George Ciccariello-Maher’s “off-color” joke about genocide over the holidays has elicited a range of reactions on social media. In the week or so that’s elapsed since he sent out those controversial tweets, several cycles of public opinion have already run their course. Following the initial opprobrium, Ciccariello-Maher was even rebuked by his employers at Drexel University. This in turn led his supporters to gather signatures, urging the administration not to reprimand him further. Some begrudgingly offered their solidarity, more as a matter of principle than out of approval for what he said. While they did not endorse his message, they believed that extramural political speech should be protected. Others enthusiastically leapt to defend the original “white genocide” remark, although Ciccariello-Maher insists he it made in jest, “not only on grounds of academic freedom and free speech, but even more strongly on the basis of its political content.” A few refused to provide him with any backing whatsoever, citing his failure to do likewise after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris two years earlier. Luckily, Ciccariello-Maher later revealed that he’d recently received tenure, so the whole affair proved rather a tempest in a teacup. His job was never in serious danger to begin with.
Nevertheless, now that it’s over, it might be worth taking a look at the various responses to this imbroglio. Before surveying all these, however, I might as well lay my cards out on the table: I’m not a “free speech absolutist.” Under extraordinary conditions — say, of revolutionary civil war — some democratic rights will likely have to be suspended. Even under normal circumstances, there are limits related to libel, slander, and inciting a panic. Generally speaking, though, people should be able to say or write whatever the fuck they want. Trotsky had it more or less right in his tract on “Freedom of Press and the Working Class” (1938). “Once at the helm [of the state],” wrote Davidovich, “the proletariat may find itself forced, for a certain time, to take special measures against the bourgeoisie, if the bourgeoisie assumes an attitude of open rebellion against the workers’ state. In that case, restricting freedom of the press goes hand in hand with all the other measures employed in waging a civil war: if you are forced to use artillery and planes against the enemy, you cannot permit this same enemy to maintain his own centers of news and propaganda within the armed camp of the proletariat… Yet in this instance, too, if the special measures are extended until they become an enduring pattern, they in themselves carry the danger of getting out of hand and of the workers’ bureaucracy gaining a political monopoly that would be one of the sources of its degeneration.”
Colin Beckett, Corey Robin, and Richard Seymour
Verso Books published a concise summary of the ordeal by Colin Beckett, which went over the timeline of events. Beckett concluded that “Drexel’s initial response to complaints about Ciccariello-Maher illustrates that unprincipled, PR-conscious administrators are easily manipulated by the slightest hint of controversy,” and implored his readers to “remain vigilant and make it more difficult for universities… to cater to right-wing outrage, real or fake, than police the speech of its employees.” Jacobin reposted Corey Robin’s call to “Defend George Ciccariello-Maher” from his personal blog, a reasonable enough piece, despite its praise for the associate professor’s “excellent work on Venezuela and political theory.” With all due respect to Robin, Ciccariello-Maher’s stuff on Venezuela is lazy tripe. It amounts to little more than rehashing the crudest talking points prepared by the Bolivarian regime. He once granted an interview to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! in which justify Maduro’s jailing of Leopoldo López, the moderate opposition leader, back in 2015. López was sentenced to fourteen years for fomenting unrest and allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Guess what evidence was presented as proof of his crime? Yup, that’s right: problematic tweets.
Richard Seymour’s gloss on l’affaire Ciccariello-Maher appeared as one of several theses on the theme of trolling, which he set forth in an entry on Leninology entitled “We Are All Trolls.” The central claim of this post is that the internet merely made manifest — i.e., accentuated or exacerbated — asocial tendencies that were latent in our behavior long before it debuted in the mid-1990s. Ciccariello-Maher’s recent gaffe is discussed in the seventh thesis, after musing on the exhibitionism of social platforms and concerns over the prevalence of “fake news.” Seymour contends that
you can be quite witty and concise in 140 characters, but every trope potentially unspools into thousands of threads of argument and haggling over interpretation. Drexel University today issued a statement condemning one of its employees, George Ciccariello-Maher, for a tweet asking for “white genocide” as a Christmas present. His tweet was, as everyone in their right minds noted, intended ironically. Of course, irony is often invoked, inappropriately, as a sort of ideological get-out-of-jail-free card. In almost all cases of irony, there is a distinction between “use” and “mention.” I might “mention” a statement in order to ironize it, without “using” it. But there is no mentioning without some kind of psychological meaning, and such mentioning can involve a dubious kind of enjoyment. Think of the provocateur who, after making a racist joke, says: “Oh but of course, I was being totally ironic.” But this is simply to say that one should pay attention to the context in which irony is invoked.
