FROM RACE TO CLASS STRUGGLE: A RE-TURN OF CRITICAL RACE THEORY
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Only in the context which sees the isolated facts of social life as aspects of the historical process and integrates them into a totality, can knowledge of facts hope to become knowledge of reality.—GEORG LUKACS
What ”ought to be” is therefore concrete, indeed it is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality, it alone is history in the making and philosophy in the making, it alone is politics. – ANTONIO GRAMSCI
From the viewpoint of the humanities and cultural studies (fields in which I am somehow implicated), the advent of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the eighties was salutary if not anticlimactic. For the effective foregrounding of racism and the race problematic (following feminism’s assault on the Cold War stereotypes of Marxist economic determinism and class reductionism in the previous decades) served to remedy the inadequacies of the intersectionality paradigm of gender, class, and race. Unfortunately, with the neoconservative resurgence in the Reagan/Bush administrations, and the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and eventually China, the deconstruction of bourgeois legal discourse and its attendant institutions will no longer suffice. Not only because of the reconfigured international situation and the emergence of neoliberal globalization apologetics, but because of the accelerated class war manifest in the ongoing de-industrialization, huge income gaps, unemployment, the destruction of welfare-state guarantees, and the disabling of traditional challenges to corporate rule. The 1992 Los Angeles urban rebellion was a symptom of an epochal trend that would culminate in the re-election of George W. Bush, the USA Patriot Act, and the establishment of the Homeland Security State. In short, the crisis of capitalism has moved to a critical stage in which protofascist measures, brutal military aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unilateral preemptive srikes are becoming the norm. How can we, putative organic intellectuals of the masses, intervene?
It was exhilarating to read classic texts in both CRT anthologies of Richard Delgado and Kimberle Crenshaw et al, such as Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property,” Delgado’s “Legal Storytelling,” and Derrick Bell’s “Property Rights in Whiteness.” Not being a legal scholar, I cannot tell how effective the impact of CRT has been in changing legislation, court procedures, prison and police behavior, nor how CRT has altered academic practice in law schools. Bell has been exemplary in linking class exploitation and racial discrimination. Racism indeed cannot be understood outside or separate from the social/class division of labor in the capitalist mode of production and its concomitant reproduction of unequal relations. This is a central insight that has motivated many CRT But, as Alan Freeman has noted, the “dilemma of liberal reform” springs from CRT’s inability, or refusal, to reject—not just question, expose, or demystify—the premises or presuppositions of the system. Freedman adds that the various strategies Bell and others have deployed simply preserve “the myths of liberal reform.” He concludes: “Yet it is one thing to call for—and show the need for—the historicization of civil rights law, and quite another to write the history. The task of unmasking, of exposing presuppositions, of deligitimizing, is easier than that of offering a concrete historical account to replace what is exposed as inadequate” (1995, 462).
Could it be that for all its power as a historicizing critical analytic of U.S. jurisprudence, mainstream legal theory and pratice, CRT has fatally confined itself to this reformist task?With its derivation from legal realism (Jerome Frank) and Critical Legal Studies (Roberto Unger), it seems that CRT’s adherence to the notions of formal justice—“another style of class domination” (1984, 136) based on the rule of law leads them to accept the fact of substantive inequality.
On the other hand, one commentator ascribes to CRT the allegedly Marxist doctrine of “radical contingency” and then faults it for its belief that the experience of the racially oppressed affords valid knowledge of society; CRT’s loss of political neutrality and perspectival objectivity could prevent it from engaging the dominant discourses as well as compromise its revolutionary aspirations (Belliotti (1995). Given the historical situation of its emergence, CRT’s eclectic nonconformism and pluralist empiricism may be the source of its strength and its weakness.
One may hypothesize that a re-assessment of CRT’s condition of possibility may disclose ways of renewing its emancipatory potential. Reviewing the historical context of its formation can be a heuristic point of departure.
