Inspired by this post.
I haven’t gotten involved in the “anti-racism” discussion, and, really, I’m still not. I am replying to my good friend Will Shetterly’s comments on it, because I am a Red, and we Reds have a tradition of saving our vitriol for those who come closest to agreeing with us. I am doing so publicly, on my blog, because a) I don’t want to pull his discussion off track, 2) I still haven’t figured out exactly which of his blogs and feeds to reply to, iii) I want to open this up to any Smart People hanging around here, and D) I’m just that sort of asshole.
What I hear from you is a constant exchange that, it seems to me, goes like this: They argue that racism is a real problem, and you say that you have never denied this. You say that it isn’t just those of color who are oppressed, but also the poor. They have never denied this. They say that by bringing up the poor, you are distracting the discussion from racism. You say that it is impossible to discuss racism without bringing in class issues. And so around and around. What are we missing here?
It seems to me, Will, that you are basing your position on an abstraction that is, fundamentally, true: in terms of both the causes and the cures of social ills, class is a fundamental distinction, race is secondary. Okay, we both agree on that. Now what? If we want to understand the causes and cures, and if we begin with the idea that the class struggle is the essential motivating force in society, then it follows that ideas have class distinctions at their base. Racism is an idea–an idea that expresses itself in poverty, in brutality, in misery, in oppression. What is the class basis of this idea? As you have said, it is an idea that serves the interests of the ruling class, of the propertied, of capital, of the elite.
“Anti-racism,” like racism itself, is an idea. What is the class basis of this idea? It is a theory of the middle-class, of those who deny that the class struggle is fundamental, of those who exist between the two camps who have actual power. What are the hallmarks of a middle-class idea? First, the attempt to understand social issues without regard to class–the reduction of things to “just people.” Second, reflecting the lack of real, material power, everything is reduced to an idea. The problem is not children dying because the heat was cut off because there was no money because the factory closed and a black man in a poor area has a nearly impossible task in finding work; the problem is: people have racist thoughts. The problem isn’t that the environment is being sacrificed in a reckless drive for profit, the problem is: people aren’t environmentally aware. The solution, to them, isn’t the destruction of social classes forever, thus removing the material basis for racism and the destruction of the environment, it is to explore your own mind, and to learn how to speak without hurting people’s feelings and to learn the importance of recycling.
Environmental issues cannot be solved, or even seriously addressed, until the profit motive has been removed, and the full creative potential of humanity has been turned to the problem; but there are those who talk about how we should “reduce our carbon footprint,” removing the class issue from it, so it becomes not a problem of humanity organizing and consciously determining use of resources, but rather “just people.” The women’s movement (as, in fact, the struggle against racism) has moved from being part of a proletarian movement, to being middle class; now it isn’t a question of wages, of medical care, of the right to a decent life, but instead a series of abstractions designed to appeal to those with a certain level of privilege, of comfort, and to hell with the rest of them. (In fact, the women’s movement is probably the worst; where at one time it revolved around the fight for union representation, for equal wages, abortion rights, and for the right to vote, now they furiously argue with each other about how many women should be in the Senate and whether there should be laws banning pornography. Ye gods.)
So here’s my problem with your approach: Merely by saying the working class is oppressed, without also seeing the power the working class has to remake society; by putting it in terms of income rather than in terms of relation to production (which is what gives the working class it’s power); by putting it on the level that one idea, “classism” is more significant than another idea, “racism;” you are, yourself, taking the same sort of middle-class stand that is at the root of what you are arguing against. If your middle-class position is marginally less wrong than someone else’s middle-class position, that doesn’t carry the struggle forward one iota.
Why are you engaging with them? Is it subjective frustration that “someone is wrong on the internet?” Do you believe that you can change the world “one mind at a time?” Can you name an individual whose life is better because of this dispute? It may be that you’re arguing for the same reason I argue (and am doing so now): it helps me clarify my own ideas. But if that’s the reason, be aware of it, and keep in mind that ideas by themselves aren’t going to change anything; and accepting the most fundamental error of your opponent is not the best way to avoid his mistakes.