Two Models of Anti-Racist Struggle: Allyship and Self-Emancipation

There’s a tendency, which I have observed over many years, for lots of white people to want to frame anti-racist struggle in ways that highlight and foreground their own agency and capacity to contribute. No doubt, this tendency is rooted in good, commendable intentions. Many white people quite rightly want to contribute, and so they look for guidance about how they might contribute as usefully and effectively as possible. The result is that the capacity for white people, as white people, to contribute to anti-racism gets surprisingly extensive levels of attention within activist circles, much more so than would have been the case in the heyday of North American anti-racism (if that’s what it was), in the days of Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Combahee River Collective. Well-intentioned or not, we should stop, I think, to reflect on the possibility that all this attention to white people’s agency in the struggle against racism might create a certain imbalance, at least, in our analysis and discussion of the aims and methods of anti-racist organizing.Free Huey newton, Black Panther Rally San Francisco, May 1, 1969 Leaping wi Mao Book sheet 294 frame 42

This habit of highlighting the role of white people in anti-racism can find expression in a number of different ways. Traditionally, white liberals in the USA foregrounded their own role by imagining that the courts and the official political process (or, in the most preposterous version, FBI agents!) were the spearheads of anti-racist social change. More recently, some activists whose discourse is motivated by political radicalism rather than liberalism have adopted a different way of foregrounding the agency of white people. They do so by conceptualizing anti-racist struggle, at least to some substantial extent, in terms of what they call “allyship.” In this discourse, a central reference point (although certainly not the only reference point) in anti-racist politics is the figure of the “anti-racist ally,” which is understood to be a type of white person.

The concept of allyship in general, and the anti-racist ally in particular, did not first emerge from within the domain of social-movement strategy. Instead, it was imported into social movement activism from the outside, from the social work profession, e.g., from the work of people like Anne Bishop, whose 1994 book, Becoming an Ally, played a role in popularizing the term (in its current meaning). Allyship, in this context, should not be confused with a similar-sounding word, “alliance,” which has a very different meaning, and which is an irreducibly strategic concept. This other word, “alliance,” refers to the confluence in struggle of large-scale social forces, like social classes or social movements, that take up one another’s demands in the context of a joint commitment to reciprocal solidarity and mutual aid. By contrast, “allyship” is undertaken by individuals, not by entire movements. Allyship is a sincere commitment on the part of a privileged person (and, in the context of anti-racism, that means a white person) to offer ongoing support to individuals, groups, or organizations that are excluded from that kind of privilege, and to take direction from them about the form that support should take.

To advocates of the allyship model of anti-racism (like Anne Bishop, Tim Wise, and others), anti-racist struggle is, if not mainly, at least crucially a matter of white people (1) recognizing their privilege (the benefits that racial hierarchies confer on them); (2) identifying ways in which they are complicit in practices that maintain and reproduce those hierarchies; (3) working to withdraw from or interrupt such practices; and (4) taking direction from people of colour, mostly on an individual basis, about how the would-be ally may be contributing to racial hierarchies, and how they might act differently, to oppose instead of perpetuating those hierarchies.

I do not propose to offer any criticisms of this model of anti-racist struggle, either with respect to its effectiveness at weakening the grip of racism in capitalist societies, or with respect to its capacity to broaden and deepen social movements devoted to destroying racism. For the most part, my intention here is only to highlight the fact that the allyship model is directly in tension with an older, competing model of anti-racism, which does not in fact foreground the agency of white people, but on the contrary treats the struggle against racism as an activity wholly led and largely carried out by racialized people (people of colour) themselves. The most influential advocate of this competing model, which is sometimes called the “self-emancipation” model of anti-racist struggle, is Malcolm X. But it has had other important advocates, including CLR James, and organizations like the BPP, SNCC, and many others.

One might suppose that this “self-emancipation” model is in fact consistent with the “allyship” model. According to this optimistic thought, these two views are not in tension, because while it is true that anti-racism is a self-emancipation struggle, it is also true that anti-racist allyship on the part of white people plays a secondary, but also important role. This sounds plausible, in the abstract. It would be a neat resolution of the tension between these models if they could be parcelled out in this way: self-emancipation for people of colour, supported in a secondary way by the allyship role for white people. Unfortunately, Malcolm’s self-emancipation model of anti-racist struggle differs from the allyship model of anti-racism not just in terms of whose anti-racism it addresses, but in terms of how it positions both racialized people and white people who oppose racism. So, apparently, there can be no tidy accommodation between these models (which doesn’t mean that they have to be mutually antagonistic).

Let’s take a closer look at the points of divergence, where these two models seem to be enduringly in tension with each other. Four points of divergence stand out.

1. Whose Agency is Foregrounded? First, as already suggested above, whereas the allyship model emphasizes the importance of white people in acting to oppose racism, to unlearn it and repudiate the advantages they derive from it, and so gives white anti-racists a crucial role in anti-racist politics, the self-emancipation model relentlessly foregrounds the agency of people of colour in liberating themselves through their own self-activity and self-organization. Anti-racist struggle, according to the self-emancipation view, is something that racialized people, people of colour, undertake in order to free themselves from oppression and subordination. White people, in this conception, are neither expected nor invited to contribute, as white people, any more than labour unions invite supportive participation from employers as a class.

2. Allyship versus Alliances. Second, the self-emancipation model assigns a very different role to white people in the process of anti-racist struggle. While white people are not foregrounded in the self-emancipation model, neither are they excluded entirely from it. Their role, however, is understood in terms of alliances between large-scale social forces or social movements, in which white individuals figure alongside others. In Malcolm’s conception, once racialized people have organized themselves, autonomously, to fight for their own emancipation, they may indeed find it advantageous, from the point of view of maximizing the potency of their struggles, to seek out alliances with other movements or organizations. For example, organizations pursuing the self-directed struggle of African-American people to free themselves from racial oppression may decide, once their own capacity to self-organize and lead their own movement has been secured, that an alliance with (multi-racial) labour unions could assist the movement in its struggle. In that case, the African-American liberation movement could work to develop an alliance, for mutual advantage, between these two movements. Were the terms of such an alliance to be worked out in practice, formally or informally, white people would then have a clear way to participate in the self-emancipation struggle of African Americans: they would be participants in an alliance, such that their organizations (unions, in this case) were committed to making a priority of the demands and aspirations specific to the African-American anti-racist struggle (and vice versa). In such alliances, “an injury to one” is supposed to be treated as “an injury to all.” Therefore, injuries to African-Americans would be treated as if they were injuries to union members generally, including non-racialized (white) union members. In practice, such an alliance might work well sometimes, and badly at other times. In this context, I only want to point out that, in principle, the self-emancipation model of anti-racism also offers a role for white people, as participants in (macro-level) alliances with the self-emancipation struggles of people of colour. But it does not foreground white people, and their agency, as central to anti-racism.

3. Should Whites Oppose Racism as White People, or as Participants in Allied Movements? This brings up the third difference between the two models, which is that, whereas in the allyship model white people participate in anti-racist struggle as white people, that is, in their capacity as a group that is privileged by racism, in the self-emancipation model their participation is not rooted in their own whiteness. Rather, it is rooted in their participation in social movements and social-movement organizations that are aligned with (in the example I have been using) the Black self-liberation movement. Thus, they participate, not as people with white privilege invited to sacrifice their own privileges on the basis of a moral duty, but in their capacity as people pursuing their own struggles (union struggles, environmental struggles, feminist struggles, and so on), but fighting alongside alliance-partners who perhaps share a common enemy, or overlapping strategic objectives, and so lend support to each other’s struggles on that basis. The spirit in which solidarity and support from allied groups (including white anti-racists) is understood within the self-emancipation model is well-captured by the principle promoted by Indigenous activist groups in the South Pacific region (namely, what is now called Queensland, Australia): “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

4. Where Does the Power to Contest Racism Reside? Finally, the self-emancipation model proposes an understanding of where the power to contest racism lies which is starkly different from the understanding implicit in the allyship model. The starting point of the allyship model is that “privileged” groups are powerful, because of their many advantages, and therefore bear a special responsibility to offer aid to weaker groups. By contrast, the starting point of the self-emancipation model is that the oppressed themselves have the capacity, the potential power, to liberate themselves by their own self-activity, using the tools of collective struggle and self-organization (and making such cross-movement alliances as they deem to be necessary and appropriate). This is not just a difference of emphasis, but a wholly different way of framing the struggles of the exploited and oppressed and thinking about how others can or can’t offer support and solidarity.

