The Dead-End of Racial Identity Politics

The Dead-End of Racial Identity Politics

An article published on October 2017 in the first issue of 'Intransigence', a collaborative effort between the Workers' Offensive group in Miami and other internationalist communists in the United States. Anchored in the revolutionary anti-nationalism of Rosa Luxemburg, this article rejects class-collaborationist approaches, such as liberal integrationism and black nationalism, as viable solutions to the "race question" within the United States, making the case instead for class struggle and solidarity across racial/ethnic and national lines.

Racial identity politics within the United States have historically assumed one of two forms: integrationism and black nationalism. The integrationist view was most eloquently espoused by Frederick Douglass. It sought to eliminate racial barriers to upward social mobility by reforming the dominant social, political, and economic institutions within capitalism to be inclusive of black business and professional elites, as opposed to just their white counterparts. The black nationalist perspective, whose best-known exponent was Marcus Garvey, was much more skeptical concerning America’s ability to accommodate racial diversity within the ruling class. Its proponents argued that blacks should build their own independent political and economic enclaves within American cities, with many in the movement calling for blacks to return to Africa.[1] Both integrationist and nationalist ideologies were predicated on notions of elite spokesmanship that made black workers into the wards of ‘their’ capitalist class. This principle is encapsulated in the politics of “symbolic representation”, in its various iterations, according to which parity between social groups can be determined by measuring the degree of elite representation within the halls of power.[2] Alternatively, it has been referred to as an “elite-brokerage” style of politics. Within this framework, the diverse and often conflicting interests of blacks, which are primarily dependent upon their class positioning, are subsumed under the heading of homogeneous racial interests, with black capitalists, predictably enough, speaking on behalf of an empirically non-existent black community.[3] In short, in spite of their superficial differences, both integrationist and racial separatist (i.e., nationalist) perspectives share many assumptions that are apologetic to the existing capitalist social order. It shall be the aim of the present essay to prove the inadequacy of identity politics for liberating blacks within the United States from racialized oppression and to provide, in broad outline, a roadmap for their emancipation and that of all oppressed peoples.

The idea of the right of nations to self-determination entered public discourse in earnest when then-US president Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points towards the end of the first world war. Long before that, though, the ‘national question’ had been a subject of fervent discussion, not only among the most ardent defenders of capitalism, but also the international socialist movement. Rooted partly in the experience of the American and French revolutions, but also the major social upheavals that took place between the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, this theory holds that a nation, or group of people sharing a cultural identity, has the right to detach itself from an alien political body and decide for itself the manner in which it is to be governed. Naturally, this postulate appealed to the weak among the capitalists. Subordinated economically with respect to the dominant factions and effectively excluded from political power, they saw in it the opportunity to advance their position within capitalism by capturing the state apparatus. However, it also found a great deal of support among socialists, who feared that their mass movements would collapse from under them and workers would flock to the capitalist parties if they did not prostrate themselves before the delusions of the masses. Only a few within the Socialist International took a principled stance against the shameless opportunism of its leadership concerning the question of nationalities. The left-wing of the socialist movement, whose foremost representative was Rosa Luxemburg, rejected the right of nations to self-determination as a bourgeois myth and reasserted the validity of the core Marxian concept of class struggle.

Nations, according to Luxemburg, are abstractions whose existence cannot be asserted through factual means. They do not exist as internally homogeneous political entities because of the contradictory interests and antagonistic relations between the social classes that comprise them. Hence, as Luxemburg explains, “there is literally not one social area, from the coarsest material relationships to the subtle moral ones, in which the possessing class and the class-conscious proletariat hold the same attitude, and in which they appear as a consolidated ‘national’ entity.”[4] But nationalism is not simply an artificial thought-system propagated by the ruling class to keep the exploited masses subjugated under their rule. Rather, like all other ideologies and political theories, it is rooted in socioeconomic realities and historical processes. To be more specific, nationalism was the ideological implement through which the ascendant European bourgeoisie rallied the poor peasantry and the proletariat in its struggle to overthrow (and replace!) the feudal nobility. It was likewise with race, a category with no scientific basis whatsoever, since the current extent of our species’ biological diversity is far too superficial to merit differentiation into distinct racial categories, but which served nevertheless as an ad hoc justification for the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, both of which were vital to capitalist primitive accumulation.[5] Therefore, the function of race in the American context is rather comparable to nationalism in 18th century Europe. As Adolph Reed explains, these ideologies, “help to stabilize a social order by legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things.”[6]

