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 certain 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.

Continue reading

Religion and revolution: Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being

A response to
Harrison Fluss
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Originally published by the
Communist League Tampa

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In a recent article written for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss revisits the civic religion of the Supreme Being enshrined by Maximilien Robespierre 18 Floréal Year II of the Republic (7 May 1794). Tracing its conceptual origins back to the philosophical discourses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, somewhat less plausibly, the metaphysical system of Baruch Spinoza, the author argues this bygone historical moment still has much to teach the present. He suggests that Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre “provide a solution for the kind of relationship between church and state needed not only for an emancipatory movement, but for the emancipated society of the future.”

Several things are already implied by this statement. First, religious institutions — i.e., the church — will by no means be done away with in the future society Fluss envisions. No less scandalously, at least from a Marxist perspective, secular institutions — i.e., the state — will also continue to exist. Both conclusions flow from the assertion that a relationship between church and state will always be necessary, since both must still be around in order for them to relate. Even after the material conditions which necessitate spiritual and temporal power have been superseded, in other words, Fluss seems to believe they will persist in every time and in every clime. Religio perennis lurks behind all the superficial changes in mythology over the centuries, expressing an immutable desire. Likewise the need for a repressive apparatus, the administrative machinery of government, never fully fades.

Whether or not this is actually the case, others have often held quite the opposite view of humanity’s prospects moving forward through history. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, scolded their Hegelian colleague, Georg Daumer, for promoting a new pantheistic creed. “It is clear that with every great historical upheaval of social conditions the outlooks and ideas of men, and consequently their religious ideas, are revolutionized,” they wrote in their joint review of Daumer’s 1850 book Die Religion des Neuen Weltalters. “The difference between the present upheaval and all previous ones consists in the fact that man has at last figured out the secret of this process of historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this [process] in the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.” Decades later, Engels famously maintained that the proletariat, in the course of its transition to socialism, eventually “abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as state.” After a certain point, the state simply dies off or withers away [stirbt ab].

For Marx and Engels, then, a society in which the state endures — much less the church — cannot be called emancipated.

религия-яд береги ребят

Perhaps this is too literal, though, reading too much into too little. Here is not the place for biblical exegesis, at any rate, searching for answers in “sacred” texts. Besides, by focusing on abstruse theoretical matters like the withering away [Absterben] of church and state, one avoids the eminently practical issue Fluss was trying to address. Over and above such heady speculations, then, the historical analogy he offers in his article may be scrutinized to see if it is apt. Can Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being truly serve as a model for resolving the antinomy of church and state today? 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

If Charlie Hebdo is racist, then so am I — Zineb el-Rhazoui responds to Olivier Cyran

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Once more on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Since it happened more than a week ago, various commentators have explored the issue of the magazine’s alleged Islamophobia. A quality that, if I might say so myself, is quite often in evidence. Nevertheless, the matter is more complex and opaque than a few unambiguously racist images lifted from their original context would suggest.

For starters, I’d recommend checking out the Olivier Cyran article from 2013, translated by Daphne Lawless, to get a sense of some of the internal dissent that existed within their editorial team since 2001. But I’ve done some looking around and learned that even this article probably isn’t definitive, since it’s pretty clear Cyran had a messy falling out with some of the staff at Charlie Hebdo. Still, I don’t think Cyran can be entirely discredited even if he did have an axe to grind with some of the staff.

And there’s also this, a riposte written by a Muslim woman who worked for Charlie Hebdo when Cyran’s article appeared. She points out that he omitted her name in discussing the various cartoonists at the magazine. Which she says is an understandable mistake, pouring salt on the wound, since her name is “difficult to remember,” signing it in full at the end: Zaynab bint Mohammad ibn al-Mâatî al-Rhazwî al-Harîzî. Either way, however, it seems beyond question that Philippe Val — the editor who took over after 2001 — is an ardent Zionist and neocon creep. His promotion to this position would seem in line with the magazine’s overall rightward drift, post-9/11.

