Forum — From the February 2017 issue

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

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Terms of Engagement

By Tim Barker

Is there a German word for an argument everyone pretends to abandon but keeps having? The American left’s debate about race, class, and gender is old: generations of radicals have asked whether one structure of domination holds the key to all the others. Almost as old is the recognition that the question is badly posed. Surely choosing a single priority is not just difficult but inadequate? Surely it would be better to see the terms as dialectically intertwined, alternative approximations from which to approach the imposing tangle of social relations?

Yet the argument — which pits, in current parlance, identity politics against class analysis — doesn’t stop. It’s only gotten louder with the twin shocks of 2016 — Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat in the general election. Squint and you see one obvious truth: the only way for the left to win is a broad social-democratic appeal to the entire working class, white people included. Blink and something else is just as clear: the prerogatives of white men have been violently reasserted against the legacy of Barack Obama and the prospect of Clinton; even if some of those racists are among capitalism’s victims, we shouldn’t give them an inch.

HA029__2VP70-1There is nothing more essential for our political future than overcoming this divide. But many sorts of inertia — deep political commitments, contingent social alliances, personal branding, to say nothing of the buzzing, blooming reality that will continue to provide evidence for many contradictory conclusions — will impede convergence. Everyone who feels they have a stake in the dispute about the relative importance of race, class, and gender needs to advance from their own chosen starting point toward other people who share the same fundamental commitment — liberation from oppression and domination — and, perhaps more significant, the same enemies. I want to propose two terms — “racial capitalism” and “social reproduction” — that might be helpful.

South Africa under apartheid may be the starkest example of what activists called racial capitalism. There it was perhaps obvious that the basic rules governing economic relationships — who could own things, what it meant to own something, what a boss could get away with — could not be defined apart from categories of racial subordination. It took an ensemble of popular organizations — communists, African nationalists, trade unions — more than forty years to overthrow the regime.

But in the United States as well, racial categories have their roots in numerous regimes of unfree labor, from the African slave trade to the guest-worker program. A worker with nothing to sell but her labor power is different from a worker with nothing to sell but her labor power and the family house. Given current trends, it would take the average black family 228 years to match the level of wealth currently held by the average white family. It should not be difficult to see that race is, for non-white people in the United States, a fundamental way of experiencing material (“class”) inequality.

In Italy in the 1970s, at the high point of class struggles between unions and capitalists as well as between workers and their unions, socialist feminists found themselves making use of the concept of social reproduction. How does a society cultivate the conditions of its future existence? Before wage workers could produce things in factories, these theorists reasoned, someone had to produce (i.e., give birth to and raise, feed and clean up for) the workforce. The people who performed this labor were, by and large, women; that they were not paid a wage only confirmed that their role came prior to, and was indispensable for, the parts of common life that official statistics recognized as “economic.” The Italian theorists who proposed the term considered it vital not because they wanted to assert the importance of gender identity over other identities but because without the insight it provided, no understanding of class struggle — and no organization of the working class — could be complete.

Besides these existing concepts, which offer the terms for a more fruitful future discussion, we must recognize that the struggles currently glossed as “class” and “identity” are both capable of sketching broad, universalizing horizons or narrow, particularizing ones: the causes can bring people together or divide them to be conquered. The partisans of class politics are rightfully proud that the history of socialist, communist, and trade-union organizations contains a wildly disproportionate share of the most advanced antiracist struggles. This is an index of the power that shared interests — more than good intentions or painstaking language — can have in bringing people together for effective action. These achievements also reflect the fact that labor radicals, with a vision of industrial democracy, have sometimes been able to see beyond the shabby articles of faith that mainstream politicians take for granted.

At the same time, it is trivially easy to trace a line of exclusion through the history of American trade unions and the institutions of the white left. This is a function of the limited ability white workers and radicals have to dissociate themselves from the racist common sense that structures society in general. (Think of the American Communist Party, which greeted World War II by expelling its Japanese members and supporting their internment as enemy aliens.) The tendency toward exclusion also illustrates something about the nature of economic struggles. Even though we all have material needs, there is nothing about a struggle that centers on a certain workplace, targets economic elites, or concerns issues like the wage that automatically makes the struggle universal. To the contrary: in most instances, they are parochial — defenses of the conditions of life for a specific group of workers.

The lines of inclusion and exclusion can be drawn along many axes, of which perceived racial identity is merely one: there is also language, religion, skilled versus unskilled labor, and, most commonly, sector against sector. When white strikers beat up black strikebreakers, is it about racism or economic anxiety? Just asking the question reveals how silly it is. But saying “Of course it’s both” doesn’t point the way toward a natural solution — it simply suggests that many conflicts, no matter how they are understood, have no universalizing logic.

Ultimately, the problem is not deductive but practical: how to overcome mutual suspicion, probably well justified, between people who cannot afford to work at cross-purposes. We can disagree about the exact ways that different forms of oppression overlap, and about the strategic implications of this analysis. But since most of us predicted the election wrong, and all of us face an uncertain future, this disagreement should be attended by generosity and humility. We need constructive engagement across the boundaries that currently exist. In the end, it is not a question of winning an argument but of defeating an adversary. It could not be more important that we focus on the real enemy.

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