The context in this case, is actually quite damning of Drexel. In the idiom of the alt-right — whom Ciccariello-Maher was mocking with a certain jaunty, finger-in-the-eye swagger — “white genocide” is caused by immigration. To believe in “white genocide,” to feel even remotely threatened by the prospect, to think it could be real, one has to believe all sorts of other implausible things. To wit, one has to believe that there is a coherent biological and cultural entity that could correspond to the notion of “white race,” which is innately worth conserving, and which would be compromised by the biological and cultural mixing that large amounts of non-white immigration would produce. And one would have to see that as being tantamount to genocide, viz. an “attempt to destroy in whole, or in part.” To believe in this idea, in other words, one has to be a neo-Nazi, or something close to it. To mock it, one need only be anyone else.
But not everyone is au fait with the language of the alt-right, and not everyone has enough historical and political intuition to grasp that no one is likely to threaten genocide against white people, and that such a threat would have no teeth at all in the real world. For some people, it would take time to do a little googling, and think through the logic of the thing. Drexel, reacting the way it did, rushed to judgment without even a courtesy-google. It rushed out a statement during the Christmas holidays rather than wait for the opportunity to talk to Ciccariello-Maher, or even just think. I assume this isn’t because management agree with the neo-Nazi view of “white genocide” which was being mocked. Rather, they used it as an opportunity to signal to staff members that they should adopt more corporate, HR-friendly personalities on social media — even if in practice this means that, like other liberal institutions (ACORN, etc.), they end up caving to the far right. Whatever institutional resiliency they might have in the face of far right provocateurs was compromised for the sake of public relations expediency. And the more marketized higher education institutions become, the more that knowledge-production and the workers involved in it will be susceptible to the whip of this kind of frantic witch-hunting zeal.
Everything that occurs on Twitter, it goes without saying, ought to be treated a priori as stupid. Not just the ill-considered tweet that first sparks a wave of outrage or protest, but the outrage or protest that ensues as well. Here Seymour is undoubtedly correct, just as he is also correct to point out the ridiculousness of the alt-right’s concept of “white genocide.” Of course, he neglects to mention Ciccariello-Maher’s follow-up tweet, in which he clarified that what he meant by white genocide was that “when the whites were massacred during the Haitian Revolution, that was a good thing indeed.” Statements such as this only lend credence to white supremacists’ paranoid and misbegotten worldview. As I pointed out a couple days ago, this is not just politically unwise but historically inaccurate. CLR James demonstrated in his masterpiece The Black Jacobins (1939) that “[t]he massacre of the whites was a tragedy not for the whites… but for the mulattoes and the blacks.” It’s only fitting to mention this today, since yesterday marked the anniversary of Haiti’s sovereign independence as a nation.
Perhaps I’m off on this, but Seymour in this passage seems to be projecting. What he describes as Ciccariello-Maher’s “jaunty, finger-in-the-eye swagger” is how he would prefer to be perceived whenever he lets fly one of his own pithy little bon mots against the alt-right. Likewise the flattering description of Ciccariello-Maher as a “worker” involved in the field of “knowledge-production.” Doubtless Seymour hopes to be counted among the ranks of these “knowledge-workers.” (“Knowledge-production” is a meaningless Althusserian category intended to inflate the importance of The Theory Industry™ or the Paris Strangler’s “theoretical practice”: production des connaissances in French, and Erkenntnisproduktion or Wissensproduktion in German. Henri Lefebvre noticed back in the seventies that “the concept of production has come to be used so loosely since the time of Marx and Engels that it has lost practically all definition. We speak of the production of knowledge, or ideologies, or writings and meanings, of images, of discourses, of language, of signs and symbols.” Lefebvre dropped some serious connaissance on Althusser regarding this issue in a 1969 essay examining «Les paradoxes d’Althusser». Either way, Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s investigations into the division between mental and manual labor are far more worthwhile when it comes to parsing questions of epistemology and abstraction).
