Monthly Archives: January 2012
The Racist Paradox of Modernity: Are Capitalism, Socialism, Science, and Democracy Hopelessly Racist?
(This blog post is the first one I’ve written in quite a while at radicalprogress.info. It is more personal in tone than most of my previous ones. It may or may not mark a transition in how I blog here. You can find other more recent writings of mine at a new group blog, Symptomatic Redness, that I joined about a month ago. I don’t want to get in the habit of reblogging each new post to both blogs, since I’ve heard that can lower our ranking in Google searches.)
One of the recurring arguments that I’ve had over the years about racism is whether it is inherent within modern Euro/American civilization. Since I am usually arguing with Marxists or Liberals, they both want to rescue some element of modernity such as science, democracy, or capitalism from the claim that each of these depend on racism. Cornel West calls this “great the paradox of Western modernity” that both the flourishing of democracy and the transatlantic slave trade coincided historically.
I, too, believe in science and democracy, not so much in capitalism. However, like my Marxist friends, I want to believe that socialism can be achieved without racism marring it. With racism (and I would argue in a different vein, sexism) we can’t even limit its negative characteristics to the “ruling class” as we can with capitalism, since the examples of racism among the working-class and socialist leaders are abundant.
When I began trying to find a socialist organization to join last year, I kept finding them to be preserves of white guys. I sought out an explicitly socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization, only to find it to have done pretty good attracting women, but not so much blacks. If I want my political engagement to break out of this sort of white ghetto, I have to travel further afield.
One idea I have is to find a Black Church and attend it with the intent of immersing myself in its living culture. Of course, some have argued that Christianity itself is inherently racist. I’ve found one Black church in Chicago that does have a strongly liberal theology and even on the edge of being post-Christian. It’s an experiment that I think worth doing, though I can’t exactly approach it as one, as being part of a church requires becoming authentically relationally connected to people.
Back to the big question, can modernity be rescued from its racist origins? One perverse sign that it can transcend its origins is the experience of Asian capitalism and Communism. Both of these Western exports have found fairly fertile soil in Asia and have flourished there, though the Communist nations there are actually trending towards a new form of capitalism.
The counter-examples come from Africa, the motherland of humanity, and the poorest, most exploited continent on earth. When South Africa overthrew its apartheid regime and began transition to a multi-racial democracy, many of us where simultaneously thrilled and stunned. It happened so quickly that many of us who’d been involved in anti-apartheid activism were scratching our heads. Just like the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised many of us.
As uprisings surged across northern Africa this past year, many of us hoped that finally Africa was going to stand up to Euro/American hegemony. When Libyan revolutionaries became military partners with NATO, we knew the possibilities of revolution were still bottled up within the narrow strictures of that hegemony. The struggle continues, the questions unanswerable.
About a year ago I changed my email signature to “Peace, Love, & Revolution!” to reflect my radical views on social change, which I’d begun to try and articulate more thoroughly via this blog. Before that point, I’d just had “Peace!” as my tag. One of my pacifist friends asked me if “revolution” meant nonviolent revolution. I assured him that I still believe that most of the revolutionary work will be by definition nonviolent, rebuilding and reshaping our social institutions and dismantling the death-systems that rule us today.
However, I am not a dogmatic pacifist, but would label my view as pacifist radicalism. Dogmatic pacifism tends to begin with a moral position on violence as a violation of an immutable absolute.
As a Quaker, I have identified with a historical legacy of nonviolence, but as a liberal Quaker, I have the freedom to reinterpret the classic Quaker stance. Many are aware of the roots of Quaker pacifism in the Christian Scriptures, such the Sermon on the Mount’s injunctions to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” A grand tradition of religious non-violence can be traced from these commands through the early Church fathers, medieval sectarians, Anabaptists, Quakers, Tolstoy, Gandhi, to Dr. King.
Of course, the majority of Christians have not been pacifists. Augustine of Hippo developed the first Christian account of the “just war,” borrowing from Roman and Greek precedents. During the Reformation, pacifism was declared by Luther and others to be a heresy, despite its ancient pedigree.