Regardless, I’m reposting a slightly modified translation of the Zineb el-Rhazoui reply by Seth Ackerman below. It appears in a link toward the end of his most recent Jacobin piece, but since many may not have read it I thought I’d give it a broader platform. Like Kenan Malik, el-Rhazoui is a thorn in the side of “white knight” do-gooders from the Marxist camp, like Richard Seymour, who’d like to simplify matters and speak out on behalf of all the Muslim immigrants living in Europe. Maybe she’ll be tarred as just another Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal interventionist and outspoken critic of Islam. Or maybe, just maybe, she’ll be read on her own terms.

[I will only add that the translation of Gruppe Soziale Kämpfe’s statement on the persecution of Muslims throughout the West is worth reading, and that it can be found on Comrade Seymour’s blog.]

15-1502-AEDBD00ZeGxjdm1sMTI=_o_lacite-inch-allah---zineb-el-rhazoui-22

If Charlie is racist, then so am I

Zineb el-Rhazoui
Cercle des volontaires
December 22, 2013
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On December 5th [2013], I learned in the press that I have a terrible disease. The diagnosis, by Olivier Cyran on the website Article 11, is definitive: I am a racist. Being of French citizenship, I was anxious to identify which races were likely to activate my white-woman antibodies before the malady could advance any further. My suspicions naturally gravitated to the descendants of those exotic hordes who are said to be invading Old France to steal our bread, my bread. The Chinese? I’ve received no Asian complaint on this score. The blacks of Africa and elsewhere? That happens to be the color of the man I love. The drinkers of vodka? I just came back from a year’s exile in Slovenia and don’t especially remember being allergic to Slavic charms. Who then? “Whites”? I wouldn’t venture to think Olivier Cyran could adhere to the theory of “anti-white racism.” No. I didn’t have to make it far into the piece to be reassured that his diagnosis was more precise: my racism, thank God (that idiot), is only aimed at Muslims, and I  contracted this dangerous syndrome from the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo. An occupational illness, then. Because Olivier Cyran is himself a veteran of the shop, though I never had the pleasure of meeting him — since he had the luck, and the balls, according to him, to get out before the infection could spread  through the paper — I’ve decided to address him as tu, since we use tu among colleagues at Charlie.

Olivier, you start from the premise that the Muslims of Azerbaijan, of Bosnia, of Malaysia, Egypt or Burkina Faso, represent a single whole that can be designated as a “race.” Well, it so happens that that’s the one I belong to. The fact that I’m an atheist, and proud of it? It makes no difference, since you don’t ask us what we think; you talk about racism, and therefore race. I won’t keep beating around the bush, since I don’t doubt for a second that, like me, you perfectly understand the distinction between a religion and a race. If you make this lamentable conflation, it’s because you engage in a sociological fallacy whose origins lie in the demography of France: our Muslims are most often those we call “Arabs.” I’m sort of starting to understand why you speak of racism. But let’s try to be precise: we’re not talking about the Arabs of Lebanon, who are rarely encountered in the French projects, nor the persecuted Arab Ahwazi minority of Iran, whom nobody in France talks about, and certainly not the Arabs of Qatar who keep Louis Vuitton in business.  No, you’re talking about the “Arabs” of North Africa. (And here again, it so happens to be the “race” from whence I sprang). Moreover, for your information, those “Arabs” aren’t always Arabs. The best-informed people in France know that they are Berbers, a word of Greek origin, “Bearded,” which refers to us Amazighes, Imazighen — Free Men, as we like to call ourselves. I am thus triply qualified to dispel the obvious confusion you manifest when you identify those you claim to be defending: the Muslim race.

