor people for a generation but to no avail, they just cannot be helped, but must be left to sink or swim on their own. Racism played a role in sanctioning such atrocity, but this does not mean that black poverty is caused by racism. Poverty is a structural problem of American society that will not be overcome short of overcoming capitalism. As long as this structural poverty exists without an adequate anticapitalist politics to combat it, racism will take the place of the proper recognition of the social nature of the problem, and thus prevent the politics necessary to overcome it.

History and politics

Those thinkers and actors in a certain anticapitalist critical-theoretical and revolutionary political tradition, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno et al., did not emerge out of a hyper-racialized social context like the U.S. The depth and meaning of anti-black racism in the U.S. is peculiar to its history; it is not a matter of ethnocentrism, national oppression, or any other form of cultural chauvinism, etc. Despite (or perhaps because) Marx did not share the concrete social context of such a racist society as the U.S., he recognized very clearly the stakes of the American Civil War against slavery that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded” (Capital, 1867), a formulation that remains unsurpassed. Black Americans are American, as American as any “white” American could possibly claim to be. At the same time, the history of anti-black racist oppression is inseparable from the development of capitalism. And, historically, socialism has been the most consistently anti-racist form of politics.

It was not any supposed lack of awareness or insensitivity to the issue of racism that caused black radicals of the “Old” Left in the 1920s–30s such as Claude McKay and Paul Robeson, inspired to Communist politics by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to have failed to articulate a “black” power ethos or practical political principle, but because this would have cut against the grain of their actual progressive-emancipatory politics. These figures were not lacking in black “pride” or political militancy, but they were part of the truly heroic (and truly tragic) history of radicalism of the early 20th Century that now lies obscured behind the more recent history of the 1960s and the aftermath of its failures (which were more farcical than tragic). As Davis pointed out in her Jan. 24 lecture I reviewed, the real historical background and basis for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s was the earlier “cross-racial” organizing of workers, in the South — where it meant risking one’s life, white or black — as well as in the North, in the 1920s–30s, when it was actually much more difficult to do this than it would have been in the 1960s, but which the “Left” of the ’60s failed to even try to do, rationalizing their failure with separatist Black Power ideology.

The late-’60s Black Power turn was the result of the failures and frustrations of the limitations of the liberal integrationist politics of Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, et al. But this was not because King et al. were somehow lacking in “black” consciousness — as was scurrilously implied by Malcolm X with his famous “house nigger”-”field nigger” rhetoric — but because the practical politics of liberal-reformist integrationism could not address adequately the issue of capitalism, though King et al. were concerned with labor issues (the 1963 March on Washington was “for jobs and freedom”). Coming as we do today after the manifest inadequacies and failures of the policy reforms of the Civil Rights era, we can fall victim to naturalizing the logic of the Black Power turn of the late ’60s and think of it and the attitudes we inherit from it as some kind of necessary stage. But this would be a mistake, and not only because the Black Power turn was not a turn to the Left, but rather to the Right — the Black Power turn was a conservative recoil, an adaptation to defeat and dashed expectations, a lowering of horizons that involved the unwarranted assumption of the intractability of white racism — a sin much worse on the part of the “white” radicals who embraced this perspective than perhaps for the black radicals who articulated it.

More importantly, we can and must say today, more than 40 years later, that post-Black Power politics has obviously failed — and much more miserably than the Civil Rights Movement — to improve the social conditions for black people in the U.S. — as Adolph Reed, who I cited in my review of Davis, for one, has written about extensively, for instance in “Black Particularity Reconsidered” (AKA “The ‘Black Revolution’ and the Reconstitution of Domination,” 1979/86), pointing out the highly detrimental effects of “posing as politics.” — But whereas earlier black radicals of the 1920s–30s moved on from the charlatanry of Marcus Garvey et al. to the liberal, radical and socialist politics of W. E. B. Du Bois et al., the “politics” informed by the ’60s–’70s “New Left” regressed backwards along the same path, to Ron Karenga inventing holidays like Kwanzaa, etc., by the 1980s even rehabilitating Booker T. Washington’s avowedly conservative notions of “self-help” and waxing nostalgic for the “black community” of the segregated conditions of the Jim Crow era (see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., et al.), and affirming “black culture” as already constituting a valid political realm of “everyday acts of resistance” (see Robin D. G. Kelley et al.) — all the results of political failures on the “Left.” As Bayard Rustin pointed out at the advent of the Black Power turn, “Passionate self-assertion can be a mask for accommodation” (quoted in John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: the life and times of Bayard Rustin, Free Press, 2003, p. 475).

