Onward Christian Soldiers: Political and Religious Dynamics of the US Civil War Era

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ….” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Ephesus

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Galatia

Politics in the United States of America predictably falls into an all-too familiar opposition between conservative and progressive causes. Champions of a former era of lost grandeur fill the ranks of the Republican Party and its rightist milieu. Advocates of a better future for all by correcting the injustices of the past and present tend to support the Democratic Party or other elements of a leftist social terrain. American religion divides along similar lines with Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, and other conservatives facing off against “liberals and leftists” both religious and secular. This bifurcation is ultimately an over- simplification as anyone familiar with the further reaches of both the American far left and far right can attest, as well as the existence of a persisting “centrist” or moderate constituency, who play a key role as “undecided voters.” The enduring strength of this polarization nevertheless has deep historical roots within U.S. institutions. The bloodiest conflict over these sharply opposed politics was the Civil War of the 1860s. The broad social upheaval of the 1960s echoed much of that earlier era’s catastrophic warfare with issues of race, war, and economics triggering a multi-systemic crisis that touched upon seemingly disparate domains such as gender, sexuality, and perhaps most broadly, the relation of humanity to the earth itself as a new ecological consciousness developed. Even today, the divide in US politics between left and right falls along lines that were most vividly drawn in the Civil War era.

That this polarity is fundamentally tied up with religion is less well understood. Our exploration will examine the conflicts within and around religious life that permeated the Civil War. Of all modern industrial nations, the United States of America has one of the highest levels of religious identification. Opinion polls routinely find that over 90% of the populace believe in God or a Universal Spirit. Church membership statistics and attendance at religious services are remarkably high compared to other similar nations. Surveys also find that a significant correlation exists between degree of religious adherence and identification with a conservative political agenda. This close connection is not a recent phenomena and as our study will find, much of the contemporary American religious and political landscape was profoundly shaped by the Civil War and the wider social context of that era.

As religious historian Mark A. Noll documents, religion and politics in the Civil War period were tightly interconnected. He writes,

“…the evangelical Protestantism that dominated public life at midcentury had gained its place because it successfully clothed the Christian faith in the preeminent ideological dress of the new Republic. In particular, it had vivified, ennobled, and lent transcendent value to republican political assumptions, democratic convictions about social organization, scientific reasoning pitched to common sense, and belief in the unique, providential destiny of the United States.”

Noll highlights in particular four features of the dominant US Protestant tradition that were departures from the Christian nations of Europe: Anti-traditionalism, Republicanism, an emphasis on written instruments of government, and an ideological evolution in the doctrine of original sin’s effects on human virtue. Anti-traditionalism in Christian thought grew out of developments following the Protestant Reformation in which private interpretation of religious doctrines and texts were elevated over the past pronouncement of Church authorities. While continental Catholics and Protestants emphasized the authority of tradition as a bulwark of theological orthodoxy, US Protestantism became dominated – after the Revolution of 1776 and the adoption of the federal Constitution’s disestablishment of all churches – by a counter-tradition that rejected such a view of authority. The largest denominations at the time of the Civil War were Baptists, Methodists, Restorationists, and Presbyterians, which had substantive anti-traditional orientations. These bodies grew exponentially between 1790 and 1860. This contrasts with much slower growth among the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

This rejection of tradition generated in the US context a greater anti-intellectualism than was found in Europe. Particularly in proslavery churches, the Bible was regarded as literally true and if the Bible had a single reference to slavery as a positive good, such passages were considered as eternal truths needing no interpretation by Biblical scholars. In contrast, Catholic and Protestant Europeans deployed far more complex hermeneutics that drew on history, tradition, and formal learning. This resistance to critical thinking accounts for some of the difference between European and Canadian efforts at abolition among Christians. Their respect for tradition and scholarship allowed for a more deliberative and gradual approach to the abolition of slavery in England, Canada, and other European nations. The rigid anti-intellectualism of Southern slaveholding culture elevated the political stakes into a fundamental question of religious fidelity which made the recourse to armed warfare much more unavoidable in the US. The proverbial unmovable object met an irresistible force.

However, the story isn’t so simple as Bible-thumpers on one side opposing apostates and unbelievers. Many Christians did join the abolitionist cause and cited Holy Writ as their justification. One familiar interpretive tactic was to draw a line between the Old and New Testaments, with the latter held up as a gospel of peace, charity, and freedom and the latter as a violent record of human sin and ignorance. The cause of abolition was undoubtedly aided in the Northern States by successful antislavery legislative victories in England, the struggle for which had produced a bold and sophisticated Christian theology of abolition especially in the writings of William Wilberforce. His writings fairly bristle with piety and conviction:

“Is it not the great end of religion, and, in particular, the glory of Christianity, to extinguish the malignant passions; to curb the violence, to control the appetites, and to smooth the asperities of man; to make us compassionate and kind, and forgiving one to another; to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends; and to render us active and useful in the discharge of the relative social and civil duties?”

In contrast, the works of the leading abolitionist in the US, William Lloyd Garrison, adopted a more critical stance towards religion:

“To say that everything in the bible is to be believed , simply because it is found in that volume, is equally absurd and pernicious… To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence that one can give of his love of truth.”

From the proslavery perspective, Garrison’s views enabled his opponents to stand their ground on a source of authority that was widely regarded as above all human reasoning about “the truth.” That American Christianity was in many respects even more authoritarian than its Continental counterpart is one of the social ironies of modern history. The US Baptist tradition in particular incorporated into its foundational narratives stories of persecution in Europe driving sincere, simple, and faithful believers out of an apostate society into a divinely “promised land.” This desire to worship and obey God free from human traditions and institutions was also part of the founding ideals of Quaker and Puritan colonists, though Quakers came to abolitionism over a century before the Civil War. That the quest for religious and civil freedom could be appropriated into a religious defense of brutal enslavement of African human beings boggles the modern mind.

A key aspect of the power of proslavery biblicism was the widespread reliance on a single translation of the Bible by most preachers and lay Christians, the King James Version (hereafter KJV) published in 1611 which became the standard text throughout the English-speaking world. When opponents of slavery attempted to formulate careful arguments based on a historical analysis of ancient practices that were called “slavery” in the KJV, their arguments rang hollow in the anti-intellectual culture of much of American Christianity. Again, a great historical irony is that a translation created under the auspices of one of the same European governments that were demonized in standard American narratives of State-Church persecutions became the standard translation used by anti-intellectual church leaders and believers to defend an authoritarian institution.

A deeper cultural factor plays into this milieu of biblicism when considered from the standpoint of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of mass communication, notably his “Gutenberg Galaxy” hypothesis. The printing of books as a mass reproduction of ideas and language produces a shift in human culture that McLuhan characterizes thus, “Print created national uniformity and government centralism, but also individualism and opposition to government as such.” Further, “The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production.” And, “Print, in turning the vernaculars into mass media, or closed systems, created the uniform, centralizing forces of modern nationalism.”

McLuhan’s theory provides a lens on the biblicism of the proslavery culture. Bibles had become the most easily accessible books in the US than in any prior society and given the dominant theological view that these texts were infallible and inerrant, these portable objects became an external authority that stood over against the private opinions of “sinful men” and “human reason.” One could discover what God’s eternal view on any subject was by consulting this book. Such intense emotional investment in an external object calls to mind Freudian theories about the super-ego. Freud postulated that as a child grows to fear the punishment of its parents for its misbehaviors, it begins developing an internal system of self-protection that can turn into a toxic internal critic. The fear of punishment from an external authority is turned into an internal self-punisher. In the cases of exceptionally troubled personalities, an external object can be invested with this authority to punish, most notably a religious ideal, whether embodied in priests or a sacred inviolable text.

Tying Freud’s superego theory to McLuhan’s Gutenberg hypothesis leads us to another element in Mark Noll’s analysis of the religious culture of Civil War America, that of an emphasis on written instruments of government. The US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights assumed the character of infallible documents in the popular mindset, much as the Bible itself. In our time the current debates over the intentions of the “Founding Fathers” seems to carry a similar religious cast of mind as that of the study of scripture for many religious conservatives. Not only could one not challenge the Biblical authors, one could not challenge the august phrases of the American Constitution, least of all the passages that defined slaves as 3/5s of a person!

A further level of analysis is suggested by Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. If the Bible and the American political texts are sacred documents, their mass production as objects of commerce plays into their roles as markers of value.

“[In] the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world … the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.“

If the transformation of human labor, including the labor of writing sacred texts and perpetuating their existence over two millenia from the ancient “cradle of civilization” to deliver them into the hands of millions as the infallible word of God isn’t the perfect example of commodity fetishism, what else could be? This text potentially judges every social interaction with moral rules that are considered timeless. Little wonder that proslavery theology flourished in the South.

However, the Civil War did happen and slavery was forcibly abolished in the entire United States despite the solid support that existed for it in some quarters. This brings us to face one of the unresolved aspects of the Civil War era, the role of racism as a systemic devaluation of human beings based on perceived ethnic membership. The aftermath of the Civil War is characterized by a sustained struggle over the human and civil rights of the newly emancipated slaves. Simply ending the basic institutional forms of slavery did not resolve a whole host of problems that were directly or indirectly connected with that system.

This history of US racism also reveals that to a significant degree, Northern society participated in the dehumanizing practices of segregation, economic discrimination, educational rationing, and excessive police force directed at African-Americans. Despite the overt victory over the slave system, racism lived on.

Cornel West identifies three cultural sources for American racist attitudes, a

“…Judeo-Christian racist logic, which emanates from the biblical account of Ham looking upon and failing to cover his father Noah’s nakedness, thereby provoking divine punishment in the form of blackening his progeny, links racist practices to notions of disrespect for and rejection of authority, to ideas of unruly behavior and chaotic rebellion. The “scientific” racist logic, which promotes the observing, measuring, ordering and comparing of visible physical characteristics of human bodies in light of Greco-Roman aesthetic standards, associates racist practices with bodily ugliness, cultural deficiency and intellectual inferiority. And the psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers.”

Of course, our analysis to this point has focused on the biblical theology of slavery, but West points to a specific theology of racism that is today quite discredited. The “Curse of Ham” was identified by white Christian racists during the Civil War as black skin. Thus, the oppression of Black persons was merely carrying out the will of God. This viewpoint survives in more subtle fashion among Christians today when the history of the faith is told through a trajectory from Judea to Rome to Germany to England to the USA. Missing from this history are the stories of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and other African forms of Christianity. Africa is religiously characterized as a dark continent of tribal superstitions and Islamic strongholds. Even today one can find Evangelical Christians who reject slavery, yet wonder whether there would be such vibrant American Black Churches without that experience. In an odd twist, this analysis seems to suggest that Blacks are in fact a modern type of the Hebrew slaves in Pharoah’s Egypt.

West’s second source, “scientific” racism is also still present in society, most notoriously in the 1994 publication of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. They wrote, “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” In the Civil War era, Samuel George Morton theorized that it was possible to judge intelligence by cranial capacity. Many prominent Western intellectuals held perhaps less crude, but nevertheless comparably racist ideas of biological inferiority.

The final form of racist logic West identifies is both highly suggestive, but also perhaps more difficult to establish as true. Earlier, this field was hinted at in the brief remarks on Freud and the superego. West elaborates,

“… psychosexual racist logic endows black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, long-suffering mothers. This logic—rooted in Western sexual discourses about feces and odious smells—relates racist practices to bodily defecation, violation and subordination, thereby relegating black people to walking abstractions, lustful creatures or invisible objects. All three white-supremacist logics view black people, like death and dirt, as Other and Alien.”

To return to the Civil War era, Mark Noll notes that while proslavery biblicists were quite willing to defend slavery as divinely ordained, they were unwilling to consider that slavery might be an appropriate system to apply to whites. This discriminatory aspect of US slaveholding is very likely the critical flaw that spelled the end of favoring slavery in Northern states. The rise of industrial production and capitalist waged labor produced an enormous demand for hourly workers in a variety of growing businesses. Slave labor simply had very little utility in an industrial economy.

    The growth of capitalist industry carried with it new conceptions of individualism that weakened the racist assumptions of American society, though subsequent history proved that they never fully disappeared. The calculating logic of modernizing society was ultimately incompatible with slavery.

“America’s Most Segregated City” Revisited

Pierre Devise loved to ride his bicycle around his adopted home city of Chicago. He often would ride to the Chicago Tribune newsroom to deliver his latest research findings on urban problems. As a professor of sociology at both the University of Chicago and Roosevelt University at different points during his career, Devise had earned the reputation of being a gadfly on the pragmatic rump of Chicago city planners. Decried by the infamous Mayor Richard M. Daley as “a man not fit to teach,” Devise first came to prominence in 1967 with a published study, “Chicago’s Widening Color Gap,” that established his reputation for critical analysis of the city’s racial divide.

