Calling a different tone
Will Stratford of the US Platypus Affiliated Society explains why he thinks it is essential for the left to question the establishment’s hegemonic anti-racism
What if racism is not the biggest problem with our society today? I can tell you this much: it is not exactly a cool party trick to bring up the question with my friends, who are mostly Democrat-voting progressives. When I ask them, they look at me like I just gave a sieg heil to Hitler. I have to remind them: I am asking from the left, not the right.
Yet, especially in the wake of the George Floyd phenomenon, it is often assumed that to ask the question at all is to be a racism-denying rightwinger - and a racist. But it is important to remind ourselves that this assumption reflects an extreme sensitivity to race unique to our millennial era. Most people - both Democrats and Republicans - do not deny the existence of racism. They are aware that the world contains bigots of every variety, including those who believe in the inherent inferiority of certain races. But, naturally, they might wonder whether racism represents the central issue of our clearly troubled society.
It is no secret that we tend to see what we are looking for. By viewing capitalism only through racialised blinders, we are likely to see racism in every glance, in every statistic and in every difficult question posed in good faith. It would be equally distorted to view society through economic factors alone. That is why socialists instead look for capitalism in every aspect of modernity, and why Marx spent his life’s work writing on it. In a word, our politics follow from our diagnosis of the problem. For Marxists, capitalism is not an economic thing. It is a global social order based on the accumulation of human labour. In this view, it is not economics or racism, but capitalism, that is the overriding source of human domination and unfreedom today.
For the millennial generation, one of the most prominent ways of framing today’s political situation has been systemic racism. Originating in the Black Power movement of the 60s, this framework voiced insights about how modern racial inequality is perpetuated by social institutions rather than racist bigotry. But in recent years, as invocations of systemic racism have increased in quantity, they have witnessed a noticeable decline in quality. In activist circles, it is often only the ‘racism’ that holds critical currency in ‘systemic racism’. Ask about the ‘systemic’ part and you are likely to hear confessional anecdotes about individual psychology: ‘As a white person, I have to come clean: I did feel fear when I got on that bus full of black people.’ It is as if everyone’s essentially racist conscience is so obvious that the ‘systemic’ functions merely to extend it further back in history.
Let us be clear. Racism is real. It has a history in capitalist modernity, which saw the proliferation of personal identities that for the first time could be separated, weighed and valued. In previous epochs, cultural identities of race, gender or sexuality were subsumed by more foundational caste positions on medieval hierarchies. To the limited extent that they functioned as independent identities at all, they contributed only marginally to one’s social projection. As pre-capitalist hierarchies dissolved, the construction of self and society took on a new significance. The modern sense of ‘identity’ grew out of the space cleared for a more plastic intersection of meaning-making influences. With the rise of the modern nation-state in the capitalist era, national myths became important sources of cultural identity. One’s ‘nation’, ‘people’ or ‘race’ soon became a prime ingredient of identity construction.
The emergence of racism stemmed from the development of new ideologies for justifying the class relations of capitalist society. Although religious doctrines of natural hierarchy partially waned as a moral resource, the rise of science presented an additional ideological-rhetorical tool for maintaining the new social order. In the high imperialist age around the turn of the 20th century, popular discourse took up concepts like Darwinian evolution and spun them as rational-ethical validations for the exploitation of colonised peoples. The new prominence of cultural identities naturally got muddled with the spirit of scientific classification. This combination led to the modern tendency to differentiate and evaluate individuals according to their observable characteristics. ‘Scientific racism’ - what we mean by racism today - was born.
Today, individual racism has fortunately subsided significantly. And yet, as the systemic racism framework highlights, racial inequalities persist. Black Americans are on average poorer, lower employed, and more likely to be the targets of racism. If we consult the history of capitalism outlined above, the long-term marginalisation of black Americans should not surprise us too much. The lasting effects of racist exploitation cannot be undone overnight, especially in a society where social power depends on accumulated capital. Plus, racist exploitation took on a special brutality in America, where chattel slavery squeezed blacks dry of their labour-power on an unprecedented scale. Race-studies scholars will emphasise the more porous forms of modern racial disparity, arguing that discrimination cannot be reduced to demographic data points, but rather permeates our customs and collective consciousness.
