Radical left critiques of liberal identity politics

The last few years — and particularly the 2016 election season and its aftermath — were packed with a variety of contentious perspectives on race, and how to best go about fighting racism and white supremacy.  In particular, there has been lots of development around radical left critiques of mainstream liberal identity politics.  Here is an incomplete selection of some essays that I find compelling.

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-option is a lengthy essay from a group of radicals in Occupy Oakland that analyzes and critiques a variety of issues associated with mainstream conceptions of race and identity.  The piece touches on the nature of non-profits, the way elites of color can and do participate in white supremacy (and thus, the inadequacy of making elite institutions “more diverse”), the role of capitalism in producing/reproducing racial stratification, the way liberal analysis tends to essentialize/reduce/boxe-in people to their respective “identities”, the way liberal analysis tends to infantalize and remove agency from people deemed “oppressed”, the way identity politics can be cynically used to erase people of color from allegedly “white” spaces, and more.

Dear #BlackLivesMatter: We Don’t Need Black Leadership by R.L Stephens II of Orchestrated Pulse is a critique of observed tendencies for “identity politicians” to exploit the people and the communities they claim to speak for in order to increase their own individual power, and looks to the historical examples of the ’60s-era Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and mass politics during the Reconstruction era as political models to emulate today.

Fighting racism and the limits of “ally-ship” by Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean in Socialist Worker is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically in the way it over-emphasizes individual inter-personal relations at the expense of mass struggle.  

From charity to solidarity: a critique of ally politics by Cindy Milstein in ROAR Magazine is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically on the way it depends on a narrow and superficial understanding of race, the way it reinforces unhealthy tendencies of guilt and self-righteousness, and how it pushes people away from being autonomous political actors.

The Safety Pin and the Swastika by Shuja Haider of Viewpoint Magazine analyzes the way many parts of liberal identity politics is being appropriated by the far-right as a way to create an unironic form of “white identity politics” that is used to uphold white supremacy and white nationalism, and the need to return to substantive multiracial organizing and grounding anti-racism with anti-capitalism.

White Purity by Asad Haider of Viewpoint Magazine is a critique of privilege theory, arguing that we need to see white supremacy as detrimental to white people as well as non-white people, as argued by old-school communists like W.E.B. du Bois.

A letter from students and workers “of color” in the Takeover of Humanities 2 is a communique from a group of leftists at University of California, Santa Cruz, countering critiques from liberal campus activists about the alleged “whiteness” of an occupation, and raises larger points about multiracial organizing and the tendency of certain kinds of “identity politicians” to side with institutions of power.

Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organization, Chicago 1969

The shiny gloss of liberal tolerance, coating a violently racist global system

Nike recently announced a new line of athletic hijabs, making them the first multinational fashion/clothing company to do so.  How progressive!  And yes, they do have their “swoosh” corporate logo on the side.

Liberals will likely laud this move, and conservatives will likely get irritated, but I’d prefer to get away from America’s culture wars and ponder what the supply chain for manufacturing these hijbas will look like.  As of 2014, most of Nike’s clothing was manufactured in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia.  Any guesses as to what conditions might be like for the Muslim women working in the Indonesian, Pakistani, and Malaysian sweatshops that will be making Nike’s hijabs?  I’m a bit surprised that Bangladesh isn’t on that list, but looks like Nike has slowly backed out of the country since the series of garment factory collapses in 2013, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers.

Point being, mainstream culture wars in the West around race, religion, etc. tend to completely ignore the way discrimination functions in global capitalism — especially when the focus of discussion is on the aesthetic nature of commodities, and are driven by the public-relations strategies of powerful multinational corporations.  And it isn’t like people don’t understand the inherently superficial nature of corporate liberalism (after all, “college diversity brochure” is a constant punchline all by itself), but it still feels like this kind of cringey pandering is the dominant trend of anti-racist theory and practice in the US.

The juxtaposition between mainstream corporate liberalism against the racialized and violent nature of global capitalism is captured beautifully in the introduction of this recent essay on race and the 2016 election:

Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.

Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.

This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.

Obviously, the take-away here should not be that individual acts of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc. should be tolerated.  On the contrary, these people should (and do) get their ass kicked.  But casting individual prejudice as 100% the source of racism and bigotry, as many mainstream liberal commentators seem to argue, ignores the larger systematic ways in which racialization is an inherent tendency of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world, and in fact can often be manipulated to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class.  Nike hijabs will do very little to either fight Islamophobia in the US or raise the status of working-class Muslim women globally.  But expropriating and collectivizing Nike’s Asian factories, on the other hand…

Afghanistan and UAE finance capital

A little while back I made a note on the importance of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.  I took a closer look and found some interesting reports about the cozy economic relationship between Afghan and UAE elites, which gives insight on the financial/economic dimensions of imperial governance.