A Muslim you will stay

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Among the individuals that you assign to this racial category, there are militant atheists like me, obviously secularist [laïque]. There are atheists who have other fish to fry, they are secularists too. There are atheists who love Charlie Hebdo and support it; others less so or not at all. There are agnostics, skeptics, free-thinkers, deists; they are secularists as well. There are believers who are non-practicing but politically Islamist, practicing but secularist, or even those with “no opinion,” whose daily lives do not suffer because of Charlie Hebdo. There are converts to Christianity — and oh, are they secularist, for they’ve endured the terrors of theocracy in their countries of origin. And finally there are the fundamentalists [intégristes], the militant Islamists, the adherents of an identity defined above all by religion, and those are the ones you have chosen to defend. Those are the ones who, given the reality of  French laïcité, have no other choice than to cry racism, a tear in their eye and a hand on their heart, on the pretext that their “religious feelings” have been mocked by a drawing in Charlie. Among them you will find many who stand for laïcité in France but vote Ennahda in Tunisia, who do their shopping at a Parisian halal butcher but would cry scandal if an eccentric decided to open a charcuterie in Jeddah. Who are outraged when a day care center fires a veiled employee but say nothing when someone they know forces his daughter to wear the veil. They are a minority. But they are the standard to which you have chosen to align the identity of all of us.

Enough generalities, which I didn’t think a man of the pen needed to be reminded of. If I’ve taken up mine to answer you, it is not solely to defend myself from racism, but above all because in my journalist’s memory I have rarely resented an opinion column as much as I did yours. If you will allow an Arab to address her own complaint, let me tell you that your rhetoric and arguments are the most sophisticated variety of racism that exists in France. Rare are those today who would risk shouting from the rooftops, “Ragheads Out!” The extremists who would do so would immediately be jeered by you, by me, and by a majority of the French people. First of all, you quote Bernard Maris, Catherine, Charb, Caroline Fourest. What about me, what about me! You preferred to omit my name, when it was my articles that you pointed to as dangerously “Islamophobic,” thus, according to you, necessarily racist. Frankly, I wondered why, and I see only two options:

Either

  1. you didn’t want to let Charlie Hebdo’s detractors (who can only subscribe to your thinking if they never read the paper) know that the author of these racist ravings belongs precisely to the Muslim “race,” or
  2. you simply didn’t think that, as a person, I was worth naming, since in a fascist rag like Charlie I couldn’t be anything but the house Arab.

I must have been hired as an alibi, so that Charlie could hit its diversity quota, but you could never imagine that I could be brought on staff for the same reasons that you were. An Olivier, of course, is hired for his professional qualities; a Zineb is only hired by affirmative action. Or maybe you spared me because in my case you have no personal scores to settle, as you do with a fair number of your former colleagues. In that case, I would have readers seek the motives behind your article somewhere other than the realm of ideas.

Racism by omission

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A Zineb who spits on Islam, that’s beyond you, isn’t it? It disconcerts you so much that you preferred not to name me, so as not to introduce any doubt as to the veracity of your accusations of racism against us, the journalists of Charlie. If the expression “spit on Islam” shocks you, let me answer you on that too. Why the hell is a “white person” who spits on Christianity an anticlerical, but an Arab who spits on Islam is alienated, an alibi, a house Arab, an incoherence that one would prefer not even to name? Why? Do you think that people of my race, and myself, are congenitally sealed off from the ubiquitous ideas of atheism and anticlericalism? Or is it that you think that unlike other peoples, our identity is solely structured by religion? What is left of an Arab when he no longer has Islam? To listen to you, a person like me must be some kind of harki of the Koran, we are traitors so profoundly stricken by a racial complex that we harbor a single regret, that of not being white. As for me, my interactions with Muslims and Arabs did not begin with the [1983] Marche des beurs. I’m what is called a blédarde, born in Morocco to an indigenous father and French mother. It’s there that I was educated and began my career as a journalist in a weekly paper that was shut down by the regime in 2010. My colleagues from the old country can explain to you how, in 2006, the Moroccan police state, which had other scores to settle with us, organized a fake demonstration of Islamists in front of the office of the Journal Hebdo, which was accused of having published Charlie′s caricatures. In reality, it was a photo of a random person seated at a café terrace holding a copy of Charlie Hebdo. I can also tell you that your piece in Article11 was posted on Moroccan websites, the same kind of sites that would never dare to poke their noses into a corruption scandal involving the King, for example. I won’t hide from you that on this one you managed to make not only the Islamists happy but also the Moroccan dictatorship that forced me and several of my colleagues into exile, and which continues to harass us as traitors to the nation, henchmen of foreign powers hostile to Morocco, even to Islam. A piece like yours is worth its weight in gold to the royalist police agents, who sponsored a “dossier” against Charlie published in a gutter newspaper in Casablanca. It informs readers that, among other things, the Molotov cocktail attack on Charlie′s offices in November 2011 was an insurance fraud, and that Charb drives a Ferrari thanks to all the dough we make. I don’t know if you’ve heard from Charb since you left the paper, but he still hasn’t passed his driving test. In another Morroccan article on Charlie, I learned I’d been hired because I had slept with Caroline Fourest and that my reporting was financed by the Algerian, Spanish, Israeli secret services. Clearly a raghead can’t really be hired for the same reasons as an Olivier.

