Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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Race and the Enlightenment

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I wrote a preamble to this piece relating it to a recent debate over postmodernism and Enlightenment. Since it got a bit overlong, I decided to repost as a standalone entry. But you can still read Goldner’s excellent essay on “Race and the Enlightenment” below.
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Race and the Enlightenment

Loren Goldner
Race Traitor
August 1997
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Part one
Pre-En­light­en­ment phase: Spain, Jews, and In­di­ans1
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It is not of­ten re­cog­nized that, pri­or to the sev­en­teenth and eight­eenth cen­tur­ies, the peri­od which West­ern his­tory calls the En­light­en­ment, the concept of race did not ex­ist.

It is still less of­ten re­cog­nized that the ori­gin of the concept of race, in the last quarter of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, in very spe­cif­ic so­cial cir­cum­stances, was pre­ceded by cen­tur­ies of a very dif­fer­ent vis­ion of Afric­ans2 and New World In­di­ans, which had to be erad­ic­ated be­fore the concept of race could be in­ven­ted, ex­press­ing a new so­cial prac­tice in new so­cial re­la­tions.

In the cur­rent cli­mate, in which the En­light­en­ment is un­der at­tack from many spe­cious view­points, it is im­port­ant to make it clear from the out­set that the thes­is of this art­icle is em­phat­ic­ally not that the En­light­en­ment was “ra­cist,” still less that it has valid­ity only for “white European males.” It is rather that the concept of race was not ac­ci­dent­ally born sim­ul­tan­eously with the En­light­en­ment, and that the En­light­en­ment’s “on­to­logy,” rooted in the new sci­ence of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, cre­ated a vis­ion of hu­man be­ings in nature which in­ad­vert­ently provided weapons to a new race-based ideo­logy which would have been im­possible without the En­light­en­ment. Pri­or to the En­light­en­ment, Europeans gen­er­ally di­vided the known world between Chris­ti­ans, Jews, Muslims, and “hea­thens”;3 be­gin­ning around the 1670s, they began to speak of race, and col­or-coded hier­arch­ies of races.

What was this al­tern­at­ive “epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al grid” through which, pri­or to the 1670s, the West en­countered the “Oth­er”?

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L’affaire Ciccariello-Maher: “White genocide” and beyond

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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

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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.

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Fidel Castro on the Frankfurt School

One of the last Cold War­ri­ors left stand­ing fi­nally bit the dust last night. If we’re lucky, Henry Kis­sing­er will also be dead by year’s end. Good fuck­ing rid­dance. Com­rade Emanuel San­tos put it splen­didly: “Fi­del Castro, Sta­lin­ist butcher and en­emy of the work­ers, is dead. The work­ing class won’t be happy un­til the last bur­eau­crat is hung with the in­test­ines of the last cap­it­al­ist.” [Fi­del Castro, ver­dugo Es­ta­linista y en­emigo de los obrer­os, ha falle­cido. La clase tra­ba­jadora no estará con­tenta hasta que el último burócrata cuelgue de las entrañas del último cap­it­alista].

An­oth­er com­rade, Ash­meet Teemsa, ex­claimed that “the en­emy of Cuban pro­let­ari­at is dead, a man no more a friend of the work­ing class than Thatch­er,” adding: “Shame on the ‘an­arch­ists’/’com­mun­ists’ who eu­lo­gize or mourn!” He then quoted from the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent’s Ba­sic Po­s­i­tions: “The strat­i­fied re­gimes which arose in the USSR, east­ern Europe, China, Cuba etc and were called “so­cial­ist” or “com­mun­ist” were just a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal form of the uni­ver­sal tend­ency to­wards state cap­it­al­ism.”

There is no such thing as so­cial­ism in one coun­try, and na­tion­al­ism (wheth­er Amer­ic­an or Cuban, “right-wing” or “left-wing”) is noth­ing more than the con­sort of war, de­signed to fa­cil­it­ate the di­vi­sion of the world pro­let­ari­at, to lead the work­ing-class onto the bat­tle­field, march­ing un­der “its own” na­tion­al flag, and pre­pare the sep­ar­ated sec­tions of the work­ing class for re­cip­roc­al slaughter, all this in the name of “their” na­tion­al in­terest, the in­terest of “their” na­tion’s bour­geois­ie. The self-pro­claimed Castroite “anti-im­per­i­al­ists” (i.e. anti-west­ern im­per­i­al­ism) fail to un­der­stand that im­per­i­al­ism is simply the lo­gic of world cap­it­al­ism’s atom­ic com­pon­ents, na­tion-states — im­per­i­al­ism is cap­it­al­ism’s meta­bol­ism in a world di­vided in­to na­tion-states. As com­pet­ing zones of ac­cu­mu­la­tion with­in this world-sys­tem, na­tion-states are led to clash with one an­oth­er. Only the dis­sol­u­tion of na­tion-states, as politico-eco­nom­ic units, can put an end to this sys­tem, and hence bring about world pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion.