Today, Chicago continues to be the “most segregated city in America,” a label arising from Devise’s research, though there have also been significant shifts in this gloomy picture. In their 2012 study, The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, researchers EdwardGlaeser and Jacob Vigdor concluded that, “Over the last decade, Chicago had the second-largest declines in dissimilarity and isolation among [the nation’s top ten urban areas].” The two criterion studied here are labeled dissimilarity and isolation. Dissimilarity is measured in terms of how many individuals of the racial groups being studied would need to move into a neighborhood to attain equal residency levels for both groups. For example, a neighborhood of 200 persons with 150 white residents and 50 black residents would have a low dissimilarity ranking, as the large majority were from one racial group. Racial isolation indices measure the tendency for members of racial groups to live in neighborhoods where their race is the majority. Given that Chicago has long had a sharply “super-segregated” (another Devise characterization) landscape, its improvement in the 2000-2010 period is merely one small step in a century-and-a-half-long uphill climb.

Chicago’s racial problems precede the founding of the city itself. The area now known as Chicago was inhabited by several Algonquian native groups at the time traders and missionaries of European descent began to enter the region in the 17th century. The Algonquins were first displaced by the Pottawatami who had been driven west by European settlement, and then the Pottawatami were displaced altogether by Europeans by the 1840s. The first permanent non-Native American settler was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black Frenchman generally considered to be of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Du Sable lived near the Chicago River from some point in the 1780s until the turn of the 19th century when he moved to Missouri. While it is a point of pride for Chicago to claim a Black man as its first resident, the modern city we know wasn’t formally identified until 1830.

The 19th century was a period of intense racial conflict centered on the Southern US slave system. While Chicago did follow the industrial path of most Northern cities in rejecting slavery, it also missed its opportunity to become a racially integrated metropolis. Despite passing anti-discrimination legislation in the period before and after the Civil War, the early 20th century saw the rise of a post-slavery system of racial segregation in many Northern cities, and Chicago often lead the way.

An early watershed in Chicago race relations was the five-day long Chicago Race Riot of 1919 which began when a black man, Eugene Williams, accidentally swam too close to a segregated beach on Lake Michigan. He was pelted by rocks from a white man, according to witnesses, and Williams drowned during his attempt to escape the attack. The Chicago Police did not arrest the rock-thrower, but rather a black Chicagoan accused of violating a minor ordinance by whites at the beach. In the aftermath, Irish gangs clashed with outraged blacks and ultimately the National Guard were called in to quell the violence after dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. No whites were ever convicted of any wrongdoing.

In 1920, landlords and realtors in Chicago began using racially restrictive covenants to prevent Blacks from owning property in white neighborhoods, eventually legally segregating 80% of Chicago real estate from African-American residency or other uses. The notorious “Black Belt” of Chicago formed during the “Great Migration” of 1910-1930 as hundreds of thousands of Blacks moved from Southern states to escape Jim Crow discrimination and find work in the rapidly expanding job market. Of course, the racism that greeted those hopeful enough to migrate quickly demonstrated that white supremacy was no stranger to the urban north. Continuing immigration waves from European nations resulted in fierce competition for jobs, and whites usually won.

The Black Belt was anchored at its northern end by housing abandoned by upwardly mobile European immigrants and their descendants to be taken over by slumlords who barely maintained their properties. Overcrowding and poverty became the norm. As some Blacks did struggle into higher income brackets, a southern extension of the Black Belt developed to contain markedly better housing and businesses catering to Blacks. Chicago became known as the “capital of Black America” as, even under conditions of extreme racism and segregation, a community identity formed dedicated to struggle and improving their life conditions. The promise of such efforts make the subsequent history of racial suffering even more tragic, as even today most of the Chicago area’s Black residents live in areas with higher levels of crime and poverty.

One might have expected the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s to have improved the conditions of Black Chicagoans, but the results are decidedly mixed. A proposal to create subsidized housing in areas outside the Black Belt met with fierce political opposition and resulted in the creation of the city’s notorious “housing projects,” essentially high-rise ghettos that deteriorated over time from neglect and abuse by the city’s power structure. While many Blacks were able to take advantage of expanded opportunities under affirmative action legislation, the majority of Chicago’s blacks did not benefit. Limited improvements in housing access were created during this period and the resulting slow exodus of some residents from the Black Belt did begin a glacial shift to better situations reflected in the small yet significant difference in racial segregation in the recent census data. Nevertheless, the continuing barriers and divides between blacks and whites in Chicago still call for a grim determination to fight against enormous odds.

The consequences of segregation are manifold and not limited to housing and employment challenges. The higher incidence of criminal activity in majority black neighborhoods arises from not only the obvious negative incentives of poverty, but also from the malign neglect of police and other city authorities. Why call the police to track down criminal offenders when they either do not come at all or only come to make perfunctory attempts to address the incidents?

Segregation also coincides with substandard educational opportunities. Given historic discrimination against Blacks in higher education, very few teachers are willing to take on the daunting task of educating children raised in the harsh conditions of Chicago’s Black Belt. The reliance of education funding on property taxes guarantee that schools in impoverished districts will be chronically underfunded for decades to come without effective reforms.

The pervasive negative incentives to crime coupled with substandard education have fostered an unofficial, but highly effective, “school-to-prison-pipeline.” To combat crime, public schools in segregated areas are subjected to harsh security regimes including random locker searches, metal detectors at entrances, and “zero-tolerance” policies that result in funneling a high number of Black youth into the juvenile, and eventually, adult criminal justice system. Blacks are more likely to be convicted of crimes due to ineffective public defenders and the biases of white judges and juries. More Black men are in the prison system than in college-level educational institutions. While these problems exist across the US, in Chicago we find an unusually high concentration of these systemic issues.

A lesser-known consequence of segregation has been dubbed “environmental racism.” The rise of middle-class “green” consciousness has spawned a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitude among more affluent neighborhoods towards factories and other toxin-producing facilities. The lack of real political power in Black neighborhoods has resulted in a markedly high level of toxic pollutants in the air, water, and ground of many of these neighborhoods. Altgeld Gardens, one of the first Chicago housing projects, was built on a landfill area ringed by dozens of industrial sites of toxic pollution and several other city landfills. Altgeld Gardens has the dubious distinction of being one of the last remaining of the city’s public housing projects and a new generation is being raised exposed to its toxic environment.

And yet, segregation has declined overall in the US, and even Chicago is not untouched by these trends. Building on the open housing, school desegregation, and other gains of the Civil Rights era, a slowly emerging system of paths across racial barriers has taken shape and borne fruit in the last two decades especially. In Chicago, the demolition of most of the housing projects have dispersed some areas of high segregation. Significant numbers of Blacks have moved out of the city into neighboring suburbs, or moved to Southern cities with surprisingly less rigid barriers to open housing. Glaeser and Vigdor document that out of every 200 US neighborhoods, only one maintained an all-white populace in 2010 and these are mostly in areas isolated from Black migrations patterns in the 20th century. Also, the intensely segregated neighborhoods populated by Black residents have begun to depopulate, and gentrification has enticed many whites to take a chance at urban living in much closer proximity to Blacks than ever before.

Nevertheless, some of the gains made in recent decades seem to be in peril as the political climate of the US shifts against some of the initiatives that made the limited progress gained possible. Affirmative action programs are now often made the target of political attack. Some states have ended affirmative action practices altogether and Illinois is not immune to such political pressures. Despite the advances made in the past two decades, we are far from a situation in which race is an irrelevant factor in housing or hiring practices.

College admissions are also directly impacted by the affirmative action debate. Chicago-area universities and colleges are still visibly stratified by race, with the City College system taking up the slack when restrictive admissions practices keep promising students out of mainstream higher education. Taking into account the continuing degraded condition of majority Black public schools, redressing such injustices is simply a matter of common fairness.

And, public school reform is still a far-off dream. Decades of Local School Councils, Selective Enrollment, and Charter Schools have not produced a general improvement in the educational opportunities for the majority of Black Chicagoans. Ending the system of property tax funding is a key plank of undoing the biased system of education that currently exists.

In the face of the school-to-prison-pipeline, sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system are a fundamental need in the struggle against racial inequity. Blacks are more likely to be convicted and serve longer prison terms than whites, and this is no less true in the Chicago area. Beefing up the public defender system, increasing systems of police accountability, and decriminalizing the sale and use of marijuana would massively decrease the likelihood of prison terms for thousands.

Chicago is a city that belongs to all white and black residents, as well as Latino, Asian, and other ethnic groups. Defeating the remnants of white supremacy in our city would make the city a more wonderful place for all who live there.


Arnold Richard Hirsch. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1998.

Devise, Pierre. “Chicago’s Widening Color Gap.” Reports of the Interuniversity Social Research Committee 2 (1967).

Drake, Saint Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Glaeser, Edward, & Vigdor, Jacob. The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010. Manhattan Institute, 2012.

Grossman, Ron. “Pierre DeVise (1924 – 2004): Urban Sociologist Gave Life to Studies.” Chicago Tribune 27 May 2004.

State-Building In Africa: An Attempt at a Critical Survey of the Problems



A superficial comparison of the political regimes of African and European nations in terms of “strong”, “weak”, and “failed” states conventionally places most European states in the strong category, with many African states falling into the weak and failed category. This general schema has been developed by Jeffrey Herbst, among others, through decades of political science publications since 1986. Herbst is well-known for proposing that a fundamental reason for weak and failed states in Africa is the absence of a history of inter-state warfare, which Herbst points out was not the case in Europe. European states fought each other directly for centuries and developed enduring state organizations that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” summarizes the case:

“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation of many now-developed states: war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection; it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities; it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify. While there is little reason to believe that war would have exactly same domestic effects in Africa today as it did in Europe several centuries ago, it is important ask if developing countries can accomplish in times of peace what war enabled European countries to do. I conclude that they probably cannot because fundamental changes in economic structures and societal beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to bring about when countries are not being disrupted or under severe external threat.

“I conclude that some [African] states will probably be unsuccessful in finding ways of building the state in times of peace and will therefore remain permanently weak. Accordingly, the international community will have to develop non-traditional policies for helping a new brand of states: those that will continue to exist but that will not develop. Other states, perceiving that peace locks them into a permanently weak position, may be tempted to use war as a means of resolving their otherwise intractable problems of state consolidation.”

In sum, a lack of inter-state warfare in Africa has led to weakened development of the political states on that continent and Herbst’s prognosis is that most states in Africa will remain weak or failed. However, a very different perspective is suggested by a critical knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of the colonial exploitation of Africa by European states in partnership with the United States of America. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly relevant – though he acknowledges it – is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the USA against the racial oppression of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The US economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in the Trans-Atlantic system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was likewise enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To state the alternative premise as a leading question, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European and their allied states?

This “postcolonial” perspective on African politics has been developed by many analysts, such as Pal Ahluwalia, who has labeled the perspective articulated by Herbst and similar theorists as “Afro-Pessimism.” He summarizes his critique in his 2001 book, Politics and Post-Colonial Theory: African Inflections as follows:

The ascendancy of Afro-pessimism … has a tendency to homogenise the ‘African tragedy’, concluding that Africa has neither the political will nor the capacity to deal with its problems. The African condition, it is claimed, is largely of Africa’s own making, and therefore there is little or no hope for improvement. Afro-pessimism resonates in metropolitan centres where, in the aftermath of the Cold War, both former colonial powers and the United States are seeking ways to disengage themselves from Africa. This is a convenient way for the West to wash its hands of a problem that is largely of its making. Since at least the fifteenth century, Africa has been raped and plundered, first through the slave trade and then by formal colonisation. The assertion that Africa has gained full independence and that the transfer of power from coloniser to colonised is complete is one that is challenged by the post-colonial approach of this book.

Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, drawing lessons from European history. On the alternative premise, if the formation of strong states in Europe was bound up with the domination of Africa, does this suggest that Africa should now turn north and seek to dominate Europe? Recent clashes within Europe between populations of African immigrants and authorities of those exemplary “strong states” of Europe suggest that warfare is being carried on by other more social means, perhaps? Various radical movements and uprisings in Africa over the centuries suggest that Africans haven’t been as passive in state-building as Herbst implicitly projects, but that they have been outgunned by forces that intentionally prevented their success? As much as Herbst might imagine that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which isolated organisms grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately also politics, by other means.

As another pole of analysis, the work of Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion (2008) will be examined. Collier might be considered a more hopeful “Afro-Realist” contrasted to Herbst’s Afro-pessimism, though not an optimist. Collier identifies four “traps” that he argues keep African nations in the world’s “bottom billion” from improving their economic development. These 4 traps are “Conflict,” “Natural Resources,” “Landlocked with Bad Neighbors,” and “Bad Governance in a Small State.”  Thus, the core of the analysis undertaken from this point will move through contrasting and comparing the claims of Herbst, Ahluwalia, and Collier. The goal of the analysis will be to critically evaluate state-building as a proposed solution to the well-known – albeit less well truly understood – problems of African societies.