So this is not a matter of whether one chooses to prioritize “race” over “class,” etc., but rather how one understands the problem of racism and how capitalism is understood as a context within which changes in social problems like racism (becoming better or worse) take place. Capitalism is a global social system that determines the value and employment of human activity (or “labor”) and its reproduction in ways over which people have remained relatively powerless as individual and social agents. Capitalism is the reason why there is such a thing as “disposable” labor, why human beings as potential laborers are subject to being “disposed of,” and all the social consequences of this. So both social categories of “race” and socioeconomic “class” find their conditions of greater social context in the dynamics and historical changes of capital. (This is also true of issues of gender and sexuality. See the potentially seminal but largely neglected essays by Juliet Mitchell, “Women: the Longest Revolution,” 1966; and John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” 1973.)

Not simply “race” and “class,” but racism and capitalism and how they are related need to be addressed by any purportedly social emancipatory politics. The ways the “Left” has tried — or failed to try, and found excuse from trying — to address the problems of racism (as one would need to do in organizing the working class) since the 1960s have been worse than inadequate, and have turned into ideological distractions and political dead ends, bogged down in a host of pseudo-problems (that, for instance, Barack Obama was able to identify in his speech — against the desperate last gasp of racist politics by the Clintons et al.), whereas, according to Rustin’s critique of the Black Power turn, “the real cause of racial injustice . . . is not bad attitudes but bad social conditions” (“The Failure of Black Separatism,” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1970). Without a practical political focus on capitalism, the social conditions for racism will remain unaddressed, and racism and the problems affecting black people and others can continue.

Ideology

“Race” is a pseudo-biological category that deserves to be placed in quotation marks because it is not “real;” it is not to be naturalized and taken for granted as a point of departure, but rather needs to be attacked as the very thing to be overcome. An anti-racist politics, a politics opposed to any form of racism, cannot just assume “race” from the start without becoming confused and confounded.

Black “racial” identity is a negative not a positive value and cannot be rehabilitated or inverted for it has only ever meant degradation. We ought not to forget that anti-black racist sentiment — the disqualification of individuals rationalized by reference to their blackness — is just as prevalent among blacks as among whites and other groups in the U.S.

As Frantz Fanon put it very succinctly over 50 years ago, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), “What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white,” and “The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.” We ought not to forget this.

Because we all share a social destiny in capitalism, one which we must work through and overcome in order to undermine the social conditions of possibility for racism (which are modern in nature), as Fanon also said, perhaps most outrageously, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence.” — I strongly encourage all those interested in the possibility of overcoming racist oppression to read closely and ponder and internalize deeply the theses in the Introduction and Conclusion of Fanon’s brilliant and profound book.

“Sickness and madness”

The world might not have been very ready to overcome capitalism up to now, but it has been more than ready to overcome racism, and so there’s no reason to resign ourselves to it or treat it as more of an obstacle than it need be. The persistence of racism — including the accommodation of it on the “Left” — is the surest sign of the barbarism of our times. And so “racial” consciousness can be nothing other than debilitating and fundamentally depoliticizing. As the late Malcolm X characterized his regrets about his participation in the black nationalist Nation of Islam,

[I] remember the time [when a] white college girl came into the restaurant who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying. . . . Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years. That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days — I’m glad to be free of them. (Interview with Gordon Parks, 1965)

It’s incumbent upon us on the “Left” to try to root out and eliminate such “sickness and madness” as completely as possible, for it is nothing other than an obstacle to social emancipation or even the possibility of reform.

As the psychoanalyst Fanon pointed out, such “race” consciousness is an expression of wounded narcissism, a traumatic fixation on the past, and resulting paranoia, problematic for a healthy reality principle, and maintaining the past in the present at the expense of the future.

Identifying one’s political consciousness and practice as racially “black” — or “white” — is, as Fanon put it, citing the German Idealist philosophical tradition, an evasion and abdication of working through the “pathology of freedom,” work that must be based on the “refusal to accept the present as definitive.” | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #5 (May–July 2008).

Review: Angela Davis

How does change happen?

Chris Cutrone

ON THE FRIGID WINTER EVENING of Thursday, January 24, Angela Davis, a former Communist Party activist associated in the 1960s–70s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party, and current Professor in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, gave the annual George E. Kent lecture (in honor of the first black American tenured professor) at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel, to an overflow audience from the campus and surrounding community. The title of Davis’s talk was “How Does Change Happen?,” and, with the looming February 5 Super Tuesday primary elections to determine Democratic Party candidacy for President of the United States, Davis took as her point of departure the current contest between the first effective candidacies by a woman and a black American, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Davis also noted, with wry irony, that the current Republican presidency of George W. Bush is by far the most “diverse” administration in U.S. history.

But Davis stated that such apparent present overcoming of historical social limitations of race and gender was “not the victory for which we have struggled.” This observation of the disparity between social-political struggles and their outcomes formed a central, strong theme of Davis’s talk. Davis elaborated this further through discussion of how “collective demands are transformed into individual benefits.” In Davis’s estimation, individual women and black and Latino Americans such as Clinton, Obama, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas and others have benefited from historically more collective struggles against racial and ethnic discrimination and restrictive gender roles, without greater social justice or equality or collective empowerment being achieved.