But still, no matter how sophisticated our critique of racial injustice is, it is not comprehensive enough to serve as a foundation for transcending our current social predicament. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the depth and the breadth of the dilemma we face in capitalism.
We lose sight of the historical root cause when we turn racial inequality into a cultural-psychological ‘ism’. But let us be real: it has never been less cool to be racist. And displays of anti-racism have never held so much cultural capital as today. Democrats and Republicans alike have adopted millennials’ anti-racist sensibilities. The dividing line is now mainly a cultural one - not between the woke and the unwoke, but between the most woke and the least woke: basically, the young, educated, urban professionals versus the rest of the population. Insofar as the former understand systemic racism psychologically, they see this social division as one between conscious and unconscious racists.
For cultural outsiders, rad-lib gestural politics appears as a puzzling subculture, wrought with constantly shifting symbols and terminology, which they feel shut off from. When the progressives are pressed to frame their sentiments politically, they will cite group oppression - racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia - as the axis of politics, while conservatives and marginal socialist voices like mine will question this narrative. If people feel shocked by the question, ‘What if racism isn’t the biggest problem with our society today?’, it is because it is culturally taboo to ask it.
If virtually everyone is against racism, but we still insist that individual racism is society’s main affliction, we are led to base our politics on a psychoanalytic conclusion that people are actually more racist than they are aware of. Otherwise, if we reject the culture-wars narrative and want to take systemic racism seriously, we have to direct our energies toward supplanting capitalism as the only system that we have. Once we open up our critique of racism to a broader critique of capitalism, we start to see racial injustice as one of many effects of a highly impersonal social order. The problem comes when we racialise and personalise - psychologise - the political discourse so much that we become blind to the more fundamental dynamic at play. By over-committing our anti-capitalism to our anti-racism, we risk substituting a critique of the whole for a critique of one of its parts. As long as anti-racism cuts itself off from a holistic movement for liberation, it will remain a cultural fad and a single-issue movement among many others.
In order to cut across the culture wars, the first sober recognition we must make is that the progressive and conservative media are equally guilty of feeding us stories along these very lines. With George Floyd, we saw how the interpretative lens of racism functions independently of its content. The story blew up because it came on the heels of a whole series of viral videos depicting white police officers assaulting black citizens. This, despite the fact that more white Americans are killed by the cops than black Americans, and that black police officers are more likely to kill black citizens than white officers.
I do not say this to deflect white racism and racial inequality - both of which remain with us today - but rather to point out that white-against-black racism has become a dominant lens, prefiguring which police assaults we see and how we see them. We should not take for granted that George Floyd could have just as easily been the story of a police officer killing a citizen. Instead, what people largely saw was an agent of ‘whiteness’ and a victim of ‘blackness’. The content of the event immediately became secondary to the lens that refracted it. The hyper-racialisation of left discourse has led us to seek out only those instances that confirm this narrative, independent of its applicability to the overall political situation.
Why does it matter how we frame our political circumstance? Because it determines which political goals we set for ourselves.
You might be thinking, ‘But it shouldn’t be a competition between anti-racism and other political causes.’ Ideally, yes. But in reality it is, because under capitalism there is no choice. The fact is, in capitalism political movements necessarily take on the form of competing interest groups. This is why we often feel morally conflicted about lobbying and lawsuits: deep down we intuitively recognise that appeals to the capitalist state mutually exclude each other. As Marx put it, in capitalism political demands are self-contradictory. Capitalism inherently pits us against each other - most fundamentally in the competition for jobs, where the desire to be a productive contributor to society necessarily impedes the same desire of others.