The European Model: Herbst

Herbst identifies two features of European political development that are missing in Africa prior to the arrival of European colonizers, effective taxation and nationalism. Both of these political characteristics were propelled into effectiveness by inter-state warfare. Herbst (1990)  writes of European state taxation,

The permanent requirement to mobilize human and material resources for military purposes [i.e., taxation] intensified tendencies toward the monopolization of power and the elaboration of auxiliary institutions of social control.

On nationalism he writes,

In Europe there was an almost symbiotic relationship between the state’s extractive capacity and nationalism: war increased both as the population was convinced by external threat that they should pay more to the state, and as, at the same time, the population united around common symbols and memories that were important components of nationalism.

In contrast, Herbst (1990) characterizes the typical African government’s taxation practices thus,

Government revenue poses a major problem for all African states and many others in the Third World. These states are desperately short of revenue to fund even minimal state services (e.g., pay nurses’ salaries, buy books for schools, supply transport for agricultural extension services) that their populations have long been promised. In addition to these recurrent costs, Third World countries are in need of more extensive and more efficient tax systems because the process of development requires large expenditures on infrastructure to promote economic activity throughout the country and to handle the ramifications of development, especially the large expenses incurred by urbanizing countries.

Herbst connects this endemic poverty of African states with their lack of inter-state warfare. In other words, if African governments don’t ramp up to militarily seize power in other nations, they will be doomed to poverty and failure. Herbst notes that most inter-state military actions in Africa since independence have been carried out to preserve social order in troubled nations, and routinely act to preserve colonial borders. To the contrary, annexation played a strong role in European political developments as more successful states toppled foreign governments and annexed their territories. While Herbst hesitates to actually advocate wide-scale inter-state warfare and annexation by strong African governments of weaker nations, his logic makes it hard to reach any other conclusion.

However, approaching the comparison of European states with African states by emphasizing colonial incursion makes it clear that Herbst’s approach insufficiently takes into account that European states colonized Africa using military force supported by taxation. European incursions into Africa were conducted to extract resources and export slaves. African national borders established during colonialism were drawn specifically to embody colonial interests, rather than any ethnic or territorial imperatives of African peoples. Existing African societies at the time of colonization often did fight against the European colonizers, to little avail. European military dominance emerged from the history that Herbst considers paradigmatic, but this raises the question of whether such a history is better viewed not as a model, but as a warning? It might be tempting to therefore reject the very project of state-building in Africa as yet a further legacy of colonialism itself. Perhaps Africa can make a radical departure from the political trajectory laid out from its domination by Europe and create a new political developmental path? However, it seems more plausible that Europe and other “strong states” will continue to exert influences on the African situation that will continue to work themselves out only through conflict and struggle.


Postcolonial Critique: Ahluwalia

To explore a different take on the question of African state-building, the work of Ahluwalia (2001) approaches the subject in terms of postcolonial analysis. He begins with the fact that African states are not “native” to Africa, but also not simply European imports.

“…the African state is itself the product of transculturation. The institution of the nation-state is one which has European roots and origins, and one which was introduced into Africa. The state in Africa, however, has been inflected over time. Whilst retaining its linkages to its European past, most clearly manifested in the project of colonisation, the state in Africa is constantly evolving. In short, through the process of hybridisation and transculturation, the African state has been and continues to be inflected locally.”

Ahluwalia situates the question of the state in Africa within a narrative of internal and external challenges. In contrast to Herbst’s approach that artificially isolates the states of Africa and Europe, Ahluwalia emphasizes how continuing “neocolonial” influences frustrate the project of state-building in Africa. For example,

the African state today is entrapped within a discourse of power whereby foreign institutions and agencies map out its future. In this new configuration, it is the World Bank, the IMF and a host of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which determine and dictate fundamental policy. They are, in many respects, the new ‘colonial administrators’.

Ahluwalia also characterizes the problems of the one-party state, failure of African socialism, neopatrimonialism, historic interruption of organic African society, and the demands of a developmental logic in Africa. Although Ahluwalia does not offer a solution or the beginnings of a new “African strategy” in the light of the failures of recent attempts, he clears the ground of some of the problematic assumptions that underlie Herbst’s pessimism.

Ahluwalia (2001) points out how nearly all newly independent African nations adopted a form of one-party state, often at the expense of narrowing the pluralism that actually existed under colonialism. Competition for political power was claimed to not be authentically African. However, the absence of a cohesive national culture in most cases resulted in an artificial unity. Privileged elites within former colonial regimes imposed their visions of what was best for all citizens. A central nexus of institutional power was formed on the remains of colonial administration without robust attempts to enfranchise subordinate sectors of the populace.

One-party states after independence were immediately faced with the economic degradation carried out by colonialism. The economies of Africa had been structured to export their most profitable outputs to foreign markets, leaving very little domestic infrastructure to sustain society after the end of direct colonization. This gave rise to several attempts to create African socialism. Taking lessons from the industrialization of Russia, China, Cuba, and other nations under Communist regimes, African socialist regimes also sought to adapt some of the social democratic institutions of Europe to their situations. The results were meager at best and as an aggressive ideology of free market policies within international finance became dominant, African socialism was systematically starved of resources and suffered a similar fate as the official communist states in the 1990s.

African socialism gave way to what some analysts characterized as neopatrimonial politics. These regimes were less bound by modern ideas of bureaucracy and legal rigor and acted in a more arbitrary manner often using a “strongman” leadership approach. While still a one-party state functionally, neopatrimonial states gave rise in many cases to a “competitive authoritarianism” characterized by high levels of civil violence and obstructive tactics while also utilizing competitive elections. In the worst cases, neopatrimonial states became failed states as warring factions destabilized all political institutions. Ahluwalia recognizes the salience of the neopatrimonial patrimonial accusation, but also considers it insufficient as a useful analysis.

Haunting the persistent struggles of African state politics is the specter of pre-colonial Africa. What might Africa have become had it been not invaded, enslaved, colonized, exploited, and depleted by European and American interruptions of its organic history? The charge of “Western imperialism” hangs over all contemporary attempts by NGOs and Western states to improve the situation in Africa. Some African regimes have turned to a sort of “Black Man’s burden” that aims to reclaim elements of the shattered pre-colonial civilizations as the basis for a new cultural renaissance that is distinctively African. This culturalist approach tends to issue appeals for a mass participation in a project of reclaiming agency as Africans over against Western civilization. Ahluwalia finds this approach suggestive of possible lines of cultural development but not a strongly political solution. Africa is now wholly enmeshed at multiple levels with non-African politics and asserting an organic African identity does not appear promising.

Ahluwalia locates a larger target plaguing African state politics, the global logic of “development.” Herbst’s attempt to compare European and African states suffers from a historical obtuseness that posits nations and states as organic entities that have a sort of biological destiny. His language of weak, strong, and failed states disconnects African states from the actual complexities of history and imposes a sort of medical symptomology on the challenges of African societies. One can almost imagine Dr. Herbst playing doctor with African states, “are you eating enough vegetables and getting enough exercise? You need them to grow into a strong healthy adult.”

Ahluwalia writes,

“As globalisation and cultural imperialism intensify, it is vital for the nation-states of Africa to consider the costs of a modernist project that celebrates economic development above all else. Certainly, tensions already are evident with the assertion of African values, albeit these values are being subsumed rapidly by the development conundrum.”

The post-colonial analysis of Ahluwalia helps immensely to clarify the African situation with a more empathic grasp of the human costs of colonialism and its aftermath, as well as the stakes in the question of African state-building. Herbst’s clinical approach sets European and African in isolation and never takes account of the real humanity they share in common. While political science aims at a clinical objectivity, that objectivity should never become an end in itself. Science is not a holistic human activity, but a practical tool for clarifying the means towards possible attainable ends. The situation of suffering in Africa has been paraded before Western eyes for decades now by mass media and a sort of compassion fatigue has degenerated into a callous disconnect. The challenges Africa faces are devastating, but ultimately human problems, not alien ones. Pessimism may be understandable, but paralyzes effective engagement. Romantic appeals to a lost past don’t get us very far, either. The way forward is difficult and only discernible with patient and honest dedication.

Pragmatic Strategizing: Collier

To flesh out at a more practical level the problems of African statehood, Paul Collier’s work on the “bottom billion” will provide key points for reflection. His “Four Traps” of African development don’t exhaust the challenges that Africa and her allies face in alleviating the suffering of that continent, but one must start somewhere. In contrast to some other proposals, Collier begins with a genuinely sympathetic stance that appeals to basic humanism. He writes,

This problem matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in fourteenth-century conditions. It matters to us. The twenty-first-century world of material comfort, global travel, and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos. And it matters now. As the bottom billion diverges from an increasingly sophisticated world economy, integration will become harder, not easier.

Collier identifies the first trap that constitutes a “black hole” for ending poverty in the bottom billion as “Conflict” which he clarifies goes beyond conventional ever-present conflict. Collier finds that in the bottom billion, civil war is a particularly deadly trap. Civil wars are always costly and often leave legacies of ongoing suffering in their aftermath. In an impoverished nation, civil war is even more devastating than a more prosperous society such as the USA. Civil wars in a poor nation typically reverse any economic progress achieved in the period prior to war. Collier determines that the best opportunity for reversing the civil war’s devastation occurs in the aftermath of the civil war. While typically aid programs spend a few years in a nation after a civil war, Collier argues that at least a decade of extensive aid is necessary to really promote robust development after a civil war in a poor nation. Collier stresses that this massive aid program should not occur too soon and it should not be an influx of money, but rather resources like hospitals, schools, road-building, and other infrastructural projects.

Collier’s next trap is natural resources. Regions with large reserves of oil, precious metals, and similar exports typically fall into a cycle of poverty, which Collier describes as,

… the surplus from natural resource exports significantly reduces growth. Economists term the excess of revenues over all costs including normal profit margins “rent,” and rents seem to be damaging. Over time, countries with large resource discoveries can end up poorer, with the lost growth more than offsetting the one-off gain in income provided by the rents.

Collier proposes that the natural resource trap be addressed by an international charter that sets rules on how both wealthy and poor nations are able to develop and use natural resources. His analysis claims that not only do poor nations with a wealth of oil or metals have problems turning this wealth into a domestically beneficial industry, the wealthy nations have incentives to extract these resources in a manner that exacerbates the negative outcomes. In the context of a growing global concern about climate change, it makes sense to demand international agreements take a hard look at how these natural resources are being developed, exported, and consumed.

The third trap Collier occurs when landlocked nations have bad neighbors. His stand-out example is Uganda whose economic development is deeply stagnated by being landlocked with neighbors that are also struggling to grow their own economies. Uganda cannot export its products easily since it neighbors have little in the way of efficient transport infrastructure to port cities that are key to international export. If a landlocked nation was rich in natural resources, it might escape this problem, since the demand for its exports would subsidize the costs of transport. But if not, stagnation would become endemic.

Collier’s prognosis is that the landlocked trap is largely reinforced by the bad neighbor problem. Until the neighboring nations of the struggling landlocked neighbors reach developmental thresholds sufficient to make interstate transportation infrastructure profitable, these poor nations will need to survive on massive imported aid merely to stem the hunger and destitution of thedr nations. Over time, raising the standard of living incrementally will make larger leaps towards developmental progress possible. If initiated in concert with appropriate aid in the bad neighbor nations aimed at making the changes that will lay the groundwork for addressing the landlocked problem, there is conceivably a future opening to a healthier developmental achievement.

Collier’s final trap is the one that is most directly relevant to the concerns of this paper, “Bad Governance.” This problem is the boogeyman upon which all the problems of Africa are often blamed. If only the people would rise up and create a new regime that was better at bolstering economic development, all would be well. Of course, this is precisely the rub. States, and the reform of bad states, are not created by fiat, nor by ideology alone, but by political forces that obey social logics that are not easily malleable. Collier’s work analyzes the internal problems of failing states and the costs of such failures to economic development. There is an inverse correlation, a weak or corrupt state may very well have little effect on a nation that is on a track of strong economic growth, such as Bangladesh. However, if a nation’s economy is struggling to grow at all, bad governance will nearly always exacerbate the collapsing economic situation.

Collier is quite optimistic about the strategic possibilities of correcting bad governance. He dismisses military intervention citing the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. He examines nonmilitary aid and reaches the conclusion from case studies that in fact foreign aid to nations struggling with bad governance problems can be quite successful. Collier proposes setting up ex ante conditions upon aid to regimes that encourage public accountability. He sees this approach as the most likely alternative to the European history of inter-state warfare leading to strong states. By tying aid to accountable reforms in public transparency, the people of a struggling nation are given leverage to press for reforms.