Now, it might seem that an obvious weakness of the self-emancipation model is that it “lets white people off the hook,” so that they do not have to work in any way to support anti-racist struggle. “How convenient for them!,” some might say. In fact, however, this is a misunderstanding of the model. The point is not that white people don’t have to contribute. It is that their contribution is not grounded in their whiteness or their status a privileged group, but in their participation in struggles and organizations that should, and often (at least on paper) do bear a commitment to working in alliance with anti-racist self-emancipation struggles. White people should actively support anti-racist demands and struggles as environmentalists, as feminists, as union members, as anti-capitalists, and so on, since these movements and the (best) organizations that make them up are committed to aims and struggles that are “bound up with the liberation of” racially oppressed people, who are struggling for their own liberation alongside allies that they have chosen to take on as partners in linked and overlapping (“intersecting”) struggles.

Importantly, there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that the allyship model is more demanding toward white people than the self-emancipation model. Rather, the difference is that the self-emancipation model grounds those demands in the responsibilities created by participation in cross-movement alliances, rather than grounding them in obligations that stem from the injustice of differentiated access to privilege. There should be no doubt, however, that the self-emancipation model gives us ample reason to denounce white environmentalists, union activists, feminists and others who fail to take fighting racism seriously, or refuse to make it a priority in their political activities and personal lives.

Although the self-emancipation model seems to stand out as the more sophisticated and politically astute model, it may not be necessary to reject the allyship view as wholly incorrect. Perhaps in practice there could be a productive tension between these two approaches, so that each model enriches the other by generating insights to which its counterpart would otherwise remain oblivious. That possibility can’t be discounted. But, at the very least, we need to acknowledge that the tension here is real. In particular, we should be alert to the price we pay when we allow the allyship model to take up so much space in activist discourse that it threatens to overshadow and obscure from view the insights of the self-emancipation model.

Related post: Early 20th Century Views on Anti-Racist Strategy in the USA

A Brief Note on the Spontaneist Case for a Turn to Organizing

Recent events, namely, the wave of mass struggles spearheaded by the grassroots movement for Black lives, have fully vindicated the ‘spontaneist’ argument that the Left mainly advances through self-activating protest upsurges and the political dynamism and social ferment they generate, not through recruiting people one-by-one into steadily growing membership organizations.

Minneapolis, 2020, protesting the police murder of George Floyd.

Nevertheless, it has always been part of the spontaneist argument to insist that, once spontaneity has done its work of activating masses of people and generating waves of oppositional enthusiasm, it is crucial for organized parts of the Left to consolidate these advances and draw newly activated people into forms of sustained commitment to longer-term organizing projects. Only in this way, spontaneists insist, can we prevent the dissipation of the movement’s energies under the pressures of ‘everyday’ social integration and the reassertion of capitalist ‘normality.’

Massive surge in popular support for movement aims

The spontaneity of the militant popular struggles of 2020 has already had a transformative impact on popular consciousness and in this way lent core aims of the anti-systemic Far Left, like police-abolition and anti-capitalist revolution, a relevance to broad publics that they have lacked for generations. It’s now time, though, to shift from an overriding emphasis on agitation — activating people by creating entry points into struggle — to a new, more focussed emphasis on organization — drawing people into long-term collaborative projects and an ongoing engagement as regular participants in the work of the activist Left.

In the present conjucture, therefore, the dispute between those who insist on the primacy of organizing and those, like me, who insist on the primacy of agitation and spontaneity, is temporarily suspended: we should all agree, right now, about the urgency of the task of consolidating and integrating large numbers of newly activated and politicized people into the organized activism of the anti-systemic Left.

Why is Philosophical Writing Sometimes Difficult to Read?

Philosophy is sometimes saddled with a reputation for presenting its supposed insights in writing styles that are verbose, obscure and pretentious. I don’t think the charge is quite fair, for reasons I want to set out here. But there’s no need to be deliberately obtuse, denying that there’s ever a problem with opaque prose in philosophy. Probably the most influential modern Western philosopher, Immanuel Kant, routinely served up sentences like the following one from his Critique of Practical Reason: “Consciousness of this fundamental law may be called a fact of reason because one cannot reason it out from antecedent data of reason, for example, from consciousness of freedom (since this is not antecedently given to us) and because it instead forces itself upon us of itself as a synthetic a priori proposition that is not based on any intuition, either pure or empirical, although it would be analytic if the freedom of the will were presupposed; but for this, as a positive concept, an intellectual intuition would be required, which certainly cannot be assumed here.” 

Kant wasn’t known in his time, as Shakespeare was in his, for “honey-tongued eloquence.”

One could multiply the examples, of course. Sometimes philosophical writing is a burden to read. But is this a fact about writing in philosophy, or is it a fact about writing generally? Some people write very, very poorly. But there are bad writers among people who write press releases or legal decisions, instruction manuals or self help books, not only among those who write about philosophy. It is asking too much of any area of life to rigorously exclude from participation anyone who struggles and fails (or just fails, without bothering with the struggle) to write passably well.

Even so, some people think that philosophy makes a particular point of refusing to present its insights, if that’s what they are, in a way that is sufficiently “accessible” to general readers. And this is a claim that I want to take up here: why isn’t philosophical writing more accessible to more people?

I think we can distinguish at least seven ways in which “accessibility” in philosophical writing might be impaired. In all or almost all of these ways, however, the problem is not specific to philosophy, but a generic problem that affects specialist discourses as such.

The first source of inaccessible writing is the unfamiliarity to outsiders of concepts that are familiar to those who have already gone through a learning process. This may be a barrier for those who have not yet gone through that learning process. For example, someone who has studied mathematical logic or number theory for years might not be fazed by a writer’s reference to “the transitive closure of a binary relation,” but readers who have not studied the background taken for granted by the writer may need several minutes, or even a few hours, of remedial logical and mathematical learning, so that they can clearly understand what is meant here by “transitivity,” “closure,” and “binary relation.” The same might apply to a basketball fan or commentator saying that a certain team’s “bigs can post up or stretch the floor.” Someone who has no background in watching or playing basketball might be able to guess what “bigs” are, with more or less precision, but probably wouldn’t have a clue what “posting up” or “stretching the floor” might mean. This seems like a hard barrier to remove on the front end (that is, to remove from basketball talk among fans of the sport): people just wouldn’t be able to talk efficiently about basketball if they had to explain what they meant by “low post” or “pick and roll” or “drive and kick” every single time. People approaching an up-and-running discourse, into which most participants have already been ‘brought up to speed,’ simply have to accept the burden of working over time to learn what these expressions mean, so that they know the basic terms and concepts that people are using. In the same way, if you want to read books and articles about the philosophical ‘method’ known as phenomenology, you’ll need to look up terms like “eidetic analysis,” “traditionary sedimentation,” and “noematic correlate.” But there’s no way you can expect people to either stop using such terms, or to explain them again and again and again, every time they use them. The same goes for economists using terms like “elasticity,” “commodity futures,” and “demand curve,” or whatever. The burden has to fall on the newcomer, otherwise these discourses simply won’t be able to proceed with the requisite efficiency. 

A second source of inaccessibility is the fact that, in some cases, the complexity of the material can be a barrier for people who are considering an issue for the first time, and are still trying to get a sense of the basic questions, and so may not be ready to take up more complicated topics. Whether in philosophy or in any other domain of inquiry, discussing complicated matters often requires taking for granted that several simpler matters have previously been discussed, and don’t need to be reviewed from scratch just now. Talking about simple things and complicated things are not so much alternatives, forcing us to choose between them, as they are a sequence: we discuss simple things, and move on from there to take up more complicated matters. For example, a person who is trying to understand what causes climate change might first need to understand the basic dynamics: the drive of private sector industrial firms to maximize profits and how this affects their choices of fuel sources and production methods, and so on. But there are levels of complexity that go far beyond this basic analysis: how profit-motivated technological R&D choices are affected by the dynamics of worker resistance, how regulatory changes interact with environmental protest movements, how pipeline or other energy extraction-infrastructure projects are contested by Indigenous land defenders, and countless other social factors, not to mention the complex matter of weather pattern dynamics, as they interact with the social processes, and so on. It is impossible for all of this to be addressed all at once. For the most part, discussion of matters of higher complexity and finely detailed specificity will tend to be conducted as a conversation among people who have already worked through some of the more basic dynamics, and don’t need or want to work through those points all over again every time they talk about it. And although this isn’t unique or specific to philosophy, it certainly impacts the accessibility of many philosophical texts.