The 2010 Cablegate leaks of the US State Department communications revealed the way powerful Afghan elites used the UAE as a nexus for money laundering and graft, with hundreds of millions of dollars passing to and fro Emirati banks on a monthly basis.  The Vice-President was in one case observed to have flown into Dubai with $52 million in cash, and the disgraced ex-chairman of Kabul Bank at the center of the 2010 banking crisis, who helped steal nearly $1 billion, holds numerous pieces of lucrative real-estate in the UAE.  The property market in Dubai generally seems to be a favored vehicle for investing ill-gotten gains by warlords, drug traffickers, and corrupt political officials (none of which tend to be mutually exclusive categories).

As this Financial Times article points out, the flow of money is a result of a deep connection between Afghan businessmen and UAE banks.  Many elites fled to Dubai after the Taliban took over in the ’90s, infusing their capital into local conglomerates and business ventures.  Indeed, the famous Palm Jumeirah development apparently took in a large amount of Afghan capital.

Brought to you by Afghan oligarchs! (And South Asian indentured labor)

The current flow of capital out of Afghanistan is even higher than it was prior to the Kabul Bank crisis:

…the Afghan business council estimates about $10bn flows between Dubai and Afghanistan every year. Analysts and Afghans say most of it leaves the country and some of it is derived from corruption and shady business deals. “The closest functioning banking system is here, so a lot of the money coming in could be legitimate but a lot of it is not. It’s drug money, graft money, extortion money,” says Theodore Karasik, a director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma).

And it is worth reminding ourselves of the deep connection between the Afghan political economy and US/NATO/UN military presence.  As I noted from Ahmed Rashid’s 2013 book on the Af-Pak region, an overwhelming majority of Afghanistan’s economy — 97% as estimated by the World Bank in 2011 — was linked with foreign military spending.  Individual programs, like the USA’s “Commanders Emergency Response Program” had bigger budgets than the Afghan government itself.  Much of this unaccountable military spending is done in coordination with pro-US Afghan elites, who of course tend to be the same people who have deep connections with the UAE.  In other words, a substantial portion of the billions of dollars spent on Afghanistan has likely been recuperated back into the currents of international finance capital — and little, if any, has reached the Afghan people.

On “Activismists”

Sometimes I think I’m the only one around here who can’t stand the cheerful media-oriented hippie protest theater that defines so many rallies and demonstrations and marches.  Luckily this isn’t true at all, as this excellent essay published a few days ago on nonsite demonstrates.  Titled “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent”, it describes from an insiders’ perspective the superficial, incoherent, and elitist nature of the non-profit-industrial complex that is at the center of many modern protest movements.

The descriptions and analysis of certain tactics hit home to anybody who follows any kind of media-oriented social movement: the singing of the same old protest songs, the vague appeals to “send a message” to decision-makers on moral terms, planning events in the middle of the day when average people (not professional activists/organizers) are working, using token representatives of marginalized groups for photo-ops, the exaggerated theater of “arrests” that were planned and initiated ahead of time by organizers and police, and in general the utterly boring, controlled, and sterilized nature of it all.  The author looks to this old essay discussing a similar dynamic in the anti-war movement during the Bush administration, to label these sorts of organizers as “Activismists”.

The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.

The author is unsure of what the solutions are, but for that we could look to this essay by Ray Valentine from Orchestrated Pulse which advances an explicitly socialist critique of these kinds of professionalized media-oriented tactics (on which I’ve commented on here), specifically by attacking the “theory of momentum” advanced by Mark and Paul Engler.  In opposition to the liberal and idealistic tactics of Activismism, Valentine argues that real mass movements emerge from people winning concrete material victories by and for themselves through collective action, such as through workplace organizing and rank-and-file unionism.  Action that restricts itself to the symbolic and performative level is insufficient, if not utterly ineffective, at generating socio-political change.

America’s internal colonialism

I just came across an excellent article on race in America in Vanity Fair, written by an MSNBC host to plug his upcoming book.  A surprising source for an analysis that revives, at least figuratively, the idea that black communities in the US are part of a process of internal colonization.  It’s an odd mixture of Marxian anti-imperialist and liberal discourse.  Here is the thesis:

Nixon was, of course, correct that black Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” And yet that is what he helped bring about. Over the half-century since Nixon delivered those words, we have created precisely that, and not just for black Americans but for brown Amer­icans and others: a colony in a nation. A territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than from within. A place where the law is a tool of control, rather than a foundation for prosperity. We have created a political regime—and, in its day-to-day applications, a regime of criminal justice—like the one our Founders inherited and rejected, a political order they spilled their blood to defeat.

And here is an observation on how colonialism, both historic and present, relies on complicity by elite layers of the colonized people:

From India to Vietnam to the Caribbean, colonial systems have always integrated the colonized into government power, while still keeping the colonial subjects in their place.

Half the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black; half were white. The Baltimore police chief is black, as is the mayor. And Freddie Gray, the figure upon whom this authority was wielded?

Well, to those in the neighborhood, there was never any question what race he would be.

This is what distinguishes our era of racial hierarchy, the era of Black Lives Matter and the First Black President. Black political power has never been more fully realized, but blackness feels for so many black people just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens. The threat of the nightstick always lingers, even for, say, a famous and distinguished Harvard professor of African and African-American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just because someone thought he was a burglar.