My friend, I know you have nothing to do with the whole journalistic sewer that serves the Mohammed VI dictatorship. I simply want to show you who you’re making happy, if my pieces on Islam might occasionally please a few members of the Front Nationale.

You see, Olivier, as a blédarde born in the Maghreb, assigned against my will to a religious pigeonhole, not only by you, but above all by a theocratic state that does not allow me to choose my faith and which governs my personal status by religious laws, I have always wondered why guys like you lie down before Islamist propaganda. The laws of my country do not grant me a quarter of the rights you acquired at birth, and if I were to be attacked or raped in the streets of Casablanca by a barbu, as has been promised in hundreds of emails — never taken seriously by the Morroccan police — the websites that posted your article will definitely say I was asking for it because I don’t respect Islam. And you here in France, in a secularist state, you rehash, without grasping its implications, this whole moralizing discourse about how one must “respect Islam,” as demanded by the Islamists, who do not ask whether Islam respects other religions, or other people. Why the hell should I respect Islam? Does it respect me?  The day Islam shows the slightest bit of consideration to women, first of all, and secondly toward free-thinkers, I promise you I will rethink my positions.

The Front Nationale? Don’t know them

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It is not in order to please the Front Nationale that I fight alongside all the atheists of Morrocco, Tunisia, Egypt, or Palestine. Because believe me, a lot of virulent atheists in the Arab world — so virulent they regularly spend time in jail for blasphemy — have never heard of Marine Le Pen, and couldn’t possibly care if what they say pleases the French far right, because they’re too busy fighting their own far right: Islamism. If you will permit us, we “Islamophobes” of the Muslim race think the liberation of our societies will necessarily come through emancipation from the yoke of state religion. Since that is what Islam is more or less everywhere in the so-called Arab countries, you’ll also find there a strong opposition to theocracy, which is fed not only by the universal idea of separation of church and state but also by the skepticism and historicization of Islamic texts. We permit ourselves just about anything, such as, for example, thinking that Mohammed, and even Allah, are not unrepresentable. Caricatures, parodies of Koranic verses or hadiths, you just have to look around on our internet forums to see that Charlie was not the original source here.

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Against kitsch criticism

Not to be elit­ist or de­lib­er­ately “high brow,” but I feel like the ana­lys­is of pop cul­ture phe­nom­ena has more than run its course in left­ist circles. Or rather, be­ing op­tim­ist­ic, it’s be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate the wheat from the chaff, to sift genu­ine in­sights from a sea of banal­it­ies. Per­haps the real cri­terion is time, see­ing wheth­er or not a giv­en work or series stands up to re­valu­ation after a few years. At least then, once philo­sophy’s painted its gray on gray, there’s some sense of bal­ance and per­spect­ive. Did movie x or y truly cap­ture something of the cul­tur­al Zeit­geist? Is it still rel­ev­ant today? Hence the more qual­ity re­flec­tions tend to ar­rive only after the fact, like Agata Pyzik’s “Mauer Dream­story” (on An­drzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Pos­ses­sion) or Fre­dric Jameson’s “Real­ism and Uto­pia in The Wire (on the hit show by Dav­id Si­mon).