Thus Davis came to discuss the question that she said has been presented to her on many occasions by her students of whether the struggles of the 1960s had been “in vain.” While Davis acknowledged that it could certainly appear to be so, she said that she did not wish to “believe” that this was indeed the case. So Davis raised the question of in what ways the 1960s New Left had succeeded, and how it had failed to achieve its goals.

In addressing such issues, Davis placed the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s in greater historical context, pointing to the “cross-racial” struggles of the preceding 1920s–30s Left, for example the organizing of sharecroppers in Alabama by the Communist Party, which Davis said had laid the groundwork for the subsequent Civil Rights movement. This was the strongest point in Davis’s talk. However, perhaps the weakest point came when Davis tried to show such continuity of background in her further historical narrative, after the 1960s, in which she contended that the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast community programs for black schoolchildren had led to the implementation of U.S. federal government Head Start programs. Similarly, Davis’s defense of affirmative action programs since the 1960s did not serve her intention of showing how demands for structural change and collective empowerment had been diverted into more depoliticized individual benefits, for affirmative action had never been an anti-poverty measure and had always been geared specifically to meet “middle class” demands against institutional discrimination.

This contrast in Davis’s characterization of different historical moments of movements against anti-black racism in America, in the 1920s–30s and the 1960s–70s, up to the present, posed the issue of how adequately socialpolitical struggles for improving the social conditions of black Americans and reforming American society can be understood as having been against “racism”—though of course such struggles involved confronting legal segregation and other historical forms of institutionalized racism. In her talk, Davis used the category of “race” unproblematically to reference an irreducible reality of “difference” that she took everyone to already recognize. Davis oscillated between conflicting prognoses of the present, whether anti-black racism has been ameliorated or worsened since the 1960s. The category of “race” works ambivalently in discussing two obvious changes since the 1960s: that legal and institutional racism as well as common racist attitudes have been overcome or diminished while social conditions for most black Americans have worsened. But this only begs the question, which should be at the core of trying to think about how political and social change can and does happen, of the very adequacy or lack of such categories as “race” and “racism” to address the problems facing black Americans and their greater social context today.

In the context of the global economic downturn since 1973, in which the average per capita purchasing power of American workers to meet their needs has decreased by as much as 30 percent while incomes have been massively distributed upwards to a small elite, the possibilities for the simultaneous if paradoxical outcome of overcoming legal and institutional racism while conditions for most black Americans have worsened, could be understood better in terms of changes in capitalism that have involved satisfying, even if in limited ways, historical demands for change in American society such as an end to “racial” (and gender) discrimination. In America, black “race” has coded for poverty and hence realities of socioeconomic “class,” and anti-black racism has functioned to rationalize or at least naturalize poverty in the U.S., masking fundamental structural problems of American society, but this might function differently today than in the past, especially in light of the much-deplored separation of the concerns of the black “middle class” from the greater lot of black Americans since the 1960s. In her talk, Davis missed an opportunity to challenge and educate her audience in favor of calibrating her comments to what she seemed to perceive to be her audience’s conceptions of social-political problems. But such conceptions are in fact the effects of ideas like Davis’s that bear the undigested legacy of failed politics on the Left since the 1960s. As Adolph Reed pointed out in an article on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, “The Real Divide” (The Progressive, November, 2005), “As a political strategy, exposing racism is wrongheaded and at best an utter waste of time,” a distraction from addressing the necessary socioeconomic and political problems facing black Americans.

Davis’s talk lacked a sense of how capitalism as a specific problem and context for social politics subordinates and molds issues like racism historically. But the questions Davis raised in her talk nevertheless pointed in directions of how such an understanding of capitalism might help overcome the apparent paradoxes of changes in the problem of racism since the 1960s.

In the 1960s, Davis had studied with members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, in Frankfurt, Germany with Theodor Adorno and subsequently in San Diego with Herbert Marcuse. Adorno had discouraged Davis from leaving her studies to participate in student activism while Marcuse had encouraged this.[1] But we might say retrospectively today that had Davis heeded Adorno’s advice instead and given herself the opportunity for a more thorough critical investigation of the role of changes in capitalism in how historical changes such as the transformation and amelioration of anti-black racism could be understood more adequately and hence politically effectively, then Angela Davis, along with other radical intellectuals like her, could have contributed to better thinking and politics that might have helped us avoid the present situation in which one is left with the unsatisfying choice between proclaiming the historical end of racism and trying to address present social-political problems with antiquated and inadequate categories like “race.” | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #3 (March 2008).


1. Angela Y. Davis, “Marcuse’s Legacies” (1998), in John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb, eds., Herbert Marcuse: a critical reader (Routledge, 2004), 46–47.