On The Old Divide-and-Conquer: Some Marxist Tools For The Analysis of White Racism In The Trump Age

[Below I provide a work-in-progress: Part One of a 3-part essay on Marxist tools for the reverse engineering of the new forms of white racism unleashed in our current crisis. Here, I offer some introductory remarks, and set up the intra-left antagonism that motivates the writing of the essay in the first place. In Part Two, I bring in the writing of Michael Lebowitz to provide some Marxian scaffolding. In Part Three, I try to integrate some of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s insights)].

This essay is a person-to-person collect call, of sorts. It won’t work unless the addressee picks up the phone, and accepts the charges. That eventuality, however, is exceedingly unlikely.  The person I am calling is not a real person: rather, he is an ideal type, created by me. He is a man who thinks himself Marxist, probably on the younger side (not necessarily), bright, active, energized; probably a writer for magazines and online publications. He is white (probably).

He is given to making pronouncements about the meaning of the recent election of Donald Trump, and to arguing (without showing very much of the math) that Marxism (by which he means something quite vague, distilled from secondary sources, and coextensive with the domestic traditions of Debsian and Harringtonian socialism) authorizes a certain interpretation of the election of 2016. That interpretation puts “class” first, questions the viability of a liberalism articulated around “identity politics” and a corporate world-picture (of which cost-benefit analysis, the behavioral-economic  determination of which intransingent social actors need to be “nudged”  via this or that technocratic policy tool, and the privatization of reward and socialization of risk constitute iron pillars), and seeks the creation of a political idiom that can capture for the progressive bloc of the American polity the enthusiasms and votes of the working class.

The first mistake, when engaging with this man, is to accept this argument on its own terms. Not all of what he says is wrong, exactly, but much of it is incomplete, and some of its is backwards or upside down. For example, should “class” be put first? Sure, of course. But do we know what “class” means, here? No, we don’t. Do we know who should be putting “class” first? Is it us? If it is us, we don’t need any persuading. Is it other people? If so, who are they? How can they be led to believe that what we are saying is true, or viable? Do they need to be replaced? If so, by whom? And via what processes?

The same goes with “identity politics.” Let’s cut to the chase, and not be coy: we know what is meant by “identity politics” and it can be phrased in a way that does not insult its critics. What is meant is this: that since the 1970s, moderates have bought off the new social movements by offering symbolic victories in exchange for a full retreat from commitments to material demands. There is quite a lot of (painful) truth to this picture of the function of “identity politics”; there is no shortage of critiques of “identity politics” by feminists, anti-racist organizers, gay, lesbian, and trans activists and theorists, and many others in the new social movements coalition. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in fact, was a reductio ab absurdum of the toothlessness of “identity politics”: the nominating convention featured poignant testimony from a variety of representatives of marginalized groups, as well as loud self-aggrandizement on the part of some of the worst terrorizers of those groups (Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg chief among them).

But the problem with the generic US Marxist reading of “identity politics” is that it typically does not go further to probe the actual function of identitarian segmentation in racial capitalism. The embarrassing Hollywood version of tokenist multiculturalism is, in fact, a cog in a much larger machine: an ideological smokescreen covering the more fundamental work of dividing up the non-propertied, whose ordinary work of surviving in a market economy naturally tends to bring them into relationships of solidarity with one another, across racial and ethnic lines. The disavowal of “identity politics” by leftists is, in fact, part of the ideological apparatus of racial capitalism’s capitalist racism. It is not a very significant part (because leftists are not very significant). But it is contained within (rather than situated outside of, in a position of transcendent critique) the game.

The critique of neoliberal capitalism’s seizure of the command centers of progressive politics is the most cogent of my interlocutor’s points. I agree with it. But its implications are more radical than my interlocutor tends to want to accept. Because the immediate move is made to connect the rejection of neoliberal governance with the project of swaying over the non-propertied to left politics. That could work. But––candidly––it would require a politics far to the left of that of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and, more importantly, it would require a tremendous shift in popular consciousness: a hegemonic project carried out, in its initial years, in a fairly orthodox Leninist spirit.

A different understanding of Wall Street’s menace would need to be fostered: one that shifted focus from bad actors with malign intent to the history of financialization of the economy; a different understanding of the role of incarceration and policing would have to spread (away from specific evils like private prisons to a more holistic understanding of punitive carceralism and the management of rising levels of permanent abandonment by capital of great swaths of territory once integral to manufacturing); and a different set of policy goals would have to emerge, which would involve real conflicts and antagonisms (for example, the real identification, on the part of many working-class whites, with the US military and with police, in general, as against their own experiences and those of their fellows, across the color line, with the repressive machinery of the postmodern state) and some painful accommodations (for example, probably, making peace with the necessity for a central bank and a renunciation of a return to the gold standard, both sticky issues for libertarian-leaning working class folks who could be won over by progressives on other grounds). Finally, it would involve a real reckoning with the painful and persisting legacies of whiteness, in general: a pedagogy, if you will, that can permanently create a historical consciousness of the sins of slavery and segregation, imperialism and colonialism, and color-blind racism, without being rejected as a call to “white guilt” or over-identified with an invitation to “get over race” and prove oneself “down.”

We have here carved out a very small piece of rock–specifying and stipulating some of the most fundamental work that faces us. The point, I suppose, is that this is work that most white leftists have not begun to contemplate, let alone operationalize. The tragedy of 2016, for the left, will only be compounded if we continue to think that we got “this close,” and lost, rather than accepting that the brief sense of hope, cultivated in us by the Bernie candidacy, was a flash of light from a future politics: one that we would have had to to build, ourselves, in the miraculous event of Bernie’s election, and that remains to be built, now, under much more difficult circumstances.




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