Writers for The New In­quiry and even Jac­obin would do well to re­vis­it an old es­say by Har­old Rosen­berg on “kitsch cri­ti­cism,” which ex­am­ines that odd situ­ation where a piece of writ­ing or com­ment­ary comes to re­semble the ob­ject it sup­posedly cri­tiques: dull, eph­em­er­al, and ul­ti­mately for­get­table. Ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Dis­sent back in 1958, and later re­pub­lished in Rosen­berg’s in­flu­en­tial col­lec­tion The Tra­di­tion of the New, it ob­serves that

[o]ne of the grot­esquer­ies of present-day Amer­ic­an life is the amount of reas­on­ing that goes in­to dis­play­ing the wis­dom secreted in bad movies while prov­ing that mod­ern art is mean­ing­less. Yet it is noth­ing else than the in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­a­tion of kitsch.

Un­like his con­tem­por­ary, Clem­ent Green­berg, who would prob­ably agree with him that end­less in­quir­ies in­to mass cul­ture are a waste of time, Rosen­berg did not think that kitsch could be elim­in­ated by simply cham­pi­on­ing mod­ern art. “There is no coun­ter­concept to kitsch,” he main­tained. “Its ant­ag­on­ist is not an idea but real­ity. To do away with kitsch it is ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape, as it was ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape of Sardin­ia in or­der to get rid of the mal­ari­al mos­quito.” Neither by del­ic­ate de­mys­ti­fic­a­tion nor po­lem­ic­al an­ni­hil­a­tion can kitsch be re­moved.

So please, lay off the art­icles al­tern­ately de­clar­ing “Death to the Gamer” or stand­ing “In De­fense of Gamers,” or dreck about how Break­ing Bad is some­how ra­cist or the black fam­ily sit­com is in ter­min­al de­cline. Lana Del Rey is cool, and I even like some of her songs, but ded­ic­at­ing a whole is­sue of a magazine to the Kul­turkritik of her latest al­bum just seems to me like the­or­et­ic­al overkill.

I say this as someone who ap­pre­ci­ates many of the clas­sic stud­ies of film, tele­vi­sion, and mass me­dia con­duc­ted by Ben­jamin, Ad­orno, Barthes, and oc­ca­sion­ally some even today. For their sake, if not for mine, knock it off.

Just a brief up­date, Decem­ber 2016: For whatever reas­on, the amount of “cri­ti­cism” writ­ten in this vein has only in­creased. Sam Kriss is a very tal­en­ted writer, of­ten an in­sight­ful crit­ic. But his calls to “smash the force” (i.e., “[the latest Star Wars is] not just in­fant­ile bour­geois ul­traleft­ism; it’s Blan­quism in space”) and “res­ist Pokémon Go (i.e., “this form [of game] de­mands a par­tic­u­lar type of en­gage­ment, that of a vi­cious, sticky-fingered child”) fall flat. Kriss has done pop cul­tur­al cri­tique quite well in the past, one need only look at his bril­liant sen­dup of Hildebeast in “Just Plain Nasty” for proof of this fact. If you’re look­ing for a funny and un­ex­pec­tedly com­pel­ling in­ter­pret­a­tion of Star Wars, check out “The Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of Luke Sky­walk­er: One Jedi’s Path to Ji­had” in­stead.

Political efficacy and the “right to resist”

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Jacobin
 published an article today by Tariq Dana titled “The Palestinian Resistance and Its Enemies.” It presents a rather sympathetic portrait of the origins of the group Hamas amidst the failed Oslo Accords and pervasive violence of the Second Intifada, mentioning some of the criticisms made of the Islamist group along the way. Dana doesn’t so much argue that Hamas deserves the support of the Left as he does resistance more broadly deserves its support. He alleges that Israel’s overt rhetoric against Hamas covertly attempts to delegitimate resistance as such. As Dana pithily puts it:

[Israel’s] propaganda war against Hamas targets the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance itself.

Of course, this argument could be easily inverted by apologists for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Just as specific denunciation of resistance by Hamas supposedly undermines resistance in general, so support for resistance in general can by extension be considered specific support for resistance by Hamas. Needless to say, this is a bit shortsighted, and precludes a more nuanced or qualified approach to the matter.