What we see in Cuba, Venezuela, etc., con­trary to tankie/Chom­sky­ite non­sense, is noth­ing pro­gress­ive, no step for­ward for the work­ing class. The dis­place­ment of the old bour­geois­ie and their re­place­ment by a new, “red” bour­geois­ie and the re­place­ment of privat­ized in­dus­tries and free-mar­ket cap­it­al­ism with na­tion­al­ized in­dus­tries and state-cap­it­al­ism (and a flour­ish­ing black mar­ket) are ir­rel­ev­ant. The ob­vi­ous fea­tures of cap­it­al­ism, as de­scribed by Marx in Cap­it­al — the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of value, com­mod­it­ies, the ex­ploit­a­tion of work­ers, etc. — re­main the same. In­ter­na­tion­al­ists re­ject the choice between “cap­it­al­ist” bosses, po­lice and pris­ons and “so­cial­ist” bosses, po­lice and pris­ons. Between “right-wing”/pro-Amer­ic­an and “left-wing”/anti-Amer­ic­an re­gimes or coun­tries. This is all su­per­fi­cial, left­ist (left of cap­it­al) non­sense. In­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions are in­her­ently flu­id. Those who eu­lo­gize or pro­pa­gand­ize on be­half of the “red” bour­geois­ie help to foster and re­in­force il­lu­sions about the “re­volu­tion­ary” or “pro­gress­ive” nature of vari­ous anti-pro­let­ari­an, na­tion­al­ist re­gimes and state-cap­it­al­ism. We have reas­on neither to mourn nor cel­eb­rate.

My own thoughts add little to this, though one might also con­sult the ex­cel­lent 1966 bul­let­in on “Cuba and Marx­ist The­ory.” Leav­ing aside the egre­gious treat­ment of LGBT in­di­vidu­als in Cuba un­der Fi­del, forced in­to labor camps from 1959 to 1979, a few words might be said.

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Anatomy of a controversy

Race, religion, and ideology
in contemporary debates on
the French communist Left
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How to moralize with a sledgehammer

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On the night of April 21, 2016, the windows of an anarchist library and bookshop in Paris were smashed with a sledgehammer. Above the broken glass, next to hollowed-out frames, one word had been spraypainted: RACIST. This was the third such attack to take place at the location in under a year. La Discordia opened its doors back in May 2015 to provide a space for discussion, theory, and debate. “Discord is profound disagreement,” reads La Discordia’s founding charter, “violent dissent which sets people against each other.” So it would seem to be living up to its stated mission, if repeated acts of vandalism are any indication. What’s odd about these incidents, though, is that La Discordia wasn’t targeted by right-wing thugs or fascists — the usual suspects whenever anarchists receive threats of this sort — but rather by other anarchists. It wasn’t the work of national-anarchists, either, but those professing a decolonial brand of anarchism. Yves Coleman, who serves as correspondent for the left communist periodical Insurgent Notes in France, characterized the hoodlums as “left identitarians [identitaires de gauche], social chauvinists, and assorted Third Worldists.” Magazin Redaktion, the German-language Turkish collective, wrote that “La Discordia and the friendly associated website non fides have lately been exposed to a certain hostility and multiple threats; among other things, the store was recently defaced… by fractions of the ‘antiauthoritarian’ scene [die Teilen der ‚antiautoritären’ Szene] with slogans calling it ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’.”

How does anybody know who carried out this act of petty property destruction? Clearly, the volunteers who run La Discordia suspect it was a crude attempt at intimidation. Nevertheless, protests and street demonstrations have occurred on an almost nightly basis in Paris, and throughout the country, since roughly the beginning of April. Up All Night [Nuit debout] debuted on March 31, to drum up public opposition to the hated loi du travail, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the library might have suffered incidental damage in the confusion. “Why is this happening right now, while we are all concentrated on what is going on in the streets?” asked the Discordians in their official statement on the matter. “Evidently because, for those who hold race and religion sacrosanct, it’s more important to defend these things than to combat capital and state. Again, no other sign of attack was to be seen in the neighborhood that night, neither banks nor churches nor the premises of political parties. Just an anarchist library.” Back in February, right after the initial attack, Dialectical Delinquents published a letter of solidarity with La Discordia:

Several months in the planning, a debate on “Islamophobia: A Conceptual and Political Racket” was finally held January 26. La Discordia wanted to confront a topic at the heart of the current struggles, conflating condemnation of racism with a defense of religion. Our joint conversations were interesting. More than sixty comrades came to the event — we promise to rent a larger venue next time, and with more chairs! — demonstrating that many feel the need for a revolutionary critique of religion. Every religion, including Islam, which others would like to palm off as the “religion of the oppressed”…

Upon arriving Tuesday afternoon, we saw that the storefront had been tagged during the night. Poorly-written, ill-thought-out epithets (“fascists,” “racists,” etc.) appeared next to circled As (thank you!) in black spray paint, along with a leaflet of demands. We were allegedly acting as a vehicle for “Islamophobic and racist theories” and “ideologies of power,” etc. A thought for the atheist “fascists,” the unbelievers who from Tehran to Saint-Denis are now treated as “Islamophobic” as much by fearsome powers as by this arriviste of the French academic petit bourgeois who knows only the racism of his own class, whose only practice over a decade is to leave illegible tags on anarchist libraries and organize conferences with religious authorities.

