Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

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Jacobin
has published a short reflection by Peter Frase on identity politics, with the humorous title
“Stay Classy.” Unfortunately, the title is probably the best thing about it. The rest of it is a bit slapdash, haphazardly whipped together. Especially the bit on “racecraft,” which seems both tacked on and untrue to  Barbara and Karen Fields’ argument in their book of the same name. Generally I think Frase is the brains of the bunch over at Jacobin, and still recommend his “Four Futures” essay to anyone interested in the journal. But this piece — as well as his earlier article on the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, “An Imagined Community,” in which he claimed “all politics are identity politics” — I find far weaker.

Anyway, I read this article when it appeared on  Frase’s blog. Here’s what I wrote there, with a few slight alterations:

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The emphasis on “identity” is misleading.

Marx stressed the significance of the proletariat as the “universal class” of bourgeois society because of its decisive position within the capitalist mode of production. Not because workers are the most downtrodden or marginalized members of society, but because they are uniquely placed to overturn the present social order. Immiseration notwithstanding, lumpenproletarians (the so-called “lazy lazzaroni” of  the “classes dangereuses“), the unemployable reserve army of labor, and those still involved in peasant labor have it far worse than those who manage to find waged or salaried jobs under capitalism. So if oppression doesn’t index political potential, what does? What makes the working class so special?

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Once again, it’s not that the working class is inherently radical or progressive. History has shown again and again that workers are susceptible to the influence of reactionary ideologies, and quite often act in ways that seem to go against their best interest. Proletarian parties and political movements have repeatedly erred in assuming that the laboring masses would eventually come around to socialism, only to see their expectations dashed at the final moment. All the same, the proletariat remains the sole hope that capitalism might someday be overcome. If workers aren’t natural-born revolutionaries, though — if they don’t automatically organize around socialist principles — what could possibly justify this continued belief?

Though it risks sounding redundant, we would do well to remind ourselves that the fundamental structuring principle of the capitalist social formation is capital. Capital is a social relationship in which a given magnitude of value, itself comprised of finished products embodying dead labor, must augment itself through the process of production, by coming into contact with living labor that valorizes it further. It is thus necessarily mediated at every level by wage-labor, on which its fructification relies. For this reason, it is dependent on a class of laborers — a social group determined by its relation to the means of production. Continue reading

Divagation on “activism” in aesthetics and politics

From a forthcoming review

Untitled.
Image: Cover to Lajos Kassák’s
Ma: Aktivista folyóirat (1924)

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Excerpted and partially excised from a generally much more favorable review of Ben Davis’ Art and Class, a very worthwhile read. Some of this material strayed a little too far off course to be included.

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The one glaring weakness of Ben Davis’ recent collection 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is its conflation of activism and politics. Of course, Davis is not alone in considering them more or less identical. For many who joined the antiwar movement of the mid-2000s, protest marches were the default mode of political participation. Much of Davis’ frustration with the self-important posturing of “radical” artists stems from this formative experience.

Early on in Art and Class, he recalls an exchange he had with an artist during this period. After conversing for a while about their shared opposition to the Iraq invasion, they each agreed to attend the next chapter meeting of the ANSWER coalition in New York. When the artist failed to show, Davis followed up only to find out that he’d spent his evening in front of an easel instead. The artist apparently informed him that “his painting…was his contribution to making the world a safer place.”[1] Needless to say, Davis was nonplussed by this explanation. Wondering what might lead someone to supply such a dubious alibi, he decided to submit the very idea (or, more accurately, the ideology) of “aesthetic politics” to further scrutiny. Upon closer inspection, he concludes that “[a]s a critical trope, ‘aesthetic politics’ is more of an excuse not to be engaged in the difficult, ugly business of nonartistic political activism than it is a way of contributing to it.”[2] Repeatedly Davis expresses his consternation at this state of affairs, finding most answers to the problem of art and politics wanting. Worse yet, he alleges, the question is no longer even asked: “The question of what, if any, relation artists might have to activism has receded into the background.”[3] Continue reading