Looking back: A self-critique

It’s never easy to look yourself in the mirror and own up to your mistakes. For a long time, I balked at the very idea. Part of it felt too reminiscent of Stalinist/Maoist self-criticism, in its ritualized form of самокритика or autocritique. Whenever a person demands that someone else “self-crit” online, the image that most readily comes to mind is that of medieval flagellants — lashing their own backs while begging forgiveness for their sins. Quite often it feels forced and insincere, as if the people who yield to the demand are just going through the motions in order to be quickly absolved and be done with the matter as soon as possible.

But another reason I refrained from public self-criticism is that my views change rather gradually, to the point where I only notice that I’ve changed my mind well after the fact. Sometimes I think a certain degree of stubbornness can be a virtue, insofar as it means you stick to your guns and don’t just bend in the direction of a shifting wind. Other times, however, it is clearly a vice, especially when you are in the wrong. Even then, when I recognize that I no longer hold my former position on a given issue, I am reluctant to announce that this is the case. Not because I’m unwilling to admit I was wrong, but because I’d prefer to demonstrate this through my actions moving forward instead of dwelling on the past.

Unfortunately, though — or maybe fortunately, for those who like to keep score — the internet has a long memory. I’ve certainly said plenty of stupid shit in my time, things I either regret or simply don’t agree with anymore. There were things I shouldn’t have said, situations I should have handled differently, arguments I should’ve considered more carefully before posting or tweeting or whatnot. You can probably find evidence of them if you look hard enough. Really it shouldn’t even be that hard, as I have not made much of an effort to scrub Twitter or other social media of dumb controversies I’ve been involved in (unless someone specifically asked me to take something down).

Perhaps it would help to be a little more concrete. Just to give one example of something I’ve changed my mind on, or have rather come to a better understanding of, take trans struggles. When debates over gender fluidity first came up several years ago, I knew virtually nothing about the issues trans people have had to deal with. I’m still far from an expert, obviously, but to get a sense of how ignorant I was at the time, I only learned what the prefix “cis-” meant around 2013. Before then, I had no idea what any of it meant. Or really what a whole host of related terms signified. By late 2014 or early 2015 I’d rethought my views.

Much of the discourse on this topic, to be fair, was pretty new back then. And it’s still evolving, though it seems to have stabilized a bit. Regardless, I could’ve done more to learn about it before shooting my mouth off or weighing in on the matter. For example, when Facebook introduced its exhaustive list of fifty-six new gender options four or five years ago, I poked fun at it on social media, since I figured the more customizable taxonomy was introduced so Zuckerberg would have more data about the users of his website to sell to ad agencies. Looking back, I don’t think what I said was too egregious or intentionally hurtful, but probably came off as insensitive all the same.  Continue reading

Free speech on and off campus: In defense of George Ciccariello-Maher

Yes­ter­day I learned that George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, an as­so­ciate pro­fess­or at Drexel Uni­versity in Phil­adelphia, has re­cently come un­der fire for a stu­pid joke he sent out on Twit­ter a couple of days ago. On Christ­mas Eve, he tweeted: “All I want for Christ­mas is white gen­o­cide.” Im­me­di­ately Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er began re­ceiv­ing angry replies and death threats. Soon the right-wing news di­gest Breit­bart picked up the story, which then led to fur­ther out­cry around the web. Drexel re­spon­ded the next day by is­su­ing a state­ment that con­demned the “in­flam­mat­ory tweet,” call­ing it “ut­terly rep­re­hens­ible” while as­sur­ing read­ers that the school “takes this mat­ter very ser­i­ously.”

Need­less to say, this is an out­rageous ef­fort by a ma­jor con­ser­vat­ive out­let to muzzle a minor left-wing aca­dem­ic. By whip­ping up pub­lic in­dig­na­tion, this gang of on­line re­ac­tion­ar­ies hopes to ex­ert enough in­sti­tu­tion­al pres­sure to threaten Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s live­li­hood. This comes only a few weeks after the un­veil­ing of Turn­ing Point USA’s Pro­fess­or Watch­list, a neo-Mc­Carthy­ite ini­ti­at­ive that pur­ports to mon­it­or “pro­fess­ors who ad­vance a rad­ic­al agenda in lec­ture halls” by com­pil­ing a dossier of their “sub­vers­ive” activ­it­ies. Were Drexel to pun­ish or oth­er­wise dis­cip­line Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, it would set an alarm­ing pre­ced­ent. Ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech ought to be pro­tec­ted.