Dialectical Delinquents’ declaration of support was succeeded by a similarly sympathetic note from the editors of the anarchist street paper Paris Sous Tension, posted on Indymedia Nantes right after the first attack and updated in March after the second. “In striving to make sense of this gesture, committed by purported anarchists (as they claimed to be in the message they left), …we see that its only purpose is to empty anarchism of any anti-religious content,” they wrote. “The revolt against religious dogma… has always been a part of revolutionary criticism, here in Europe and the rest of the world, where a great many atheists, blasphemers, revolutionaries, ‘freethinkers,’ and simple nonconformists face ferocious repression on the part of divine spokespersons… We’d like to publicly express our support for the comrades at La Discordia against this imbecilic and gross manifestation of the… ‘convergence’ between politicians of the extreme left and reactionary Islamists.” Barely an hour had passed before angry commenters were accusing La Discordia and its sympathizers of “justifying and rationalizing Islamophobia.” Not long after, another threatened: “Come the revolution the monks of atheism [les religieux de l’atheisme] will be gunned down.” Yet the coup de grâce was delivered by somebody named “Patlotch,” who accused an old left communist internationalist [vieux sympathisant de la gauche communiste internationaliste] of Eurocentrism. About this Patlotch, we’ll hear more later. La Discordia vowed to continue cursing “the confused pseudo-radicals and theo-compatibles” [les pseudo-radicaux confus et théo-compatibles], reciting some of the lines to La père Duschesne, an anonymous ode to Hébert that the anarchist Ravachol sang on his way to the guillotine in 1892: “Cut the priests in two, bloody hell / Tear the churches to the ground, blood of God / And good Lord in the shit, bloody hell!” [«Coupe les curés en deux, Nom de Dieu / Fout les églises par terre, Sang Dieu / Et l’bon dieu dans la merde, Nom de Dieu!»]

Each of these two letters of solidarity echoes the event description for «Islamophobie: du racket conceptuel au racket politique», from the talk in January. “Numerous so-called ‘revolutionaries’ seek to reappropriate the concept [of Islamophobia], and thereby develop a blindness to the authoritarian and pacifying role played by every religion,” the promotional post states. “Islam is wrongly defended as the religion of the oppressed (as Irish Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism were before it). Behind this lurks the idea that relations of domination become emancipatory when borne by those who are supposedly oppressed. Religion remains a major obstacle to those looking to radically transform the world, however, and so criticism is necessary now more than ever. For there are no ‘religions of the oppressed,’ only religions that oppress.” Who would actually try to claim Islam is anywhere the “religion of the oppressed,” much less on a global scale? At first this sounds like a straw-man. Mahmoud Senadji of the Parti des Indigènes de la République wrote an essay in 2009 on Iran and Foucault in which he asserted Islam alone had the capacity to serve as a medium for revolution, “Islam being the religion of the oppressed” [l’islam étant la religion des opprimés]. (The Indigènes are big fans of Kevin Anderson’s book Marx at the Margins, which is admittedly quite good, but the reason they like it is that it seems to validate their own preexisting views. Or rather, it presents a reading of Marx more amenable to their politics. How surprised they’d be if they ever took a look at the study Anderson wrote along with Janet Afary in 2005, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seduction of Islamism). Continue reading

Notes on ideology and Islamophobia

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Several salient points are made in Alexandra Pinot-Noir and Flora Grim’s jointly-written article, which I reposted, “On the Ideology of ‘Anti-Islamophobia’.” For example, the authors are onto something with their brief genealogical sketch of the derivation of “decolonial” theory from Third Worldism. Many efforts have been made to form ideological blocs with religious groups over the last fifteen years or so, ever since the start of the global war on terror. Provided that the groups in question belong to the religion of the oppressed, of course. All this would fall squarely under the rubric of what Loren Goldner has dubbed “reactionary anti-imperialism,” conceptualized in his brilliant essay on its origins in Turkey nearly a century ago. Considering Houria Bouteldja cites Gamal Abdel Nasser as a heroic decolonial thinker, or that “revolutionaries of color” at UC Davis in 2013 would approvingly invoke Sayyid Qutb just proves their point further. (Nevermind that Nasser had Qutb killed; this matters just as little as the fact the International Pan-Islamic Communist Party lists Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev alongside Stalin as an influence, despite the latter having purged the former in 1924. Regardless, it seems consistency is not decolonial theorists’ strong suit).