Why, at this conjuncture, did the evil of racism replace the evil of class exploitation for CRT and other progressive intellectuals committed to radical democracy if not socialism? Why did the problem of racism overshadow or eclipse the working-class struggle against exploitation at the point of production? Like most left-wing academics in the seventies, I reacted to the right- and left-wing opportunisms of the Marxist formations that mechanically reduced all struggles to support for trade unions. My reading of Robert Blauner’s Racial Oppression in America (1972) the theory of internal colonialism was a breath of fresh air (see San Juan 1992, 2003). Amid debates on the “national question,” we welcomed the questions raised by Stuart Hall and others on the formulaic base/superstructure metaphor, the relative authonomy of the ideological field, the labor metaphysics, and the orthodox formulations in such works as Oliver Cox’s Caste, Class and Rare (1948). Hall’s observation about the complex constitution of class served as a guide to further inquiry: “Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced” (quoted in Solomos 1986, 103). This modality, though framed by class antagonism, seems to enjoy relative autonomy (following Althusser).
One suspects that with this stress on modality of experience, Paul Gilroy (in Against Race) was inspired to condemn the evils of ultranationalism, ethnic absolutism, and “raciology’s brutal reasonings” with a plea for revitalizing “ethical sensibility” (2000, 6). One wonders if this is part of a political strategy or another deconstructive flourish. Amid the incommensurability of local solidarities and diasporic estrangement, amid the aestheticization and spectacularization of commodities, can we regenerate ethical awareness by invoking “visions of planetary humanity” and “cosmopolitan traditions” without understanding their historical determinants and trajectories?
In mainstream social sciences, the Weberian emphasis on ethnicity (status, roles, etc.) and ethnic marginalization displaced the problem of class inequality (Crompton 1995). Experts like Robert Park, Robert Merton, Erik Erikson, Fredrick Barth, Nathan Glazer, and others focused on identity crisis from the optic of methodological individualism. In the influential text Ethnicity: Theory and Experience (1975), Glazer and Patrick Moynihan pontificated on the “persistence and salience of ethnic-based forms of social identification and conflict” over those based on class (Sollors 1996, xiii). Culture, not economics, is the key to understanding problems of injustice, poverty, alienation. With the prevalence of poststructuralist and deconstructive modes of thinking (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze) in the neoconservative eighties and nineties, the new orthodoxies represented by Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States (1986) and the work of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, in particular Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.
In his prolific writings such as Racist Culture (1993). Goldberg has rigorously pursued a Foucauldean/neopragmatist genealogy of racist discourse and practices, rejecting structuralist conceptualizations as well as the standard approach that reduced racism to an epiphenomenon of economics or politics in which “racism is mostly conceived as ideological, a set of rationalizations for sustaining exploitative economic practices and exclusionary political relations” (1993, 93). Goldberg thus dismisses Robert Miles’ (1989) theory of racialization—the construction of differentiated social collectivities by the way human biological characteristics are signified–as narrow and restrictive. In doing so, Goldberg and other postmodernists lapse into a nominalism that equates class with stratification, “not recognized as constituting a ‘real totality,’ but is seen as an aggregate of individuals, who are differentiated from one another in terms of various kinds of social and psychological criteria” (Giddens 1973, 76). Nominalists (like Goldberg) refuses to recognize class as a relational process in historical reality. Limited to a concern with atomistic facts than with a world of intelligible necessity, nominalists (such as the sociologists of ethnicity) confine themselves to experiential data removed from any larger historical process within which they acquire intelligibility. Instead of historical totality, psychology and functional instrumentalism are brought in to connect discrete phenomena and prove the normality and consistency of the status quo. This applies to the functionalism of neoWeberians, liberals practicing CRT. and various neoMarxists who reject the historical materialist principles of critique, totality, and the dialectical process of contradictions in society.
The staunch opponent of the ethnicity paradigm, Stephen Steinberg, summed up the trends I have been sketching here in his book Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (1995). What is ironic is that Steinberg’s sense of being betrayed by liberals stems from his expectation that their view of justice as “fair equality of opportunity” (Gutman 2000, 93) can substitute for class struggle.
The condition of possibility that I referred to earlier, which allowed ethnicity and nominalism to predominate in the study of racism, involves the whole period of capitalist development in the U.S. from the end of the Civil Rights struggles to the birth of the Homeland Security State. This includes the oil crisis of 1974, the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and the political realignments in the U.S. ruling class with the resignation of Nixon. More significant, the whole post-WWII period involves the largest internal migration in U.S. history which reconstitute the class and racial formations of the New Deal era. The resurgence of new forms of class struggle in the sixties and seventies, with the mobilization of African Americans and women, together with the unionizing of public employees and service/white collar professionals, compels us to focus analysis on the reconfiguration of specific historical blocs, to class generation and trajectories, that would explain the nature of capitalist hegemony. Michael Zweig (2000) notes that the decline of class politics coincides with the rise of identity politics in a period of the deterioration of living standards for the working class majority.
