Sunday, February 3, 2013

Reply to a reply on privilege

A friend pointed me to a response by White Lion Sage to an article I wrote for SocialistWorker.org - itself some thoughts on a document entitled Checking Your Privilege 101.

WLS' criticism is based in part on some simple misunderstandings, but also gets at some real disagreements. Let's get the former out of the way first.

WLS writes, with respect to a person who brought a (perhaps unintentionally) racist sign to a SlutWalk anti-rape demonstration:
As reported, the person checked their privilege and put the sign down.  But Judd didn’t want the person to check their privilege... Judd would have rather this person keep their sign up.
But as the Socialist Worker article says,
One organizer, a member of the International Socialist Organization, went up to the woman to explain why the sign was racist and not in the spirit of the struggle, and the woman put it away and did not carry it on the march.
Perhaps WLS is unaware of this, but the International Socialist Organization is the publisher of Socialist Worker. The organizer who got the racist sign put away is a comrade whose act I endorse. It's the subsequent implosion of SlutWalk that I don't think was a positive development.

WLS goes on to note my endorsement of Occupy's "We are the 99%" slogan, and on that basis claims:
He is saying that we should forget material divisions that keep the proletariat divided and are instilled by the bourgeoisie.  That is colorblindness... tell[ing] people that their identity and personal politics should not be expressed at the risk of dividing us.
That's not what I was saying at all. Perhaps the misunderstanding about SlutWalk contributed to the misreading here, but the Socialist Worker article starts by noting that "different people are systematically oppressed in many different ways," and concludes with an argument that Occupy "needs a greater emphasis on opposing all kinds of oppression." The whole thrust of the piece is an argument about how best to both theorize and fight racism and other material divisions, which is the opposite of "forgetting" them.

I actually agree with WLS in rejecting "colorblindness," as "not real unity... a band-aid on an infection [that] will not heal the wound." I make these arguments myself when the question comes up in organizing.

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But WLS and I don't agree about everything, clearly. WLS writes:
Capitalism did not invent violence against women.  Capitalism did not preclude the formation of phenotypically different races.  There were wars, murders, and genocides before capitalism was invented.  Capitalism is not the root of these systems of oppression.
Capitalism didn't invent violence against women, but nor is that violence timeless. From what I have learned of history and anthropology from writers like Engels, Sharon Smith and Eleanor Burke Leacock, women's oppression arose as a systematic phenomenon with the first class societies some 8-10 thousand years ago. Gendered power relationships have adapted over time, shaping and being shaped by the rise of capitalism among other historical changes, but without disappearing. The Marxist thesis is that overthrowing capitalism would mean replacing it with a classless society, socialism, which in turn would mean an end to the oppression of women.

Xenophobia and prejudice of various kinds may go back to the dawn of humanity. Racism, on the other hand, as a structural oppression, is the product of colonialism and chattel slavery, and therefore of the development of capitalism - at least according to the history I've learned people like Barbara Fields, Ahmed Shawki and David Roediger. Like sexism, it thrives today because it plays a crucial role for capitalism, and Marxists believe that it will be defeated if and when capitalism is.

These are very important questions. Can racism only be overthrown by overthrowing capitalism, and vice versa? Or can each be fought independently - so that antiracism is not essential for anticapitalists, and anticapitalism is not essential for antiracists? Or is racism, or capitalism, built in to human nature and something that we can only ever hope to mitigate?

I think the answers to these questions are yes, no, and no, respectively. I am not sure, but I doubt WLS agrees.

In any case, the point of my original article was not to actually make the case for every aspect of a Marxist understanding of history. It was just to show how these important historical and theoretical questions can be at stake in certain discussions of privilege, even in a document that presents itself as simple guidelines for genuine solidarity. In fact, I think this exchange helps make that point.

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Not just for that reason, I'm grateful to WLS for starting this dialogue. One thing, however, I think is not helpful.

WLS writes:
What is going on here at the core is that unless organizers choose to be Marxists or socialists, then Marxists or socialists won’t engage their ideas. 
While I certainly won't defend everything every self-identified Marxist has done over the years, I think the closest example we have of refusing to engage with political ideas doesn't come from Socialist Worker. Rather, it looks like this:
Judd... stopped when it went beyond his comfort zone of socialism. Not only did he stop, but he wrote a blog about why everyone else who almost got him out of his comfort zone should stop.
I don't mean to present myself as a victim here. I'm doing fine. But to dismiss Marxist analysis as a product of "white socialists" "comfort zone" is to render invisible--or label as somehow brainwashed and inauthentic--the many Marxists of color, including my comrades in the ISO. And it does a disservice to the kind of deep, open and honest discussion we on the left need to have in order to figure out how to change our fucked-up society. We need comradely discussion and debate among people with many different political ideas, because certainly none of us has all the answers to the crucial questions facing us right now, from the way forward after the collapse of Occupy to the kind of society actually worth fighting for.

And - let's be clear - sometimes some of us will be right, and others wrong. I'm not in favor of "talking down" to anybody. But I do think there's a sense in which one "analysis trumps others," intrinsically - if analyses conflict, they can't all be right. It is perfectly legitimate for WLS to argue for one understanding of history, and for me to argue for another. I don't want to assume I'm always right - nobody is. But I want to make the best case for my position I can, unless and until I am convinced to change it. And I hope people who disagree with me will do the same.

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