One of Grim and Pinot-Noir’s most startling insights has to do with the virtual symmetry between “culturalist” conceptions of race put forward by groups claiming to be on the Left and the ethnocultural arguments advanced by groups belonging to the Right. “New Right leaders like Alain de Benoist go so far as to defend anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World,” Grim and Pinot-Noir point out, “and thus deny the racist character of their own ‘defense of European identity’.” Indeed, New Right intellectuals are enthusiastic in their support for Third World nationalists such as Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo Chávez, as well as earlier strongmen like Nasser and Perón. Gregory Hood gave “Two Cheers for Chávez” following his death in 2013, while Greg Johnson eulogized Gaddafi after his ignominious “decline and fall” in 2011. Eugène Montsalvat likewise asserts “The Necessity of Anti-Colonialism,” writing that “anti-colonialism must be a component of any ideology which attempts to defend rooted identities, necessary against the uprooting of peoples in pursuit of power and wealth… Colonialism has warped both the colonist and colonizer — mixing, diluting, and even annihilating entire cultures and peoples.” He praises Nasser and Gaddafi for their anti-Zionism and resistance to “America’s Zionist New World Order.” (Bouteldja might even agree with Montsalvat on the topic of miscegenation, since she opposes interracial marriage in the name of race war).

Junge Linke has already thoroughly dissected Islamism as “heir to and rival of frustrated Arab nationalism,” so this is one more step. Grim and Pinot-Noir perspicaciously observe that “[t]he position of far-left anti-Islamophobes.regarding.political.Islam.is ambivalent at best. They want to prohibit any criticism of the Muslim religion, a practice which they say is racist.” Back in 2009, the British journal Aufheben made an analogous point vis-à-vis the Socialist Workers Party and the antiwar coalition Respect. “So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP insisted Respect eschew such left-wing ‘shibboleths’ as women’s and gay rights. Echoing the arguments of more radical Islamists, they went into the mosques and proclaimed that Bush’s ‘global war on terror’ was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also at home with the passage of anti-terrorist legislation — that should be opposed by Muslims as Muslims. Like the radical Islamists, they denounced New Labour as Islamophobic and racist.” Arya Zahedi also discerns the ideological source of leftist ambivalence toward, if not outright support for, jihadist forces in the disastrous legacy of “Third World populism,” together with the imperative of anti-imperialism at any cost. Zahedi contends that, beginning in the 1980s, “the Left was theoretically disarmed by the fact that it was now confronted with a new state formation [i.e., the Islamic Republic] that was at once anti-imperialist and deeply reactionary.” Continue reading

Structural antisemitism

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From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

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Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in singling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis, distinguishing it from other forms of racism:

It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.

He goes on to explain that “[antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).

Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.

Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you. Continue reading

Reflections on Left antisemitism

Now also split into four parts, for readability:

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

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The furore currently unfolding in Britain over allegations of left antisemitism cannot pass without some comment on my part. Not because I’m Jewish, though I am. And not because I’m an astute observer of British politics, which I’m not. Rather, it’s because the issue arises with such frequency and remains so contentious within the Anglo-American Left, as well as its continental European counterpart. Here I would like to examine the phenomenon more broadly.

Some helpful literature, too, for anyone interested:

  1. Ber Borochev, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation (1908)
  2. Nobert Elias, “On the Sociology of German Anti-Semitism” (1929)
  3. Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe” (1939)
  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946)
  5. Ernst Simmel, ed., Antisemitism: A Social Disease (1948)
  6. Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1981)
  7. Moishe Postone, “Notes on the German Reaction to the Holocaust” (1983)
  8. Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz (1998)
  9. Mario Kessler, On Anti-Semitism and Socialism: Selected Essays (2005)
  10. Marcel Stoetzler, ed., Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (2014)

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Opportunistic accusations

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First, a few words about the situation in the UK. Over the past couple weeks, a number of prominent Labour Party officials and student activist leaders have come under scrutiny for making antisemitic remarks. Three main figures have been at the center of the controversy so far:

  1. Malia Bouattia
    1. Bouattia, who was recently voted president of the National Union of Students (NUS), took aim at the “Zionist-led media” in 2014 for its sympathetic coverage of Israel during the bombardment and invasion of Gaza earlier that year. Unfortunately, this occurred at an event organized by the Tricontinental Anti-Imperialist Platform to celebrate the Palestinian resistance. A promotional banner with the figure of Hassan Nasrallah emblazoned across it could be seen in the background as she addressed the audience. Nasrallah, general secretary of the Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a notorious antisemite.
    2. Perhaps even more outrageously, Bouattia was almost solely responsible for blocking an NUS motion to condemn ISIS a few weeks later. Such a measure, she contended, was potentially “Islamophobic.” Though an amended version of the motion was eventually passed, this was only after news outlets had got a hold of the story and mocked her mealymouthed prevarications to a fare-thee-well. Roza Salih, the coordinating officer who initiated the proposal, was baffled by Bouattia’s objections. In an interview with Workers Liberty, she voiced her consternation: “I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated…What was Islamophobic about it? I myself come from a Muslim family, and would never propose a motion that was Islamophobic. Either way, it is not Islamophobic to condemn ISIS and its backers!”
    3. Confronted on these issues, Bouattia has proved for the most part evasive. At any rate, she has done little to assuage concerns. “Zio-media” is an epithet that shows up in texts by David Duke and his ilk, and comes much too close to age-old refrains about the Judenpresse for comfort.
  2. Naz Shah
    1. Shah, who unseated the far more objectionable fuckwit George Galloway in the district of Bradford West not twelve months ago, was then discovered to have approvingly shared an offensive image on social media a few months prior to her run for office. Beneath a map of Israel juxtaposed onto a map of the United States, a series of bullet points suggesting that conflict in the Middle East might be resolved by deporting Israeli Jews to the US en masse. (Galloway’s claim that “the Zionist movement from Tel Aviv to New York” would rejoice at her election appears all the more absurd in retrospect).
    2. Around the same time, Shah also urged her friends to get out to the polls since “the Jews are rallying.” Many have noted how similar this statement is to Netanyahu’s bit about how “the Arabs are voting in droves,” spurring Jewish voters to turn out.
    3. To her credit, Shah has apologized unreservedly for her 2014 posts. I’m not too big on the whole culture of heartfelt apologies followed by public self-criticism, but she’s at least remained tactful and reserved throughout the media shitstorm of the past couple weeks. Which is more than can be said for some who have come to her defense. Enter now the former mayor of London.
  3. Ken Livingstone
    1. Livingstone is low-hanging fruit by anyone’s estimation. Back in 2005 he compared Oliver Finegold, a journalist for the Evening Sun, to a Nazi concentration camp guard after learning he was Jewish. “You are just like a concentration camp guard,” declared Livingstone. “Only doing it because you’re paid to, right?” The Evening Sun may be a right-wing rag, but that’s really not the point. Directing such a remark at a Jewish news reporter is insensitive no matter who that person works for.
    2. Fast-forward to 2016: Livingstone takes it upon himself to come to Shah’s rescue, despite the fact she was handling the matter quite well on her own. Almost immediately he makes everything worse: “When Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel. Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Never mind the fact that in 1932, Israel did not yet exist. Palestine didn’t even exist, in the sense of a free and autonomous state. There was only the Palestinian mandate, which was under British rule at the time. Generally speaking, as Sam Kriss has pointed out, something like Godwin’s Law should apply in contemporary discussions about Israel. Yes, the temptation the establish a “cruel historical irony” in terms of Zionism’s relationship to Nazism may seem irresistible at times, rhetorically speaking, but it’s still fucking stupid.
    3. In the days that have passed since committing this gaffe, Livingstone has somehow managed to dig himself deeper. Corbyn wisely decided to suspend Livingstone, as that kind of liability was the last thing he or Labour needed right now. Questioned about his suspension, Livingstone likened accusations of antisemitism made against him to false accusations of rape. He then went on to grant a radio interview where he apologized for his poor timing, and the disruption it caused. But he would not apologize for what he actually said, since it was supposedly a statement of fact. Livingstone even appealed to the authority of the American Trotskyist Lenni Brenner, discussed later, to bolster his claims. (Incidentally, as Bob from Brockley points out, Livingstone takes liberties with Brenner’s arguments).

Obviously it is no coincidence that these charges are being leveled at the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party with local elections on May 5 around the corner. Especially in the case of Naz Shah, whose term in office has been fairly uneventful up to now. Last year Shah even came out in support of Yvette Cooper, a staunchly pro-Israel candidate, something which at least ought to complicate the picture of her currently being drawn. Right-wing opportunism is nothing new, however, both on the part of the Tories and butthurt Blairites within the Labour Party, whose neoliberal legacy seems threatened by the sudden rise of Corbyn. A great deal of the outrage expressed so far has been cynical, all the more so when one recalls the antisemitic imagery The Sun deployed last year against Ed Miliband’s doomed campaign.

It is therefore important to recognize the politically-motivated character of these attacks, and stand with Bouattia and Shah against slurs, lies, and innuendo from the Right, even as we continue to criticize them from the Left. Bouattia in particular ought not be made immune to criticism, as the residual Stalinism of her positions has already been noted by Daniel Cooper. Shah cannot really be considered a leftist at all, more a liberal than anything else. Livingstone is someone I could more or less do without. He is an embarrassment. The one and only good thing that could come of this debacle, as Alan Johnson writes in Ha’aretz, is the prospect of his replacement by Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race. (Hat-tip goes out to Michael Gaul and Elena Louisa Lange for sharing this article). Continue reading

All in the family: Hendrik de Man and his nephew, Paul

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Texts by Paul de Man

  1. Aesthetic Ideology
  2. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
  3. Critical Writings, 1953-1978
  4. Notebooks
  5. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism
  6. The Post-Romantic Predicament
  7. The Resistance to Theory

Texts on Paul de Man

  1. The Political Archive of Paul de Man: Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic
  2. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory

Texts by Hendrik de Man

  1. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism
  2. Beyond Marxism: Faith and Works

Texts on Hendrik de Man

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Idealist Revision of Marxism: The Ethical Socialism of Henri De Man
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, A Defense of Marxism