What cannot be ignored in the recent historical conjuncture is the new massive immigration from Asia and Latin America after the 1965 Immigration Act which, up to now, continues to “thicken” the ethnic contradictions of the post-Fordist working class.
In surveying the rise of Cultural Studies, Michael Denning observes that “the ‘turn to race’ was not a rhetorical shift, a refusal of the language of populism, Americanism, and industrial unionism…, but was the mark of a profound remaking of the working classes, in the United States and globally” (2004, 153). This turn, however, did not neglect class struggle, precisely the struggle over how the social surplus—the unpaid values expropriated from those who don’t own or control the means of production—is generated by various modes of exploitation, appropriated and distributed chiefly through the agency of the capitalist state. The extraction of surplus labor involves conflict and struggle. What is crucial is this process of class conflict in which identities are articulated with the class formation, where race, gender and ethnicity enter into the totality of contradictions that define a specific conjuncture, in particular the contradictions between the social relations dominated by private property and the productive forces. The organization of work influences the way in which race and gender are mediated within the hegemony of a social bloc. Class consciousness as a “state of social cohesion” (Braverman 1974, 29) involves layers that have varying duration and intensities expressed in popular and mass culture. A historical materialist understanding of race relations and racism embedded in the process of class formation and class struggles, in the labor process and cultural expression, distinguishes the research projects of Cultural Studies scholars like Michael Denning, Peter McLaren, Paul Buhle, Gregory Meyerson, Teresa Ebert, and others.
Given this emphasis on class struggle and formation, on the totality of social relations that define the position of collectivities in society, materialist critique locates the ground of racism and racial inequality in the capitalist division of labor—primarily between the seller of labor-power and the employer who maximizes surplus value from the workers. What will maximize accumulation of profit and also maintain the condition for such stable and efficient maximization, is the questions that explains the ideology of racial segregation, subordination, exclusion, and institutional violence. This does not reduce race to class, rather it assigns import or intelligible meaning to the way in which racialization (the valorization of somatic or “natural” properties) operates. While social subjects indeed serve as sites of variegated differences—that is, individuals undergo multiple inscriptions and occupy shifting positionalities on the level of everyday experience—the pattern of their actions or “forms of life” are not permanently indeterminate, nor undecidable, when analyzed from the perspective of the totality of production relations. It is the capitalist labor process and its conditions that overdetermine the location of groups whose ethnic, racial, gender and other characteristics acquire value within that context. I think this is the sense in which Barbara Jeanne Fields argues for a materialist reading of slavery in U.S. history: “A majority of historians think of slavery as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco” (1990, 99). Which came first, the actual exploitation or its rationalization, has been answered sufficiently by numerous scholars (Guillaumin 1995).
Which brings me to the theme of whiteness and white studies, largely inspired by CRT. The intervention of Whiteness Studies may be considered as a refinement of CRT in its treatment of whiteness as an analytical problem in the determination of class hierarchy (Delgado and Stefancic 1997). It takes off from W.E.B. Du Bois’ insight (in Black Reconstruction) that white workers enjoyed “public and psychological wage” regardless of position in the social hierarchy. Whiteness Studies has been interpreted as a response to the political realignment in the eighties, illustrated by the appearance of Reagan democrats and the “cult of ethnicity,” when liberal intellectuals disavowed black activists like Stokely Carmichael and the Civil Rights agenda. How can one account for the celebration of ethnic whiteness at a time of severe crisis in the form of de-industrialization, unprecedented lay-offs, widening income gap, disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans and Latinos, and other symptoms of social decay?
In scholarly interventions by David Roediger (Wages of Whiteness 1991), Alexander Saxton (The Rise and Fall of the White Republic 1990), we learn that the core normative belief-system that props up the hierarchical system hinges on white privilege, white supremacy. This construction of white racial superiority prevents class unity and conceals class exploitation. This thesis has already been argued earlier by Marxists like Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy (Monopoly Capital 1966) in explaining the deprivation of blacks after the end of the Civil War. But the proposition of whiteness as a psychological compensation for whites anxious to raise themselves in the “status hierarchy” (Baran and Sweezy 1972, 310) is only one element in a wider critique of capitalist ideology and institutional practices. Race, whiteness, is not an autonomous factor operating apart from the totality of social relations, in particular the political struggles and ideological struggles of the time.