My skepticism toward contemporary natlib (national liberation) politics notwithstanding, the focus of Dana’s article seems a little off to me. Its mistake is twofold:

  1. First, in terms of the ideological composition of the forces resisting Israeli aggression. The issue is not, or should not be, whether “the right to resist” — a Lockean concept — is legitimate. Rather, it’s a question of what the political content of such a resistance amounts to. No doubt many in Gaza will feel that such resistance is justified so long as Israel continues to push a stateless population into increasingly cramped and unlivable conditions. But this does nothing to change the fact that the ideology of Hamas is fundamentally incompatible with Marxist politics.
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  2. Second, in terms of the practical efficacy of certain tactics of resistance and “resistance” as such. What is the actual effect of firing rockets into Israel, in response to airstrikes in civilian zones? Or, taking into account some of Hamas’ past tactics, suicide bombings? Considered simply as attrition, i.e. an attempt to “bleed” the enemy dry or break its will, this does not seem an effective or advisable strategy. If the significance of such actions is merely the gesture of defiance, symbolic but ultimately futile, then I’m unsure what their political payoff might be.

Broadly speaking, there is a confusion between means and ends in leftist politics today.

TOPSHOTS-ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-GAZA-CONFLICT  MK2481

Here the goal should be an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign and its broader interference in the economic and political life of the occupied territories, to be followed by land concessions and the normalization of relations between Palestine and Israel. Whether a one-state or two-state solution is tenable can only be determined on this more stable basis.

To summarize the main questions raised above: Should the Left lend “critical support” to Hamas, despite its avowedly right-wing (even explicitly antisemitic) politics? Moreover, is the line of “resistance” it’s been pursuing likely to achieve the desired political outcome?

In a future post, I intend to assess the viability of international solidarity movements such as Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions as well as occasional declarations by Trotskyist groups of “unconditional but critical support” for organizations such as Hamas or the Irish Republican Army.

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

Quantifying identity politics

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It would appear that the Turkish economist Dani Rodrik, famous for his book Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (1997), has discovered an equation that will allow manic, model-building systematists and other schemers to quantify identity politics. He first unveiled the formula in the context of a larger paper entitled “When Ideas Trump Interests,” seemingly an attempt to provide a crude numerical account of ideology and its influence. Rodrik even mentions “false consciousness” at one point.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether he’s deliberately trolling or just horribly misguided. Either way, it’s lulzy in the extreme.

Of course, this isn’t to say that finding a metric to approximate different forms of cultural or gender identity based on buying habits (perhaps based on brand “identification”) wouldn’t be valuable to some. As I’ve pointed out in a past post, professional marketing consultants like Flavia Dzodan have already used theory buzzwords like “intersectionality” as a means of branding themselves as online political personae. Conceivably, data on how different groups or individuals identify could help companies target consumers more effectively, useful in advertising strategies. Facebook’s customizable gender options, introduced recently, could prove to be a goldmine of exploitable demographic information, for example.

Here’s the equation, in any case, along with a photo from a lecture he recently gave on the subject. Continue reading

The artist at work

Robin Treadwell
Platypus Review
February 1, 2014
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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013

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On a May night in 2012, Sotheby’s sold a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for 119.9 million dollars, setting a new record for the price paid for a single work of art. Meanwhile, union art handlers, locked out in a months-long dispute over a new contract, picketed the auction house along with Occupy Museums activists. While this sad little snapshot of art world disparity is not exactly new, the past few years have seen this type of excess thrown into sharp relief — against the background of the 2008 financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Occupy movement. Niche art blogs, art magazines, and more mainstream outlets are increasingly scandalized by the intersection of art and money, perhaps because it has become so glaring. For instance, last year Reuters’ finance blogger, Felix Salmon, wrote an outraged piece chiding a Citibank “research report” on the artist Gerhard Richter, complete with a graph tracking his auction prices and those of other blue-chip artists in comparison to the S&P 500.[1] In 2011, the New York Times published a lengthy expose of Ronald Lauder’s strategic donations of art to his own museum, the Neue Galerie, as a sophisticated tax evasion strategy.[2] Prominent art writer Jerry Saltz periodically chimes in on the subject, lately with complaints about the dominance and corrupting influence of “mega-galleries” such as Gagosian, a franchise with fourteen locations worldwide, calling them “too big not to fail.”[3] The legendary art critic Dave Hickey has opted out of the game altogether, preferring not to continue on as a member of the “courtier class”: “All we [art editors and critics] do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time,” he told the Observer.[4] Additionally, museums and other art institutions host a seemingly endless series of public forums, talks and panel discussions with titles such as “Materials, Money & Crisis” and “Art Against Reification.”