Texts on Paul and Hendrik de Man

  1. Dick Pels, The Intellectual as Stranger: Studies in Spokesmanship

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Hendrik and Paul de Man

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In a 1973 article on “Semiology and Rhetoric,” the literary theorist Paul de Man raised a question posed by Archie Bunker: “What’s the difference?” Bunker was of course the lovably racist protagonist of the popular sitcom All in the Family. Playing on the character’s last name, de Man therefore continued: “Suppose it is a de-bunker rather than a ‘Bunker,’ and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie Debunker such as Nietzsche or Derrida for instance, who asks the question ‘What is the difference?’ — and we cannot even tell from his grammar whether he ‘really’ wants to know ‘what’ difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn’t even try to find out.”

Deconstruction takes, or took, such punning deadly serious. One hesitates over the tense because, well, it’s unclear whether deconstruction is taken too seriously anymore. After all, the term is usually taken to derive from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, as Derrida made clear in a 1986 interview: “It was a kind of active translation that displaces somewhat the word Heidegger uses: Destruktion, the destruction of ontology, which also does not mean the annulment, the annihilation of ontology, but an analysis of the structure of traditional ontology.” (Later Derrida would trace the concept further back to the thought of another German named Martin: namely Luther, whose word destructio prefigured its contemporary use by several centuries. This is somewhat beside the point, however).

Paul de Man accusations leveled against him

Skeletons in the closet

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Ever since the publication of Victor Farías’ incendiary, if imperfect, 1985 exposé Heidegger and Nazism, the great German thinker has fallen into disrepute. Numerous titles were released in the wake of this bombshell, by scholars like Hans Sluga, Tom Rockmore, and Domenico Losurdo. Recently the discovery of the so-called Black Notebooks, which contain Heidegger’s lecture notes for 1933 up through 1935, has added to the mountain of evidence proving he was a committed fascist and virulent antisemite both in private and in public. Translation into English is slated to come out this year from Indiana University Press, but a lengthy commentary and introduction by Emmanuel Faye has been out since 2009.

Many of the criticisms made since Farías reignited the controversy have simply confirmed the judgment already passed on fundamental ontology by figures like Günther Anders and Theodor Adorno. As early as 1948, Anders accused Heidegger of nihilism: “He had no principle whatsoever, no social idea: nothing. When the trumpet of National Socialism started blaring into his moral vacuum, he became a Nazi.” In 1963, Adorno polemicized against The Jargon of Authenticity (by which he meant Heidegger’s philosophy). “Jargon even picks up banal [words], holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements.”

Jean-Pierre Faye, father of Emmanuel, further implicated Heidegger’s French admirers in the camp of deconstruction already in the 1970s. Unlike Anders or Adorno, who primarily addressed a German and American readership, Faye extended his critique of Heideggerianism to the Francophone world. Loren Goldner, a left communist and outspoken opponent of poststructuralism, explained the substance of his critique in a review entitled “Jean-Pierre Faye’s Demolition of Derrida”:

[He] shows that the famous word Dekonstruktion was first used in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by the cousin of Hermann Göring, and that the word Logozentrismus was coined (for denunciatory purposes) in the 1920s by the protofascist thinker Ludwig Klages. In short, sections of French and, more recently, American academic discourse in the “human sciences” have been dominated for decades by a terminology originating not in Heidegger but first of all in the writings of Nazi scribblers, recycled through Latin Quarter Heideggerians. Faye zeroes in with surgical skill on the evasions of those, particularly on the left, for whom the “greatest philosopher” of the century of Auschwitz happened to be — as a mere detail — a Nazi.

After 1933, under pressure from Nazi polemics, Heidegger began to characterize the prior Western metaphysical tradition as “nihilist” and worked out the whole analysis for which he became famous after 1945: the “fall” in the Western conception of Being after Parmenides and above all Aristotle, the essence of this fall in its modern development as the metaphysics of the “subject” theorized by Descartes, and the evolution of this subject up to its apotheosis in Nietzsche and the early Heidegger of Being and Time. Between 1933 and 1945, this diagnosis was applied to the decadent Western democracies overcome by the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist Movement; after 1945, Heidegger effortlessly transposed this framework to show nihilism culminating not in democracy but…in Nazism. In the 1945 “Letter on Humanism” in particular, Western humanism as a whole is assimilated to the metaphysics of this subject The new project, on the ruins of the Third Reich, was to overthrow the “Western humanism” that was responsible for Nazism! Thus the initial accommodation to Krieck and other party hacks, which produced the analysis in the first place, passed over to a “left” version in Paris, barely missing a step. The process, for a more American context, goes from Krieck to Heidegger to Derrida to the postmodern minions of the Modern Language Association. The “oscillation” that Faye demonstrated for the 1890-1933 period in Langages totalitaires has its extension in the contemporary deconstructionists of the “human sciences,” perhaps summarized most succinctly in Lyotard’s 1988 call to donner droit de cite a l’inhumain.