A third source of inaccessibility is the need to find or construct a vocabulary for articulating insights that are important to express, but hard to express in the inherited vocabulary of common sense or everyday speech. For example, some of the difficulty one finds in path-breaking books like Heidegger’s Being and Time or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, is related to the fact that these books tried to express something that no one had previously tried to be articulate about. Hegel’s book tries to find a way of talking about philosophy and knowledge, when we switch from thinking about knowledge in terms of a singular encounter between a knowing subject and a known object, to thinking instead about a progression that unfolds over time between an earlier stage and a later stage of an unfolding learning process. Hegel finds that he has to bend the inherited jargon of philosophy (terms like “concept,” “truth,” and “absolute”), in order to express the complex dynamics of what he called “the progressive evolution of truth.” Similarly, Heidegger wanted to talk about how cognitive forms of intelligibility (like believing something or intending to do something) were derivative in relation to more basic forms of intelligibility that were not a matter of “knowing that something is so” but instead a matter of knowing how to navigate some routinized social practice or skill-guided activity (like exhibiting the social-cultural competence to interact in appropriate ways with strangers in a workplace, or to engage practically with place-settings and servers and menus in a restaurant). When we try to find a way of talking about something that no one has ever really tried to talk about, we’re in the unenviable position of having to make up a new way of talking. Heidegger found himself making up terms like “everydayness” and “the they-self.” Sometimes, the weirdness of these new ways of talking diminishes over time, when more and more people learn how to talk in the new way. (For example, a lot of ways to talk about sexuality and gender and the family that fifty years ago would have seemed to most people to be strange, or even nonsensical, now seem perfectly clear and obvious to millions of people.) But in other cases, the new way of talking doesn’t catch on, except within a small circle of specialists. This is often what happens within academic disciplines, and in some cultural or political subcultures, or indeed professions like carpentry or beekeeping.

A fourth barrier to accessibility may have to do with mismatches between intended versus actual audiences. If I write something that I expect only to be read by people who have read Donald Davidson’s and Michael Dummett’s books and articles on truth and meaning, and for some reason it finds its way onto the reading list of people who have never read any philosophy, they will find my use of the term “propositional attitude acriptions” or “de dicto specification of propositional contents” to be impossibly opaque and hyper-technical. Of course, had I imagined that my audience would be non-specialists, with no philosophical training, I would have written differently, and presumably stopped at a more general-interest level of detail. But since I took my intended audience to be people interested in late-20th century philosophical semantics, I helped myself to a vocabulary that would be familiar to that group of readers. (In practical terms, this point overlaps considerably with my first point, about how some conversations proceed on the assumption that participants either have already undergone a learning process, or at least would be willing to do so; but perhaps it adds something to express the point also in terms of intended or assumed audiences.)

A fifth source of inaccessibility is the failure or refusal to use terms in a precise and consistent way. This, however, is often not a matter of being deliberately obscure. Rather, the problem is that some philosophical writers — the later Heidegger comes to mind — deliberately seek out words that are “evocative,” and rich with “poetic resonances,” rather than having clear and precise meanings. Normally, as in Heidegger’s case, this is rooted in some opinion about what the functions of language are. In Heidegger’s case, he believes that the most basic function of language is not to communicate thoughts, or to express claims, but rather to open up or “disclose” “worlds,” that is, to illuminate the world rather than to represent it. (Similar factors require Lacan’s psychoanalytic texts to surrender the pretense that an author has a command over the semantic functioning of the text he or she — seemingly — produces, a gesture necessitated by some of his central theoretical claims, if that’s what they are. The question of how to read a text that is deliberately calling into question our assumptions about meaning, reading and writing is certainly relevant here, but it is too big a topic to fully address in this setting. It is enough, I think, to acknowledge frankly that some philosophical writing is obscure because it is trying to do things other than convey straightforward claims from a writer to a reader. This is what gives us the self-consciously “stylistic” philosophical writers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Lacan and Derrida. But it would be even more confusing if a writer both relied shamelessly upon, and denied the very possibility of, straightforward communication of singular “thoughts” from a writer’s mind to a reader’s.)

A sixth source of inaccessibility is that ‘difficult language’ is sometimes needed  to invoke a semantic context. It may seem that the expression ‘invoke a semantic context’ is itself needlessly academic and perhaps inaccessible. And it may indeed be academic in style, but not needlessly so. One could rephrase the point by saying, instead, that one wants to ‘bring into play a wider set of meanings that are relevant to the point being made.’ In a way, this seems to mean the same thing as ‘invoke a semantic context.’ But the original formulation has the merit that — I dare say — it invokes a semantic context that the second formulation does not, notably, the difference between the semantic, pragmatic and syntactic ways in which sentences function, as well as the difference between a semantic context and other contexts, like historical, cultural or intellectual contexts. For this reason, the phrase ‘invoke a semantic context’ does more work, conveys more significance, than its lengthier proposed substitute. I can readily imagine situations in which I would opt for the longer, but less academic substitute, but that would be a sacrifice of a certain kind. I would have to omit part of what I wanted to say, or else find a way to add it in later. But if I thought I were writing for an audience that would probably know what I meant (whether the audience was academic or not), I would no doubt remorselessly help myself to the more meaning-packed formula. The same inclination to bring into play a relevant semantic context might lead a philosophical writer to opt for a word like “transcendental,” when “necessarily presupposed” could have done the trick, or a word like “hermeneutical” when “interpretive” would convey a very similar point more accessibly. This impulse to invoke semantic contexts that lend specificity to one’s claims and situate them in wider background-coversations can indeed be a dangerous temptation. But it would needlessly impoverish one’s writing, or indeed one’s thinking, to abstain from it entirely.

A seventh factor that can lead to inaccessibility in philosophy is a writer’s adoption of an oracular affectation. (Indeed, perhaps my use of the term “oracular affectation” may seem to some — wrongly, I think — like a case of adopting an oracular affectation.) An affectation is a mode of self-presentation that is ‘studied’ or carefully cultivated, as opposed to being spontaneous and authentic, and an affectation is oracular if one’s self-presentation tries in effect to invite one’s hearers or readers to consume humbly one’s wise pronouncements, rather than to challenge what one says or press for more detail, evidence, precision or clarity. A philosophical (or other) writer who adopts an oracular affectation wants, apparently, to be listed to with uncritical reverence, and possibly even with a certain sense of awe.

Generally speaking, it is only the last of these forms of inaccessibility that should be regarded as disreputable. It is reasonable to expect a writer to treat one as an equal, generally, even though it is not reasonable — for reasons set out above — to expect a writer to communicate only in ways that make it possible for every reader to understand her meaning immediately, without preparation or effort. When sports fans or sports journalists use a piece of basketball jargon, like “weak side help,” this does not treat the uninitiated as somehow ‘less than equal.’ It is not pretentious or self-indulgent for a carpenter to use expressions like “wainscot” or “cantilever,” which are unfamiliar to many outsiders. It simply reflects an assumption that entry into a specialist discourse is a process that unfolds over time. It probably also reveals an optimism that the uninitiated can navigate the challenge of getting up to speed, in the long run, as so many others have done before them.

Of course, when we return to Kant’s sentence, quoted in my opening paragraph, we are still hard-pressed to defend it. But I hope we can see it for what it is: evidence that among the ranks of philosophy professors, as among the ranks of accountants, economists, and engineers, there are some people who don’t write particularly well.

“A Question of Land and Existence”: An Introduction to Marx’s Anti-colonialism

By Steve D’Arcy

In this short introductory article, my aim is quite modest. I want briefly to introduce readers to four key themes in Marx’s anti-colonialism: first, his moral condemnation of colonialism; second, his analysis of its roots in capitalism; third, his attentiveness to the importance of Indigenous modes of life and social practices as sources of critical insight and social innovation that can and should inform how we think about a post-capitalist future; and finally, fourth, his strong views about the centrality of anti-colonial solidarity in socialist strategy, not only in colonized places but more generally. Although a thorough assessment of Marx’s anti-colonial politics would have to devote substantial critical attention to its many limitations, my emphasis here is not on these limitations, but rather on aspects of Marx’s anti-colonialism that remain relevant, illuminating, and worthy of serious consideration today.

I. The Moral Catastrophe of Colonialism

“Oppressed colonial nations shall rise up against Imperialism under the banner of the Proletarian Revolution.” (Bolshevik poster.)

Marx himself in his main work, Capital, Volume One, touches very directly, and without pulling any punches, on colonial capitalism and its disastrous impacts on Indigenous people, and on colonized people more generally. He points out that “the history of colonial administration…’is one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness’,” and he denounces the way that “the colonial system … proclaimed surplus-value [i.e., profit] making as the sole end and aim of humanity,” in such a manner that “the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience,” in its willingness to tolerate colonial plunder and genocide (Marx, Capital). 

Specifically addressing the genocidal aspect of capitalist colonialism, he notes that “the treatment of the indigenous population was, of course, at its most frightful in plantation-colonies set up exclusively for the export trade, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called [that is, what we now call settler colonies]…, in 1703 those sober exponents of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured [Indigenous person]; in 1720, a premium of £100 was set on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices were laid down: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards, £100 in new currency, for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50.”

