Apprehension of the social can be effected conceptually through theoretical reflection on social formations and the structures underlying them—as in the body of thinking variously described as social theory, political economy or sociology. The picturing of the social, though, generally operates in a different mode. In the Realist or Naturalist forms of picturing dominant in later nineteenth-century depictions of modern life, the scene or situation was designed to be apprehended by the viewer as a directly experienced physical reality. An existential awareness of the social, experienced at a level that was not fully conceptually articulated, was where visual art’s picturing came into its own.
There is no singular, transhistorical “Black Liberation Struggle” or “Black Freedom Movement,” and there never has been. Black Americans have engaged in many different forms of political expression in many different domains, around many different issues, both those considered racial and not. They have engaged in race-solidaristic formations and in close concert with others, in class-based and multiclass alliances.
Again: is this Farago’s politics, or is this something deep in the DNA of global art history? Insofar as globalization concerns itself with “subject positions,” it seems clear that struggles for state power and deep changes to the relations of production and the exploitation of labor are not just beyond its grasp but irrelevant to it.
As artist and urbanist, Theaster Gates is his own patron, his own institution, his own LLC. He is start-up and content creator combined. Though artists have long engaged in corporate parodies, Gates goes beyond the twee anarcho-entrepreneurship of the Bernadette Corporation or the politicized media takeovers of the Yes Men. He creates new art spaces as anchor institutions in blighted blocks. His works propel white creative types to penetrate black areas of the city formerly unknown to them. His renown encourages art tourists to travel beyond the usual downtown museum circuit. But Gates does not draw attention with mural paintings or large public sculptures. Gates’ artwork is, simply, real estate. And there is real money at stake.
In Brazil, the first decade of the twenty-first century was characterized by a successful but moderate reformist program spearheaded by its president from 2003-2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as Lula. His successor hoped to accelerate the project on the wings of a Rooseveltian dream: to create “in just the space of a few years” a country in which the majority could lead “recognizably similar and remarkably decent material lives.” What happened?
The neoliberal program includes: a) the drastic reduction of the federal budget, with a direct impact on social welfare, education, public health, and research spending, a.k.a. “the death budget”; b) labor legislation reform, removing or weakening many of the longstanding protections enjoyed by Brazilian workers and, under the guise of creating “flexible” labor relations, undermining the country’s trade-union movement; and c) social security reform, imposing stricter and longer work requirements, which, given the current and past employment structure would make full retirement unattainable for large sectors of Brazil’s working class.
There is, finally, one more reason why only a unified front of Old and New Left may be successful in countering both neoliberalism and populism within parliamentary politics. An important—I’d say even the largest—part of progressive political mobilization is nowadays done by women. At least that is the situation in Poland. It is obvious that women would not give up women’s causes and fight just for redistribution under the banners of the Old Left. We do not need, however, to treat this as a limitation or predicament. As a matter of fact, the women’s struggle is undoubtedly the biggest and the most important single positive factor in contemporary Polish politics, a fact that was very well epitomized in autumn 2016 by the so called Black March and women’s strike in opposition to the possibility of further restrictions on a Polish abortion law that is already one of the most restrictive in the EU.
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.