One observer points out that in contrast, the historical-materialist analysis of “whiteness” carried out by Alexander Saxton inscribed the ideological within the process of class politics, mass culture, and historical background (Hartman 2004). Arising as a rationalization of the slave trade and the theft of land from nonwhites, white supremacy evolved as a theory/practice designed to legitimize the rule of dominant groups in fluctuating class coalitions, modified and readjusted according to the complex process of reconfiguring hegemony (moral and intellectual leadership of a historic bloc, in Gramsci’s construal). Thus, it is the totality of capitalist production relations—not an essentializing ingredient such as economic position alone–that explain why the ideological synthesis of white supremacy functioned as a key element in the bourgeoisie’s strategic construction of hegemony through the state, institutions of civil society, and practices of everyday life (see also Meyerson 1997). When the economic and political (base and superstructure) are separated or fragmented into discursive local effects, the result is an incoherent amalgam of incommensurable categories that cannot provide an explanatory critique that would connect various seemingly independent social practices and institutions to one another and to the global economic situation (Meyerson 2003). If we want to transform the oppressive system based on the unjust social division of labor and the unequal distribution of social wealth, we need a historical knowledge of social totality that would afford opportunities for organized mass intervention.
Finally, I can only suggest here a need to shifting some of our energies to understanding the oppression of women migrant workers as a focus for future research programs. This current period of reaction after 9/11, the global recession, the horrific wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S.-aided counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, demand an urgent need for those committed to radical change to engage in formulating a more comprehensive critique of the global totality. This is not to downplay the catastrophes of genocidal strife, environmental disasters, AIDs and SARS epidemics whose implications can only grasped as social events with intelligible causality. But an engagement with the international division of labor as an integral component of globalization and its profound, enduring impact on everyday life may help us move beyond narrow empiricism and connect the fragmented categories of race, gender and class into an intelligible complex that can offer opportunities for intervention.
The global migration of labor as part of the internationalization of production and the internationalization division of labor. Capitalism’s acquisitive and expansive nature led to the uneven development between colonizing industrialized countries of Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and the rest of the world. Migration is a response to the spatial and developmental inequality produced by capitalist accumulation, by colonialism, imperialism, Cold War interventions, and pre-emptive wars. Not only commodities and capital circulate more rapidly and frequently in the modern world, but also bodies and their capacity to produce and consume.
The situation of the Philippines may be taken as exemplary. Colonized by Spain for three hundred years and by the United States for almost a century, the Philippines remains a poor underdeveloped dependent formation. Ruled by a local oligarchy of compradors, bureaucrat-capitalists, and semi-feudal landlords reared by more than fifty years of U.S. tutelage, the Philippines failed to develop into a “Newly-Industrialized Economy” after World War II owing to U.S. economic, political and cultural stranglehold even after formal independence in 1946.
In 2002, 67% of eighty-three million Filipinos are poor. Unemployment runs to 11-12% annually and underemployment to 17% (Ocampo 2002). Due to severe unemployment and the disruption of traditional work processes by the imposed Structural Adjustment Programs of the IMF/World Bank during the long period of the Marcos dictatorship and its successors, the government has instituted a systematic export of its citizens, in particular women, to overseas jobs and collecting enormous fees and taxes. Over two thousand people leave the Philippines every day; over nine million Filipinos in over 186 countries remit earnings of over $9 billion, the largest source of foreign currency. These “servants of globalization”—as one textbook call this largest cohort of migrant contract workers in the world– are praised by Filipino politicians as “modern heroes,” “overseas Philippine investors,” “internationally shared resources.”