Do I believe that violence or armed struggle can play a constructive role in social revolution? I consider that an open question, which I provisionally answer by considering the evidence of previous revolutions. Most of that evidence seems to support my skeptical sense that most revolutions that relied on violence were short-lived and have limited lessons for contemporary revolutionary politics.
Beginning with the Paris Commune of 1871, through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, Cuban Revolution of 1959, Sandinista Revolution of 1979, and many others, I find that all of them failed to be long-term successes at truly being revolutionary alternatives to capitalist democracy. There were some partial victories in each case, but how much of those partial victories might have been accomplished without violence?
If one argues the case for violence more formally, then the premises are clearer, but still unresolved. The formal case might go something like this:
The social problems of our day produce mass suffering for billions of people. A revolution to significantly reduce that suffering may require violence, perhaps as many as a billion fatalities. If 6 billion lives can be dramatically improved at the expense of 1 billion, does a utilitarian calculus make violence justifiable? The number of fatalities would include members of the ruling class, their armies, and the revolutionary opposition. I would say that provisionally, the long-term benefit for future generations of a stable social revolution make violence a justifiable risk.
However, that simple utilitarian calculus oversimplifies important questions. A justifiable armed revolution would have to meet similar criteria as for any justifiable war. For example, the Roman Catholic Catechism lists four criteria: 1) there must be a threat of lasting, certain, and grave violence from the aggressor, 2) all other means of ending the threat must be shown to be ineffective and or impractical, 3) there must be serious prospects of success, & 4) the use of arms must not produce graver evils than those threatened. Our present world order – with its racist, male-dominated, capitalist systems – is a grave enough threat to billions the world over, in terms of diminished life conditions. The other three conditions are where the rub comes for an armed revolution.
Creating a new world order that will provide a sustainable, generous living for all, free of unjust repression and violence, will take decades of dedicated labor and struggle. There isn’t some simple formula for revolution. Will violence be necessary at some point? I still consider that an open question, but I tend to think the evidence suggests that armed revolutions have negative consequences.
The success of capitalist democracy the world over wasn’t nonviolent. In fact, that’s part of why so many of us hate this system. It rules by force, not by humane and just means. There seems to me to be a lot of truth in the old anti-slavery proverb, “you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.”
For some years now, social movements like the WTO protests and now “Occupy Wall Street” and related groupings have had internal debates over whether to allow “diversity of tactics.” That term refers specifically to groups like “Black Bloc” who use property destruction and street-fighting (usually with police) as tactics, but also more generally to the possibility of force and violence.
I would suggest that using force, property destruction, and violence in a movement for social change today is premature. We aren’t in a situation – yet! – where the ruling class is trying to exterminate the movement. There have been significant police repression of OWS, and to counter that we need a nonviolent movement to organize appropriate pushback, including legal challenges to the arrests.
To move to property destruction – not to mention armed violence – as a tactic will invite an escalation of police force and trigger a massive public withdrawal of support. As a revolutionary, I don’t think the overall goals of empowering the 99% against the 1% can be accomplished within the existing social order. The struggle will be long and drawn out, as we seek to mobilize the majority of our society to take power into their own hands. At some point, as the legitimacy of the existing social powers is challenged on a large scale, some violent confrontations may be unavoidable.
To get to that point, we need to convince the majority that it is in their interest to take power away from the banks, police, corporations, and our undemocratic governments, and mobilize them to action. Such mobilization should focus on tactics that are available to the majority and nearly all of these tactics are nonviolent, such as marches, civil disobedience, petitions, and boycotts. Such mobilization demands the creation of counter-institutions, such as mass organizations and an independent political party.
In short, the work of building a modern revolutionary movement to change the world and liberate us from the death-systems of capitalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism has to proceed along an almost wholly nonviolent course. Simply pointing to the existing and massive violence of the death-systems as justification for armed struggle, entirely ignores the fact we simply do not have any sort of capacity to wage and win a violent struggle.
Yesterday I was reading a science text on physical cosmology that was quite critical of string theory and of physicists in general for allowing theory to trump evidence. In the course of his critique he claimed that the birth of science was in fact due to the Christian idea that God as absolute creator established unalterable physical laws to govern the universe. He argued that no other worldview, whether Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism had such a determinist foundation.