Elsewhere in Capital, he adds: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production” (Marx, 1867). (Needless to say, he uses the expression “rosy dawn” in a sarcastic mode here.)

So, colonialism (along with slavery, which overlaps with it) was seen by Marx as the height of capitalism’s crimes against humanity. Even the achievements of social progress in Europe were tainted by their reliance on genocide and dispossession in the colonies, worldwide. As Marx’s main collaborator Friedrich Engels put the point, “one cannot fail to notice that the English citizen’s so-called freedom is based on the oppression of the colonies.”

II. The analysis of colonialism’s roots: land-theft and accumulation

In the Grundrisse, which he wrote in the 1850s, Marx places at the centre of everything what he calls “land, the source of all production and of all existence.” Obviously, land is particularly central to colonialism, which relentlessly pursues dispossession, by any means at its disposal, including but certainly not limited to treaties and military violence. “All these were means for robbing the [colonized] of their land….The [colonial] question is therefore not simply a question of nationality, but a question of land and existence. Ruin or revolution is the watchword” (Marx, 1867). In 1870, he repeated this idea, noting that in colonies “the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority…, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question” (Marx, 1870).

Settler colonialism indeed poses a grave threat to colonized people, in Marx’s view. Typically, when settler colonies have been established, he noted, “the plan was to exterminate the [colonized]…, to take their land and settle…colonists in their place, etc….The avowed plan…: clearing the [territory] of the natives and stocking it with loyal [settlers]” (Marx 1867).

According to Marx, capitalism’s embrace of colonialism has had multiple motives: (1) acquisition of “land which provides the [colonising nation’s] market with meat and wool [and other products] at the cheapest possible prices”; (2) “reducing the [colonized] population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that [colonizing] capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with ‘security’” (Marx, 1870); (3) because it helps to draw super-exploited workers into the “labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the [‘mother-country’] working class” (ibid); and (4) to establish and strategically deploy an “antagonism” between workers of the colonized and colonizing nations, in order to weaken the power of both sets of workers, and workers generally.

The result, as Marx notes in Capital, is that under capitalism “the pieces of land belonging” to colonized people, “from time immemorial, are systematically confiscated.” This notion of systemic confiscation of land is one of the most important contributions of Marx’s Capital to anti-colonial theory (a point repeatedly emphasized by Coulthard, by Luxemburg, and others).

III. The endangered alternatives: Marx on the importance of Indigenous forms of life to humanity’s future

In contrast to the atrocities and contempt for humanity characteristic of capitalism, Marx (and later, Engels) noted the egalitarianism, collectivism, and consensus-oriented forms of stateless self-governance frequently found in the traditional social and legal systems of Indigenous communities (a point Marx underlined especially, but by no means exclusively, in his studies of Indigenous societies in the Eastern Great Lakes region). Marx regarded these pre-colonial forms of Indigenous egalitarianism as models for the European left, and as prefigurations of a possible post-capitalist future for humanity as a whole.

Indeed, one of the things that interested Marx most about modern (19th-century) Indignenous societies was how advanced their political and legal systems were, compared to the relatively deficient ones in Europe. His understanding of how the clan-based political systems in the Haudenosaunee nations worked is expressed by him as follows: “The Council [is] an instrument of government and supreme authority over the clan, tribe, [and] confederacy…. [Matters] of general interest [are] submitted to the determination of the council [which] sprang from the clan organization — the Council of Chiefs.” At the level of clans, according to his understanding of the Haudenosaunee practice in the 19th century, a council took the form of “a democratic assembly, where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it…. All the members of a [Haudenosaunee-confederacy] clan [are] personally free, bound to defend each other’s freedom; equal in privileges and personal rights.” (These passages are from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks.)

In 1845, Marx notes in The Holy Family (quoting early socialist Charles Fourier) that “​the​ ​degree​ ​of​ ​emancipation​ ​of woman​ ​is​ ​the​ ​natural​ ​measure​ ​of​ ​general​ ​emancipation.” In 1868, Marx repeated that “​Social​ ​progress​ ​can be​ ​measured​ ​exactly​ ​by​ ​the​ ​social​ ​position of [women].” In this connection, he took special interest in the superiority of women’s status in the Haudenosaunee nations, compared to that of women in Europe. Quoting an early anthropologist, he noted (in his Ethnological Notebooks) the importance of Clan Mothers among the Seneca: “The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required it, to ‘knock off the horns’, as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them.” 

In his effort to learn from Indigenous forms of social organization Marx goes into considerably more detail, and I can’t even scratch the surface here. He has, for example, detailed notes on the clan structure, social and spiritual practices, and legal and political institutions of countless Indigenous nations in present-day ‘Canada.’ For instance, he notes all the doodemag (clans) of the Anishinaabeg (attentive to both differences and overlap among Ojibwe, Odaawaa, and Potawatomi clan traditions). He notes the clans, too, for each of the Haudenosaunee nations, and documents his understanding of changes over time in the clan organization. He notes, too, that the clan system had been undermined — particularly, he thought, among the Anishinaabeg — by colonialism (“American and missionary influence”). He also notes the role that wampum belts play in Haudenosaunee-confederacy diplomacy. (All of these discussions are found in his Ethnological Notebooks, mostly around pages 145-184.)

Far from working with a generic and decontextualized notion of ‘Indigenous people’ generally, Marx made careful notes on dozens of specific Indigenous nations (and confederacies). Among those that he wrote about, in varying levels of detail, were the Mi’kmaq, the six nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy (Marx writes “Hodenosaunian,” and sometimes uses this term to include other nations from the same linguistic group, like the Wendat, Attawandaron, and others), the Anishinaabeg (specifically, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa, which Marx calls the “Gichigamian tribes,” a term he borrows from the Anishinaabemowin name for Lake Superior, the etymology of which he notes), Cree, Lenaape, Dene (“Athapaskans”), Salish, Sahaptin, Ktunaxa, Tlingit (although Marx uses the name Russians used for Tlingit, viz. Kolush), and many, many other Indigenous nations and linguistic groups.

It should go without saying that none of these matters are best studied by reading Marx. Any interested person has far better access today to information about these matters than Marx could ever have accessed. What socialists can learn from him, however, is the importance and value of curiosity and attention to the details of cultural and historical specificity. Overgeneralization about Indigenous societies, their spiritual lives, their legal traditions, their histories and forms of social organisation, were unacceptable to Marx in the 1800s, in spite of the difficulty (in his position) of finding out more. Today, we have far less justification for indulging in lazy and ill-informed generalizations than he had. But how many socialists in the Canadian state have made as detailed a study of the cultural and historical specificity of dozens of Indigenous nations in this region? Too few, it is fair to say.

It is also important to note that, if Marx was keenly interested in trying to understand the ways of life and social organization of Indigenous peoples, particularly the Haudenosaunee nations of the Eastern Great Lakes region, it was because he saw them as representing, in many respects, the most democratic and egalitarian political orders found in the modern world. Marx shared the conviction expressed by Engels, when he marvelled at the “wonderful constitution” under which members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy “lived for over four hundred years and are still living today.” Unlike European political orders, it had “no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits — and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected….The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy — the communal household and the [clan] know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free — the women included” (Engels, 1884). The existence in modern times of societies so thoroughly imbued with a spirit of democracy and equality struck Marx and Engels as a standing condemnation of Europe’s brazen inequalities and relentless systems of social exclusion, exploitation and oppression. But it also represented for them a hopeful vision and a prefiguration of a possible ‘communist’ future for a post-capitalist Europe.

IV. The centrality of anti-colonial solidarity in Marx’s political strategy

One of the fabricated charges against Marx is that he so emphasized the importance of working-class struggles against capitalism that he placed other struggles, including anti-colonial ones, in a secondary or subordinate position. What we find when we look at Marx’s actual writing on this issue, however, is that at times he takes the exact opposite view, adopting the position that sometimes anti-colonial struggles take a higher priority than conventionally ‘economic’ struggles against the exploitation of workers as workers, so that anti-colonial revolt was of primary importance, and working-class struggles against capital were secondary (although this didn’t mean, obviously, that he ‘downplayed’ the struggles of workers as workers or considered them unimportant).