Collier also proposes aid in the form of importing governance skills to states in the early stages of a turnaround from a weak or failing condition. Since corrupt regimes have often deformed civil service agencies and driven competent civil servants outside the nation altogether, rebuilding a body of competent civil servants requires a large amount of expertise and training, something which Collier believes aid agencies have done and could do more often quite effectively. He cautions against sending in technical assistance too early in the turnaround period, but soon enough that the window for an effective intervention is still open.

Reading Collier in contrast to Herbst and Ahluwalia emphasizes that Collier is a master of statistical analysis. Whereas Herbst seems stuck in his awe at the power of European political systems, and Ahluwalia spends his energy contesting Eurocentric political biases, Collier basically amasses numbers and tables. The result is that Collier provides the reader with a veritable smorgasbord of reform proposals and strategies. His optimism and sincerity are infectious and, well, charming. While we cannot do without a serious grasp of the historical legacy of European development and the impact of European colonialism on African politics, there seems to be little alternative to simply getting our hands a bit dirty and diving into a robust engagement with the political realities of the “African Tragedy,” a term that Ahluwalia quite rightly despises, but which nevertheless expresses a real truth that lies in the statistics Collier amasses in his focused analysis of the “Bottom Billion.”


Conclusions or More Questions?

Like many of my generation, I was raised on what might be derisively labeled, “famine porn.” We North Americans were children of a privileged society while most of the world languished in poverty and suffering. Some theorists even lay the blame for anorexia nervosa upon the ubiquitous imagery of starving children with distended bellies colliding with the fragile body images of teenage females. In my case, I became sensitized over my teens and early adult life to the question of poverty and racism, and Africa was the object of my deep internal sadness at the fate of humanity. A world divided into rich and poor has always seemed an obscenity, a failure of our species to use our capacities for cooperation and empathy to their fullest potential.

But, a stubborn perception of the problems of Africa being as intractable as they were tragic has only gradually turned into something resembling a realistic hope. Perhaps the long shadows of pain might be receding. Economists tell us that most African nations are growing quite well, though Collier’s work reminds that there are still “hard problems” among the poorest nations of the continent. Our analysis here has focused on these cases most closely and it is helpful to zoom out to a wider focus and recognize that Africa is not a monolith of political catastrophe. Our review has tended to approach the problems of state-building in terms of comparison between two continents, one in the north and one mostly in the south. However, we live on a much larger planet and our survey has barely glimpsed some of these larger contextual considerations.

Collier and Ahluwalia do take up the grand question of globalization, yet our approach did not take us very directly to considering that larger context. The study we’ve undertaken has clarified the conditions in Africa, but at the end of the exercise the question of the future still looms uncertainly. The history of Europe and Africa and their intertwined politics did not occur in a vacuum. Combined, these two continents do not constitute even half of the planet. While North America, especially the USA, do figure quite directly in the history we’ve viewed, human history goes much further back than even Europe itself. Some theorists today are venturing into an even larger global picture that takes in the history of societies before Europe and its familiar states were formed. Some detect a pattern within this long view; others see a panoply of distinct histories with incongruent features that resist assimilating human history into one large metanarrative.

While the past may seem murky, the likely future seems less so. The aggressive European incursion into Africa was in some sense only the opening gambit in the emergence of an intercontinental reality. Whereas, before colonialism, Europe and Asia and Africa and the Americas were all relatively self-contained geographies, today we are increasingly aware of a growing interconnectedness. Technology is one major driving force of this awareness, as are the economic and political events that are routinely flashed around most of the entire globe in a matter of microseconds. While such images may barely penetrate into the troubled regions of the bottom billion, Collier’s pragmatic strategies make it plausible that even these regions will one day be directly connected to the new global infosphere and world order. The growth of cellular telephone technology, even in these poor nations, is a reasonable indicator of where things are going.

If the upshot of the postcolonial analysis of Ahluwalia was that Africa’s tragedy was not of its own making, but rather the outcome of a deadly parasitic attack from the north, then we have reason to throw into question a commonplace certainty that the “European (and American) Model” of politics represents the final form of human society. The founding of the United Nations after World War 2 suggested that the victors of that conflict were acutely aware that politics was now global on a scale never before glimpsed and that we were compelled to face the horizons of that newly enlarged perspective.

If the sort of modern democratic (polyarchic) states we accept as routine in the northern hemisphere were really just the product of a specific historical trajectory and not somehow inscribed into human nature itself, perhaps we can discard a too simple expectation that Africa must repeat our model in every one of its colonially defined territories? The poverty and famine that drives many Westerners to guilt and anxiety is still very real and simple human decency compels us to care, if only from a distance. But, as capitalism reaches its global limits and democracies appear in unlikely places like Tunisia, one can foresee perhaps only dimly that a new era may be just over that horizon of globalization. Marxists have often predicted that capitalist republics would be revolutionized into socialist democracies which would then give way to stateless communism. Marxism being the bastard child of European politics gets some things right, but on the African question it has seemed just as myopic. African attempts at socialism came to the same ignoble end as the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. However, the persistence of China in claiming the mantle of communism long after it has adopted market reforms, suggests that just as the historical past resists simple schemes for linear organic continuity, the future may be far stranger than we can imagine. We can only hope that this strange future will also be a world where the “bottom billion” is a meaningless statistic. Simple human sympathy can hope for nothing less.

Radical (Left) Journalism: Analysis and Overview

Journalism has been described as the “first draft of history.” While it may not be literally true, in the course of daily life most of us acquire a significant portion of our knowledge of current events from a news source such as television, newspapers, radio, magazines, or, more recently, news websites. The “fourth estate” is considered a crucial institution of modern democratic societies, which require a professional system of informing the public about relevant facts. Generally, we can classify institutions of journalism as governmental, private, public, and independent. This paper will present an analysis and overview of a subset of independent journalism, that of the radical left. A necessary preliminary task will be developing a useful definition of the “radical left.” This analysis will examine the role which radical left journalism has played in modern society, the relationship of this journalism to democracy, and a possible trajectory by which radical journalism might become a more prominent voice in society.

In European history, the political “right and left” as conceptual terms originated with the National Assembly of France in 1789. Opponents of the Monarchy sat on the left half of the assembly with the king’s supporters on the right side. In the 19th century, two political tendencies emerged on the radical left: socialists who opposed capitalism and anarchists who opposed the state itself. In the 20th Century social movement struggles against systemic dominations related to race and gender gave birth to newer elaborations of radical left politics, such as feminism and Black Power. In terms of US politics, if the Republican Party represents the conservative Right, and Democratic Party the Liberal Left, we can define the radical left as those who substantively reject both parties in terms that advance a more egalitarian social order. Not all movements and journalists identified here as radical left reject the Democratic Party in total, but may also act as a “left bloc” in some sense within it. The radical left therefore includes various sorts of Socialists, Anarchists, Feminists, Black Radicals, Greens, and even some Pacifists.

Radical left journalism operates outside mainstream journalism which typically reflects the assumptions of the “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” This oppositional stance results in nearly all radical left journalism being conducted on a non-profit basis, often unpaid. Such unpaid journalism is viewed as a necessity in many cases, though some publications do make an effort to pay their writers. For a radical left publication to afford paying its writers, they have to rely on subscribers, donors, and grants to maintain their payroll, rather than advertisers and investors, which leads to the difficult task of expressing radical left perspectives effectively enough to draw public support and remain viable without compromising their oppositional viewpoint. More than one left publication has disappeared over the last century and a half due to financial limitations, such as The Guardian (U.S.) in 1992.

The tension that most on the radical left feel with mainstream journalism also exists as a real tension with the level of political awareness within the general public. Radical left journalists tend to hold that mainstream coverage of political and social events is biased in fundamental ways by an acceptance of the operation of social systems generally viewed by leftists as fundamentally unjust. These systems are understood differently – often dramatically so – by the type of left philosophy held by the journalist or publication. Anarchists often view political events quite differently from most Marxists, especially where the operation of state power is involved, such as the fall of the Egyptian government. Regarding the Egyptian revolution, Marxist Alan Woods declared in 2011, “The struggle for complete democracy will permit the construction of genuine trade unions and workers’ parties.” Whereas anarchist Nigel Gibson wrote also in 2011,

“In this age of gated cities, of ordered cities, surveilled and policed—what have been called “global cities”—the Egyptian people have opened up political space, as an ongoing public debate in the squares, outside the parliament, in the streets. It has become a global space.”

Both may support the fall of an existing regime, but will differ over their analysis of the aftermath and struggle for power that ensues. Whereas Woods focuses on unions and parties, Gibson highlights public spaces and spontaneous assemblies. Mainstream journalism, however, will pay more attention to the formation of a political partnership with business interests, the military, and those aspiring to form a new government. This is reflected in the conventional wisdom that the Egyptian revolution required the installation of a democratically elected government that unites – or rather nullifies the conflicts between – diverse class, religious, and ethnic segments of a population. As reported by the New York Times in 2011, “Now the military, which owns vast commercial interests here but has not fought in decades, must defuse demonstrations, quell widespread labor unrest and rebuild a shattered economy and security forces.”

On a similar line, a feminist publication may analyze a mass murderer who targets women somewhat differently from the mainstream press by stressing the gender and sex systems of society and their culpability in the event. Jessica Valenti analyzed the May 2014 killing of 6 persons by Elliott Rodgers in Isla Vista, CA, thusly, “The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist – they are created by our culture, and by communities that tell them that their hatred is both commonplace and justified.” Rodgers’ characterized his own motives for the murders as revenge for his sexual frustration at the hands of women in his college. Mainstream publications emphasized the likelihood of mental illness, not systemic misogyny. For example, New York Times writers emphasized how Rodgers’ parents, “ferried him from counselor to therapist, urged him to take antipsychotic medication and moved him from school to school.”  Whether it is possible to find the “sole cause” of this horrific killing, the ongoing backlash against Jessica Valenti and other feminists of similar conviction has revealed an often overlooked subculture of anger and outrage at women. Many women responded via a twitter hashtag campaign “#YesAllWomen” to highlight the constant barrage of sexualized male aggression women experience almost daily in our society.

Comparing left journalism to mainstream reporting raises the question of why left views are usually minority voices with little influence. The answer pursued here will draw from left-wing sociological theories of power and social systems developed to understand how economic, racial, gender, political, and other systems of power operate to control society. From a radical left perspective, society is not a level playing field in which the necessary means of life are distributed according to a rational and just meritocracy. Radical left theory holds that the world we live in is structured by systems of power that work to effectively control and limit the ability of most human beings to exercise their creative freedom to challenge and fundamentally change these systems. Theorist bell hooks’ term, “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” vividly names three of these systems as race, class, and gender. Anarchist analysis identifies political domination via the State as yet another of these systems. Patricia Hill Collins has developed what she calls an “intersectional” analysis that emphasizes that all of these systems of power are interlocking. She writes,

“Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized. Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.”

William Domhoff’s sociology of power systems in the US also reaches the conclusion that most of the effective exercise of power is carried out by a minority of collaborating forces in society embodied in military, economic, and political organizations. He writes,

“Since human beings have a vast array of “purposes,” they have formed an appropriately large number of organizations. But only a few of these purposes and organizations weigh heavily in terms of generating social power.”

In contrast, the majority of the populace has very little power to create their own alternative organizations of power. Hill Collins’s analysis expands Domhoff’s analysis of organizations of power by emphasizing that military officials, economic actors, and political officials are overwhelmingly white males of the privileged economic class.

Turning to journalism, we see the organization of the mainstream media reflects the white male capitalist domination of all important social institutions. Journalistic institutions are also under the control of capitalist corporations that seek to turn a profit. At the same time they command most of the resources to determine what is published as news and to starve the ability of dissenting voices to have an effective voice in the carefully controlled “public square.” From the radical left perspective, the claim of liberal democracy to foster a free exchange of ideas is a blatant lie falsified by the systems of wealth that determine what is said and who is allowed to say it.

One classic study of the structure of mainstream journalism’s embeddedness in systems of power and domination is the “propaganda model” advanced by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their classic 1988 text, Manufacturing Consent. The propaganda model enumerates five “editorially distorting filters” that condition the limits of mainstream journalism’s operations. They are:

1) Size, ownership, and profit orientation

2) Advertising support as implicit license to publish

3) Bureaucratic Sourcing of Content

4) “Flak” Enforcement of Boundaries

5) Dipolar Lens (War on Terror/Anti-communism)

The Propaganda model begins from the similarity which mainstream journalism shares with other corporate capitalist industries. It relies on profitability, requires an economy of scale for developing its content, and is ultimately beholden to stockholders and investors to survive. Therefore any news reporting that would support the replacement of capitalism by a more egalitarian system is automatically suspect. For example, during the Cold War, journalism in the US reported on events in the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and other socialist identified nations in a constantly negative light.

