To lay out, as clearly and as programmatically as we could, the reasons why despite protestations to the contrary, antiracism, understood as insisting on the symmetry of fighting discrimination and fighting exploitation, suppresses the development of a working class politics rather than offering a road to it. To make this point, the essays printed here, perhaps a little more insistently than our previous responses to critics, attend to the way that antiracism is an expression of the class position of those of us who produce the bulk of the commentary on injustice, and who routinely confront race and gender disparities in our everyday lives.
Largely because of the challenge posed by the alternative political vision that Sanders advanced and the subsequent struggle over how to interpret the meanings of Trump’s victory, the 2016 election and its aftermath have thrown into relief the extent to which antiracism, and other formulations of politics based on ascriptive identities, are not simply alternatives to a (working) class politics, as Clinton’s cheesy put-down during the campaign implied. What is typically called identity politics reflects the perspective of a different class, the professional and managerial strata who are relatively insulated from the negative impacts of the four decades long regime of regressive redistribution and better positioned to take advantage of the opportunity structures it opens. That perspective suggests a reason many high-profile antiracists have become so vehement in their opposition to a politics centered on downward economic redistribution.
This is why some of us have been arguing that identity politics is not an alternative to class politics but a form of it: it’s the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race or sex. And (this is at least one of the things that Marx meant by ideology) it’s promulgated not only by people who understand themselves as advocates of capital but by many who don’t.
In recent years, political debates over American crime policy have become centered on whether prisons should aim to rehabilitate rather than punish offenders. While rehabilitative discourse appears to be a progressive alternative to punitive politics, I argue that rehabilitative ideology is built on theoretical premises that justify punitive politics. By conceptualizing criminality within individualistic and deterministic frameworks, the rehabilitative ideal of American criminal justice depicts crime as a function of individual-level faults rather than as symptoms of the deeper social and political inequalities that shape the class profile of the prison population. When criminality is viewed as a function of defects and deficiencies entirely rooted in the person, criminality can only be cured through individual level responses rather than more systematic structural reform.
It’s here again, that we encounter the basic flaw of liberal common sense, with its fixation on cultural factors and the importance of ethos. What they neglect is an element that was entirely wiped out of both public and academic discourse in Poland as well as elsewhere, for example, in the US: the issue of class and its indelible materialist component. Populism is a kind of displaced and perverted class revolt. It derives from an oppression of double kind: material for the poor and symbolic for the lower-middle class.
The “white working class,” like the “black community,” is an abstraction that does not exist anywhere in the real world. The U.S. working class is broad and diverse. It’s not even all that white any more and certainly not all that male. Its conditions are determined by its position within a political economy but, like everyone else, the experience and consciousness of individual workers is formed by a whole series of contingent relationships and experiences. The recent use of the trope of the angry white working class attempts to extract white workers from these class dynamics and present them as a demonized and marginalized natural group.
The most immediate challenge we face now is to prepare for what is going to be the political equivalent of a street fight that we’ll have to wage between now and at least 2018 just to preserve space for getting onto the offensive against the horrors likely to come at us from Trump, the Republican congress, and random Brown Shirt elements Trump’s victory has emboldened. At the same time, however, we need to reflect on the extent to which progressive practice has absorbed the ideological premises of left-neoliberalism.
Proliferation of this Kabuki theater politics among leftists stems in part from the dialectic of desperation and wishful thinking that underlies the cargo-cult tendency; it is commonly driven by an understandable sense of urgency that the dangers facing us are so grave as to require some immediate action in response. That dialectic encourages immediatist fantasies as well as tendencies to define the direct goal of political action as exposing, or bearing witness against, injustice.
The trivial truth is that what they mean by challenging the operation of capitalist markets (i.e. massive downward redistribution) would indeed reduce racialized poverty, for the obvious reason that (as Adolph and I and millions of others keep on tiresomely repeating) precisely because black people are disproportionately poor all efforts of redistribution will disproportionately benefit them. The totally false idea is that a challenge to racial disparities gets you out from under what Reed calls “neoliberalism’s logic.” In fact, unlocking inherited inequality (racialized or not) and achieving real equality of opportunity (hence more upward mobility) is left neoliberalism’s wet dream.
Free State of Jones reminds us of this core truth of class with respect to labor, whether paid or unpaid—the shared material conditions and shared interests of those who are compelled by force or necessity to work.