The institutionalization of the racialized division of labor in the United States, which was quite profound historically and has assumed the form of slavery, racial segregation, and ‘post-racial’ structural racism successively, makes the American context unique in a few significant ways. For instance, whereas in other countries, racially and ethnically delineated labor pools have historically been incorporated into capitalism as a particularly vulnerable segment of the working class that can be subjected to intensified forms of exploitation, i.e., surplus-value extraction, black workers in the United States are disproportionately impacted by the structural unemployment that capitalism naturally produces. Their status as a surplus or excess population – ‘excess’ only in the sense that they cannot be profitably employed by capital – can be attributed in large part to their historical exclusion from the formal economy, and particularly those sectors experiencing the highest growth, which some have identified as the source of their relative underdevelopment.[7] Instead, the majority of black workers live in a chronic state of unemployment or under-employment and have been affected more than any other subsection of the US working class by the tendency towards the casualization of employment that has flourished under neoliberalism. It is precisely this dismal state of affairs which racism seeks to rationalize. Hence, racialist thought plays a dual function in modern-day capitalism: 1) it helps channel groups of people into certain occupations and allows for the maintenance of a reserve army of labor that can be deployed during periods of heightened capital-expansion; and 2) it sows divisions within the ranks of the workers and ideologically binds them to ‘their’ exploiting class.[8]

Since racism is grounded on the economic substructure of society, it logically follows that its abolition will not be brought about by the exploiting class or political movements led by it. The self-anointed leaders of the so-called ‘black community’, who purport to be mediators between this idealized collectivity and the majority-white political establishment, are deeply embedded in capitalist production relations and therefore complicit in the reproduction of racism. These ‘black brahmins’, as Manning Marable famously referred to the professional-managerial stratum (a layer of society that includes clergy, politicians, and middle-class professionals), are little more than professional poverty pimps, opportunistically riding the wave of black proletarian discontent to achieve political prominence and riches for themselves.[9] The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon is an activist network in the United States that calls itself ‘Black Lives Matter’, which has become synonymous with the movement against racialized police violence, a clear-cut example of capitalists and their lackeys co-opting the authentic resistance of black workers. This organization, whose ties to the Democratic Party-NGO complex are fairly well-established at this point, attempts to harness the explosive spontaneity of the proletarian element within these social movements, which often takes the form of riots and looting, into forms of engagement with the capitalist system that do not interfere in any way with profit-making.[10] It is unsurprising, therefore, that their manifesto reads like the DNC platform, but with demands for reparations and investment into black-owned businesses, which effectively amounts to income redistribution for black capitalists, thrown in for good measure. Black Lives Matter are modern-day Garveyites, only they have traded in the overt homophobia and misogyny of the latter for hollow social justice rhetoric that throws a veneer of radicalism over their essentially capitalist politics.

For reasons that we have already explored here, the capitalist class and its allied strata, all of whom are materially invested in the preservation of the existing social order, are incapable of putting forward a suitable response to anti-black racism in the United States, much less to the generalized barbarism of this society. Therefore, a solution to the profound social, economic, and moral crisis that capitalism presents at this juncture rests with the large segment of humanity dependent on the sale of its labor-power. In the American context, the creation of a multi- gendered, national, racial, etc., working-class front uniting all those who, while not equally disempowered, share a fundamental relationship to the economy, will be instrumental to abolishing capitalism and its attendant hierarchies. To this end, all forms of identity politics, which espouse collaboration between exploited and exploiting classes, and thereby compromise the success of workers’ struggle for emancipation, must be firmly opposed. It is not, however, enough to oppose identity politics; socialists must actively address non-class forms of oppression, detailing their foundations in capitalism and explaining how a socialist society will do away with them.