Cyn­thia Walk­er has drawn up a pe­ti­tion in sup­port of the em­battled pro­fess­or, which I en­cour­age every­one to sign. I’ve ad­ded my own sig­na­ture to it, along with sev­en thou­sand or so who have done like­wise, des­pite some linger­ing doubts about the ef­fic­acy of such meas­ures. (Maybe oth­er people had more ex­cit­ing civics classes than I did, but I nev­er much saw the point of writ­ing con­cerned let­ters or fer­vent en­treat­ies. Just takes a second, though, so it’s not really a hassle). Re­gard­less of what one may think of him, it’s not as if he de­serves to lose his job over this petty shit.

Continue reading

Against political determinism

“Neoliberalism” is a tricky and often misleading term. There have been myriad attempts to theorize it from a Marxist perspective, more or less adequate, usually less. But at the level of campaign slogans and mainstream political discourse there is a marked tendency to treat the whole phase of capitalist development from 1973 to 2008 as the result of a series of blunders, mishaps, or shady backroom dealings. Michael Rectenwald’s article on Sanders, Trumpism, and Brexit explores this crude political reductionism through the lens of what Andrew Kliman has called “political determinism,” the obverse of the economic determinism denounced by Lenin a century ago.

Rectenwald is not thus falling back on some caricatured version of the old Economist thesis that politics in no way mediates economics. He’s not arguing that policies are irrelevant, nor that they are simply a reflex of underlying economic shifts. What Kliman and Rectenwald are each looking to counter is a kind of idealistic voluntarism whereby electoral events, plebiscites or referenda, assume disproportionate importance or are even made into independent causes of subsequent growth. Perhaps they might be seen to herald a sea shift, but as Rectenwald points out, there can be no return to postwar productivity and prosperity — a “new New Deal” or post-neoliberal Fordism redux.

Many predicted that the 2008 financial crisis would finally draw the neoliberal phase of capitalism to a close. The election of Barack Obama was accompanied by a vague “hope” that things might “change”: one-word condensations of the new Zeitgeist, which featured prominently on posters across the nation. Eight years on, it’s difficult to remember the sense of enthusiasm and intoxication occasioned by Obama’s presidency. Occupy’s only significance — beyond the rhetoric of “the 99% vs. the 1%,” which seems to have stuck — was that it expressed the frustration and disappointment of voters who had swept Obama into office. Syriza, Podemos, and the Arab Spring arose to fill the void.

Commentators have by now for the most part acknowledged that earlier predictions of neoliberalism’s imminent collapse, the death-knell of the Reagan-Thatcher (but also Clinton-Blair) consensus, were premature. In the intervening years, the Tea Party had become known more for its libertarian attitude than its xenophobic paranoia. Austerity measures were imposed on Greece, but only after being ratified by the Syriza coalition in power. Now the British decision to leave the European Union is seen as the long-awaited, delayed-reaction repudiation of failed neoliberal politics.

To the horror of most, however, the ideological impetus behind this decision came mostly from the Right, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment and delusions of autarky. Protectionist proposals, tariffs and the like, can come just as easily from the Right as from the Left. Farage and Trump, or rather the politics they seem to personify, testify to this fact. Rectenwald is correct to reexamine the faulty analysis that takes politicians to be the prime movers of socioeconomic change, since the same misconceptions inform movements that seek their salvation in candidates. One can’t “just say no” to neoliberalism, something which Rectenwald has already pointed out.

2/11/1985 President Reagan shaking hands with Donald Trump and Ivana trump during the State Visit of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at the state dinner in the Blue Room

Sanders, Trumpism, and Brexit:
The decrepit state of capitalism

Michael Rectenwald
The Marxist-Humanist
Initiative (July 2016)

There’s a basic article of faith in leftist thought, held especially dearly by most among the US left. It is so entrenched and so seldom challenged that it has attained the status of myth, an unquestioned origin story on par with the Book of Genesis, as the latter must have been regarded within Christendom during the Middle Ages.