Maybe it’s just the opposite, though, and Seymour is pleading that intellectuals not be dismissed on account of stupid comments made in private or in passing. After all, he himself has been taken to task in recent months for mocking the facial deformity of a conservative British war veteran, Simon Weston. Weston suffered extensive scarring in 1982, from burns he sustained during the Falklands conflict. “If Simon Weston knew anything, he’d still have his face,” wrote Seymour late in 2015. Since then, he’s apologized to Weston in a long-winded blog entry — a great many words where one would have done. He’s nevertheless right that writers should not be written off simply for cracking a dumb joke, or even insulting somebody’s appearance. Rather, they ought to be judged by the quality of their arguments and ideas. One only wishes Seymour would extend the same generosity to others, since (as Mark Fisher quipped a couple years ago) Seymour has long played the role of “excommunicator-in-chief” on the Left. This is an unfortunate habit picked up from years of sectarian infighting, particularly characteristic of Cliffite Trotskyists, who tend to apply the motto of “no platform for fascists” even to leftists they deem anathema.
Amber Frost vs. Steven Salaita
Getting back to Ciccariello-Maher, though, we turn to another piece. Closest to my own view was Amber Frost’s amusing statement of support in the online political magazine Current Affairs. You can read it over on their website in full, but its substance is roughly as follows:
It should be pretty obvious that you don’t have to like someone to stick up for them when the fascists come… George is someone who I happen to find very rude and condescending. He felt the need to “warn” me about my more “problematic” friends, which I consider a sort of sexist paternalism. I didn’t like his politics, which I found shallow and histrionic, or his passive aggression, which I found cowardly. Also, as a highly judgmental person who refuses to consort with anyone who is less than very cool or charming, I decided that the white guy academic who wrote “Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes” was a tryhard nerd. Perhaps most unforgivably, his jokes were unfunny. Not offensive in any way — just unfunny.
But none of this matters, because George is under attack… Solidarity is not dependent on amity or admiration. It is the acknowledgment of a shared struggle for dignity, liberation, and rights, applied consistently to all of humankind. There is no such thing as conditional solidarity, and while petty bullshit is the spice of life, the work of left politics requires some truly flavorless battles. The people that any ostensible leftist is obligated to stand up for will not always be likable. Usually they won’t even be leftists… They will make atrocious decisions in facial hair, which you will suspect they styled in a pretentious effort to look “more ethnic.” They will act in bad faith… And so we at Current Affairs stand with George Ciccariello-Maher without qualification or reservation, because we believe he’d do the same for us. We’re with you, comrade. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Frost is wrong about Ciccariello-Maher’s mustache, of course. It’s the combination of faux-hawk and soul-patch that truly ought to give us pause. Regardless, many Ciccariello-Maher partisans did not appreciate the tone of her article. The problem was that they didn’t share her contempt for the professor she was actually defending. Her point, though, was that we should defend the people we don’t like. And in that context it made sense for Frost to show an example of someone she doesn’t like. Some readers missed the point, and fired back at her with aimless personal attacks.