Next, television, radio, and print journalism in the mainstream rely heavily on advertiser revenue to pay their costs of business. This reinforces the bias towards muting criticism of capitalism. Advertisers can withdraw their business if a paper publishes articles too critical of a specific industry or business.  One example is the way that mainstream journalism has to report “both sides” of the climate crisis debate, even though only one side has any scientific credibility. Since the clear solution to the climate crisis is to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and convert to solar and wind power, petroleum and automobile manufacturers have vested interests in forestalling that  transition. With their huge advertising budgets, these corporate interests can inject their influence into how mainstream journalism covers the climate crisis.

The process by which bureaucratic institutions are able to source mainstream media has been most evident in wartime. Although some within mainstream journalism did come to criticize the Vietnam War in the 1960s, that criticism was not widely shared within the media and resulted in conflicts with those who took a critical stance. When the First Gulf War began in 1991 amidst significant opposition around the world, most reporting in mainstream press was kept on a short lease with controlled information from government officials and agencies.

In addition to the sticks and carrots of advertising revenue, the press is also subject to campaigns of public attack. While many on the liberal side of society have used such tactics to pressure media to take a more balanced perspective on issues, it can be argued that the conservative movement has been able to elevate letter-writing and phone campaigns to a high art. The recent controversy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban capture through a negotiated exchange of Taliban prisoners held by the US is an example of a conservative “flak campaign” designed to distort the truth.

The Propaganda Model was first elaborated in the  1980s when the US was engaged in a vigorous arms race with the Soviet Union. Chomsky and Herman identified the Cold War and Anti-Communism as a dipolar worldview that distorted reporting about events around the world in terms of which side of the Cold War was perceived to be most liable or at risk. In 1997, Chomsky proposed that the “War on Terror” was replacing Anti-Communism has the governing dipolarity that was shaping new coverage.

This review of the Propaganda Model shows that it closely aligns with the classical Socialist and Anarchist far left’s view of media. From the perspective of intersectionality, we would need to elaborate further dimensions of media embeddedness in systems of male and racial domination. It can be succinctly observed that mainstream media are predominantly controlled by white males with economic privilege, so that not only are the interests of the State and Capitalism defended by mainstream media, so are the viewpoints of elite white males.

The captivity of mainstream journalism to corporations and government control of information is further supported by the ineffective public education system in the US. Our population largely trails behind other industrialized nations, even as we are home to the world’s largest military and wealthiest corporations. The constant battles over funding for public education, attacks on overworked school teachers, and the pervasive presence of corporate media and entertainment in most US homes serves to ensure that most citizens receive little education or encouragement to think critically about the issues that constrain their life conditions. As Pauline Lipman states,

“The assault on public education, teachers, and their unions has been evolving over the past thirty years as part of the neoliberal restructuring of the global capitalist economy, but the current crisis of capitalism has accelerated this assault.”

Rather than a free flow of ideas, news and information about relevant social issues is literally spoon-fed to the public at the whim of mainstream journalism.

However, despite the severe conclusion reached by this analysis of contemporary power systems and their choke-hold on the freedom of information, the hope for change is not lost. Radical journalism is a necessary contribution to the struggle against the conditions of ruling class domination. Radical journalism sides with the majority of humanity against the organized power of the ruling class. Left journalism turns a critical eye to the events of the world and tells the darker truth of injustice and suffering.

Radical left journalism originates primarily in non-profit activist organizations. As activists struggle to change perceived social injustices, a number are lead to become journalists for the sake of reporting news the way those who suffer from systems of domination experience current events. One significant activist who turned to found nonprofit journalism ventures is Michael Albert, a co-founder of South End Press, Z Magazine, Znet, and ZCommunications all of which are dedicated to the express purposes of left journalism and social change. Michael Albert’s memoir details both his entry into activist causes during the Vietnam War era and his pursuit of creating viable vehicles for activist journalism. Albert described his motivation for founding his projects,

“Part of creating changes is, as the famous anarchist Mikhail Bakunin insightfully instructed, nurturing seeds of the future in the present. The future, in other words, can only contain what we put into it today. Often this means having our movements respect and embody the values we favor for a new society. Sometimes it means creating book publishing houses or magazines or institutes or other institutions in the present that operate as we favor for the future. We do this as experiments to learn from. We do it as projects to benefit from. We do it as models to emulate. We do it hoping our efforts will last into the future, providing some of its infrastructure.”

One element that binds the projects of radical left journalism is a commitment to a more egalitarian and radically democratic society. A world in which the dominant institutions are created by wealthy white males is not democratic in the most elementary sense of representation of the real needs and interests of the majority of the earth’s inhabitants. Most of the world is not white or wealthy. Women are half of the entire population and yet decisions that make the news like war, politics, and economic policies are predominantly under the control of men. Radical left journalism seeks to illuminate the effects of the systems of power despite the real fears of reprisal by those powers.

All Roads Lead to Communism, Redux: Against Marxist Obtuseness

All it takes is reading another white male Marxist critique of intersectionality to remember exactly why I don’t consider myself a Marxist.

(My Facebook status Sunday 5/18)

[For an earlier discussion of some of these issues, see the original post.]

Why should anyone care about intersectionality?

What does this long strange word signify?

Can’t we just focus on practical immediate needs for radical politics?


There’s a huge elephant in the room of the far left – it should be called the failure of Marxism – but many would rather try and revive the dead corpse. Saying Marxism is dead does not mean it is useless. Curing fatal diseases like cancer involve detailed examination of tumor-ridden corpses, and so I am committed to studying the failure of Marxism in the 20th century in order to mobilize a stronger movement for social transformation in the 21st century. Marxism at many points was a heroic effort at human emancipation and its failure was not entirely internal. The ruling class was dead set on defeating socialist class struggle by any means necessary and, in the words of Warren Buffet, “my class won.”

In the 60s, instead of a replay of the radical movements of the first half of the 20th century, US politics began to depart from the narrow concern with class politics that had been the center of gravity for everyone on the left from Anarchists to liberal labor unions to the Communist Party. While there were important struggles by the labor movement in the 60s, the Civil Rights, Anti-War, and Feminist movements overshadowed the national stage. US Labor was moving decisively into a period of reaction as evidenced by mass support for Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War from labor unions down to the rank and file. Of course, fueling this righward shift was the emerging New Right coalition that had first shown its hand in the extreme candidacy of Barry Goldwater. In the mid-70s this coalition launched one of its most important offensives, the Christian Right mobilization symbolized in the founding of the Moral Majority by segregationist preacher Jerry Falwell.

However, the Left never again found its footing and, despite attempts to regroup, the death of Marxism also meant the death of any radical left, Marxist or otherwise. The System reigned supreme and the long night of reaction continues to strangle humanity’s future before it could even be conceived. But, for some of us, that long night has driven us to rethink the radical left down to its very foundations. What if Marx was simply wrong when he believed that the proletariat was the gravedigger of capitalism? Maybe the working-class was a host body for a deadly parasite that could never be destroyed without killing the host itself?

The left has tried to rethink social revolution and many have fallen prey to despair or compromise along the way (often both). Marxism showed such great promise and for a time in the early years of the last century, its triumph seemed inevitable. The depth of that failure haunts us. We must discover a new path in the darkness together or we will all perish separately.


So, intersectionality? This big word has a simple definition. Social struggles all intersect and interact with all others. We cannot fight against capitalism if we are not also fighting male domination and systemic racism. To fight systemic racism but not capitalism or male domination will get us at best weak reforms, but not deep lasting sytemic change. Although I am invoking a classic triad of race, class, and gender, each of these implies other domains such as lgbtq politics, ecological crises, and religion. The role of the State and its military might are also key domains of revolutionary struggle. Intersectionality attempts to lay out this complexity and live into its challenges.

Intersectionality is not the solution to the radical left’s powerlessness. And, it should never be advanced without a clear commitment to reclaiming the legacy of failed class struggles. We cannot overcome the system as a whole if we do not fight against capitalism with all our might. However, we cannot fight against capitalism today with the obtuse perspective of most classical Marxism or indeed any approach that uses Marx to drive a wedge between feminism, anti-racism, eco-politics, or the religious left. All of these multifarious movements offer irreplaceable contributions to the revolutionary future that humanity must create or we face endless enslavement or worse, complete extinction.


Comments on the “intersectionality controversy” I’ve made this past weekend.

“Critiquing intersectionality in the service of reasserting the universality of Marxism – ie capitalism is the most important social system to fight – often takes the form of excusing/ignoring how Marxist movements and organizations have been and still are white male undertakings that lack/exclude female and nonwhite perspectives. The working-class has always been multiracial and pan-gender, and yet, marxists are nearly always white males. Maoism escapes some Eurocentrism, for interesting reasons, but not the male domination within the Marxist tradition.

Capitalism itself is a white male undertaking, so it stands to reason that an immanent critique of capital would originate within that context and share some of its myopia. Intersectionality originated among black feminists in reaction to white feminists, not postmodernism. Pomo was an available tool in the academy to decenter various white male discourses, but blacks such as Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Cornel West reshaped these tools to their own agendas, so any putative genealogy is fractured.

As an androcentric undertaking, capitalism excluded women’s labor from its formative structure . That historical exclusion opens the question of whether a (white) male industrial working-class movement could truly emancipate women, since women’s labor was changed by industrialization, but in a different manner than male labor was transformed. Women and nonwhite persons contribute important alternative experiences of capitalism than those selectively analyzed by Marxism, but which are no less crucial to a revolutionary critique of capitalism. A revolutionary universal struggle for human emancipation cannot limit itself to the Marxist tradition.”


“What most marxists cannot grasp is that universality is not innate, but must be created. We are all gendered and ethnically identified from birth. Capitalism does not eliminate these systems, it reconfigures them to its own ends.

The presence of a few nonwhite or female billionaires does not negate the Eurocentric origins of capitalism. You can’t fight capitalism as a merely economic system, that was one of the flaws of most Marxist movements. You must also fight it as a racist and sexist system.

Every socialist organization I know is male-dominated, even if they are not white-dominated. My socialist organization deliberately gives equal representation to women in leadership and is explicitly committed to socialist-feminism, but not equally committed to nonwhite inclusion, so we still have a predominantly white membership. Our membership is also still mostly male, even with our aggressive feminist policies.

You cannot advance socialism for women and nonwhite persons if your organization focuses only on white male social struggles. Women and nonwhite persons have fought against capitalism, but in movements distinct from the white male socialist milieu.


“Capitalist can’t oppose Eurocentrism as a system because capitalism is inherently European. Even its Asian and African forms. Yes, you can find liberal critics of Eurocentrism, but they are often still embedded in white cultural assumptions. The better liberal critics of whiteness lean towards socialism, but often reject Marxism because it is myopic in its economism. I’m not saying discard Marxism, but rather supplement it and rethink it in light of a more historic clarity about race and gender as elements of global domination perpetuated by the capitalist class.”


“The European and American ruling class have exported capitalism everywhere, but still concentrate most power and wealth in their hands. The decentering of capital from its original homelands has consequences for undermining white supremacy, but that process is still very early. Chinese hybrid state capitalism is a very different animal from western capitalism, but has decades to go before catching up to western capitalism.”


[A significant sidebar conversation took place on "socialist-feminism" one of the most explicit attempts to transform Marxism into a broader revolutionary philosophy.]

“The basic argument of socialist-feminism is that the capitalist ruling class is also an androcracy that enforces the subordination of women and that constructs the white male working class in opposition to female and nonwhite persons, thereby excluding women’s reproductive labor from the wage labor system, such as childbearing, domestic work, emotional nurturance of fragile male egos, etc. That has begun to change due to feminist struggles, but still a large number of white male marxists tend to devalue and abstract the living labor of women and nonwhite persons from their understanding of revolutionary transformation.”


“It isn’t the case that women are more revolutionary, but that as victims of both economic and gender domination, women have a greater likelihood of being radicalized than white working class men, who historically compromised with the capitalist class via unions, family wages, liberal social programs rather than become revolutionary opponents of the ruling class.”


The failure of revolutionary consciousness in the early 20th century in the US rests on the cooptation of the white working class. Women did become radicalized in the 60s, but the right-wing assault on the new left was devastating to all of the left and in part supported by reactionary sections of the white working class. That reaction is inexplicable in Marxist terms, but predictable if one takes race and gender into account. As women now move out of their marginal position in the working-class, they are poised to revive radical politics. It will take years for this shift to develop its full potential, and the next decade will be pivotal.