In the case of England as a colonial power, for example, Marx described the victory of anti-colonial resistance as “the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England” (Marx, 1870; emphasis added). Marx explicitly argued that if the European Left could “bring about a coalition of [colonizer-nation] workers with the [colonized] workers,” this would be “the greatest achievement you could bring about now” (ibid.; emphasis added). Anti-colonial struggle, he said, should therefore be put “in the foreground” (ibid.), not the background. Even workers from colonizing nations should be alerted to the fact that “the national emancipation of [colonized nations] is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation” (ibid.; emphasis added). In other words, Marx argued that the economic self-emancipation of the international working class could only be achieved on the basis of a prior struggle against colonialism, without which it could not succeed. As Marx put the point in an 1872 leaflet he co-authored, racist antagonism toward those targeted by colonialism is “one of the main impediments in the way of every attempted movement for the emancipation of the working class” (Marx, et al., 1872). Again and again, Marx uses terms like ‘preliminary condition,’ ‘first condition,’ and ‘in the foreground’ to characterise the place of anti-colonial resistance movements in the political strategy of the anti-capitalist left within colonial nations like England.

It was in this spirit that, in 1872, Engels argued that colonized peoples should always have the right to form autonomous national organizations within the global working-class left, and he put the point this way: “If members of a conquering nation called upon the nation they had conquered and continued to hold down to forget their specific nationality and position, to ‘sink national differences’ and so forth, that was not Internationalism, it was nothing else but preaching to them submission to the yoke, and attempting to justify and to perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the [colonized people], and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to [Black people]” (Engels, 1872).

Today, we would want to refer to nations “subjected to colonial domination,” rather than “conquered” nations. (As Marx points out in Capital, Volume One: “In the colonies, the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer….”) More generally, the terminology of Marx and Engels is often old-fashioned and obsolete. But overall, their position on these strategic questions seems to hold up very well. In particular, this contrast between “internationalism” (which they embraced) and “sinking national differences and so forth” (which they rejected as a falsification of internationalism) remains extremely important in the context of anti-colonial socialist politics.

Conclusion

There’s no denying, and no need to deny, that there are serious and substantive defects in Marx’s account of colonialism. His sometimes uncritical adoption of theoretical frameworks from 19th-century anthropology, for instance, led him to parrot uncritically (at times) the now-discredited jargon of ‘primitiveness,’ ‘barbarism’ versus ‘civilisation,’ and so on, when talking about Indigenous societies. This is one of a number of points where we now rightly reject some of what Marx was willing to say as both racist and scientifically unsound. Moreover, even his anti-colonialism would be deemed by most of us to be affected in certain ways by a broadly ‘Eurocentric’ view of modern history, even if its Eurocentrism isn’t as egregious as that of other 19th-century European intellectuals. These and other defects reflect the fact that Marx could not benefit, as we can and must today, from over a century of anti-colonial movements and anti-colonial social research. He could not learn, for instance, from a critical engagement with figures like Frantz Fanon, Julius Nyerere, or Andrea Betasamosake Simpson, to name only a very few of the countless important anti-colonial thinkers after Marx who force us to grapple with matters that were misunderstood, overlooked, or even evaded by Marx.

It would be a grave error either to accept or to reject Marx’s critical analysis of colonialism wholesale. We have to be willing, on the contrary, to sift through what he says — and what he fails to say — to take Marx’s anti-colonialism seriously as both a source of indispensable insight and at the same time a flawed inheritance plagued by grave limitations. But my judgment is that a wholesale rejection would be particularly unfortunate, because the enduringly relevant critical insights in Marx, especially about the strategic “foregrounding” of anti-colonialism in the context of anti-capitalist struggle, are too important to the future of anti-systemic left politics to be cast aside carelessly.

Click the titles below to read some related posts on this blog:

Could this be the most Marxist film ever made?

Boots Riley’s masterpiece of socialist cinema — Sorry to Bother You — may be the most self-consciously marxist film ever made. It is an exhortation to rebel, but to do so with our eyes open, with ‘sober senses,’ so we don’t replicate uncritically the logics that we aspire to contest.

By Steve D’Arcy

[Note: this contains some plot spoilers.]

Those who avoided reading Karl Marx’s three-volume, 2,500 page magnum opus, Capital, in the improbable expectation that someday a movie version would come out, have finally got their wish. Boots Riley’s film, Sorry to Bother You, may indeed be the most marxist film ever made.

Riley’s remarkably ambitious film is, in fact, many things: a critique of the “sign-spinning” role of the ‘culture industry’ under capitalism, a challenge to the self-understanding and the self-importance of activist subcultures, an attempt to dramatize a way of thinking about working-class consciousness in a cultural setting where 70% of Americans think of themselves as “middle class,” a meditation on the complicated relation between dignity and both performance and the refusal to perform, and a self-critical exploration of the temptation of film to replicate uncritically the “scripts” or conventions of bourgeois ideology instead of exposing their deceptive and self-destructive character — and much more besides. But here I want to focus especially on one dimension of this complex, multidimensional cinematic achievement: the film’s attempt to restate the argument of Marx’s Capital.

Consider, in particular, the metaphor at the very centre of Marx’s book: the passage, across a threshold, from the surface domain of “circulation,” into a “hidden abode,” the behind-the-scenes domain of “production.” Marx puts it like this:

Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags [the capitalist] and by the possessor of labour-power [the worker], we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere [of circulation or buying and selling], where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all people, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making. (Marx, Capital, I, ch. 6)

This hidden abode of production, Marx points out, is not about ‘consumers’ making ‘choices,’ or people seeking ‘opportunities’ to obtain ‘satisfaction’ by entering into ‘contractual arrangements’ — the jargon of capitalism’s flattering self-understanding. No, in this hidden abode, we move from the surface of choice and contract, to the deep structure of capitalism as a form of coercion, domination, and exploitation.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding. (Marx, Capital, I, ch. 6)

The remarkable “plot twist” in Sorry to Bother You follows Marx’s logic to a tee, even to the point of taking literally Marx’s formula, “a change in the physiognomy [i.e., facial configuration] of our dramatis personae.” Marx’s metaphor refers to the shift from the free and equal preference-motivated consumers making choices, to the dominated labourers pressed into the service of powerful exploiters. In Riley’s film, the “physiognomy,” the very bodily structure and physical features of the system’s work-horses, is transformed visibly, so that the characters or “dramatis personae” turn into horse-people, reduced to their capacity to carry the load of capitalist production.

“Suppose that a capitalist pays for a day’s labour-power…; then the right to use that power for a day belongs to him, just as much as the right to use any other commodity, such as a horse that he has hired for the day.” (Marx, Capital, I, Chapter 5, section 1)

It is worth recalling that Marx refers to child factory workers as “work-horses” in Capital, I (chapter 10, section 6). Later in the book, Marx cites an observer of South American mine workers who notes that their bosses “treat them like horses.” Riley is no doubt right to see this metaphor as an illuminating condensation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, combining as it does the idea of workers as victims of the system who are exploited for their productivity, but also as bearers of the power to ‘buck’ the system, and thereby to embody a special kind of nobility and even a super-human strength, as drivers of the process of their own liberation.

Like Marx’s Capital, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You places class and class struggle at the very centre of its worldview. In particular, it proposes a way of thinking about “class consciousness.” In this conception, most people are workers, yet they don’t identify with their status as workers, regarding working-class membership as a kind of danger or threat to their self-image and social aspirations. Membership in the working class is a reality that many workers want to conceal from themselves as well as from others. Famously, or infamously, in US culture to be identified as working-class is widely perceived as a kind of humiliation, which is why so many American workers consider themselves to be “middle class,” not working class.

In this film, those hoping to elude the threat of being revealed as a worker try to escape this fate by exploring various officially authorized avenues of escape: one can try to “get ahead” by seeking “success,” pursuing the promise of affluence; one can try to rebel in the performative mode (“Left Eye”), pursuing the promise of a unique anti-systemic efficacy; one can try to retreat into creativity and artistic performance, pursuing the promise of imaginary liberation from forms of domination that are all too real. All of these avenues are adopted by leading characters in the film. As Riley presents them, though, these are all evasions, motivated by the false promise that one can find dignity, protection from the perceived humiliation of being working-class, in scrupulous compliance with some script about how we’re supposed to live in order to be ‘special’ or to gain approval or recognition. Again and again, though, the characters crash into the reality that these performances of being special all end in the very humiliation that they are supposed to insulate them from.

Director Boots Riley at Occupy Oakland.

Ultimately, the characters find that the only way to secure their dignity is to be honest — to stop performing — and accept the reality of their “dehumanization,” as a kind of opening toward a dialectical reversal. According to Marx, workers “have a world to win,” but the world can only be won if we first of all accept that we have “nothing to lose.” Marx tried to capture the dialectical character of this predicament, the working-class situation, in the idea of “radical chains”: a state of being “which has a universal character by its universal suffering” and which becomes fully human only because it starts from a “complete loss of humanity,” such that its liberation has to be a revolution which changes everything. (These quoted bits are from Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.”) And so it is that in this film, only the most humiliated, dehumanized, but also the least fake characters — the equisapiens — actually live dignified lives. But they live out dignity, not quite because “all labour has dignity,” as Martin Luther King would say, but because the authenticity of their revolt, which is about power, not performance, enacts precisely the kind of freedom, solidarity, and autonomy that capitalism’s systems of exploitation and oppression try to deny them.