It is true, for example, that within the United States blacks are murdered by police at a rate that is more than twice their percentage within the general population, while whites and Latinos are killed at a rate that is roughly proportional to their share of the population. However, it is important to note that more than half of all those killed by police are white. Moreover, in states with very small black populations, the percentage of blacks killed by police is many times smaller than the national average, which suggests that although anti-black racism is an important factor in police killings, it is clearly not the principal one. In fact, empirically speaking, the most reliable predictor of whether a person is likely to be murdered by police is not their race, but their class. More than 95% of all police killings are concentrated within neighborhoods where the median annual household income is just under $100,000, while the median annual household income in most neighborhoods where police killings occur in general is just over $52,000.[11] Police killings are not, then, a mechanism for establishing and reproducing white supremacy, but rather white supremacy is a system for maintaining the domination of capitalists over workers, regardless of the race of either one. Or as Adolph Reed succinctly explains, “the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests […] that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working-class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.”[12]

Recent developments in the class struggle within the United States are cause for careful optimism, since they reveal a willingness on the part of some workers to organize themselves in order to press their demands collectively against the bosses, independently of institutional (Democratic Party) and institutionalized (labor unions) organizations that actively discourage such behavior and openly stifle these attempts. The recent wave of illegal and non-union (i.e., wildcat) strikes by workers in the logistical and service industries, many of which have been multiracial due to the displacement of a large segment of the general working population into low-waged and low-skill labor over the last few decades, is a sign that something is potentially brewing beneath the surface.[13] With each successive struggle, workers in the United States learn for themselves that they have more in common with one another than not. Sadly, this emergent wave of militancy has been confined to a handful of industries and it has not yet spread to the whole class. Although still in its infancy, these experiences have greater transformative potential than all the consciousness-raising and leftist proselytizing in the world. The material imperatives of the class struggle impose themselves on the consciousness of social actors as an objective barrier impeding any further progress. Thus, for example, if white and male workers believe that they are inherently superior to black workers or to women, then they will make no attempt to organize with them, and their resistance will be crushed by the bosses all the same. For it is the class struggle itself that challenges people’s most deeply-held beliefs about the world and each other, and which draws the lines of battle within the workplace between workers and capitalists. In other words, the very process of putting together a solidaristic movement – that is, a social movement that unites all those who are exploited under capitalism – also works to actively undermine the various ideologies employed by the system to fortify and stabilize itself.

E.S.

[1] John Henryk Clarke, Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2011), 207.

[2] Manning Marable, Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics (Brooklyn: Verso, 2009), 188.

[3] Adolph Reed, “Why Is There No Black Political Movement?”, in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, (New York City: The New Press, 2000), 4-5.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg, “The National Question and Autonomy,” in The National Question: Selected Writings (New York City: Monthly Review Press, 1976), 135-136.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1 (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 915.

[6] Adolph Reed. “Marx, Race, Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (2013): 49.

[7] Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 48-49.

[8] Marx, op. cit., 781-782.

[9] Marable, op. cit., 170-171.

[10] Janell Ross, “DeRay Mckesson is Running for Mayor. What Does That Mean for Black Lives Matter?”, Washington Post, February 4, 2016.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/04/black-lives-matter-runs-for-mayor/?utm_term=.a86f31b8178f

[11] While it is not a great indicator of class positioning, understood by Marxists as a person’s relationship to the economy, we can make useful generalizations from data that looks at income.

[12] Adolph Reed, “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence”, Nonsite, September 16, 2016.
http://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence

[13] See, for example, the walkout by 4,000 dockworkers in Newark, New Jersey, which the International Longshoremen’s Association did not approve of, the latter issuing a call later that very day for its members to return to work. Or the truck drivers’ protest in Hialeah, Florida, which blocked traffic on Okeechobee Road, one of the main arteries through which goods and people move in and out of the city, until they were forced to disperse violently by police.

Comments

Juan Conatz
Mar 11 2018 07:14

When I read stuff like this, the first thing I'm looking for is what does it suggest as an alternative. What do socialists have to offer oppressed communities to address issues that are more specific to them?

Quote:
It is not, however, enough to oppose identity politics; socialists must actively address non-class forms of oppression, detailing their foundations in capitalism and explaining how a socialist society will do away with them.

So we have to wait for the socialist society until non-class forms of oppression are done away with or addressed at all? No concrete suggestions for a non-cross class 'identity politics' movement?

Emanuel Santos
Mar 11 2018 09:47
Quote:
So we have to wait for the socialist society until non-class forms of oppression are done away with or addressed at all? No concrete suggestions for a non-cross class 'identity politics' movement?