The myth goes like this: During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — two arch-conservative, right-wing, and highly potent politicians — rose to power in their respective nations, the US and the UK. They thereafter began to institute what was for the vast majority a vile and destructive political and economic scheme: “neoliberalism.” Previous to the installment of this neoliberal scheme, the working class had experienced relative economic improvement, and capitalists seemed happy too (as if we care). But suddenly, and seemingly without cause (although the failure of Keynesianism was apparent in the unprecedented stagflation of the 1970s), these evil political twins, prompted by wizards who formalized the approach, introduced the nefarious ideology of neoliberalism to the world. As cruel and heartless representatives of the capitalist class (which, indeed, they were), they and their supporters caused the Fall from the supposed Paradise of Keynesian reformism that had preceded them. In this mythological version of reality, neoliberalism is understood merely as a set of essentially unwarranted and unusually brutal policies, an ideological and political formation that was hatched in the brains of evil masterminds conspiring in right-wing think tanks, concocted to dupe and punish the vast majority for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Continue reading

The missing category of totality

Feminist Fightback
, an activist collective based in the UK, published an article several months back which asks: “Is intersectionality just another form of identity politics?” Recently the piece was featured on the LibCom website, receiving renewed attention through broader circulation. The authors critically examine two of the better pieces to emerge from the Vampires’ Castle debacle a couple years ago, both of which have been reposted on this blog. Eve Mitchell’s Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality and Michael Rectenwald’s theoretical reflections responded to the ire of those who felt intersectional analysis offered a much-needed corrective to Marxism’s obsessive focus on class — i.e., its supposed “class reductionism.” Some prominent Marxist bloggers had already begun to reorient their politics around what Richard Seymour called “the point of intersection.”

While the authors from Feminist Fightback right to point out that the concept of “intersectionality” started out as a critique of various forms of identity politics operating in isolation from one another, it is not as if Mitchell or Rectenwald overlooked this fact. Mitchell explicitly acknowledges that “[i]ntersectionality theorists correctly identified and critiqued [the narrowness of] identity politics.” But she immediately adds that “while intersectionality theory seems to overcome the limitations of identity politics, it falls short,” diagnosing it as a form of bourgeois ideology. Rectenwald likewise recognizes that intersectionality originated as part of a polemic against identity politics, but concurs with Mitchell that the former shares many weaknesses with the latter:

[O]perating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship.

Perhaps the Feminist Fightback members who wrote this article felt that Mitchell and Rectenwald did not take intersectionality’s challenge to identity politics seriously enough. Still, it cannot be said that either was simply unaware that intersectionality first arose in opposition to earlier movements based on identity. Moreover, it is unclear whether intersectional politics is ever able to fully escape the horizon of identity politics. Instead, it simply ends up multiplying or overlaying various identities to in order to form a more comprehensive perspective. This perspective alone, claim its adherents, is adequate to the unevenness and complexity of contemporary reality. What they fail to grasp, however, is that identity is precisely the problem. Marxism aims at the abolition of class, race, and gender, and the forms of group identity associated with them. Feminist Fightback insists that the analysis of intersecting axes of oppression emphasized structural rather than individual aspects of identity-formation, especially in its earliest iterations. “Early proponents of intersectionality clearly stated that this theory was about how oppressions were inextricably intertwined at a structural level,” they write.

How exactly are these structures articulated, though? In my view, what is missing from all these political perspectives based on group identification is a concept of the social totality, as well as an historical pivot from which to critique and transform it. Totality here refers to a unified whole comprised of “conceptually distinct but interrelated parts,” as Marx put it in Capital, a singular process divisible into objective and subjective moments: “the objective conditions of labor (the means of production) and its subjective conditions, purposively active capacity for labor.” Revolutionary criticism must take into account “the total labor process as such, with the totality of its objective and subjective interactions” [Capital, pg. 981]. Georg Lukács expanded on this line of thought, stressing that “only the dialectical conception of totality enables us to understand reality as a social process. For only this conception dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production and allows us to see them as mere illusions which are not less illusory for being seen to be necessary” [History and Class Consciousness, pg. 13].

A standpoint is required from which to view this totality, however, in order to see how structures or configurations of race or gender “interpenetrate” and “overlap.” Without such a standpoint, and a unitary approach by which to arrive at it, the historically transient character of race and gender is lost. Race and gender appear frozen, like class, as permanent features of all social organization throughout time. Once again, I would suggest that the standpoint of the proletariat alone allows us to glimpse this socially dynamic, if historically static, totality of relations under capitalism. In this, I follow the arguments of Lukács nearly a century ago. Elsewhere I have elaborated why this is the case, refusing to subsume gender and race under the rubric of class while nevertheless still upholding Marx’s contention that the proletariat is uniquely positioned within the system of productive relations to overturn the existing social order.

