Snitch culture is the social practice of treating it as normal or legitimate to respond to real or imagined wrongdoing by informing the police or employers in the hope that these authorities will penalize those accused by charging them with crimes or firing them from their jobs. The most obvious effect of the practice is to enlist ordinary people into the role of enhancing and intensifying the power of employers and the police. But the sinister seductiveness of snitch culture is such that people are drawn to it out of a desire to stand up to injustice or abuse, which is obviously an important and laudable aim. The tragic irony of snitch culture is thus that people think that they’re helping when they participate in it.
(To avoid misunderstanding, note that when I mention snitch culture I’m talking about the ‘vigilante’ spirit of seeking to encourage and assist powerful people to punish alleged wrong-doers, not the defensive response of people hoping for protection from dangerous attacks or threats, a matter I address below, in my concluding paragraph.)
The most enthusiastic advocates of snitch culture are often “very online” consumers of corporate social media ‘platforms’ like Twitter. They can frequently be found openly boasting about the capacity of social-media consumers to get people fired from their jobs, simply by informing employers en masse and urging bosses to discipline their employees. To be sure, many of these snitch mobs regard themselves as part of the Far Right (“patriots,” as fascists call themselves in North America), eager to inflict harm on BLM protesters, feminists, trans rights activists, or trade unionists. But quite often, possibly even more often, the snitch culture enthusiasts see themselves as part of the broad Left (occasionally even the Far Left), as surprising as this may seem to those who are unfamiliar with social media consumption patterns.
What makes this broadly lefist self-understanding possible for snitch culture enthusiasts is that, even if the form of their behaviour seems obviously alien to the values of the Left, as informants demanding that the police crack down on criminals or that employers discipline workers, nevertheless because the basis for their complaints is accusations of racist or sexist or anti-worker behaviour, they assume that the snitching behaviour itself must be anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-worker. But the reasoning is clearly fallacious. Suppose I fear that my safety is threatened by burglars, and in response I surround my home with dangerous traps and landmines. This may indeed harm any would-be intruders, but it is at least as likely to end up harming me or people I want to visit my home. In the same way, snitch culture may offer some minimal forms of redress or protection, indirectly, but its main effect is to strengthen the most powerful adversaries of democracy, justice, and the Left: bosses and cops. It’s a classic case of trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.
It’s important to distinguish the concept of snitch culture from a seemingly similar, partly related concept, constantly trumpeted on the Right: “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is what philosophers might call a “heterogeneous ensemble,” that is, a cluster of different things that do not share a common set of characteristics, but are grouped together arbitrarily, usually for ideological reasons.
Indeed, part of what people call “cancel culture” is actually snitch culture. But part of it is what Marx called “ruthless criticism” of public figures in public forums. And that type of criticism has an important place within democratic politics. There are, to be sure, pathologies associated with public criticism of public figures, such as the political vice of self-righteousness, and sometimes also disturbing excesses, such as suicide and self-harm encouragement, relentless bullying of individuals for transgressions that, though in many cases blameworthy and deserving of sharp criticism, are relatively inconsequential when compared to the actions of most CEOs or high-level politicians, and so on. We’re right to view some forms, some bases, or indeed some degrees or intensity levels of criticism with a healthy sense of distrust, or even contempt, to the extent that they undercut what we value as leftists, or as decent people more generally. As always, the Left is committed first and foremost to the dignity of each and the welfare of all, and leftists should continue to insist on the primacy of these democratic values, so routinely scorned by social media consumers. But we can never countenance a reluctance to embrace ruthless criticism of powerful people and (especially) powerful systems and institutions, because we recognize that criticism of the powerful is an indispensable ingredient of democratic politics, and it has to be resolutely defended by the Left and all the working-class social movements (feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, the labour movement, and so on).
It is, in short, necessary to distinguish between (1) ruthless criticism of powerful people and institutions, (2) appropriate levels and forms of criticism of wrong and harmful behaviour on the part of individuals, (3) snitch culture, and (4) a variety of pathologies of public criticism like self-righteousness, sensationalism, pettiness or bullying. This need for a differentiated analysis of where criticism can veer into either healthy and democratic directions (like 1 and 2) or unhealthy and undemocratic directions (like 3 and 4) should encourage us to discard the vague, misleading, unhelpful language of “cancel culture,” and replace it with less ideological, more scientific and ethically illuminating terminology, so that we may better distinguish the helpful from the harmful types of critical engagement in public life. Concepts like “snitch culture” can help in this effort, but ideological jargon like “cancel culture” is more likely to foster a drift to the right.