Artists, too, have long voiced concerns. The artist Andrea Fraser has made a career of institutional critique; her inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial may be a sign of this particular genre’s renewed cachet. The Biennial is traditionally viewed as an indicator of the art world’s general mood, and in 2012 this mood was introspective art-about-art. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith praised the show for its avoidance of “usual suspects and blue-chip galleries,” going on to write that it “separates art objects from the market and moves them closer to where they come from, artists.”[5] Fraser’s contribution, an incisive essay titled “There’s No Place Like Home,” argues that art discourse, her own brand of institutional critique included, has itself become co-opted; moreover, it often serves as a way to avoid actually dealing with issues in a meaningful way — critique as a form of inoculation.

Despite all the hand-wringing over the economics of the art world, one rarely finds class mentioned, much less Marxism. This despite the fact that art theory still employs the language of (Marxist) cultural theory via the Frankfurt school — as Andrea Fraser puts it in the above-mentioned essay, the “broad and often unquestioned claim” is that “art in some way critiques, negates, questions, challenges, confronts, contests, subverts, or transgresses norms, conventions, hierarchies, relations of power and domination, or other social structures.”[6] One gets the sense, however, that the contemporary art world considers itself much too (post-)postmodern and sophisticated to seriously give credence to anything as reductive as Marxism. Yet there is clearly a yearning, at least in some quarters, for a more systematic way of addressing the situation art finds itself in at present.

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

This is the somewhat fraught atmosphere into which Ben Davis’ new book of essays, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, emerges. Davis, a self-identified Marxist and activist who was until recently the executive editor of Artinfo.com, wrote the title essay as a contribution to a show at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea. The show, “#class,” was a response to yet another art world controversy, over a show at the New Museum devoted to the collection of a wealthy trustee, Dakis Joannou, and curated not by one of the museum’s staff, but by an art-star friend of Joannou, the much-loathed Jeff Koons. A numbered, cross-indexed series of declarative statements, which Davis originally taped to the gallery door a la Martin Luther, the essay stands out as the book’s boldest and most rigorous chapter:

Thesis 1.0: Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art.

1.1: Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent of society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts.

1.7: …a critique of the art market is not the same as a critique of class in the sphere of the visual arts. Class is more fundamental and determinate than the market. (27)

The essay’s central argument is that “the predominant character of this sphere [of the visual arts] is middle-class” (28). By this, Davis means that artists have a degree of authority over the conditions and, to some extent, products of their own work that wage-laborers, no matter how well-paid, do not; but that, unlike the ruling class, they are not “capital personified,” i.e., they pursue their work for more than simply profit. Continue reading

A Soviet homage to the Great French Revolution

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Happy Bastille Day, everyone. To celebrate, here are some assorted artworks by early Soviet sculptors and painters commemorating the Great French Revolution.

We begin with two pieces from the years immediately following the October Revolution. One of these, of course, is the sculptor Nikolai Andreev’s frightening Head of Danton (1919). Less well known are the memorials to M. Robespierre (1918 & 1920) by Beatrice Sandomirskaia [Беатрисе Сандомирская] and Sarra Lebedeva.

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Still more remarkable, though from a slightly later date, is the set of illustrations by the Bolshevik artist Mikhail Sokolov depicting the principal actors and main events of the last great bourgeois revolution. These were intended as part of a volume entitled Figures of the 1789 French Revolution (1930-1934), and are reproduced below alongside some of the historical representations on which Sokolov’s work was based.

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