All that exists deserves to perish

Against the Proudhonian
popery of Père Naphtha

Père Naphtha is a delightful contradiction: a self-identified papist with pretensions to Marxism. Specifically, he belongs to the Maoist/Stalinist persuasion. It’s possible that he, like Roland Boer, thinks his religiosity adds some sort of unexpected “twist” or nuance to his otherwise pedestrian “heartthrob for the welfare of humanity,” to quote Hegel. Recently his tempers have been roused by the controversy over Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article and identity politics on the Left, and by the flurry of responses (some okay, most bad) that issued from it. He has thus seen fit to pen his own reply “On Identitarianism: A Defense of a Strawman.”

Though it’s probably poor form to dismiss an entire article and its argument out of hand, in one sweeping gesture, I feel confident in characterizing Naphtha’s “response” as basically an excuse to bang on about Nietzsche‘s pernicious influence on the Left. Obviously, this has been getting a lot of play lately, with Malcolm Bull‘s book Anti-Nietzsche having come out recently, followed by a long and seemingly interminable debate on Doug Henwood’s wall about the (un)salvageability of Nietzsche, which has since been reprised several times in other contexts. Evidently Père Naphtha had a horse in the race here, though the main knight tilting at the Antichrist was Harrison Fluss, an Hegelian and HM groupie. (Fluss is, for the record, a far more worthy opponent than Naphtha in this debate). For Naphtha, the true problem plaguing the Left is not identity politics, as authors such as Fisher, Dean, and Rectenwald believe, but rather the ominous silhouette lurking behind their haughty denunciation of ressentiment: Friedrich Nietzsche.

If for nothing else, however, we should thank Père Naphtha for proffering yet more proof of Nietzsche’s suspicion that most self-proclaimed socialists are in fact Christians in disguise. As if any more proof was needed given the maudlin, moralizing sentimentality of most leftists today. Naphtha’s brand of anti-Nietzscheanism seems to be lifted from the standard Stalinist sources: Georg Lukács and Domenico Losurdo.

Continuing our narrative: In the comment thread below his article, Naphtha took exception to the harsh rhetoric I slung his way, describing his own position as “an egalitarian argument against elitism.” Nietzsche was anti-egalitarian, to be sure, and anti-moralistic. Most pointedly so in his polemics against those famous anti-semites who were for him exemplars of socialism: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also by extension, the 1848 Proudhonist Richard Wagner), Bakunin, and Eugen Dühring. Continue reading

Recommended reading: An article on identity politics and a review of Art and Class

A couple updates. To start, an article by Michael Rectenwald has finally been published over at The North Star under the title “What’s wrong with identity politics (and intersectionality theory)?” It’s yet another response to Mark Fisher’s polemic, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” but is addressed equally to his critics. My hope, probably naïve, is that Rectenwald’s piece will be seen as the final word on the debate. Of course, anyone who’s still itching to pen a rejoinder and join in the fray is invited to do so. The uproar can hardly last forever, though.

Either way, I’d like to draw attention to one passage by Rectenwald in particular, one that I feel makes the connection between intersectionality and identity politics explicit. Now that I think of it, I never got around to spelling out what ties them together. Instead, I left it implicit. Rectenwald fills in this lacuna in two succinct paragraphs:

Fisher never explicitly refers to intersectionality theory, but it lurks just beneath surface of his contempt in “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” Developed in the 1970s and 1980s within feminism, intersectionality seeks to understand how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, or sexual preference, etc. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in different, multiple ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy and other forms of domination, it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes. And it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. As such, it appears to serve as a method of analysis for opposing oppressions of all kinds. Intersectionality should, it seems, work to deepen our understanding of the composition of class society, and to add to the means for overcoming it.

But operating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship. While it may be useful for sociologists attempting to describe groups and their struggles with power, as a political theory, it is useless, or worse. This is because, by ending with the identification and isolation of its various constituencies, it in fact serves to sever the connections that it supposedly sought to understand and strengthen. The practical upshot of intersectionality theory is the perpetual articulation of difference, resulting in fragmentation and the stagnation of political activity that Fisher bemoans.

This explains the kind of “race to the bottom” mentality that tends to accompany intersectionality and identity. In fact, here’s a graph I found that illustrates exactly their relationship, with binaries emanating radially from the center in either direction, showing relative degrees of privilege vs. oppression:


Logically, I suppose identity would thus be a subordinate or constituent component of intersectionality, with each category of identification counting as a sort of token that signifies a form of oppression. Continue reading