The cooptation of the white working class against revolutionary consciousness was built into capitalism and even Marx foresaw it. However, many marxists failed to see it and fought against including women and nonwhite persons in unions, precisely because their demands were “too radical.” I experienced this directly in the 1980s.”


If Marx was right that social position would foster revolutionary consciousness, then women and nonwhite persons would have distinct, though not opposed experiences of class domination. I’ve found it very hard to fit into Marxism, and I’ve tried. However, whenever I question the revolutionary potential of the white male working class, I get attacked. And, I AM a working class white male and most of them are college graduates working on advanced degrees. They have no experience within the working class and fuck it, I DO!

Lynching By Any Other Name


Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.

“Disturbing chart shows rise in “justified killings” of blacks in U.S.”

Today, I am grieved that yet another attack on the basic humanity of African-Americans has been visited upon my friends and fellow citizens. The Supreme Court decision to strike down a section of the Voting Rights Act a few weeks ago has been followed by a Florida criminal court verdict that George Zimmerman was not guilty of even manslaughter (let alone second-degree murder) when he gunned down Trayvon Martin on a sidewalk.

At the root of this verdict is a new category of laws called “stand your ground’ which have been enacted in several states, often with the backing of ALEC, a right-wing organization dedicated to rewriting legislation across the nation that weakens civil rights for all citizens, not just Blacks. We now know enough about the SYG laws to condemn their result as giving rise to a new wave of lynchings in the name of protecting white privilege. A state with SYG laws in place will have over 100% more not guilty verdicts for white murders of black men than other states without comparable laws. That, my friends, is nothing less than lynching by another name. And, it smells fouler than death itself.

I walked through my racially mixed suburban neighborhood on the border of Chicago last night after the verdict was all over the news. There were groups of blacks on several street corners talking heatedly about the verdict. I walked several blocks and eventually crossed into Chicago to an all-night drugstore to buy a fan for my overheated apartment. At no point did anyone ask where I was going. I passed two police cars with white cops (I saw no black cops this night) and they never stopped me to ask what I was doing out so close to midnight. As I walked home with my fan, no one attempted to rob me. I never felt in danger. Sirens rang out twice as I walked, and my heart sank as I figured that the police were doubtless pursuing young black men, likely without justifiable cause.

Many whites and even some few Blacks who embrace our legal system justified the Zimmerman verdict. I personally have little faith in the objectivity of mostly white juries. Can anyone seriously believe that Zimmerman had any reason to pursue Trayvon? There was zero evidence of a crime by him, though the mere act of leaving his vehicle is evidence enough for me that Zimmerman is a dangerous racist vigilante. I don’t need to know if Trayvon used a chunk of concrete to fight back, that would have been justifiable self-defense against a loaded gun. But, no, Trayvon was black and therefore had no civil rights. This verdict sends a deadly warning to all young black men, “stay off white folks’ sidewalks.” The dream is deferred, justice is denied.

Love’s Rebellion




At the risk of being Freudian, I suspect my radical ideas stem from early childhood experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional family that relied on religious shaming, arbitrary punishment, and abuse both physical and emotional to keep us kids in line. It’s a mystery to me that my younger brother has chosen to quite enthusiastically embrace the Pentecostal subculture that I find so often toxic. My little sister has also embraced the religion, but as we are 12 years apart I can understand that her experience of parenting was quite different from mine. The phrase, “daddy’s little girl” may capture a significant part of the reason for her differing perception of my father and the family religion.

One crucial element of my childhood was that early on I drew a sharp line between my father and Jesus. Dad preached Jesus as the divine savior of humanity from its sinful destiny in an eternal hell. My angle on Jesus perceived him as a healer and rebel who sought to upend the oppressive social (and familial) order. I took activists like Dr. King and even Gandhi as modern reflections of Jesus’ care for suffering humanity.

This divide between my father’s religion and my view of Jesus crystallized into an adult identification with far left visions of a world revolution against racism, capitalism, sexism, and authoritarianism. No matter how far I’ve traveled from supernatural savior theology, my fundamental gestalt is still premised on those early projections of Jesus as the incarnation of perfect eternal love. While I can accept that much of that idealization of Jesus is flawed, I’d rather discard Jesus himself than give up on the fundamental importance of love. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to de-center the place love has in my politics. I no longer believe that “God is Love” as John’s first epistle declares. I’ve ceased to understand love as the personal character of an omnipotent God who loves me more perfectly than I or anyone else could ever love me. Yet, such a grand cosmic theology still tugs at my wounded soul.

I know that love didn’t exist as an element of the Big Bang. The universe was once full of cosmic fire that only cooled slowly to precipitate galaxies and solar systems. One star among trillions may give birth to a living planet, and maybe only very few living planets give birth to creatures capable of love. However, that potential for love, for reciprocal nurture and empowerment, seems to me to be the grandest of all evolutionary accomplishments.

And so, my rejection of capitalism, conservatism, racism, sexism, and the whole panoply of suffering that I call the “death-systems” is based on what seems to be a bottomless yearning within myself for love to become omnipotent, to radically transform our oppression into soaring emancipation. What I once viewed as cosmology – “God is Love” – has been turned into futurology – “Love must become the Divine Reality.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Secularized: Love’s Communism & Religion

I tend to encounter two general views of religion in my life. Most people consider religion an important – if not ultimately important – part of their lives and/or the world. In fact, one philosopher has suggested that we should define religion as the quest for ultimacy or ultimate values. This first group contains many of the people with whom I am most directly connected, such as my wife and most of my extended family.

The other less common view is that religion is an outdated legacy of our irrational past. In our scientific era it is claimed that we can do without grand mythologies and deities. Everything is reducible to natural causes and processes. While I have deep sympathies and respect for this viewpoint, my extensive intimate connections with people devoted to religion rules out any sort of complete rejection of the importance of religion.

Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion. The Age of Love’s Communism will embrace all the authentic passions of Jesus, Marxism, Anarchism, Buddhism, Allah, and the Goddess. “Do I contradict myself? I contain multitudes.”

A Marxist friend of mine posted the following pointed comment (directed no doubt in part at me) on his Facebook wall:

“….something that bothers me about two friends I know who call for liberation theology: both of them admit that they think that a non-natural vision of G-d is incoherent or at least has no evidence for it. Yet they think we should encourage a socialism based on religious convictions. This seems problematic to me because I think people should be told the truth as we know it, and if there is no supernatural anymore, then the entire framework of liberation theology must be different. Otherwise this seems much more cynical than they see it. I for one am not necessarily interested in the masses raising up for something untrue-so if there is a theological turn necessary, it’s got to be justified in more than pragmatism or the failure of prior social forms. Both notions of “progress”–the technocrat one and the religious one seem just as based in a notion of teleos of which we have little evidence and of which we must exclude opportunity costs.”

For Communists to redefine our movement as the fulfillment of humanity’s authentic aspirations we need to change how we understand religion and include religious persons within our movement and organizations. Religions are the product of centuries of the evolving articulation of ultimate values and Communists have no choice but to work with religious people in creating the revolution. The old Leninist strategy (which owes something also to Marx himself) of making Atheism the de facto ideology of the movement has decisively failed. Communism cannot be reborn without religious expressions of its goals and values.

This doesn’t mean that we all have to become Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Pagan Communists. The model for the way forward has been demonstrated by the many interreligious dialogues held over the past two centuries. A signal event in world dialogue was the first “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. The PWR event set off a sequence of dialogues between scholars and religious leaders around the world to work on mutual understanding and conflict resolution. As global communications in the 21st century bring ever more interaction across the boundaries of religion, opportunities for fruitful collaboration and risks for deepening hostility must be faced with a higher consciousness of the ultimate unity of humanity in view, transcending historical boundaries of exclusion, whether religious or secular.

A flat-footed atheism is profoundly out of place in our post-secular world. While science has succeeded in demonstrating that the natural world operates according to regular laws of cause and effect, the hardest problem remaining is the very nature of human consciousness. If evolution has given us superior brains for problem-solving, why did it take millenia for a purely naturalistic worldview to emerge? It would seem that the emergence of religion served some sort of functional cultural adaptation in human history. Religion, regardless of the specific mythology deployed is principally aimed at creating a cultural and social unity that binds together men, women, and children in communities that can survive external threats and internal strife.

Atheists tend to focus on the “supernatural” claims of miracles, invisible conscious beings (deities), and view of the afterlife. In pre-modern times, these mythological features were not considered “super” to nature, but to be part of the world as experienced by everyone. When a calamity befell a community, an evil spirit was at work, since natural explanations were often impossible to obtain. By the same token, when forture blessed a community, a beneficent deity was at work. These spirits and deities weren’t in some non-physical dimension orthogonal to the world of ordinary experience, but rather the Greek gods lived on Olympus, a mountain visible throughout Greece. The Greek gods were also directly assigned characteristics that represented the values of the Greek culture, such as power, beauty, and wisdom. It was only as Greek philosophy under Plato began to confront the problems of mythological incoherences – which is what one expects from a tradition that was constructed over generations of storytelling – that the gods began to be consigned to a non-physical realm of ideas and virtues.

Religion therefore wasn’t the guardian of the supernatural world separable from the natural world, but rather the integrative cultural deposit of all the truths a society depended on for its operation from art to agriculture. The naturalistic aspects of theism were included indivisibly within the supernatural conceptions of theistic religion. Such aspects included the psychological benefits of an ultimate ethical commitment, humility towards the non-human forces of nature, the transcendent importance of human emotional values (most supremely that of love), the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence (including epistemic modesty), a trans-historic sense of human oneness via cultural legacies, and the sense that at bottom the universe isn’t malicious.

Classical religions also include non-natural aspects that were the organic result of pre-scientific understanding of the world. The progress of science at experimentally revising humanity’s world-picture under conditions of capitalism, androcracy, white supremacy, and authoritarianism mean that most human beings are denied the education and emotional health to perceive the world in naturalistic terms, so the emotional appeal of supernaturalism wins popular assent.

Overturning the conditions of oppression, repression, domination, and exploitation requires mass struggle and so the natural religious inclination of humanity must be transformed by struggles on multiple fronts. This means enlisting the narratives of Jesus, Buddha, goddesses, and Allah for the global project of human emancipation by means of pan-religious alliances. Social struggle will transform incrementally and sometimes rapidly the gestalt of the masses as they struggle towards more worldly goals. The disappearance of supernaturalism will happen as a by-product of cultural revolution.

Such cultural transformation will come from within the same social struggles for more freedom as all other emancipatory gains. Under the present social systems the gains are always tenuous and incomplete. As humanity unites to fight for freedom from oppressive authority, literalistic religion will be challenged for its own arbitrary authority. As human beings are complex, emotional creatures the transition from supernatural to natural thought will be uneven and occasionally regressive. The literalism that treats sacred texts as perfect truths will over time be replaced by more critical and revolutionary approaches to religious tradition.

In many ways this is already happening even in societies like the US where religious identification is strongly prevalent. Surveys that go beyond simply asking if one believes in God to asking people to choose from multiple definitions of God find that many people understand theism in ways that are not considered orthodox. 26% of Americans consider God to be an impersonal force rather than a personal being. Roman Catholics have an even higher percentage of impersonal theists, 29%. In a denomination that prides itself on its long history of theological orthodoxy, this finding is quite significant. Religion does not have a fixed for all time meaning, but is evolving with the rest of human civilization. The religion of the future will likely still have Jesus and Buddha as characters within its dramatic narrative, but they won’t be the same Jesus and Buddha as our ancestors.

A Protest Against Real Distress: Religion and Revolutionary Struggle


In response to Dario Cankovic’s Socialism and Religion, Redux:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.”

— Karl Marx, Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right

I have a love/hate relationship with religion and layers upon layers of both antipathy and affection for this complex reality. The same thing could be said for the revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary struggle is my primary allegiance; my personal happiness means very little while millions languish under the yokes of the death-systems of capitalism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and ecocide (to name only five of the central enemies of all beings on earth.) It seems most urgent to me today that we build alliances with all who are committed to the revolutionary struggle and that emphasizing our common ground is critical. I’m very aware that most people on the far left will disagree with my approach to religion, but it seems to me that the left really has no choice but to rethink how it will work with all potential revolutionaries, the majority of whom are religious — because the majority of humanity is religious.

The Egalitarian Principle


I’ve begun blogging at (dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity. I may make a habit of it.

Originally posted on The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity::

Recently, SkePoet posted a critique of Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism.” He quotes from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” a text that is often quoted these days as objecting to equality as a socialist value. SkePoet specifically takes aim at Sunkara’s invocation of the French Revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” He chides Sunkara for using the term “equal respect,” which he charges is “fundamentally liberal” not socialist.