Arguably, anti-capitalist revolt has proven more difficult, and pro-capitalist ideology has proven more attractive to workers, than Marx’s Capital had led us to expect. The problem of ideological attachment to the system has for this reason been a central theme of Marxism for the past 100 years. This theme is also taken up by Riley’s film, as characters adopt strategies of resistance that seem only to confirm their stubborn attachment to or complicity with the system they are supposed to be opposing. The Left Eye ‘culture jamming’ group — a bit reminiscent of Banksy, perhaps — is depicted by Riley as sincere in motive, and to that extent admirable, but at the same time woefully incapable of having its intended effect of undermining capitalist hegemony. On the contrary, the film’s main villain, the prototypical Bay Area ‘disruptive entrepreneur’ Steve Lift, actually seeks out Left Eye protest images and displays them in his mansion, as edgy cultural collectibles. In a parallel failure, when the system’s work-horses deploy their power to defeat the police vehicles that had initially defeated the strike tactics introduced by Cassius Green, the clueless activists imagine that they themselves are responsible for act of the equisapiens, which the activists imagine to be a confirmation of their supposedly inspiring organizing work. Cash’s sometimes partner, Detroit, goes so far as to call Cash the “mastermind” behind a victory that he not only didn’t orchestrate, but didn’t even see coming.

But Riley does not really look down on these failed resistance methods, from a holier-than-thou posture. He says even to himself, as Marx puts it in Capital, “De te fabula narratur,” that is, “This story is also about you!” Indeed, Riley is at his most interesting and subtle when he exposes the work itself, his own film, to the very objection he levels at other forms of cultural politics. “Stick to the script,” the workers at the call centre in Sorry to Bother You are repeatedly told by their bosses. But this, after all, is itself a line in a script. And this is one of the many signals in Sorry to Bother You urging the viewer to be critical, not just of the film’s obvious targets — capitalism, liberalism, and the aspiration to be something “more than” a worker — but also of the form and medium of the critique itself. It is no accident that, when the film’s capitalist villain tries to discourage Cassius Greene (pronounced “cash is green”) from identifying with his fellow workers (“equisapiens”), he does so by showing him a film. Indeed, at the heart of Riley’s movie is a kind of pervasive self-deprecation of artistic form as such: art is fundamentally performance, and performance — Riley wants to argue — is always tempted to become a kind of fakery in which we ultimately demean ourselves by pretending to be something we’re not, or rather pretending not to be what we are: “use your white voice”; “I know you can rap,” “you can be a power caller,” and so on.

When we express ourselves in the mode of performance, “it sounds like a voice-over,” as one character says, drawing our attention (in a bluntly Brechtian mode), on the one hand, to the fact that as we watch the film we’re listening to voice-overs, and on the other hand, to the fact that the voice-overs aren’t just actual voice-overs, but they are voice-overs that sound like voice-overs, that is, performances of what-performances-are-supposed-to-be-like. The very difficulty of extricating ourselves from performance, to tell the simple truth about ourselves, even to ourselves, is underlined again and again. As Marx puts the point in Capital: “[I]n their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted form.”

Of course, there is, crucially, a third film that we’re shown by Riley. In addition to the meta-film itself, Sorry to Bother You, and the capitalist self-justification film, there is also the equisapien backstory ‘exposé’ video, taken on a phone. In many ways, understanding the relationship between these three films — the work of art itself, the capitalist propaganda film, and the proletarian honest self-revelation (“I’m suffering!”) film, is the key to understanding Riley’s vision and his conception of the relation between art, truth, performance, dignity/humiliation and class. (The lifting of the garage door near the end is a kind of fourth film, albeit in the mode of — very literally — street theatre; and the overall plot consists mainly in a series of performances, punctuated by occasional refusals to perform, although some of these ostensible refusals to perform prove also to be stuck in the mode of performance, or sticking to the script, to which characters often find themselves to be — in a word that is ever-present in this film, like a haunting spectre — “glued.“)

The suffering of working-class people — on blunt display in the exposé  phone-video — is not merely a plot development affecting “dramatis personae,” fictional or fictionalized characters. On the contrary, the suffering that capitalism inflicts is all too real. In this sense, Riley’s story about capitalist work-horses who suffer and revolt is in a very important sense “based on a true story.” Or rather, it is itself a true story. But notice the paradoxical quality of the expression “true story.” Is it a story or is it true? Can it be both? Riley’s film embodies a hope that yes, you can tell the truth about capitalism, so that — as Marx put it — those who hear the story are “at last compelled to face with sober senses [their] real conditions of life, and [their] relations with [their] kind.”

Ultimately, this is Riley’s most audacious ambition, in Sorry to Bother You: to create a film that breaks out of the cinematic enclosure, that defies the constraints of culture-industrial sign-spinning, and that “bursts asunder” the fetters of artistic form in order to attack — rather than simply to narrate — the workings of the capitalist system. This ambition requires him, however, to change his audience, to sober up our senses.

Can a film be true? More to the point, can a film about capitalism avoid being recuperated by the system as just another commodity to make money for the culture-industry? Predictably, Riley sides with Marx, who said: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question…. Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Interview on ‘Permaculture for the People’ podcast

Today I was interviewed by Becky Ellis, political ecologist and PhD candidate in geography at Western, for her excellent podcast, ‘Permaculture for the People.’

It was a wide-ranging discussion of climate justice, movement-building, tactics and strategies, prefigurative institution-building and the politics of anti-capitalist hope. Check it out here:

https://permacultureforthepeople.org/2019/01/04/episode-7-building-an-environmental-movement-that-can-win/

You can view other episodes and subscribe via itunes:

https://permacultureforthepeople.org/2019/01/04/episode-7-building-an-environmental-movement-that-can-win/

Two-Track Fascism: Notes on the Collusion of Far-Right Demagogues Like Trump with Street-Level Fascists

[Printable PDF]

In the marxist tradition, fascism has typically been understood in terms of a vulnerable ruling class seeking recourse to a populist ‘strong man’ in the face of the threat posed by the organizational power and grassroots militancy of the working class. In the context of a weak and unstable liberal democratic constitutional regime, which limits its capacity to crack down on dissent, capital resorts to an emergency terror, carried out by a demagogic proxy regime, in order to break the resistance of working-class movements (labour and socialist parties, trade unions, workers’ councils, feminist, anti-racist, and national liberation movements, and so on). The aim is to restore capitalist hegemony on the back of a superficially ‘anti-establishment’ but de facto pro-capitalist reign of terror. This approach to understanding fascism, which obviously takes the “völkisch” fascism of Weimar Germany that culminated in the Third Reich as its paradigm or prototype, is rooted in the analysis of right-wing populist ‘strongman’ crackdowns developed by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The understanding of fascism that emerges from this line of thought is typified by that of Trotsky, who said that “the historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”

Asymmetric Polarization 

As of right now, at the end of October 2018, Trump’s favorability rating is more than 5 percentage points higher than it was when he was elected. His victory was no fluke or freak accident. Nor can Trump’s rise be explained in terms of US politics alone. Rather, it typifies a global trend toward far-right, nationalist, racist, anti-worker forms of authoritarian populism, from Erdogan to Bolsonaro, and from the DFLA to the Proud Boys. It is urgent that we understand the dynamics of this dangerous development. Unfortunately, the ‘classical’ marxist analysis of fascism sketched above may not suffice for this purpose, in this new and different context. For one thing, in our time the rise of far-right authoritarian populisms is in most places not taking place against the backdrop of powerful, insurgent workers’ movements. On the contrary, unions and labour parties, and left social movements generally, are weaker than they have been for many generations, and they pose a very limited threat (in the short to medium term) to capital. Further, it is apparent that today’s far right has a distinctly non-classical aspect insofar as — notwithstanding the unconvincing and half-hearted anti-’free trade’ rhetoric of Trump and others — the new far-right authoritarian populisms are fully committed to an intensification of neoliberalism. The flirtation of early fascism with anti-socialist forms of ‘corporatism’ and authoritarian state planning, familiar from the 1920s and 1930s, is nowhere to be found even in the rhetoric, much less in the practice, of the regimes and movements of the contemporary far right. Today’s rightist, racist authoritarianism is clearly as supportive of the neoliberal policy agenda as it is of capitalism as such.