There are now between 80 million to 95 million migrant workers worldwide; about 20 million are Asians. In the last decade, Filipinos in the U.S. increased to over three million, arguably the largest Asian community. After 9/11, several hundred Filipinos have been summarily deported, treated as dangerous criminals, for assorted reasons short of being “terrorists.” The racist discrimination against Filipino veterans of WWII, nurses and caregivers, and especially former security workers in the airports may be explained not by the USA Patriot Act but by a long history of national oppression and class exploitation which exacerbates invidious categorization by gender and sexuality. Complementing the push-factor of economic deprivation and political instability in the neocolony is the transformation in the US economy. The rise of global cities like New York or Los Angeles restructured labor demand so that immigration policies and laws had to be shaped in order to hire immigrants for low-wage service jobs in the highly specialized export-oriented service sector with the high-income lifestyles of its professional workforce; and for declining industries in need of cheap labor for survival (Sassen 1998, 261). One can see that changes within the dominant economies reflect those in the peripheral or dependent formations, disrupting the neutral-sounding terms “sending” and “receiving” countries. Precisely this interaction of apparent equality of buyer and seller in the ‘free market” underlies the unequal status relation of nation-states.
Orthodox immigration experts and neoWeberians like Sassen posit the market as the major factor in forming class. But this stress on exchange ignores the process of class formation within the web of social relationships that are historically concrete and specific (Wood 1995), and leads to treating people as mere bearers of reified structures. Law in capitalism—as Eugeny Pashukanis has shown—expresses the fetishized relations among commodity exchangers; the free market is what Marx called the “very Eden” of human rights. What this market domain hides is the exploitation founded on the consumption of the use-value of the worker bought by capital; the subordination of the collective producers in the labor process; the extraction of surplus. And this juridical symmetry of apparently free exchanges between property owners is what critical theory needs to unmask (Arthur 1978).
On the other hand, interpretive ethnographies of the personal experience of domestics have only trivialized the agency they are supposed to discover. Women workers do indeed enact their intentions and desires, but the powers “instantiated” in their behavior attest to their determination by larger structures. In Alex Callinicos’ words, “what agents can collectively or individually do depends to a significant degree on their position in the relations of production” (1989, 136).
Theories of the de-centered subject or ludic agency proposed by postmodernists often proves arbitrary if not vacuous because they lack a concrete mapping of the historically variable structural determinants of action. To guard against the feared reductionisms of the past, we need a dialectical method whereby one undertakes a cognitive inventory of internal relations and mediations within any historical conjuncture; only within this framework can we appreciate the value of individual and collective resistance to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.
Unlike Canada, which has officially instituted a Live-in Caregiver Program, the U.S. does not regulate the conditions of domestics. Hundreds of cases of abuse of Filipino nannies in the U.S. are recorded daily. Women enter the country with a visa tied to an employer; since there is no working permit, the employer dictates inordinately long hours and intolerable working conditions. Abuses concerning minimum wage, non-payment of overtime pay, and time-off are common. Most domestics here are from the “third world,” separated from each other by their isolation, lack of regulations on the recruiting industry, and the social discrimination of their language, immigration status, nationality and race. Grace Chang cites the case of women domestics in New York uniting to urge the City Council to pass a bill requiring agencies to issue contracts with humane work conditions, including minimum wage, two weeks’ paid vacation, sick days, etc. Carol de Leon, a Filipina who has first-hand experience of the plight of domestics, noted that the group not only wants to improve the working conditions but also to “change the notions that immigrant workers are lazy and uneducated. Because it relates to history, because this country inherited this industry [import of domestics] through American slavery and ideas that this is women’s work. We’re calling for respect and recognition for women in this industry” (Chang 2004, 256).
In addition to the sociohistorical contexts of employment, what is crucial is to grasp the unique condition of the labor process which, as we’ve seen, is already overdetermined by factors of globalization and the politico-economic environment. We need to attend to the exceptional commodification of domestic labor. Bridget Anderson emphasizes how, in the form of migrant domestic women, “the transnational, globalized economy is brought into the home, not just in the goods consumed there, but in the organizing of reproductive labor” (2004, 263). In addition to the global division of labor sketched earlier, we need to analyze situation through the theoretical optic of reproductive labor.
