‘Pure’ class struggle ignores imperialist reality

FRFI 208 April / May 2009

The trouble with diversity – how we learned to love identity and ignore inequality, Walter Benn Michaels, Holt Paperbacks, New York 2006, £10.58

When a heartfelt, lively and argumentative book challenges the left for fighting racism, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! is obliged to make our case.

Michaels argues that ‘identity’ politics has replaced ‘class’ politics. He says that religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, age, race, indigenous rights and cultural heritage have displaced economic inequality as the causes of the left. Any complaint arising from identity rights has come to be regarded as progressive. Solidarity is automatically on offer to those who feel themselves to be humiliated, disregarded or discriminated against. Objectivity, he says, has been supplanted by subjectivity and a thing is asserted as true because it is felt to be true. Michaels concludes that the left has been subverted from targeting the real discrepancies of wealth and class and has joined the right wing as the champion of identity rights.

These are serious charges and Michaels is a fluent defender of his position, giving plentiful examples from the US today. When a female Wall Street banker is awarded $1 million compensation for gender discrimination this is claimed as a triumph for feminism. Wal-Mart women workers would have to work for 60 years to gain the same income that the Wall Street woman earns in one year. Male Wal-Mart workers would have to work 57 years to achieve parity with one year’s earnings of that Wall Street woman. What reality shows is gender discrimination within a context of vast economic disparity. Nevertheless, male chauvinism and discrimination against women are not illusionary but are harsh truths, and the declared aim of this book is that the truth about the USA must be told. It is for this reason that Michaels complains at great length that the truth becomes the victim in Philip Roth’s acclaimed 2005 novel The plot against America.

Roth has written a counter-factual history in which the US elected a Nazi president in 1940 and Jews became the persecuted minority of the nation. The author includes references to the one historical case of a Jewish lynching that occurred in 1915. He ignores, however, the 3,500 lynchings of black people that took place in the USA over the fifty years up to 1930 and indeed all the history of anti-black discrimination. He does this because he wants to, and because his imagined history has priority over actuality. The novel’s commercial success comes from the fashion for art under the heading of post-modernism in which the narrative or ‘point of view’ is validated (made true) by the wishes or feelings of the creator.

This pervasive culture of subjective views where a thing is true because it is felt to be so has become big business, says Michaels. In the US today, the well-paid politics of the superficial gesture dominates. Every state institution, every capitalist organisation has a department dedicated to equality objectives, mission statements, separate funding and celebration days to enhance diversity opportunity. It is the same in Britain where money will be made over the next four weeks with World Book Day, Fairtrade Fortnight and Multilingual Month. In this, its centenary year, the head of the US NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is on a salary of $300,000 a year.

Michaels’ contempt for this multi-million dollar diversity business impairs his ability to see that even institutional anti-racism, despite its limitations, is an advance on the historic acceptance of racism as an unquestioned fact of life. The long and often heroic struggle for race equality raised questions and consciousness to a higher level than any other political movement in the history of the USA. That is why, in the words of Lenin, socialists support the fight for democratic rights:

‘That is the crux of the matter. All “democracy” consists in the proclamation and realisation of “rights” which under capitalism are realisable only to a very small degree and only relatively. But without the proclamation of these rights, without a struggle to introduce them now, immediately, without training the masses in the spirit of this struggle, socialism is impossible.’

Michaels protests that race is used as a cover for glaring and gross economic inequality and this is shown in the US health system. US medical care is extremely expensive and, apart from the very rich, only those with medical insurance can pay for it. However, health insurance is affordable only to those on an adequate income and the lack of it is a marker of poverty and impacts upon mortality rates (see Sicko, the film by Michael Moore). The rate of the uninsured for the black population is 19.7 per cent, compared to 11.3 per cent of whites. A 2005 report, Closing the gap: solutions to race-based health disparities, says, ‘racial disparities in health constitute a national crisis. Equalising mortality rates between African Americans and whites alone would have saved five times as many lives as all advances in medical technology saved between 1991 and 2000’.