It should be said that, even if the far right’s recent rise is evidently not a response to working-class insurgency, the political context today is not simply that of an unchallenged right wing resurgence. Rather, the situation is one of asymmetric polarization: both the anti-neoliberal left and the white-nationalist right are growing, at the expense of discredited centrist political parties and currents, but only the growth of the far right has been reflected in widespread electoral successes, and this fact seems to register a comparatively stronger upsurge on the far right and certainly puts greater momentum and resources at its disposal. Even so, the growth of the anti-neoliberal left is indeed a mass phenomenon (in some places), typified in the US by the remarkable increase in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America, and in Britain in the shockingly unexpected sharp left turn of the Labour Party (!) under Corbyn. In a 2018 Gallup poll, Americans expressed a more favourable view of socialism than capitalism. According to Gallup, “Americans aged 18 to 29 are [more] positive about socialism (51%) [than] they are about capitalism (45%). This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68% viewed it positively.” These numbers are obviously limited in their significance, because they leave terms like socialism and capitalism undefined. If ‘capitalism’ is replaced with ‘free enterprise,’ it instantly becomes much more popular in opinion polls. But they do indicate widespread popular repudiation of the heritage of neoliberalism’s period of ideological ascendancy. The glory days of neoliberalism, when it was deemed to have mass appeal, are over. Now, neoliberalism can only get a hearing from the broad public if it is cloaked in a fake-populist pretense of anti-establishment insurgency. And that is where figures like Trump and Bolsonaro come in: they bear the cloak in which neoliberalism can conceal itself behind a deceptive rhetoric of rebellion against ‘the elites’ and empowerment of ‘ordinary people.’

Neoliberalism’s Crisis of Popular Legitimacy

Indeed, the key to today’s far-right resurgence is that it responds, not to the vulnerability of capital’s hegemony to a militant challenge from the far-left or the wider workers’ movements, but to the collapse of popular legitimacy of the political parties, the political assumptions, and the political institutions of contemporary “bourgeois” (liberal-democratic, pro-capitalist) electoral politics, brought on by decades of neoliberal policy consensus within official party politics. This legitimation crisis — recently expressed in the USA by such insurgent protest movements as the Tea Party on the right and the Occupy Movement on the left — has weakened the grip of mainstream ‘centrist’ parties over popular political activity across all classes other than big business. The epochal convergence of labour, liberal, and conservative political parties toward an “extreme centre” of consensus neoliberalism, entailing as it does the rupture of continuity of contemporary social democracy with the Keynesian version of welfare-state politics on the one hand, and the downplaying of ethnocentric nationalism and patriarchal ‘family values’ by establishment conservatism on the other hand, has severed the ties binding the masses on both the (mostly working-class) left and the (mostly middle-class) right to the official political process and its parties. This has opened up spaces to the left and to the right of the ‘extreme centre,’ for forms of political engagement rooted in the revulsion of the broad masses toward the centrist neoliberal project as a whole. The pervasiveness of this revulsion makes it impossible to win broad public approval for open, self-declared neoliberalism. There has to be an anti-establishment cloak of some kind, some promise of a fundamental rupture, for neoliberalism to gain a hearing. And figures like Trump, Bolsonaro and Erdogan take this as their starting-point.

Neoliberal Continuity? Or Proto-fascist Rupture?

But these considerations seem to necessitate that we choose between two competing analyses: Should we regard these far-right ‘strong man’ figures as fundamentally continuous with earlier champions of neoliberalism, substantively, even if they break with them at the level of rhetoric? Or should we regard them, perhaps more ominously, as present-day re-enactors of the fascist versions of pro-capitalist demagogy familiar from an earlier epoch? Applied to the case of the USA, the first option would have us emphasize Trump’s continuity with Obama and Bush at the level of policy, and discourage an undue emphasis on his use of cynical anti-immigrant appeals to boost voter enthusiasm among his ‘base’ of disgruntled middle class racists who reject ‘the political elite’ en masse. The second option, by contrast, would have us interpret Trump as representing a qualitative break with liberal democracy motivated by a proto-fascist rejection of key aspects of official politics and the liberal-democratic constitutional order. The question of which analytical tack to take is made more difficult by the fact that both sides accept, as a matter of course, both that Trump is a racist demagogue whose most ardent supporters are ‘alt-right’ fascists, and that he and his fellow rightists rely on the support of a ruling class that is uncompromisingly committed to the defense and intensification of neoliberalism

In truth, neither analysis — neoliberal continuity nor proto-fascist rupture — is wholly convincing. The problem with the ‘neoliberal continuity’ view is that Trump has clearly actively cultivated an alliance with grassroots militant fascists (the extremists who assembled at the ‘Unite the Right’ fascist rally in Charlottesville in 2017), and signaled with varying degrees of coyness and dog-whistling that he supports their use of extra-constitutional violence against the left, particularly against anti-racists, as well as the lawless persecution of migrant workers (for which he made a point of pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio). Trump is consistent about this. In one case, he encouraged a mob of his supporters to physically attack anti-racist protesters during one of his rallies, and promised to pay the legal fees for any pro-racism fighters. Later, he famously said that there were “very fine people” in the openly fascist, violence-oriented Charlottesville march — a comment he made after the murder of Heather Heyer by one of his supporters from a participating fascist organization. I could enumerate many other examples, but this aspect of Trump’s ‘footsie’ relationship with racist street-violence is well known. Given this aspect of his politics, it is hard to assimilate his political posture to the neoliberal mainstream. Trump’s distance from the mainstream is in this respect not only stylistic, but also substantive, and this lends plausibility to those analyses which emphasize his proximity to traditional fascism

But the discontinuity or ‘proto-fascist rupture’ view also has serious limitations. Trump’s primary political organization is the Republican Party, not one of the many ‘alt-right’ fringe groups, and he works closely with the same politicians that Obama and Bush negotiated with before him, people like Mitch McConnell, et al. In general, Trump usually functions as a conventional US President, trying to get legislation passed in order to help the richest and most powerful people get richer and more powerful. He has shown very little inclination to use the powers of his office directly to carry out state terror campaigns against immigrants, anti-racists or trade unionists, as we might expect a fascist government to do.

Is Trump a Fascist?

The upshot of these considerations is that it seems difficult to say with conviction either that Trump is or that he isn’t a fascist. It may help lend clarity to the discussion to set out a straightforward account of what we mean by the word ‘fascism.’ I define fascism as an anti-democratic regime or social movement, which (i) promotes a leader cult, (ii) claims exemption from constitutional constraints on the legitimate use of force, and (iii) promises an ethnically exclusionary type of national resurgence to be achieved through harsh repression against demonized ‘foreigners’ and ‘subversives.’

Is Trump a fascist, in this sense? If we take this question on its own terms, it can only be answered in the negative. To be sure, he clearly does demonize ‘foreigners’ (migrant workers, Muslims) and to a lesser extent ‘subversives’ (above all, ‘Antifa’), and he does promise national resurgence (‘make america great again’) to be achieved by harsh repression (‘build the wall’, the Muslim travel ban, sending troops to stop the migrant caravan, etc.). Moreover, it would be absurd to deny that he promotes a leader cult, because the hyper-emphatic promotion of his own claim to glory and greatness is by far his main preoccupation. However, in spite of this, Trump, on his own, is not fascist (in the sense set out above) because he does not claim exemption from constitutional constraints on the legitimate use of force, which is one of the key differences between fascists and other conservatives, whose politics otherwise overlap extensively. (For instance, it was a key difference between Hitler and the “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, who anticipated many of Hitler’s policy views, including annexationist pan-German nationalism and the demonization and persecution of religious minorities and political dissidents, but who remained compliant with constitutional constraints.) Trump shows every sign of being willing and able to pursue his far-right agenda within the confines of the constitutional order. So, it seems wrong to call Trump, individually, a fascist, or indeed to call the Republican Party a fascist party.

However, it has to be said that Trump does not operate individually, as a solitary political actor. And the Republican Party is by no means the only organized political force involved in Trump’s ascendancy. Trump himself and his party operate as part of a larger, de-centred constellation of both politicized networks and political organizations, united not always by direct organizational coordination, but instead by their shared affiliation to the Trump leader cult and their shared commitment to the rightist agenda of pursuing (white) national resurgence by targeting “racialized outsiders” (and to a lesser extent, anti-racists) for demonization, repression, and often violence. It is possible to think of Trump as one part of a larger array of political formations that collectively makes crucial use of extra-constitutional violence at the street level that he himself does not actively direct (even if he legitimizes it and provides public rationales for it, such as by declaring that some group should be seen as ‘enemies of the people,’ and so on).