So, on the point that “equal respect” or its cousin, “equal opportunity” are not in any sense socialist values, I concur. However, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable with a sort of Marxist distancing itself from what I would call “substantive equality.” While making sure that people aren’t discriminated against when seeking employment is a fundamentally good thing, and a part of a socialist reform agenda that overlaps with liberalism, I can’t escape my conviction that when we propose a…

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Breaking the “Fifth Party System” Duopoly: The Minor Party Democracy Offensive

Political theorists call the present two-party system in the USA, the “Fifth Party System.” In this view, since the time our first federal government was formed in 1792 until today, this country has had 5 different configurations of political parties. Today’s “Fifth Party System” is dated from the New Deal in 1933. Prior to the New Deal during the “Fourth Party System” era we had a significant number of minor parties that challenged the Democrats and Republicans, such as the Socialist Party of America, Bull Moose Party, Progressive Party, and so on, who all were decisively marginalized by the multi-term presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

The Fifth Party System of today needs to be replaced with a new configuration. The current system has given us political regression since the 70s. The “Citizens United” decision of 2010 opened the door to total corruption of the democratic process by enabling unrestricted political contributions by private corporations. This means that alternative viewpoints that include the interests of less economically wealthy have less power than ever before. This is a new level of danger for US politics and its influence on world affairs. As the major parties are now so wholly owned by wealthy corporations, social movements for change have little alternative but to either try to raise huge amounts of money and therefore buy into the problematic system itself, or begin organizing new “third parties” that resist corporate influence. The Green Party US is the most substantial of these efforts in US politics today. A close second place is held by the Libertarian Party, which seeks to end the dependence of corporations on government largesse and eliminate many onerous prohibitions on private moral decisions, like abortion, cannabis use, and same-sex marriage.

Two lesser-known but rising parties are the Constitution and Socialist Parties. The first of these is largely composed of radicals from the Christian Right. The latter is the heir to the Socialist Party of America, formed in 1973 after a split occurred. Most of the SPA leadership of 1973 decided against running electoral campaigns in favor of working within the Democratic Party. It’s no accident that this schism occurred just as the conservative counter-offensive to the 1960s was gaining momentum. Without a substantive third-party challenge from the left, the Democrats have moved consistently to the center, abandoning organized labor, blacks, and women to ever more impotent efforts at legislative reform, most notably in recent times, the Republican-inspired “Affordable Care Act” of 2010, that pales in comparison to the robust national healthcare systems of other industrialized countries.

My bold suggestion is that this configuration of political parties forms the seeds of a“Sixth Party System” of US politics, which will hopefully be a true multi-party system. If these minor parties continue to grow in political strength, as the Greens and Libertarians have done to date, then a showdown is in the making against the existing stalemate between government and corporate influence. Imagine that several key elections, even perhaps the 2016 presidential election, were to result in the following voting results:

Democrats – 49%
Republicans – 47%
Greens – 2%
Socialists – 0.5%
Libertarians – 1%
Constitution – 0.5%

By this count, the “left and center” wins 51.5% of the vote total, the “right and center” wins 48.5%, which isn’t too far off from where the numbers fall today. If this were to happen in any election that had national impact, such as Congress or State Governor, the failure of either major parties to earn a majority would force the existing powers to consider some changes, such as “instant run-off” voting systems, or perhaps even proportional representation.

It should be no surprise to regular readers that I am a member of the SPUSA and offer this analysis as minimal targets that we should strive to achieve. Socialism has risen in popularity as the economic crisis of 2008 continues to wreak havoc upon working people. In Europe, the left is regrouping in movements like Syriza in Greece, and here in the Occupy Wall Street mobilizations. However, OWS in particular fell prey to the main weakness of the US left, no political vehicle to absorb and organize all that insurgent energy. The Greens and the Socialists might have capitalized on OWS, but they failed to do so.

From a socialist perspective, mobilizing an anti-capitalist movement requires a political party or organization. Many socialists operate within the Democratic Party in the hopes of pulling it to the left. However, there has been no leftward movement except in various social movement concerns, such as same-sex marriage. On the two leading crisis points of our time, the destructive character of capitalism and the ecological destruction being advanced by industrial production and fossil-fuel consumption, the Democrats have given the left almost nothing for decades. After all, the left cannot contribute millions of dollars to political candidates.

There was a time when the unions were reliable allies in pulling the Democrats to the left on economic matters. However, the anti-union demobilization since the 70s has shrunk the actual power of organized labor to a shell of its former strength. In order to reverse this direction, a party committed to a progressive labor agenda is necessary. The Labor Party formed by Tony Mazzochi in the 90s was meant to be such an effort, however, his untimely death among other factors doomed that effort to failure. A socialist party could be a critical vehicle for revitalizing labor politics. Instead of simply trying to influence Democratic Party candidates in the direction of labor movement interests in competition with the wealthy corporate donors, a party of the left can create an oppositional pole outside the Democrats. Here, the experience of the Green Party is instructive.

When I presented a thumbnail of my “minor party offensive” strategy in a socialist forum on Facebook it was immediately objected that this concept depended on a strategic alliance with the far right Constitution Party. Such an objection is worth considering. From my perspective we don’t really need the Constitution Party in a multi-party strategy, since the Libertarians have already proven that they can divide the pro-capitalist bloc with some success. However, the Constitution Party does fill a real niche on the far right. Some on the left will object to forming any kind of strategic alliance with even the Libertarians, but the truth is that on some key points, such as same-sex marriage, drug decriminalization, anti-intervention, and other civil liberties, the Libertarians are a useful wedge inside the right.

I offer this proposal as very rough first pass at a new way to conceive third-party strategy. Instead of always worrying about the “spoiler effect” we can lock arms with Greens and Libertarians to fight the right for a real place in the political future of our nation and world.

What is “Good” For Africa, Theoretically Speaking?

The whole world is my province until Africa is free.  – Marcus Garvey

(This essay originated as a class assignment in comparative politics. It is a polemical response to a 1990 article by Jeffrey Herbst. The class was asked to answer the question, “Is this a good theory?”)

If one adopts a simple distinction between the states of the African and European continents and asks what are the differences between these two regions in political terms, one theory offered has observed that in Europe there are a large number of “strong states” that are effective in taxation, governance, and military readiness. By contrast, in Africa there are a relatively large number of states that are “weak, failing, failed, or collapsed.” With this basic construct in place, Jeffrey Herbst’s 1990 article “War & the State in Africa” offers the following hypothesis:


“War in Europe played an important role in the consolidation many now-developed states: war caused the state to become more efficient in revenue collection; it forced leaders to dramatically improve administrative capabilities; it created a climate and important symbols around which a disparate population could unify. While there is little reason to believe that war would have exactly same domestic effects in Africa today as it did in Europe several centuries ago, it is important ask if developing countries can accomplish in times of peace what war enabled European countries to do. I conclude that they probably cannot because fundamental changes in economic structures and societal beliefs are difficult, if not impossible, to bring about when countries are not being disrupted or under severe external threat.


“I conclude that some [African] states will probably be unsuccessful in finding ways of building the state in times of peace and will therefore remain permanently weak. Accordingly, the international community will have to develop non-traditional policies for helping a new brand of states: those that will continue to exist but that will not develop. Other states, perceiving that peace locks them into a permanently weak position, may be tempted to use war as a means of resolving their otherwise intractable problems of state consolidation.”

In sum, a lack of inter-state warfare in Africa has led to weakened development of the political states on that continent. Political science as a discipline is somewhat problematic in this respect, as it attempts to create parsimonious, satisfying, falsifiable, and rich theories of human politics. Human politics is not easily reduced to cause and effect explanations due to the sheer number of causes, that is, human behaviors, and their complexity, such as intention, social conditions, collective agency, etc. that would lead a serious theorist aiming at causal reduction into statistical tesseracts of astronomical proportions, perhaps beyond the complexity of mapping the smallest galaxy. By this token, political science has to content itself usually with approximations, rather than rigorously lawlike theories.

That said, other considerations impact the theory at hand, suggested by a common knowledge of the shared history of Europe and Africa, that of colonial exploitation of Africa by European states. That Herbst does not seem to consider this history strongly (though he acknowledges it) relevant is startling, given the centuries of political struggle within his homeland of the United States against the racial oppression of formerly enslaved persons of African descent. The U.S. economic and political system from well before its founding in 1776 up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was profoundly enmeshed in a racist system of slavery. Similarly, the growth of European political states was enmeshed in the slave trade and an even more direct colonial domination of the continent’s people groups. To put the alternative premise bluntly, perhaps the “strength” of European versus African states was deliberately intended by those European states?

Herbst intends his theory to suggest possible directions that African nations might pursue towards creating stronger states, such as pursuing wars. On the alternative premise, if the formation of strong states in Europe was bound up with the domination of Africa, does this suggest that Africa should now turn north and seek to dominate Europe? Recent clashes within Europe between populations of African immigrants and authorities of those exemplary “strong states” of Europe suggest that warfare is being carried on by other more social means, perhaps? Various radical movements and uprisings in Africa over the centuries suggest that Africans haven’t been as passive in state-building as Herbst implicitly projects, but that they have been outgunned by forces that intentionally prevented their success?

To attempt to remain properly – for a political scientist – theoretical and objective, this domination counter-theory also is subject to the canons of good theory: clarity of concepts, rich explanation, and verifiability. Of course, it is also subject to the persistent problematics of political science earlier mentioned. After all, the scientist is still a human being and treating humanity as a scientific object ultimately turns the clinical eye of science onto the scientist himself. Can such a science be entirely objective, when the very object of study is also in some sense intimately bound up with the observer? As much as a theorist might wish that the histories of Europe and Africa were separable like so many petri dishes in which bacteria grow, cross-contamination is systemic and ineradicable when pursuing the messy business of human politics. Political science is ultimately, also politics by other means.

That said, humans do have the potential to step outside their own embedded social position, and aim at sympathetic and truthful understanding of other societies. Clinical distance from the object of study is not an end in itself, but rather a limited – though necessary and helpful – tool, a step in a much larger process towards concrete truth and potentially effective action. Acting as a scientist is but one aspect of being a full human being. It may be obvious that this short essay is bound up with a moral outrage, a grief and sadness at the conditions of human suffering – in Africa and elsewhere – and the political forces that perpetuate them. Like a medical doctor who has dedicated her life to curing cancer, exploring the ravages of disease with clinical rigor isn’t the endpoint, but rather one necessary moment of a larger battle to gain a strategic clarity in order to achieve a greater good.

The Communism of Universal Love: Core Principles

Communism is defined as “to each according to need; from each according to ability.” The traditional wording is reversed with the “ability clause” placed first. However, the suffering of our times presses the question of need, desire, and fulfillment on us urgently. There are four clauses of the Communist principle: 1) To each – regarding every being as a deserving recipient of generosity, 2) According to need – seeing each being as in need of basic sustenance and more, 3) From each – regarding every being as capable and full of generous potential, 4) According to ability – seeing each being as potential contributors to the satisfaction of a sustainable, generous way of life.

Love is defined as a passion for the well-being of others, as transformative generosity. Our very existence is an outcome of complex generous processes stretching back to the dawn of time; explosive cosmic energies, stardust chemistry, planetary formation of oceans and landmasses, warming and cooling climates, molecular miracles of biogenesis, natural selection for environmental viability, and sensory awareness evolving into complex relational agency.

Each of us are conceived in moments of passion, for better or worse. The best passions can form and nurture us into agents and persons who love fiercely. Negative passions also arise as undesirable outcomes of processes obstructed from optimal fulfillment. Evolution contains creation, destruction, abundance, and suffering. The struggle between fulfilling the generous cosmic potential that is known as love and the negative obstructions generated by hate, frames our very existence over eons of time down to our present moment.

The Communism of Love integrates the classic principle of creating an order of mutual interdependence with the passion of love that runs through all life. Transformative generosity fulfills each being’s complex relational, biological, and physical needs. Transformative generosity contributes to this fulfillment as a communal interdependent abundance. Love’s communism embraces all beings from weakest to strongest and nurtures their optimal fulfillment.

Love’s Communism understands all beings as ecologically interdependent. Each living being deserves greater health and well-being, each physical system deserves freedom from degradation and pollution. Each being contributes with creative generosity to the overall qualitative flourishing of the global ecosystem. Love as a transformative generosity embraces the well-being of all species.

Communism has always seen economic poverty and class domination as inherently opposed to the well-being of humankind. Love’s Communism affirms this classic principle and sides with a revolutionary engagement in class struggle to win a classless society. Love has often been lacking in the history of the Communist movement and where it has been absent, the struggle against class domination has faltered and taken sometimes horrendous detours. Revitalizing a radical commitment to communism as a love of the entire planet and all beings, can guide a new revolutionary movement towards greater constructive achievements.