The most effective dogma for concealing the reality of mutual exclusivity in capitalism is America’s most cherished ideology of ‘equal opportunity’. While our society exhibits real patterns of inequality along lines of race, gender, sexuality, etc, channelling this recognition into the fight for equality simply adopts that capitalist lie of ‘equal opportunity’. Socialists are tasked with undermining this very framework, which gives the false promise of social reciprocity in capitalism. If we buy into the establishment propaganda that says capitalist society is essentially just and free, but is skewed toward certain groups more than others, then our politics will naturally result in the fight for equality within capitalism. But if we understand capitalism as injustice and illiberty for the vast majority, our political orientation changes completely. Instead of spreading out injustice and illiberty more equitably, the goal becomes overcoming these very conditions.
That is why a left critique of today’s anti-racist politics fundamentally differs from a rightwing critique by rejecting a resignation to capitalist conditions. Instead, socialists maintain that the only way for competing political movements to form productive relationships is under a uniform platform for ending capitalism. So, just because the anti-racist movement currently assumes a capitalist imagination, that does not mean anti-racism and emancipatory politics are inherently incompatible. Like any liberal agenda, anti-racism cannot be dismissed, but must be taken up by a comprehensive movement for socialism. It is all the more vital to do so in America, given our particularly troubled heritage of individual and institutional racism that cannot be ignored.
In progressive circles, the tired debate of ‘race versus class’ - as well as the false resolution calling for simultaneous fights on both fronts - serves to oversimplify the problem of capitalism. When such thinking does not reduce capitalism to economics, it makes a false comparison between two different orders of magnitude - race and capitalism, symptom and cause. It is up to the left to maintain an expansive understanding of capitalism - one that includes, but is not reducible to, its various symptoms like racism and economic inequality. To put it blithely, if you really want your outrage at systemic racism to have a systemic effect, ask not what your socialism can do for anti-racism, but what your anti-racism can do for socialism.
Silencing of thought
When we ask the question, ‘What if racism isn’t the biggest problem with our society today?’, from the left, we are not simply entertaining doubt as an intellectual exercise. Socialists are not agnostic on social issues. Rather, the way we choose to frame our problems determines what our problems are - which in turn shapes the types of solutions we seek.
Socialists do not identify ordinary people by their disparate group identities - whether race, gender, religion or income bracket - but by what overwhelmingly occupies their existence and defines their social role in capitalism: they are workers. The benefit of such a broad label is not only that it unites a majority of the world’s population: it also serves as a signpost for social transformation by assuming an indignant, transitional identity rather than an affirmative one. The socialist call, Workers of the world, unite!, is precisely a cry to abolish capitalist identities - first and foremost that of the wage-earner. According to this revolutionary framework, the majority of people who are currently the working class in capitalism must make themselves into the inheritors of the classless society in socialism. Until then, the road to freedom is not paved with ‘solidarity’, but with long-term mass organising - the sooner the better.
The reaction to George Floyd is a prime example of the racialisation of left discourse. After the headlines about a white officer killing an unarmed black man, anti-racism immediately became the rallying cry of the mass protests. Hardly anyone was talking about the police state - much less the capitalist state as a whole. When we watch the video of that senseless murder, of course we feel outrage. But outrage unchannelled is political potential wasted and, in the absence of a socialist movement to harness it, it gets funnelled into anarchistic destruction and capitalistic politics. As the wave of the former dies down, the latter sweeps in. As we have seen in the wake of the George Floyd phenomenon, once the riots and looting were stomped out, the sustained spirit of reform got channelled into rank capitalist pseudo-politics - public relations adjustments, campaigns for blacker boards of directors, and divestment from companies failing the ‘blackness’ test - all campaigns within the sphere of professional-managerial self-renewal rather than the working class seizure of power.
It is certainly possible to underestimate the effects of racism. But it is also possible to overestimate the degree to which racism encapsulates the situation today. Our politics follow from our diagnosis of society’s main problem. If you think it is racism, then, yes, anti-racism is the antidote. But if you believe that the problem runs deeper, then a more robust politics must follow. Racialising our social predicament lowers the left’s political goal of freedom in socialism to equality in capitalism.
It is safe to say that the movement has little patience for inquiries like mine here, which must be silenced as so much tiresome deflection. However, if you think we socialists are simply tone-deaf, that is because we are actually calling for a different tone altogether.