Faye is tracking the oscillation whereby, in 1987-1988, it became possible for Derrida, Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and others, to say, in effect: Heidegger, the Nazi “as a detail,” by his unmasking of the nihilistic “metaphysics of the subject” responsible for Nazism, was in effect the real anti-Nazi, whereas all those who, in 1933-1945 (or, by extension, today) opposed and continue to oppose fascism, racism, and antisemitism from some humanistic conviction, whether liberal or socialist, referring ultimately to the “metaphysics of the subject”-such people were and are in effect “complicit” with fascism. Thus the calls for an “inhuman” thought.

Paul de Man’s reputation in the meanwhile has suffered a fate similar to that of Heidegger. Shortly after his death in 1983, it was revealed that he enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Between 1940 and 1942, de Man contributed a number of articles to Le Soir while the newspaper was under the management of fascist ideologues. One of the articles, on “The Jews and Contemporary European Literature,” was extremely antisemitic. Coming fresh on the heels of the Heidegger controversy, defenders of deconstruction were now faced with another scandal. De Man’s friends and co-thinkers rallied to defend his memory, organizing conferences in the vain hope that his legacy might yet be salvaged. Though several essay collections resulted from this engagement, featuring heavyweights from across the theoretical spectrum, de Man’s writings are no longer fashionable. Not the way they once were.

DoubleLifeofPauldeMan

Last year, though, Evelyn Barish released a biography detailing The Double-Life of Paul de Man. Suzanne Gordon, one of his former students, wrote a piece for Jacobin in which she denounced de Man as “a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium.” Here is not the place to wag fingers at de Man’s extramarital affairs, lackluster parenting skills, or casual misappropriations. While public interest in these aspects of his life is perhaps to be expected, as is its craving for salacious details, a lot of the information in Barish’s book is pure tabloid. Rumors and gossip do not merit serious consideration in the evaluation of a person’s work. Biography is not destiny.

Continue reading

Toward a materialist approach to the question of race: A response to the Indigènes de la République

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The Charnel-House
introduction

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A few months ago, I wrote up a critique of the “decolonial dead end” arrived at by groups like the Indigènes de la République. Despite being welcomed in some quarters of the Left, wearied by the controversy stirred up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was not well received by others. Last month, however, a French comrade alerted me to the publication of a similar, but much more detailed and carefully argued, piece criticizing Bouteldja & co. in Vacarne. I even asked a friend to translate it for the new left communist publication Ritual. But before he could complete it, someone describing himself as “a long-time reader/appreciator of The Charnel-House” contacted me to let me know he’d just finished rendering it into English.

The authors of the original piece — Malika Amaouche, Yasmine Kateb, and Léa Nicolas-Teboul — all belong to the French ultraleft, militant feminists and communists active in different groups. I am grateful they brought up the PIR’s execrable position opposing intermarriage and submitted it to ruthless criticism, offering a Wertkritik-inspired analysis of some antisemitic tropes reproduced by the self-proclaimed Indigènes. Regarding the provenance of “philosemitism,” a concept employed by Bouteldja which the authors critique: the term was invented by antisemites during the nineteenth century, as a reproach to supposed “Jew-lovers.” Not a title that would be claimed by those who were themselves sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.

Translator’s introduction

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The following text, a critique of the Parti des Indigènes de la République by three of its former members, originally appeared in the French journal Vacarme. A radical anti-colonial party, Parti des Indigènes came to wide attention among the English-speaking Left for their sharp critiques of secularism and racism on the French Left following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015. While they seem to enjoy great respect in certain sectors of the Left, the translator of this document believes such respect is mistaken; that PIR’s identitarian politics seeks an alliance with the identitarian far right of Le Pen, Dieudonné, and Soral; and that such an approach to politics poses a great threat to the Left.

Secondly, this document provides a much-needed insight into the problem of antisemitism. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the media hysterically speculated that Europe was on the verge of a pogrom, to be carried out by its numerous Muslim immigrants; Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took up the hysteria, calling for French Jews to emigrate. The backlash among certain leftists, whom the present translator otherwise respects, was perhaps equally hysterical. Some questioned whether antisemitism was even extant in contemporary Europe; others seemed to blame antisemitic acts on crimes of the Israeli state, rather than the perpetrators. As this document’s analysis shows, antisemitism is not only a threat against Jews, but against any movement of the working class.

Rosa Luxemburg in Martinique

Toward a materialist approach to the racial question: A response to the Indigènes de la République

Malika Amaouche, Yasmine
Kateb, & Léa Nicolas-Teboul
Vacarme (June 25, 2015)
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Les Indigènes de la République have helped to shed light on racism within the Left, supported by the racism of French society at large. But are they also prisoners of racism? We propose a systematic analysis of the forces exercised upon the most precarious: a critique of the erasure of race and gender; while escaping the identitarian project of the extreme right; remaining anchored in critique of political economy.


From the dead refugees of the Mediterranean, to the Baltimore riots, to the events of everyday metropolitan life, we are constantly drawn back to the question of race. It seems necessary to propose an analysis of the foundations of racism, which will not be merely a shallow response to current events.