Love’s Communism transforms erotic love and gender identity. The imposed dualism of male aggressiveness and female passivity are rejected as constructs of social domination. Each person is invited to be transformed into empowered agents of freedom, generosity, and love and to fight against domination, deprivation, and hatred. Love will be freed from the limits of genital fixation. Children will be nurtured with male, female, and transgender co-parents.

The division of humanity into dominant and subordinate racial groups is understand as a global crime against love and the cosmic potential of all beings. Instead of racially alienated cultures of power and slavery, Love’s Communism will reconcile all humanity into a united generous rainbow communion. All the treasures of every culture will be shared as generous gifts from our common history.

Marx held that Communism would lead to the “withering away of the State.” Love’s Communism aspires to the highest fulfillment of participatory democracy and a mutual process of collaborative decision-making. All beings have a vote, every species a voice in the order of global harmony. Warfare will be ended, swords and plowshares will be obsolete, the liberation of all from the domination of any.

Religion and irreligion will be reconciled by the Communism of Love. Atheism, monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism will all be harmonized into a tapestry of cultural and spiritual richness. Jesus, Buddha, the Goddess, Marx, and Allah all stand as inspirational figures who have motivated both great and terrible actions. Love’s Communism fulfills all the highest aspirations of humanity to be freed from ideological slavery and domination and to be empowered for creative mutual flourishing.

Why the US Left Needs an Anti-Capitalist Party

Bill Fletcher and Carl Davidson this week published a lengthy defense of voting for Barack Obama as a bulwark against the rising tide of racist reactionary politics that will surely guarantee that a Mitt Romney presidency will sink to even greater depths of social regression.

“The central lesson we draw from the last four years has less to do with the Obama administration and more to do with the degree of effective organization of social movements and their relationship to the White House, Congress and other centers of power.  The failure to put significant pressure on the Obama administration — combined with the lack of attention to the development of an independent progressive strategy, program and organizational base–has created a situation whereby frustration with a neo-liberal Democratic president could lead to a major demobilization. At bottom this means further rightward drift and the entry into power of the forces of irrationalism.”


One of the thrusts of the article, though not its central point, is that voting for a third party candidate in November is a waste of time. This is the same old song we’ve heard from the near left for decades, to wit, there’s nothing to be gained by organizing a political party outside the two-party bloc. Will there ever be a moment when such a formation should be created? I suspect not for Fletcher & Davidson.

I entirely agree with the general analysis of the problems of the far right-wing’s horrendous designs as laid out by Fletcher & Davidson, as a near-left Communist myself. However, their contention that nothing can be gained by organizing a third party is simply ridiculous. The last time our nation really made a leap forward, the Civil War and abolition of slavery, it was the success of a third party, the Republicans, that made all the difference.

The leading third party on the near left today is the Green Party. Jill Stein is running a surprisingly militant campaign, even getting herself arrested for a sit-down protest inside a major bank. While I would wish that the GP were more solidly anti-capitalist – which seems to me a logical conclusion for a progressive Green philosophy to reach – I couldn’t be more pleased that Stein will be the leading voice for political independence on the left today.

However, I will not personally be voting for Stein, if I have my druthers. In July I joined the venerable if quite tiny Socialist Party USA as a calculated wager that over the next decade the anti-capitalist sentiments in the US will reach a critical point and they’ll need an electorally-oriented vehicle to represent that upsurge. I invite every Socialist or Communist in the US to consider joining SPUSA today and leave behind sectarian and compromise politics forever.

Socialists like Fletcher & Davidson today participate in member organizations that do good work supporting social movements across the nation. I am not calling for dissolving such organizations, but all but a very few tiny Socialist organizations attempt to even enter the electoral arena. At the moment, only the SPUSA has the potential to reach a mass audience as they are explicitly organized as an open, multi-tendency political party that rejects rigid ideologies and incorporates the best of modern social movements such as feminism, ecology, and radical democracy. There is a lot of work to be done, most obviously on organizing among Black, Latino, and working-class voters. This is why we need all hands on deck for a full-court press to ensure that there is a healthy Socialist Party in 2016 and beyond.

Go ahead and vote for Obama, the SPUSA probably won’t have a ballot line in your state this year. If you are so fortunate, write-in Stewart Alexander and Alex Mendoza. Or Roseanne Barr, Jill Stein, or Rocky Anderson, if they are more your cup of tea. Building a healthy anti-capitalist third party will take continued advances on the terrain that the Green Party is clearing to the left of the Democrats. I look forward to the day that the Green and Socialist Party are the major parties and the Democrats and Republicans are reduced to holding bake sales for fundraisers.

What about a “safe states” strategy as proposed by Noam Chomsky and others, where the left is encouraged to vote third party, if and only if there’s little chance that Obama would lose your state? As a Chicago resident, I definitely qualify under that strategy. However, in four more years, the choices may not be so clear-cut. At some point, a moment where push comes to shove will happen for the left and we may have to risk losing some ground from the Democratic to the Republican Party in order to maintain our forward momentum as Socialists and Communists. Election spoilage isn’t our biggest worry, however. The 2000 election wasn’t about how many ballots were cast for Al Gore or George Bush, but who was in control of the Supreme Court and what a fair election system actually would look like.

The Socialist Party of tomorrow will need to work on a complex agenda of calling for weighted or instant run-off voting, proportional representation, as well as abolishing the Electoral College and reforming the Supreme Court so that it isn’t held hostage to the Party that has held the most power the longest. Democracy is about government that acts in the best interests of the entire population and especially protecting vulnerable minorities. As the US becomes more multicultural in the next decades, the empowerment of those interests will call for something other than simple ballot counting as our core form of democratic participation. For radical democracy to have a future, it must have a present, and a political party independent of the capitalist class is an urgent necessity.

Feminist Pornography?: Towards a Socialist-Feminist Approach

On July 8 self-described feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino was a panel member on the Melissa Harris-Perry talk show discussing “Porn in America” with others such as Michael Eric Dyson and Zephyr Teachout. Self-described anti-pornography feminist Gail Dines created something of a buzz as she objected that her viewpoint – which she takes to speak for all women’s real interests – wasn’t represented on this program. Betty Dodson responded in Taormino’s defense against Dines’ brand of feminism, thus re-opening the question of how can feminists be so polarized on this point? Even more broadly, what is the status of feminism and sexual emancipation in our time?

Pornography is a product, a commodity that is bought and sold on the market. Its production shares common features with other media productions, most notably that of the glamor magazine and the live-action video/film industry. Gail Dines’ view that pornography requires a sustained protest by feminists and their allies against its creation begs the question of whether such action might be called for against glamor magazines and other media productions that employ people in displays of their bodies with or without clothing. Does Dines consider Playboy magazine – the largest selling porn magazine, even in this era of ready availability of much more explicit kinds – more of a threat to women’s freedom and equality than Cosmopolitan, which outsells Playboy by nearly double? If Playboy sells women’s nude bodies to men, Cosmopolitan sells women an ideal of sexuality and womanhood that is not that much different.

Perhaps Dines does care about opposing Playboy and even Cosmo, but in her public lectures her most intense animus is directed against video and film pornography that directly pays women to engage in sexual acts for the camera with other actors who are also paid. For Dines, the fact that a visual recording is being made of a sexual act for a profit elevates the risk of harm that all women face as they daily defend themselves against a male-dominated sexually aggressive culture. One might ask whether there are other live-action visual media that also contribute to this culture in Dines’s view? Did the Oscar-winning film The Accused in which Jodie Foster’s character is gang-raped in the final scene in a bar elevate the risks of male aggression against women? Did it perhaps contribute a critique of male aggression? Might feminist pornography create such a contrast to male-dominated sexuality?

Addressing that male-dominated sexuality brings one to the question of male aggression and violence, specifically the sexualized violence of rape. Tristan Taormino’s most popular porn videos are her Rough Sex series which features couples engaging in various mildly sado-masochistic scenarios. What sets this series apart from most in the genre is that each scene is created by the lead actress, who is filmed in an interview with Taormino beforehand. All the hair-pulling, verbal sparring, sexual coercion, and other aspects of the scenes are planned by women and directed by a woman. Not all scenes are of men as aggressors, since a significant number feature men or women being dominated by their female partners. While not all feminist pornography is quite so fixated on sexual aggressiveness, Taormino’s approach offers a window into the questions that feminists ask about rape as a social force, but does it really answer the questions? If some or even many women find male sexual aggression erotically desirable, does that place the desire itself above criticism? Do some women’s fantasies of being forced into sex against their will truly reflect an innate aspect of sexual desire, or rather of the fact that men already are in power, so sexually egalitarian and consensual relationships are impossible or perhaps too bland to be deeply enjoyable?

If Gail Dines overestimates the centrality of pornography in the structure of male domination, Tristan Taormino underestimates the pervasive power of male dominance and how it obstructs the struggle of women for genuine social equality. The problem with censoring pornography is the problem of censorship in general, it gives those who already have power a warrant to apply that power to further restrict critical discourse about the structure of our society, including its sexual dynamics. The limitation of feminist pornography in furthering women’s emancipation is that the power men exercise over women isn’t primarily located in the bedroom. Male domination is structured throughout our economic, political, cultural, and social institutions. Men possess more wealth, hold more political offices, control the production of culture, and maintain social influence that outweighs women in nearly all arenas.

Furthermore, this male dominance is not equally distributed. Men are not all elite masters of their own fate. Most men share with most women in a variety of conditions of exploitation, disempowerment, and repression, albeit in significantly distinctive ways. The systemic structure of sexuality in our society is intertwined with a broader complex of social power systems. Dines’ radical feminist viewpoint eliminates this complexity so that the very fact of pornography is reductively seen as a creation of men purely for the purpose of maintaining sexual control over women. However, which men are doing this creation? If women create their own feminist pornography are they incapable of shaping an alternative viewpoint to male domination? Dines would deny this, since in her view, all men seemingly collaborate to repress all women, and her central emancipatory project is to stop men from creating any pornography at all.

One of the unusual features of the modern history of sexual power is that the rise of pornography has coincided with relative increases in the social power of women. If one compares the status of women at the beginning of the feminist movement at the 1839 Seneca Falls Convention to today’s situation, only someone with ideological blinders would say that women now have less power than in 1839. This suggests that male domination isn’t tied mechanically to the creation of pornography. In fact, most women tolerate pornography, even if they don’t view it themselves or even personally find all of it offensive. Especially more younger women have come to consider it part of their sexual development.

The relative gains in women’s power over the past 119 years are not because men have decreased their view of women as sexual objects, but because they have decreased their view of women as slaves to motherhood. The justification by the Right throughout the past century for confining women to subservient roles has been carried out as a defense of the sacredness of the family and a central division of labor within it. Christian ideology about the male as God’s chosen leader in the home serves to enforce a life of cultural and social deprivation upon women. This is justified because children seemingly deserve a full-time caregiver who must be a woman divinely outfitted for this task. This logic has been shaken, especially for women of the middle and upper classes who now expect to become college educated and enter the workforce. Poorer women have always been denied the full-time mothering role. Concomitantly, these newly privileged women have themselves begun to rethink the question of their sexual fulfillment and to divorce sexuality from this nostalgic notion of romance and domestic bliss.

Of course, this de-romanticizing of motherhood has actually not been carried out in such a way as to equalize male and female participation in child-rearing, but rather by the creation of a laboring class of women to carry out this function, daycare workers and in-home babysitters. It would seem that yet more radical changes need to be made in the gender dynamics of society before we can truly emancipate all women. Battling against all pornography, feminist or not, seems a distraction from this larger project.

In fact, if one returns to the question of pornography as a product that requires labor to create, the disparity between male and female contribution to this product seems to harbor similar imbalances as childrearing. Men are the main consumers, the overwhelming majority of porn directors, of screenwriters, keep the lion’s share of profits, and are the primary driving force behind the industry on nearly all levels. Feminist pornography tries to redress at least some of these imbalances, and feminists could do more by advocating for sex worker rights, supporting legislated labor standards, encouraging women to exercise their civil rights in cases of job discrimination, elevate healthcare standards, greater unionization, and other forms of activism that not surprisingly parallel the general needs of all workers in our late capitalist economy.

Replacing the cultural regime of compulsory motherhood with either the reclamation of “slut” as a badge of honor or by empowering middle class women to rise into positions of power within capitalism seems to leave the majority of women still trapped in the lower tiers of a wildly stratified social order with the majority of men who also reside there. Social inequalities of class, race, and political power frame, structure, and frustrate the quest for human fulfillment, sexual and otherwise, for most of the world’s men and women. Feminism definitely has a central role in this task, if it can break out of its middle-class captivity and achieve radical solidarity with its sisters and brothers below.