One of the longer, more detailed replies to Frost’s article came from Steven Salaita, the irony of which will not be lost on anyone familiar with his infamous tweet in June 2014: “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” Mondoweiss and various other anti-Zionist outlets insisted that Salaita’s meaning was being willfully distorted by critics of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel, of which Salaita remains a prominent spokesman. Questionable medium aside — Twitter forces its users to write discrete dispatches of 140 characters or less, which practically begs to be taken out of context — and godawful wording notwithstanding, they may have had a point. (Personally, I found another tweet Salaita wrote far more distasteful. This one came right after three Israeli teens were kidnapped by the paramilitary wing of Hamas: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not,” Salaita declared, “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Later, the missing teens were found all with their throats cut. Even then, I don’t think this is sufficient cause for firing)
Because it bears on my stance vis-à-vis Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets, though, I feel it’s important highlight that I spoke out against the University of Illinois’ decision to fire/”dehire” Salaita at the time. Once it became clear that the school had buckled under pressure from donors and alumni sympathetic to Israel, my response was this: “Just give the guy his job. Who cares what dumbass opinions he voices in his spare time? So long as he’s competent and doesn’t violate the university code of conduct, he should be able to say whatever he wants. Don’t bother trying to make excuses for the dude’s statement, however; the mental acrobatics and moral equivocations involved are cringe-inducing.” Given his dim view of Frost’s article on Ciccariello-Maher, Salaita would probably have also taken issue with the way I expressed my opposition to his firing/”dehiring” back in 2014. (To everyone’s relief, he ended up suing the living shit out of UIoC, eventually awarded an $875,000 settlement. More power to him, frankly — anything less would’ve been unamerican).
Salaita wrote the following response to Frost, in any case:
George can have a provocative and cantankerous online persona, which certainly isn’t to everybody’s liking. Based on the way he argues, he inevitably will alienate or offend some people. He’s aware of this. He understands how his style of engagement is controversial… That’s the thing Frost’s article misses: George is George. Hate him, adore him, whatever… Frost’s piece [is] unnecessarily hostile. Okay, she doesn’t like George. But her intent isn’t simply to state her dislike of him. The intent is to humiliate him and to overwhelm him with her superior wit and sense of irony, and then top it off by illustrating how noble she is for supporting him, anyway. People are reading it so negatively because it’s remarkably immature.
I had the same problem with Frost’s Left Forum piece that so many considered hilarious. I thought it incredibly mean-spirited, and couldn’t read it without cringing. The fact is, so many of us come into the left because when we were younger we were outcasts — troublemakers, uncool, unwanted, too alternative, whatever. Our entire lives we’ve seen people supposedly on our side shit all over us to make themselves presentable to more powerful demographics. Those who are marginal ought to be treated with compassion rather than contempt. If you can’t tolerate the sniping from a tiny crowd on the far left, then exercise the block feature and do something more useful than belittling those it takes absolutely no imagination or ethics to blithely condemn as “embarrassing” or “crazy.” Her writing sometimes does little more than transform us from readers who desire serious engagement into assholes and riffraff in some metaphorical high school.
Even if you hate George and agree with Frost that he’s a jerk, I don’t see how anybody can read her article and find anything of value in it analytically and politically. Its central conceit — that free speech means taking up for people you detest — is not only banal, but actively elides analysis of discourse and power.
Here I’ve been thinking all these years that the Foucauldean focus on “discourse” and “power” actively elides an analysis of ideology and capital. Marxists are of course aware that “between equal rights, force decides” (as the saying goes in the chapter on the working day). Yet this hardly negates the importance of the formal rights that obtain in bourgeois society. “The proletariat’s political vocation,” wrote Engels, “is to encourage the bourgeoisie in its struggle against the relics of the old society, especially against its own weakness and cowardice, and to help win those rights — freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, universal suffrage, self-government — without which, despite their bourgeois character, the workers can never win their emancipation.” Dutch communist Anton Pannekoek reiterated the necessity of these freedoms in his 1947 pamphlet on the workers’ councils: “In order to maintain themselves as a working class, [proletarians] need not only the personal liberty and legal equality proclaimed by middle class laws: Special rights and liberties, too, are necessary to secure these possibilities; the right of association, the right of meeting in assembly, the right to form unions, freedom of speech, freedom of press. And all these political rights must be protected by universal suffrage.”