Today, we observe mounting Islamophobia and antisemitism. These two are a pair: in a context where social segregation is becoming stronger, and the logic of all-against-all becomes uncontrollable, we must work to think of these things in conjunction. That means to reject the logic of competition between different racial oppressions; but also to examine Islamophobia and antisemitism together in all their specificity. And in all this, the general context — growing social violence, a hardening of class segmentation, and effects of structural racism (in housing, work, and so on). It is harder and harder for the poor, and for those who are the most precarious (racial minorities and women).

With the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks in January, the left was hit with its own denial of the issue of racism. It made a specialty of denouncing the victimization, and of dismissing racism as a massive structural phenomenon. Institutional feminists’ obsession with the veil functioned as a spotlight on the racism of a Left clinging to an abstract, ahistorical, and highly aggressive universalism.

This was why we were enthusiasts of the great work of exposing the racism of the Republican left — a project in which the Parti des Indigènes de la République has participated since 2004. There are many of us who worked to undermine this “respectable” racism, under which the indigènes were never truly equal.1 If the Left was never explicitly against racialized people, its arguments were dismissive of the great values meant to emancipate them. An entire history of the condescension and paternalism of the French Left remains to be written. Such a history would note the way the discourse of class was used to stratify the hierarchies of the workers’ movement itself.

Nevertheless, it seems to us that PIR is slipping. Riding the gathering wave of identitarianism, it proposes a systematic cultural, almost ethnocentric, reading of social phenomena. This leads to the adoption of dangerous positions on antisemitism, gender, and homosexuality. It essentializes the famous “Indigènes sociaux,” the subaltern it aims to represent. It is as if the racialized working class, who face the most violent racism, are being instrumentalized in a political strategy which basically plays in the arena of the white left and à la mode radical intellectuals.

For us, descendants of Muslim and Jewish Algerians, to lead the critique of the PIR, just as we led the critique of the Left, is a matter of self-defense. We believe we have nothing to win from a political operation which subsumes all questions under those of race. For us, not only the question of race, but also those of political economy, and the social relations of sex, are the order of the day.

Political economy and Islamophobia

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Anyone who has taken the RER to Gare du Nord in the morning knows that those who look Arab, black, or Roma, face a constant pressure. “Face control,” police killings, housing in only the most distant banlieues — racial minorities face geographical, social, and symbolic segregation. This integral racism (to take up a phrase of Frantz Fanon), consubstantial with French society, begins with orientation in the fourth grade, or with the search for an internship, or the first job… and extends to all the dimensions of existence. In its multiple appearances, it extends from the streets of rich towns where ethnic men are turned away from nightclubs, to the edges of seas where they are let drown with all the indifference that attends to those who dare cross borders.

In France, Islamophobia — i.e., anti-Muslim racism — is to be understood not merely as a secular opposition to religion, but as a form of racism directed against all who are black or Arab. Its presence is seen in the public space, whether against veiled women, or young people loitering against a wall. The events of January only accentuated this process of stigmatization. From the attacks on mosques to the assaults on veiled women, to the police summons given to eight-year-olds who preferred not to say “Je suis Charlie,” it has become almost impossible for an Arab to speak politically without first prefacing that they are not an Islamist.

But it does not only operate through discriminations or prejudices. Islamophobia returns to a more central issue, the issue of race. This issue functions by assigning a place in the division of labor to certain sections of the population based on their origin or skin color. One need only observe a construction site to note that the heavy labor is performed by blacks, the technical work by Arabs, and that the overseers are white.2 Racism is the regime of material exploitation which has organized the development of European capitalism.

In effect, capitalism promotes market competition not only between capitalists, but between workers as well. This competition takes the form of a process of “naturalization,” which allows a specific devaluation of labor power. Certain sociohistoric traits of the immigrant workforce (for example, qualification, disposition, specialization) are “essentialized”: they are stretched, “typecast.” And this permits employers to bring down cost of labor.

But this process cannot be simply reduced to a “racial premium” of exploitation. It is a total social phenomenon. One may therefore submit that racialization is an essential dynamic under capitalism, which always needs greater labor power, and produces, at the same time, a “surplus” of labor power, always too much.3

Insufficiency of the “colonial” framework

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This racism marks, materially and symbolically, the European metropolitan space. Nevertheless, the strict decolonial framework proposed by PIR prevents us from comprehending the actual dynamics of racism, which exist only in conjunction with the development of global capitalism.

The history of colonialism as such is behind us, but it has left traces. The West — that is, the historical center of accumulation now threatened by crisis — perpetuates, through its “War on Terror,” the continuation of structural exploitation on the world scale. Take, for example, the wars over access to natural resources (oil or “strategic” minerals). But equally at play is the intensification of exploitation in all class segments, beginning with the most fragile. This process of immiseration and marginalization ends by engulfing those subjects who are not black, Arab, or the descendants of the colonized. Continue reading