I think it has to be said, in the context of criticizing snitch culture, that the Left (and its social movements) in most countries today lacks the capacity to repel violent attacks or threats of violence, among many other types of immediate danger to vulnerable people. This means that attacked and endangered people cannot usually come to the Left for protection. Inevitably, they will sometimes turn to the state, often in the mistaken expectation that the police can help. Even though we rightly insist on the demand to defund and eventually to abolish the police, we are in no position to complain about people turning to the state when they’re endangered, as long as we fail to offer any viable mechanisms to protect public safety. For this reason, it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, snitch culture’s toxic encouragement of appeals to bosses or cops to crack down on our enemies, a form of toxicity that we rightly condemn, and on the other hand, working-class people turning to the legal system hoping (perhaps naively) to gain a measure of protection from dangerous attacks or other serious threats. It isn’t my aim here to equate all instances of recourse to the legal system with the noxious practice of “snitching.” But we have to commit to a culture that rejects the snitch ideal, the ideal that encourages people to actively seek out opportunities to urge bosses and cops to crack down on people — even people we despise and condemn. We have to build up our own methods, our own capacities, and our own ethical standards for responding, and in many cases crushing underfoot, people who promote anti-social, anti-worker, racist, sexist, and generally oppressive behaviour. (The last thing — the very, very last thing — I would want to do is suggest that we refrain from trying to impose crushing defeats on the enemies of justice.) Bosses and cops are best seen as bulwarks of oppression that offer support to exactly these adversaries of justice, democracy and human decency. The power of corporations and the power of the police are a big part of the problem, not the solution, and we should aim to defeat them, not to offer them tips and information that support their rule and dominance over us.
(Steve D’Arcy is the author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy.)
For the past six weeks, the USA has been mired in the grip of a profound crisis of free speech. In response to a sharp rise in public expressions of dissent and attempts by ordinary working-class people to campaign for an end to racist police violence, the authorities have responded with a relentless counter-campaign of brutal violence and unrestrained repression.
In the first two weeks of protests against the murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the regime arrested over 10,000 dissidents. By the end of the first month, the number of arrestees had risen to over 14,000. Of those arrested, the vast majority had either violated no laws, or had only violated legal constraints that themselves were symptomatic of the growing free speech crisis: defying orders to disperse, for example, or simply being outdoors after the regime-imposed anti-protest ‘curfew’ laws that more than 200 US cities have imposed. Countless thousands of regime critics have been brutally beaten by club-wielding police and soldiers, gassed with chemical weapons, and in some cases murdered by far-right vigilantes, spurred on by the regime, with leading government officials declaring that the dissidents were “terrorists.” In at least two cities, New York and Detroit, uniformed officers drove police vehicles headlong into crowds, apparently with the intent to maim or kill their victims.
The Department of Justice has publicly admitted that it views the movement as a manifestation of “domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” The Attorney General announced that the formidable arsenal of lawless surveillance at his disposal would be deployed against anti-racist protest organizers across the USA: “To identify criminal organizers and instigators, and to coordinate federal resources with our state and local partners, federal law enforcement is using our existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism task forces” against anti-racist regime critics.
No surprise, then, that the United Nations high commissioner for human rights felt compelled to intervene, urging the US government to cease its ongoing use of “excessive force” against protesters, as well as its longstanding use of racist police violence generally. The regime, however, has ignored such pleas, continuing its attacks on the most basic democratic rights, the right to assemble, to freely associate, to publicly express dissent.
The free speech crisis obviously calls for a response from everyone who purports to care about basic democratic rights. Intellectuals, indeed, are particularly obligated, arguably, to stand up for free speech, in a situation where that ideal is under siege by the most powerful and lawless of adversaries: the armed power of the state, with its cops, its soldiers, its judges and its jails, deployed everywhere to demonize, criminalize and punish dissent and anti-racist protest.
This is the context in which a Letter, published in Harper’s magazine, has appeared. The letter, signed by several of the most high-profile intellectuals of our time, purports to be a defence of free speech. It should be noted, if only in passing, that the speech of the authors of this letter has continued to flow, quite freely indeed, during the whole free speech crisis of the past six weeks. Almost every day we are treated to breathless reportage on the latest declaration of J.K. Rowling about gender, for instance, and another signatory, David Brooks, has both a regular weekly spot on a national television program and a weekly column in the New York Times. All the more welcome (not to say uncharacteristic) would it be, therefore, for these free-speaking, prominent and inescapable ‘talking heads’ to stick up for others, notably for those who lack their favourable access to high-profile platforms: the hundreds of thousands of anti-racist protesters targeted by the state and demonized as “terrorists” by the President, the Attorney General, and the FBI.