But the rate of the uninsured among people with incomes under $25,000 is 24.2 per cent and the rate of those with annual incomes above $75,000 is 8.2 per cent. Michaels says: ‘This gap is a lot bigger than the racial one (and given the disproportionately large number of poor blacks, it does a lot to explain the racial one). Given this, why is the national crisis of medical insurance called the ‘racial’ disparity in health care and not the ‘economic’ disparity in health care?’ The answer, he says, is that: ‘The first fits neatly into the acceptable category of identity, the other raises the need to provide a national public health service.’ Michaels extends his arguments beyond the borders of the US. He describes how Evo Morales was inaugurated twice as President of Bolivia in January 2006. Once was in La Paz, the capital, where he wore a suit and took the oath of office in Spanish. The other was in Tiwanaku, where, dressed in the red robes worn by the pre-Inca priests, he was vested with sacred powers by two shamans in the Aymara language. On both occasions he vowed to resist globalisation and neoliberalism. However, Michaels notes, ‘in one capacity Morales speaks of an ideology, socialism, in the other of his identity as Aymara. These may conflict’, says Michaels. ‘Not all Aymara would oppose capitalism, for example, and not all Bolivian socialists are Aymara.’

Michaels leaves these statements as contradictions hanging in the air saying: ‘How successful Morales will be in opposing globalisation, I have no idea.’ He fails to recognise that the ‘pure’ class position he champions is inadequate to the circumstances in which the struggle for socialism takes place. The reality is that the productive forces, which bring into being the proletariat as the working class in opposition to the capitalist class, develop unevenly. Capitalist relations of production expand with brutal force, crushing all previously existing social relations: tribal, familial and ancestral. These populations are either flung into the periphery or pushed down into a reserve army of labour. It is the task of the socialist movement to consider these social relations of production in totality and this includes the role of the capitalist state. As Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution, quoting Engels: ‘“The shabbiest police servant” has more “authority” than the representatives of the clan’.

The bourgeois state arises to carry out public functions in the service of capital, with special bodies of armed men: the military and the police. The state also acts to contain the class struggle by dividing the working class from its own interests and from its constituent parts, in order to keep it in control. Racism is one of the major tools of division in the working class. This is seen in the double oppression of black workers, both as black and as proletarians, and the triple oppression of black women workers. Incarceration rates in the US illustrate the point. With just 5 per cent of the world’s population the US holds 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners (see FRFI 207). But the figures show not just the aggression of the US state but also its racism.

Overall, more than 1 in 100 adults in the US are in prison today (www. nytimes.com/2008/02/28/). Incarceration rates are higher for some racial groups than others. The US population is 69 per cent white, 12.4 per cent black and 8 per cent Hispanic. In 2006 35 per cent of the prison population was white, 41 per cent black and 21 per cent Hispanic. Classified by age group the figures show the most extreme disparities. Rates are 1 in 9 for black men between the ages of 20 and 34. For women between the ages of 35 and 39 the rates are: 1 in 335 for white women and 1 in 100 for black women.

Racism has utility for capitalism both domestically and internationally. In a world divided into oppressed and oppressor nations, nationalism, racism and chauvinism play a material role in the drive for imperialist expansion, military conquest and the extraction of superprofits from the poor world. The armed forces of imperialism depend upon the military mobilisation of the US (and British) working class to carry out the slaughter. These often not very well-paid troops are nonetheless that part of the proletariat who act in the interest of their own ruling class and do so under the flag of national unity.

Large sections of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries benefit directly from the distribution of the super-profits of imperialism. It is often the indigenous people, immigrants and black people who make up the poorest levels of the working class and lack the rights, status and earning power of the more privileged sections.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! supports struggles against racism and all forms of discrimination mindful that, as Lenin said, concessions by the ruling class for democratic rights are granted for a purpose. ‘Revolutionaries never forget that sometimes the enemy surrenders a certain position in order to disunite the attacking party and thus defeat it more easily.’ Socialists never underestimate the brutal and cunning strategy of the state to divide the working class both nationally and internationally. It is the duty of socialists to work unflinchingly in the real world. It is both lazy and self-indulgent of commentators like Michaels to project a ‘pure class’ position onto the turmoil of imperialist USA. Likewise, Hardt and Negri in their political manifesto Empire (2001) imagined ‘the multitude’, a sort of inter-nation movement of unity that can dissolve capitalism. Socialists must confront the reality of imperialism, or fail. With Lenin we say, ‘Revolutionaries, of course, will never reject the struggle for reforms, the struggle to capture even minor and unimportant enemy positions, if these will serve to strengthen the attack and help to achieve full victory.’ The lessons of history show that ‘full victory’ can be won only by defeating opportunism and challenging the better-off sections of the working class to make common cause with the oppressed people of the nation and the world.

This book is politically weak because it ignores imperialism which is the global inequality. However, despite this severe limitation, it gives a revealing picture of the appalling inequalities in the US today.

Susan Davidson


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