This got me thinking about Marxist determinism, which in some sense became a dogma under Stalinism. In the preface to Kapital Marx writes, “And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement — and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society — it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”
This characterization has the peculiar antinomy of all deterministic statements, it posits a continuum of cause and effect, but then also posits a “deus ex machina” agent (or subject) that is “outside” and can alter the process. The ruling metaphor here is almost that of an obstetrician midwifing a birth. However, the revolutionary observer, who seeks to “lay bare” the natural laws of society’s motion, isn’t in fact a skilled physician, but rather, in our moment, a disparate collection of theorists, organizations, movements, and activists who each describe part of the elephant of revolutionary potential in terms of their immediate interests. They, too, are buffeted by the “successive phases” of social (economic) development.
This reminds me of the Kantian antinomy of freedom, that while all natural phenomena (including the perception of autonomy) are determined, human reason demands a perception that it is free.
One way that I’ve handled the freedom vs determinism antinomy is to borrow from our favorite leftist supplementary discourse – psychoanalysis. The problem isn’t that our freedom is frustrated by a deterministic continuum of cause and effect in which we are helpless cogs, but that we have formed unrealistic expectations of freedom itself. This certainly was the case in the 60s New Left, when so many felt “revolution was in the air” even as the cops killed the movement leaders systematically with the consent of the majority.
How does subjectivity become “unrealistic’? By splitting itself from itself via the trauma of achieving autonomy. We deny our dependence on others, our embeddedness in the very systems we have come to hate. Our hate has a rationale, but our psychic deformation under the death-systems of sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism induces within each and every person an irrational sense of individual responsibility for forces beyond any one’s control.
Why does achieving autonomy shape us into irrational subjects? Because we want to be far more free than is possible. We want to command mother to feed us and change us on demand. When she fails to satisfy us we hate her passionately in infantile tantrums. When our tantrum subsides through exhaustion, we are driven to renegotiate with the still all-powerful caregiver we’ve tried to murder in our imaginations. Beneath the traumatic shame and guilt we come to feel at our hatred of mother is an unresolved anxious feeling of failure, an irrational hope that we can someday actually force mother to give us everything we want when we want it. These fantasies of omnipotence and future autonomy in relation to mother’s failure to satisfy our desires are projected onto social and economic systems. Mother was supposed to be able to feed us, to change us (which toilet-training ended), and to let us play any game we wanted any time we wanted, endlessly. The “Law of the Mother” is far more potent in the infantile imagination – and omnipresent in the adult ego – than that of the “Father.”
One of my favorite philosophers, John Macmurray, analyzed the problematic of agency and irrational desire by pointing out that “since our actions contain a negative element which is … ‘unconscious’, the unconscious motive may find expression in action, so that we find that what we have done is not what we [consciously] intended, but something different; even something opposite and contradictory to our intention. In our relations with other persons this ambiguity of motivation is felt as a tension and a constraint between us, and therefore in each of us.”
As revolutionaries of the left, our conscious intention is a mass revolution in which the majority of humanity rises up as a unified movement against its exploiters and oppressors. However, as irrational fantasists of absolute autonomy, we want this revolutionary movement to satisfy our needs, recognize our theoretical mastery, and fulfill our freedom. We must each face and mature beyond our internal irrationalities, our trauma-induced fantasy of absolute freedom, and our desire that we never need depend on another (Mother).
Although it is something of a wordplay, there is substantive truth in the concept of interdependence that has emerged from ecological philosophy and political activism. The illusory dream of absolute independence cannot be simply rejected for the dangerous myth of complete dependence. We are not slaves to natural law, nor are we limitless free subjects. Our freedom is found in interdependence, in seeking out companions and partners for the grand project of human emancipation. Overcoming our resistances to an egalitarian leveling that includes and limits our own desires, to the recognition that others hold indispensable keys to our own emancipation which they can only truly give us if they freely choose to do so, and finally acting according to the realization that we cannot be truly free if we do not invest ourselves in emancipating others, even at the cost of our irrational desires and illusions.