Does the Letter do this, though? Does it respond to the crisis with a much-needed defence of the value of lively public controversy and vociferous protest? Does it denounce the demonization, criminalization and the state violence directed against anti-racist protesters? Alas, no. In fact, it neglects — or rather, pointedly refuses — even to acknowledge the scope or the character of the free speech crisis. The letter offers not a word about the massive wave of violent attacks on regime critics; it says nothing about the thousands and thousands of arrested dissidents; it is rigorously silent about the imposition of curfews in hundreds of US cities in the weeks prior to the Letter’s publication; it is written as if its signatories don’t know, or refuse to admit, that the US government has openly criminalized anti-fascist activism and deployed its apparatus of supposedly “anti-terror” surveillance and disruption to thwart democratic engagement by anti-racists. The strict and uncompromising silence about the free speech crisis, in a letter that purports precisely to be a defence of free speech, is astonishing.
Instead, the Letter focuses on something entirely different: the fact that some people are mean on twitter.
No doubt they are right about this much. Some people are mean on twitter, or other public forums, and sometimes people get drawn into over-the-top ‘piling on’ against people who say or do controversial things. The rush, on some occasions, to condemn some speech as ‘beyond the pale’ may not have reached the heights in recent years that it did in earlier times, e.g., when liberals orchestrated the ‘Red Scare’ in the 1920s and the anti-communist ‘Witch Hunts’ in the 1940s and 1950s. Even so, it would be foolish to deny that the problem exists today. To cite one type of case, notwithstanding the norms of academic freedom, professors have been fired from their jobs as a result of this type of process, for example,for expressing criticisms of the Israeli state. One professor was attacked online for defending a Black-only anti-racist gathering: she “was bombarded with online complaints, hate mail and even death threats,” before being fired arbitrarily by her employer. Other workers, especially unorganized workers lacking union protection, have been arbitrarily fired by brand-sensitive employers attempting to distance themselves from controversy at the expense of workers’ rights.
More generally, it is fair to say that most people rightly regard the political culture of twitter and other social media sites to be, to varying degrees, insufferable and off-putting, due to its well-known attachment tothe spirit of self-righteousness, which is mostly a liberal and conservative thing, but admittedly also affects parts of the left.
But please, please, please — can we keep our eye on the ball for a moment? The rampaging and lawless targeting of dissidents with violence and repression from the state has been underway for a full six weeks. And while we do need intellectuals to intervene, along with unions, social justice and social movement organizations, and people generally, the last thing we need is a screen discourse about “cancel culture” that is thrust into the foreground, not to shed light on what’s actually happening, but on the contrary to avert our attention from the real crisis of free speech that is painfully visible — for those willing to look — in the daily attacks on protesters in the streets of city after city, across the USA and beyond.
It is not a new thing, this incapacity or unwillingness of liberals to defend free speech, beyond their ritualized affirmations of the virtue of ‘civility,’ by which they mean refraining from boisterous protest. Marx wrote an important book about it, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Liberals, he observed, always choose order over justice, their quiet enthusiasm for the power of capital over the risky actualization in practice of their superficial commitment in principle to the rigorous protection of civil liberties. The old song by The Clash put the point well: liberals want us to know our rights; they just don’t want us to try using them.
But we should not allow liberals, nor their hapless new Letter, to distract us from the importance of mounting a vigorous defence of free speech. Karl Marx, who so perceptively criticized the hypocrisy and superficiality of liberals, could not bear the thought of ceding the defence of civil liberties to the ideologues of official liberalism. He insisted instead that working-class people should continue to assume their longstanding role as liberty’s only guarantors against the incursions and overreaches of power and wealth. AsMarx put it: “The political freedoms, the right of assembly and association, and the freedom of the press — those are our weapons. Are we to sit back and abstain while somebody tries to rob us of them?”
Today, Marx’s point is as timely as ever. A concerted push-back is urgently needed, carried out by all working-class people and organizations, led today by the movement for Black lives, against the state’s crackdown on dissent, its criminalization of anti-fascism, and deployment of violence and demonization against anti-racist protest. The Letter itself should mainly be ignored, but not before pointing out just how dangerously wrong-headed liberalism is on this issue. If we leave the defence of free speech to the likes of Todd Gitlin, Matthew Yglesias, and J.K. Rowling, and the rest of the Letter’s signatories, the present crisis of free speech will surely get worse, and the lawlessness of the state will go unchecked by the kind of forceful pushback from the people that we so urgently need right now.
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.
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.’
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.
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.”
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 listened 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.
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
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.”