Racism doesn't have an existence apart from capitalism. It is an outgrowth of this system and remains useful to it to this day. So, the race question can't really be solved within capitalism.

However, that doesn't mean that we should just bide our time until the moment a revolutionary situation arises before we begin tackling the issue of racialized oppression in earnest.

There exist any number of possible campaigns against police brutality, race-based discrimination, explicitly racist laws and/or laws that disproportionately target minorities, etc., that could be integrated into the class struggle.

This entails intervening within these movements as communists to counter the pernicious influence of black capitalists and the professional-managerial stratum. The objective being to help workers break with them and take charge of their own struggles.

But that, of course, means discussing with black workers the capitalist origins of racism and explaining to them that neither "their" capitalist class or its politician friends has anything to offer them besides more misery and hardship.

R Totale
Mar 11 2018 10:33
Emanuel Santos wrote:
There exist any number of possible campaigns against police brutality, race-based discrimination, explicitly racist laws and/or laws that disproportionately target minorities, etc., that could be integrated into the class struggle.

This entails intervening within these movements as communists to counter the pernicious influence of black capitalists and the professional-managerial stratum. The objective being to help workers break with them and take charge of their own struggles.

But that, of course, means discussing with black workers the capitalist origins of racism and explaining to them that neither "their" capitalist class or its politician friends has anything to offer them besides more misery and hardship.

OK, so what's your actual strategy for beginning to do that? What initiatives do you have planned to intervene in these movements?

Spikymike
Mar 11 2018 18:21

If the 'on the ground' 'alternatives' in practice are not as developed or useful as we would wish this doesn't make the basic analysis of the opening text here, at least within the frame of reference it starts from, any less correct.
There are a couple of other End Notes contributions on this site which people might find more to their taste but which seem to overlap and maybe reinforce some of the points in this text. Here;
https://libcom.org/library/limit-point-capitalist-equality-notes-toward-abolitionist-antiracism-chris-chen
https://libcom.org/library/black-representation-after-ferguson-john-clegg (edit or just search the title)
Mike Harman has of course argued the limitations of Adolph Reeds approach in terms of his practical politics even if others on this site, as in the opening text, have suggested he still makes some valid points.

Mike Harman
Mar 11 2018 20:12

Three out of thirteen footnotes are Adolph Reed (and at least two of the other footnotes aren't citations), then people wonder why I wrote a critique of Adolph Reed...

Emanuel Santos wrote:
In fact, empirically speaking, the most reliable predictor of whether a person is likely to be murdered by police is not their race, but their class.

This is straight from Adolph Reed, I recognise the exact argument from one of his pieces, however the reason for this is of course that black people in the US are more likely to live and work in low-wage inner city areas that have heavy police presence than white people - 'war on drugs' funding, 'broken windows policing' - both a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but also later policies like 'red lining' where neighbourhoods were kept racially segregated (something which can still be enforced by real estate agents informally. Reed actually accepts all this, but just thinks that class is the main thing holding social mobility now.

In the UK a landlord called Fergus Wilson banned south asian renters from his (hundreds of) rental properties up until last year or so: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/nov/08/landlord-ban-coloured-tenants-unlawful-court-rules-equality-watchdog

(social) class also doesn't entirely insulate you from racist policing, as this senior Harvard lecturer found out when he got arrested in his own garden as a burglar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Louis_Gates_arrest_controversy

Not sure exactly where it's from, but there's a very simple way to approach this: "not race vs. class, but race and class".

Reed's line is that focusing on class (by which he means economic social class via redistributive public policy) is more effective than liberal anti-racism - to reduce racial disparity within capitalism - but if we don't believe that social democratic redistribution is sufficient/viable for anything, then we really need to do a bit more work.

Emanuel Santos wrote:
There exist any number of possible campaigns against police brutality, race-based discrimination, explicitly racist laws and/or laws that disproportionately target minorities, etc., that could be integrated into the class struggle.

This entails intervening within these movements as communists to counter the pernicious influence of black capitalists and the professional-managerial stratum. The objective being to help workers break with them and take charge of their own struggles.