And a passage comparing and contrasting the rule of law in Nation and Colony:

In the Colony, violence looms and failure to comply can be fatal. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas prison cell, was pulled over because she didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back as he fled a North Charleston police officer, was pulled over because one of the three brake lights on his car was out. Freddie Gray simply made eye contact with a police officer and started to move swiftly in the other direction.

If you live in the Nation, the criminal-justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

And a rare observation that while the US security apparatus disproportionately targets black people, it is also part of a wider system of repression against the working class in general:

The Colony is overwhelmingly black and brown, but in the wake of financial catastrophe, de-industrialization, and sustained wage stagnation, the tendencies and systems of control developed in the Colony have been deployed over wider and wider swaths of working-class white America. If you released every African-American and Latino prisoner in America’s prisons, the United States would still be one of the most incarcerated societies on earth. And the makeup of those white prisoners is dramatically skewed toward the poor and uneducated. As of 2008, nearly 15 percent of white high-school dropouts aged 20 to 34 were in prison. For white college grads the rate was under 1 percent.

All of this echoes the points I tried to make in an essay I wrote 2 years ago on police violence, about how in numerous working-class communities across the US the police are more or less an exploitative and lawless occupying force.  And there has been much, much more hard evidence on this that has come out since then, ironically in no small part due to the various Department of Justice investigations into the police forces of many major cities like Chicago and Baltimore.  Thanks Obama!?

Blurred musical lines in South Asian religions

South Asia has seen more than its share of horrific religious violence, whether it was the mass displacement and mass killings of Partition in 1947, or the genocide during Bangladesh’s 19671 war of liberation, or the pogroms of the 1980s in India, or the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat or of 2013 in Uttar Pradesh.

But present in this backdrop of religious divisions are cultural and musical traditions that blur the lines that have been imposed between Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, etc.  Take, for example, the musical collective of Riyaaz Qawwali, based in Texas, whose work fuses the musical and philosophical tenets of the various South Asian religions via the medium of Qawwali, a traditional form of Sufi Muslim devotional music.  Here is a video of them singing a Hindu bhajan from 15th-century Gujarat in Qawwali style.

This kind of syncretism isn’t just present in the diaspora — it is present in the homeland too.  Indeed, this style of inter-communal tradition is precisely the target of far-right extremist groups like Islamic State who abhor the notion of religious harmony, diversity, and heterogeneity.  The recent attack in the Sindh province of Pakistan, which killed over 70 people and injured hundreds, was an attack on a shrine whose popularity and meaning transcended religion and culture:

Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalized into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, he is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in [Pakistan], he is their peer as much as he peer for Muslims. Some might label him to be a Sindhi saint, but songs of his praises are sung at the Sufi shrines in Punjab as well. In the summers at the time of his urs celebration special trains are booked to bring his Punjabi devotees into the heartland of Sindh.

There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared outside its confines. That’s why this courtyard represents such a threat. It defies all narratives, of exclusive nationalism and religious identities. It maybe just a few thousand people but a powerful narrative. The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories.

Tech workers are becoming politicized; can they also be radicalized?

The Trump administration is sparking a surprising amount of political and social mobilization among tech workers.  Some are protesting along lines that are concurrent with their bosses, such as the “walk-outs” at Google, which the CEO and other executives also attended; others are protesting companies like Palantir for their complicity in Trump’s ultra-reactionary programs.  Overall, while many tech elites are either ambivalent or even supportive of this new wave of political mobilization, its clear that workers are leading the charge, and not simply tailing the capitalists who pay them.

Right now, much of the unrest (within Silicon Valley or otherwise) seems tailor-made to get appropriated into mainstream liberal-progressive politics and act as an energizer for the Democratic Party, much like how the anti-war movement got co-opted during the Bush administration.  Discourse at protests seems targeted uniquely at Trump, as opposed to the general failures of establishment politicians, let alone capitalism.

But the radical left is in a much better position today than it was in the 2000s — socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are seeing a big spike in new members, as are radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  And the election season saw tech workers breaking toward the left during the Democratic Party’s primary season, supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and even engaging in protests against Silicon Valley venture capitalists and their participation in Clinton’s elite fundraisers, during which their own class grievances got brought up:

Much of the protesters’ language centered on white-collar work frustrations, as the man with the bullhorn asked: “How many people here have weekends off – hands up? They have us working around the clock so they can get richer. How many of you are expected to be online over the weekend? Or get a call from your boss at 9pm?”

Thus, there seems to be great potential for the radical left to carve out a revolutionary pole among the general mish-mash of anti-Trump unrest among tech workers.  Part of this strategy ought to be double-down on ongoing efforts to connect with radical and revolutionary tech workers, and put a spotlight on radical left perspectives on techno-scientific labor and the nature of technological development in capitalism.

In particular, the radical left and those of us who are tech workers ought to put an emphasis on rank-and-file workplace organizing, and help tech workers fight against both their immediate problems (i.e. long working hours) as well as the lack of control they have over their companies’ politics.  This will be key in getting people to think beyond liberal politics (electoral campaigns and protest theater) and view their workplace (and the means of production in general) as a key site of political engagement, build class consciousness, and bring tech workers into political compositions with other segments of the working class.