The concept of reproductive labor involves the complex dialectic of culture, politics, economy, and the mediation of the private and public in everyday life. Anderson illustrates the theoretical usefulness of this concept:
Domestic work—mental, physical, and emotional labor—is reproductive work, and reproductive work is not confined to the maintenance of physical bodies: people are social, cultural, and ideological beings, not just units of labor, and reproductive labor is not organized exclusively for the labor market, although market forces affect it. Under capitalism, human beings’ social relations find expression and are mediated by patterns of consumption. Reproductive labor, then, not only produces workers; it also produces consumers of the products of capitalism, consumers from the cradle (cot or basket? Bed or crib?) to the grave (marble or granite? Embossed or engraved?) (2004, 264)
Domestic work thus reproduces lifestyle, status, beliefs—in effect, the hierarchical system of social relations where identities are defined, the sphere of desire and pleasure marked out, and life-chances charted in reciprocal interaction with the framework of production relations. More important, Anderson’s dialectical approach connects the systemic with the sociocultural and ideological when she posits domestic service as the selling of the self in the global market, the marketing of personhood:
The domestic worker is not equated socially with her employer in the act of exchange because the fiction of labour power cannot be maintained; it is “personhood” that is being commodified. Moreover, the worker’s caring function, her performance of tasks constructed as degrading, demonstrates the employer’s power to command her self. Having allegedly sold her personhood, the domestic worker is both person and non-person. She is, like the prostitute, a person who is not a person, someone for whom all obligations can be discharged in cash (2000, 121).
Positivist social science has generated empirical microstudies of individual life-histories of women workers. It has even documented the statistics of the feminization and “housewifization” of labor. But they have not been able to take into account the pressure of complex global and local socioeconomic forces at work in the national and international migration of women and the ideologies they propagate. We need to register the varying impact of structural adjustment policies on “sending” neocolonies like the Philippines, the histories of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy; national debt; the growth of agribusiness; the role of finance capital and outsourcing, as well as laws both national and international. And concomitant with this, the diverse collective modes of resistance and opposition to the effects of such forces. The analysis and evaluation of this totality of forces and their mutual interaction is what a historical materialist approach seeks to carry out.
From this perspective, racial justice and gender parity may not be sufficient. Daniel Bensaid’s comment is relevant here: “Theories of justice and the critique of political economy are irreconcilable. Conceived as the protection of the private sphere, liberal politics seals the holy alliance between the nightwatchman state and the market of opinions in which individual interests are supposed to be harmonized…. Marx’s Capital establishes the impossibility of allocating the collective productivity of social labour individually. Whereas the theory of justice rests on the atomism of contractual procedures, and on the formalist fiction of mutual agreement (whereby individuals become partners in a cooperative adventure for their mutual advantage), social relations of exploitation are irreducible to intersubjective relations” (2002, 158).
It is of course important to always maintain vigilance on the mystifying use of “race,” on the practice of racialization, in any location, whether in the privacy of the family home, school, factory, or state institutions (court, prison, police station, legislature). Grace Chang (2000) has meticulously documented how people of color, exploited immigrants and refugees, have themselves used racist images and rhetoric in their role as “gatekeepers” to the racialized class system. However, I think that without framing all these within the total picture of the crisis of capital and its globalized restructuring from the late seventies up to the present, without understanding the continued domination of labor by capital globally, we cannot effectively counteract the racism that underwrites the relation of domination and subordination between nationalities, classes, and genders. The critique of an authoritarian state and questionable policies sanctioned by the USA Patriot Act is necessary. In doing so, naming the system and understanding its operations would be useful in discovering precisely that element of self-activity, of agency, that has supposedly been erased in totalizing metanarratives such as the “New World Order,” the “New American Century” that will end ideology and history, and in revolutionary projects of achieving racial justice and equality. As the familiar quote goes, we do make history—but not under circumstances of our choosing. So the question is, as always, what alternatives do we have to carry out which goals at what time and place.
The goal of a class-less communist society and strategies to attain it envisage the demise of racist ideology and practice in its current forms. But progressive forces around the world are not agreed about this. For example, the World Conference against Racism World Forum of Non-Governmental Organizations held before September 11, 2001 in Durban, South Africa, publicized the global problem of racism but was unable to formulate a consensus on how to solve it. Its final declaration highlighted the historic origin of racism in the slave trade, colonialism, genocide, and the possibility of reparations for its victims, but did not offer a concrete program of action (see Mann 2002).