But that, of course, means discussing with black workers the capitalist origins of racism and explaining to them that neither "their" capitalist class or its politician friends has anything to offer them besides more misery and hardship.

This bit also misses the point a bit: you immediately go to the dangers of black liberals and capitalists co-opting anti-racist movements - but this is an argument something working class black people are quite capable of making. For example there are several speeches by Black Panthers where they criticise cultural nationalism and black capitalism. While Deray ran for Baltimore mayor, he also brutally lost because he's laughed at by most people as a neoliberal shill. The problem is that mass media, non-profits and etc. aren't interested in those arguments and critiques and promote people regardless. And that communists spend a lot more time writing the 500th piece critiquing Deray than they do finding black communists or grassroots anti-racists movements to highlight.

A different example that could have been offered here was arguing against trade union bureaucrats and social democrat politicians when they try to blame low wages on migrants, but these anti-identity politics boilerplate pieces never quite get there.

Emanuel Santos
Mar 12 2018 11:18

My analysis of racism in the US is primarily informed by Rosa Luxemburg's writings on the national question and my own experiences being part of a "community" of immigrants (Hispanic, Cuban) that has its own capitalist class and elected representatives in congress.

The comparisons with Reed's work are strange to me because I really on lean on him and Marable for their critique of symbolic representation and politics based on elite brokerage. It also should go without saying that as a self-described left-communist, I don't agree with very many of his prescriptive views.

As for a strategy or initiatives to intervene within these movements, I don't think it's possible to lay any of that out in advance. It would seem to me that the particulars of a communist intervention into single-issue -- or, if you prefer, 'partial' struggles -- would largely depend on the actual conditions of the struggle itself.

In any case, it's also beyond the scope of this article to do so.

Hieronymous
Mar 12 2018 00:24

As for a strategy, intiative or historical model to inform contemporary struggles (and sorry, but I'm cutting & pasting myself):

Check out the book Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising, which shows a positive example of overcoming racism in struggle. The 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising in Ohio was the longest prison riot in U.S. history, with the fewest fatalities. The uprising at the supermax Southern Ohio Correctional Facility began on April 11, 1993, becoming an 11-day occupation. It drew together the Muslims, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Black Gangster Disciples in united action as a class; graffiti left behind said things like “Black and White Together” and “Convict Race.” It ended through negotiations by those uniting across race lines; although only 9 prisoners and 1 guard were killed, the Lucasville 5 are on deathrow not for what happened in the prison but because of the inspiring example their action: instead of being simply prisoners, divided and conquered by racism, they rose up and rebelled as men united as one.

Also check out Staughton's shorter article, entitled “Overcoming Racism,” that uses Lucasville to detail how white working-class racism can be overcome. It’s a powerful example that can serve anti-racism in anti-capitalist struggles. It’s something neither Reed, Roediger nor Ignatiev talk about, nor something an anti-racism workshop can teach -- which is: we must learn to fight racism and class-divided society by fighting.*

*paraphrasing from "In a Revolutionary Hour: What Next?":

Rosa Luxemburg wrote:
The working classes in every country only learn to fight in the course of their struggles
Emanuel Santos
Mar 12 2018 11:03

Hieronymus,

I will definitely make sure to check out the book you've recommended.

I also agree with what you said about unlearning racism through struggle and it's a point that I made in the concluding paragraph of my article:

Quote:
The material imperatives of the class struggle impose themselves on the consciousness of social actors as an objective barrier impeding any further progress. Thus, for example, if white and male workers believe that they are inherently superior to black workers or to women, then they will make no attempt to organize with them, and their resistance will be crushed by the bosses all the same. For it is the class struggle itself that challenges people’s most deeply-held beliefs about the world and each other, and which draws the lines of battle within the workplace between workers and capitalists. In other words, the very process of putting together a solidaristic movement – that is, a social movement that unites all those who are exploited under capitalism – also works to actively undermine the various ideologies employed by the system to fortify and stabilize itself.
R Totale
Mar 12 2018 10:48

Very much seconded. For a smaller-scale version of the same thing, there's this article by Kevin Rashid Johnson, giving his experiences of trying to spread a class struggle perspective as a black revolutionary in an environment dominated by white supremacist gangs: http://libcom.org/library/political-struggle-teeth-prison-reaction-virginia-oregon