Two-Track Fascism

When we take this larger context or array of forces into account, the question of whether Trump is himself a fascist seems inadequate. The better question would be: Is Trump operating as part of a decentred constellation of political forces which, taken collectively as a complex movement, comprises a political form that fascism sometimes takes today? To that question, the answer may be that, yes, Trump is integral to contemporary fascism in the USA, even if he or his Administration may not be per se fascist. This suggests an analysis that rejects both the neoliberal continuity view and the proto-fascist rupture view, and which instead shifts the focus away from the politics of the leader figure as an individual and toward the constellation of loosely aligned political forces in which the leader operates politically.

According to this “de-centred” analysis, the fascism that exists in the United States (which I’m treating as exemplary, i.e., as analogous to several other similar regimes and movements globally) does not follow the 1920s/1930s model exactly, in that it is not a unitary fascism, in which leader, party, state, street-fighting force, and popular support base are all united in one organized and tightly coordinated bloc. Rather, it is a two-track fascism, with (1) an electoral track, organized inside the Republican Party, closely aligned with Wall Street, where it pursues a policy agenda that cloaks deeply unpopular neoliberal measures behind ‘white nationalist’ rhetoric and high-profile ‘culture-war’ policy fights (about immigration, trans rights, Islam) that have mass appeal to middle class racists, and (2) a street-level track, organized outside of the official political process, in which racist militias and violent white ‘pride’ men’s clubs try to wrest control of the streets and the public sphere from anti-racists, trade unions, feminists, and other democratic forces, and (if they had their way) to create no-go zones for visible minorities (in this respect replicating the classical ‘Freikorps’ model of the völkisch movement in Weimar Germany). What binds the two tracks together is their shared affiliation to the Trump leader cult, and their shared project of ‘making america great again’ by demonizing and targeting migrant workers, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and others for persecution.

In this respect, fascism in the USA is a kind of mutation of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement was crucial in pioneering the idea that a militant grassroots white-nationalist protest movement in civil society (that is, outside the state), with a middle-class base, a hostile attitude to the political process, and a deep contempt for mainstream politicians and liberal constitutionalism, could enter into an alliance with big business, based on both tactical policy convergence and a ruling-class commitment to offer funding for the protests. The Tea Party as such has largely disappeared, but under Trump’s leadership — and under the banner of the ‘alt-right’ fascist revival — it was reassembled in the form of a motley constellation of far right militias, white supremacy ‘pride’ fraternities, neo-Nazi revivalist cults, and other more or less radicalized MAGA-vigilante groups and individuals, informally but in most cases fanatically aligned with Trump’s electoral track project.

The fascists who operate in this extra-constitutional ‘street-level’ track know that Trump is on their side, and accept that he cannot fully say or do anything that his location in the official political process precludes. But they know that they, by contrast, are free from such political constraints. As the point was put by one Trump-inspired armed attacker, who recently carried out a terror attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Because the violent, extra-constitutional, street-level track operates independently of Trump, it can carry out aspects of the MAGA agenda that Trump is assumed by the militant fascists to be tacitly favorable toward, but which he is unable to explicitly defend. For his part, Trump never tires of signalling his sympathy for their motives, if not for their every action.

The Limits of Today’s Two-Track Fascist Movement in the US

From this point of view, Trump’s “white nationalist” intervention in electoral politics forms an integral part of a single (albeit de-centred and dual-track) movement with the ongoing sequence of violent interventions by street-level fascists of the Charlottesville rally variety. These street-level fascist interventions include beatings, death threats, armed patrols, mass shootings, and assassination attempts. As ominous as this development is, it is important not to misunderstand the phenomenon of two-track fascism, in particular by overstating its capacities. Of the two tracks, the electoral track is the stronger and more potent, but neither track has accumulated capacities remotely comparable to those of Hitler’s Third Reich or the Italian Fascists under Mussolini. Wall Street neoliberalism is still by far the most powerful political force in US politics. In the US, to be sure, the Trump Administration has given fascist politics — and relatively open fascists intellectuals, like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon — a relevance to mainstream politics that their ilk had been denied for generations. But both the street fighting and terror capacity of the street-level track, and the grip of Trump and his inner circle on the vast apparatus of the US state, remain rather limited. The parts of Trump’s policy agenda that find their way into US law consist almost exclusively of those elements of it that are acceptable to the Mitch McConnell types that comprise the Republican Party establishment (and their co-thinkers in the Democratic Party), who are all stalwart defenders of the neoliberal consensus: massive tax cuts for the rich, gutting forms of regulation once intended to limit capital in the public interest, the continuation of re-branded free-trade agreements, endless squandering of public money on military buildups and the expansion of police powers and prisons, and so on. Meanwhile, there is still no border wall, no reinstatement of a whites-only immigration policy, no wholesale rolling back of civil rights legislation, and so on. The ruling class still largely dictates what governments can do, and that means that the neoliberal agenda remains the driving force of US government policy. Meanwhile, the street level fascists are continually humiliated by powerful ‘antifa’ mobilizations that rout them in the streets and repeatedly drive them into tactical retreat, far more often than they succeed in winning the day. The fascists do certainly carry out killings and beatings, so I do not wish to minimize the threat they already pose, but they are by no means capable of exerting the kind of power over the streets that they aspire to wield or that more powerful fascist movements have wielded in the past.

In short, two-track fascism represents a grave and growing danger, but its freedom to maneuver is limited by the fact that the niche it has found near the centre of US politics hinges on its usefulness to the ruling class as a way to cope with neoliberalism’s chronic crisis of popular legitimacy.

Some Key Aspects of the Left Response

Anti-fascist feminists mobilize against the DFLA

The response of anti-fascists to the present situation should be to navigate a course between the danger of complacency on the on hand, and the danger of panic on the other. Fascists are actually still relatively marginal, and most people reject their politics out of hand. But the roots of fascist upsurge in the legitimation crisis provoked by the neoliberal policy convergence of the extreme centre isn’t going away. As long as the anti-neoliberal, authentically anti-establishment far left cannot yet mount a credible alternative to the neoliberal centre (Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, et al.), the far right will try to fill the vacuum with the kind of fake-populist white-supremacist politics that fuels Trump’s ascendancy and energizes his street-level fascist collaborators. The main strategic implications of this analysis seem clear. I will highlight three points.

  1. First, it is necessary for anti-fascists to mobilize always and everywhere to try to deny the street-level fascists access to public space, making it effectively impossible for them to hold events in public. By driving them out of public space, we can isolate their core activists from the periphery of bigots that they want to recruit, demoralizing them and driving them back to the internet chat rooms and websites where they were largely confined before Trump’s election gave them a new confidence to organize openly. Realistically, we know that the police will always try to defend them and criminalize anti-fascist activity, and this makes our task more difficult. But with solidarity, militancy and determination we have shown that we can defeat them in the streets, more often than not.
  2. Second, since the strength of two-track fascism depends crucially on Trump’s alliance, at the level of policy, with Wall Street neoliberalism (mediated by Trump’s cooperation with the GOP establishment), it is necessary for anti-fascists to find ways to raise the costs of this alliance for Wall Street forces and the GOP itself. How to do so is a tactical question, which depends on the context. But generally speaking, anti-fascists have to expose the alliance and ensure that those who fund Trump or lend support to any aspect of two-track fascism are ‘tarred with the brush’ of fascist sympathies and are held accountable for the violence of the street-level fascists and the anti-democratic and white-supremacist features of Trump’s program and ideological posture. Trump’s funders, collaborators, and enablers all have to be exposed and held accountable. Brand-sensitive targets, such as corporations and politicians, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of pressure.
  3. Third, the far left has to work toward developing the capacity to hegemonize (gain leadership over and draw support from) the popular mood of revulsion against the hated neoliberal consensus of the extreme centre. In the US, it is obvious that the Democratic Party is hopelessly incapable of appealing to this sentiment, or rather it is completely uninterested in doing so because it is itself so deeply committed to the political project of upholding neoliberalism. By contrast, the Democratic Socialists of America, and before that the Sanders campaign, have tried to tap into the anti-neoliberal sentiment on the basis of some kind of left critique, with some degree of success. Whether the DSA (or Sanders) have the politics needed to follow through on these opportunities and develop a real challenge to both the neoliberal extreme centre and the far-right phenomenon of two-track fascism, is debatable, but this question is beyond the scope of the present discussion. What is crucial is just to be clear that defeating two-track fascism will remain a futile “labour of Sisyphus” unless the left can build itself up as a pole of attraction drawing energy and popular support from working-class revulsion against neoliberalism. Until our side develops that capacity, the right will continually benefit from anti-establishment anger that ought instead to be the main engine of left radicalization and anti-capitalist revolt.