While we are on the subject of Frost’s Left Forum piece, moreover, was I naïve to think that only truthers and tankies were pissed off about it? Perhaps I was, but it’s astounding to me that anyone else would be. Everything she shat on in that article fully deserved to be shat on: panels about how “9/11 was an inside job,” about how Slavoj Žižek is a CIA psyop, or about how climate justice and intersectionality were being “appropriated” by mainstream environmentalists, etc. Frost was kind enough to spare historical reenactment societies like the US Friends of the Soviet People, which has a table every year at the event. “Respectability politics” is usually used in a pejorative sense, but if all it takes to be respectable is to not spout batshit conspiracy theories or LARP (live-action role-play) Third World Liberation struggles wearing army fatigues, then that’s not asking too much.
Elena Louise Lange
Last but not least, the Swiss Marxist Elena Louisa Lange wrote up an interesting response to my own reflections on the Ciccariello-Maher incident. In the comment thread attached to my post, she poked fun at my rather New Testament turn toward forgiveness instead of wrath. Jesus, some first century Jewish wizard and revolutionary heretic, once reportedly told his disciples to “love your enemies,” after all:
Recently into born again Christians, Ross? As in: “Put up no resistance to the wicked, but if somebody slaps your right cheek, offer him the other one” (Mt 5:39). I kind of understand your position, but I don’t approve of it. The burden of proof of whether there is a consistent position regarding free speech is with (what passes here for) the Left, not liberalism. “Fuck Charlie Hebdo. Fuck free speech.” But when an academic in a university position — who by the way writes books on dialectics, something he knows jack shit about — makes a “controversial,” anti-emancipatory, structurally antisemitic “joke,” then advocating on behalf of free speech is great. Overwhelming, in fact. Explain this to me. In Germany, there is the so-called Volksverhetzungs-Paragraph §130 established to prevent incitement of the people, that says: “Whosoever, in a manner capable of disturbing the public peace: incites hatred against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins, against segments of the population or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups or segments of the population or calls for violent or arbitrary measures against them; or assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning an aforementioned group, segments of the population or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups or segments of the population, or defaming segments of the population, shall be liable to imprisonment from three months to five years.”
It’s really of minor importance whether or not “whiteness” refers to a political concept, because the reprehensibility of George Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet (and especially its structurally antisemitic and eliminationist character) lies in its active use and advocacy of a word like “genocide.” Not only does his “ironic” use of this term against the alt-right absolutize this kind of rhetoric, it also makes him stand at the same level of political insight as types like Richard Spencer. Both Spencer and Ciccariello-Maher share a hatred for Enlightenment universalism. Both have made antisemitic comments, and are repulsive for doing so. It is a farce, though sadly not a very entertaining one, to watch the way their little internet proxy war reveals their common ideological basis. When so-called leftists defend calls for genocide, even made in a supposedly “humorous” fashion, this just tells me one thing: that their politics are no longer committed to an emancipatory idea of mankind, but rather just a primitive, particularist desire to crush equally particularist embodiments that they perceive as “evil.” Ciccariello-Maher’s and his supporters’ political analysis is that of a 5-year old (no offense to bright 5-year-olds, who have more to offer as far as “critiques of the system” go).
I am skeptical of Lange’s claim that the concept of “genocide” is inherently antisemitic. She’s certainly right that it’s eliminationist, by definition. Genocides were committed against indigenous tribes in North America and against Armenians living in Turkey, however, decades before the destruction of the European Jews. Perhaps these lacked the stark industrial efficiency with which the Nazis carried out their genocidal program, but they nevertheless had an unmistakably systematic quality about them. Nor would I apply the concept of genocide in the same manner its formulators did. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term, characterized the manmade famines in the Soviet Union during the First Five-Year Plan as “the destruction of the Ukrainian nation” and “the classic example of Soviet genocide” during a 1953 speech delivered at the UN. While I acknowledge that what is called Holomodor took place, and that the starvation disproportionately affected parts of the Ukraine, I do not believe it meets the criterion of “genocide” originally established by Lemkin.