Given its composition, and the pervasive climate of reaction, the Forum could not of course endorse a radical approach that would focus on the elimination of the exploitation of labor (labor power as commodity) as a necessary first step. Given its limits, it could not espouse a need for a thoroughgoing change of the material basis of social production and reproduction—the latter involving the hegemonic rule of the propertied bloc in each society profiting from the unequal division of labor and the unequal distribution of social wealth—on which the institutional practices of racism (apartheid, discrimination, genocide) thrive. “Race is the modality in which class is lived,” as Stuart Hall remarks concerning post-1945 Britain (Solomos 1986, 103). Without the political power in the hands of the democratic-popular masses under the leadership of the working class, the ideological machinery (laws, customs, religion, state bureaucracy) that legitimizes class domination, with its attendant racist practices, cannot be changed. What is required is a revolutionary process that mobilizes a broad constituency based on substantive equality and social justice as an essential part of the agenda to dissolve class structures; any change in the ideas, beliefs, and norms would produce changes in the economic, political and social institutions, which would in turn promote wide-ranging changes in social relations among groups, sectors, and so on.
Within a historical-materialist framework, the starting point and end point for analyzing the relations between structures in any sociohistorical totality cannot be anything else but the production and reproduction of material existence. The existence of any totality follows transformation rules whereby it is constantly being restructured into a new formation (Harvey 1973). These rules reflect the dialectical unfolding of manifold contradictions constituting the internal relations of the totality. Within this conflicted, determinate totality, race cannot be reduced to class, nor can class be subsumed by race, since those concepts express different forms of social relations. What is the exact relation between the two? This depends on the historical character of the social production in question and the ideological-political class struggles defining it. In his valuable treatise, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen has demonstrated the precise genealogy and configuration of racism in the U.S. It first manifested itself when the European colonial settlers based on private property in land and resources subdued another social order based on collective, tribal tenure of land and resources, denying the latter any social identity—“social death” for Native Americans. We then shift our attention to the emergence of the white race and its system of racial oppression with the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677 and the establishment of a system of lifetime hereditary bond servitude (for African Americans): “The insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group, is the hallmark of racial oppression” (Allen 1997, 243). In effect, white supremacy defining the nature of civil society was constructed at a particular historical conjuncture demanded by class war. The result is a flexible and adjustable system that can adjust its racial dynamics in order to divide the subordinates, resist any critique of its ideological legitimacy, and prevent any counter-hegemonic bloc of forces from overthrowing class rule.
Class struggle intervenes through its impact in the ideological-political sphere of civil society. Racial categories operate through the mediation of civil society which (with the class-manipulated State) regulate personal relations through the reifying determinations of value, market exchange, and capital. Harry Chang comments on the social mediation of racial categories: “Blacks and whites constitute social blocks in a developed setting of ‘mass society’ in which social types (instead of persons) figure as basic units of economic and political management…The crucial intervention of objectification, i.e., relational poles conceived as the intrinsic quality of objects in relation, must not be neglected here. Racial formation in a country is an aspect of class formation, but the reason races are not classes lies in this objectification process (or fetishization)” (1985, 43). Commodity fetishism enables the ideology of racism (inferiority tied to biology, genetics, cultural attributes) to register its effects in common-sense thinking and routine behavior in class-divided society (Lukacs 1971). Because market relations hide unequal power relations, sustained ideological critique and transformative collective actions are imperative. This signifies the heuristic maxim of “permanent revolution” (Lefevbre 1968, 171) in Marxist thought: any long-term political struggle to abolish capitalism as a system of extracting surplus value through a system of the unequal division of labor (and rewards) needs to alter the institutions and practices of civil society that replicate and strengthen the fetishizing or objectifying mechanism of commodity production and exchange (the capitalist mode of production). If racism springs from the reification of physical attributes (skin color, eye shape) to validate the differential privileges in a bourgeois regime, then the abolition of labor-power as a commodity will be a necessary if not sufficient step in doing away with the conditions that require racial privileging of certain groups in class-divided formations. Racism is not an end in itself but, despite its seeming autonomy, an instrumentality of class rule.
Reification of nature and all social relations is the distinctive logic of the political economy of bourgeois domination. Racial differentiation and class antagonism converge in the revolutionary process when, as C.L.R. James states in a gloss on Lenin’s thought, the colonized subalterns (e.g., the Irish in 19th century Britain) and racially oppressed peoples/nations (African Americans, indigenous communities) begin to act as the “bacilli” or ferment that ushers onto the international scene “the real power against imperialism—the socialist proletariat” (1994, 182). Socialist revolution is thus the requisite precondition for ending racism.
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