More convincing, in my opinion, is Lange’s contention that the views of Spencer and Ciccariello-Maher are basically isomorphic. That is to say, they each adopt a reactionary posture in opposition to capitalism. Decolonial theorists like Ciccariello-Maher or Houria Bouteldja typically reject Marx and Engels’ characterization of bourgeois society as revolutionary in the Manifesto, denying its progressive qualities, maintaining that the legal/political emancipation it helped bring about is a sham. Radical traditionalists like Spencer or Christian Kopff, followers of Julius Evola, oppose capitalism for the opposite reason, precisely because of its modernizing influence. Both hold up community [Gemeinschaft] against society [Gesellschaft] and culture [Kultur] against civilization [civilisation], because in each case the former is seen as a “node of resistance” against the disintegrating/integrating effect of capital, whereby “all that is solid melts into air.” The organic solidarity of traditional communities is seen as preferable to the mechanical solidarity of modern society. A friend pointed out to me a while back that it’s nearly impossible to tell from the title of an essay like “For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die” whether its author is a decolonial critic or a Nazbol. J. Sakai’s Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat easily gives rise to its fascist inversion, Donald Thoreson’s promotion of “The White Race as Global Proletariat.”
Part of the reason for this is methodological, and involves Ciccariello-Maher’s fundamental misunderstanding of dialectics. Lange alludes to this in her comment, posted above. Ciccariello-Maher repeats “the decolonial appeal to excluded exteriorities” in his critique of conventional dialectics, which he finds too teleological, linear, and deterministic. In so doing, however, he abandons the approach of “immanent critique” pursued by dialecticians from Hegel through Marx up to the Frankfurt School. Hegel immanently critiqued Kant’s critical philosophy, Marx critiqued Smith/Ricardo’s political economy, and the Frankfurt School critiqued Weber’s sociology. By gesturing toward some transcendental “outside” that has yet to be fully integrated or subsumed by capitalism, Ciccariello-Maher repudiates the very premise of dialectical thought. This is the reason why he objected to a colleague’s attempt to mount an immanent critique of critical theory, “Decolonizing Theory from Within or Without? A Reply to Baum.” Or as Ciccariello-Maher himself explains, folding one of his main influences back into a theoretical current he explicitly broke from: “[Enrique] Dussel is sharply critical of dialectics and instead embraces what he calls an analectics rooted in the embrace of the Other, influenced by Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics of alterity. However Dussel’s break with dialectics is far from complete, and rather than refuting a decolonized dialectics, his insistence on incorporating the category of exteriority into a dialectics of national and popular identity provides an essential ingredient for my own project.”
Besides ontologizing the dialectic, assimilating it to a dimension of Being (à la Kojève and Sartre) rather than seeing it as the movement of history (à la Hegel and Marx), Ciccariello-Maher’s extroversion of its critical standpoint has dire consequences for every other aspect of his theory. Marx’s critique of political economy in Capital takes commodity production as its point of departure. The proletariat is an integral feature of the social totality that results from this mode of production — constitutive of yet antithetical to capital, qua self-valorizing value. Instead of locating the negation of existing conditions somewhere within this totality, as Marx did, Ciccariello-Maher looks for a precapitalist or extracapitalist remainder that’s somehow managed to survive or elude capture by civil society. Race, and the “slavery and social death” it implies, is what he seizes onto as the locus of resistance (Bouteldja does something similar with religion, specifically Islam, though she insists this is racially charged). For example, Ciccariello-Maher asserts in the first chapter of his new book, Decolonizing Dialectics: “Class is race, and European civilization little more than barbaric brutality.” He basically accepts the reactionary hypothesis that race war ought to replace class war, with Klassenkampf usurped by Rassenkampf. Lange is thus absolutely correct in her appraisal of the similarities between Spencer and Ciccariello-Maher. A Cuban left communist assures me Chavismo has much more in common with classical fascism than Trumpism does, so maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising.