Monthly Archives: October 2013

The focus of much of my writing (1 2) and thinking over the past year has been on bringing intersectional theory and theories of class struggle into a productive dialogue with one another in a way that neither collapses one into the other (by, for example, suggesting that intersectionality provides nothing more than a way of making the class struggle more cognizant of ‘particular’ oppressions that are thereby positioned at the periphery of political struggle; or, in the other direction, by converting class into a mere analog of gender and race, problematically rendering the three political spaces precisely isomorphic to one another) nor dismisses one on the basis of the other (intersectionality is simply the latest incarnation of middle-class/academic/liberal identity politics, class struggle is merely another colonialist metanarrative which empowers white men, etc.) but that, at the same time, does not assume that the two can be simply and unproblematically stapled together as if there were no conflicts and tensions. Rather my aim has been to treat these tensions as sites of productive inquiry which pose important challenges to our theorisations of political struggle, which so often only sustain internal coherence as the result of troublesome excisions and occlusions.

My motivation in this undertaking is partly pragmatic: intersectional discourses have displayed a vibrancy and vitality in recent times that has been largely absent from a stagnant and marginalised revolutionary left such that increasing numbers of (particularly young) activists are learning to express political ideas through the language of intersectionality (and its theoretically impoverished cousin ‘privilege’) and, indeed, evaluate political movements and organisations on the basis of their practical and theoretical engagement with intersectionality. In this context, having nothing to say about intersectionality, or worse having something trite and dismissive to say (sorry love, your oppression is the product of determinate economic forces, not “patriarchy”) is a recipe for reproducing our own irrelevance. At the same time, the proliferation of identitarian and liberal theories of class through intersectional discourses risks entrenching what are, in the end, pro-capitalist political theories within the left and requires proactive but careful engagement. On a less instrumentalist level, I feel that engagement with intersectionality by the revolutionary left has the potential to open us up to important new political possibilities. At a minimum, intersectionality and privilege theory provide useful insights into the micropolitics of social movements and heuristics for minimising the reproduction of oppression and marginalisation within movements. (In this regard, privilege theory’s lack of theoretical sophistication is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its simplicity makes it easily understandable and generalisable, and provides practical shortcuts which avoid messy and involved theoretical debates when dealing with specific issues. On the other hand, the tendency to treat privilege as a thing-in-itself leads to a reification which occludes the workings of power, treating manifestations of systems of domination and exploitation as if they were the systems themselves. Privilege thereby becomes its own cause and effect and undue emphasis is placed on particular privileges enjoyed by privileged groups rather than the systems which produce them.) However, intersectionality’s real value, in my view, is that it offers an approach to theory-formation and practice which holds the potential to recover the possibility of a collective self-emancipation of the oppressed and to escape the labyrinth of postmodern particularisms. Intersectionality insists that we theorise systems of oppression always in the light of one another, that we abandon the quest for the one ontology to rule them all and instead begin to recognise the heterogenous multiplicity of antagonisms that divide the social sphere, and therefore that we embrace tensions, contradictions and incoherences as occasions for democracy and the deepening of insight, rather than producing neat theoretical resolutions which so often are merely exercises of power.

Unsurprisingly, given the hegemony of liberal intersectionalities within the broad left and the revolutionary left’s reluctance to engage with intersectional theory, largely due to a paranoiac fear of being drawn into “identity politics”, the nature and location of class within an intersectional frame has been a recurring sticking point. Regarding class intersectionally, we are told, necessarily occludes some key metaphysical quality of class and thus effects a retreat from class struggle in some sense. Intuitively, I don’t think this is true – intersectionality as a mode of analysis doesn’t strike me particularly as imposing a particular form on the systems which it proposes to theorise together; in fact, I would argue the imposition of a universal structure on all forms of struggle is precisely not what intersectionality is supposed to be about – but the intuitions of others appear to diverge sharply from my own. I think an important and, unfortunately, often unacknowledged complicating factor in this and other debates on the left is the polysemy of ‘class’ as a signifier, which makes pinning down precisely what object this term ‘class’ refers to intensely difficult (that is, significantly beyond the inevitable failure of all signification to fully represent the signified). The signifier ‘class’ always effects multiple significations, both at the level of the subject and of discourse between subjects. Put simply: class has a variety of different meanings both to different people and coinciding within the same person, which often cannot be reconciled.

The point of this semiotic excursion is to say something important about the limitations of theory. Territorialistic* theoretical defences of particular conceptions of class, whatever their sophistication, whatever the force of their argument, and whatever productive new becomings they effect in their readers, do not collapse the semiotic constellation ‘class’ into a single meaning. (To argue otherwise is, in my view, to place an undue faith in the performative power of language and in the humanistic notion of the rational thinking-subject.)

Situating ‘class politics’ in relation to ‘identity politics’, then, requires us to consider not just what we would like the term ‘class’ to mean, or what it might theoretically mean, but how the term ‘class’ is really embedded in the discourses of the left and the full range of meanings to which it relates. Particularly, we need to recognise the specific history of class-as-identity within the revolutionary left, which situates class (at least partially) on the plane of identity politics as a competitor for the privileged status of the universal Subject of historical change. In other words, we need to recognise that it is not just pro-capitalist liberals who participate in an identity politics of class. This tendency has a clear relationship to representational modes of politics where political ideologies and movements are supposed to “represent” the aspirations and interests of some identity category or other, which, I would argue, can only operate through the the territorial ‘marking out’ of a particular set of aims, concerns, goals etc. as legitimate to that political project, and delegitimisation or deprioritisation of those which fall outside of that particular political territory. That is to say: ‘working-class politics’ can only ever secondarily be concerned with feminism or anti-racism, and only insofar as those things can be demonstrated to be the proper concern of The Working Class.

Representationalism (and, by extension, identitarianism) is quite obviously embedded in the politics of both the parliamentary and vanguardist revolutionary variants of socialism, where a particular political organisation attempts to capture state power “on behalf of the workers” and to pursue working class political interests through the state machinery. But the hegemonic nature of representational politics exerts an orienting influence even on those with a formally anti-representational politics. While anarchists might reject the representationalism of the state socialist (what we might call ’embodied representation’ – representation embodied by an actual group of people who aim to represent the working class) there remains an impetus among anarchists to develop a politics that authentically represents a working class political subjectivity (which I’m calling ‘abstract representation’ – representation through ideas that needn’t be materially embodied). The notion of class as an immanent antagonism of capital is never quite as distinct in practice from class-as-identity as it might be shown to be in theory; ‘class politics’ easily mutates to become ‘working class politics’ which then becomes ‘the politics of the workers’ movement’, and, through this kind of metonymy, we end up reproducing the same identity politics of “the workers” which we purport to have rejected. Note, for example, the central role afforded to the trade union movement in the recent online debates (1 2 3 4 5) over the efficacy of the WSM and of anarchism as a political practice and near total absence of any discussion of pro-feminist, pro-queer or anti-racist work. How effective we have been at intervening in the trade union movement appears to be central to judging the WSM as an organisation in a way that questions of race and gender politics simply are not. What does this signify? Some ethical failure on the part of the individual contributors to the discussion? Or perhaps that we continue to be shaped by the workerist baggage of a revolutionary left centred around an exclusionary and identitarian conception of class struggle?

It is here that we must recognise the necessity of intersectionality (even in its most reductively identitarian form) to the rebuilding of any kind of effective left. Intersectionality, by insisting that systems of power are always theorised together, and, what’s more, by insisting that this be an embodied practice and not merely a theoretical outcome, forces us repeatedly into the difficult and “divisive” discussions which we must have if we are ever to afford issues of gender and race the respect and significance they deserve.

* The notion of ‘territory’ is used in this piece to convey both the notion of a space with borders, and a proprietary relation to a space, with an associated attack-and-defence mindset, which I think describes a common and problematic approach to political/theoretical questions. I intend to write a fuller account of this in a subsequent piece.

This is a piece I started to write in the aftermath of the killing of a British soldier in Woolwich in May. For various reasons I stopped writing about halfway through and no longer remember precisely what it was I wanted to say. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to do my best to finish it, as I feel there were useful ideas in the piece which I should publish.

The reaction to the politically-motivated killing of a British soldier in Woolwich is an interesting and important moment in the history of British racism. Naively, one might have expected that the most obvious racial aspect to the attack, around which a racist moral panic might coalesce, was the African racial characteristics of the two men responsible: Michael Olumide Adebolajo, and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale, both of Nigerian descent. It would seem inevitable, one might have thought, given the black skin of the attackers, that long-established racist discourses of savage, violent, animalistic African men would have resurfaced to form the basis of race-based explanations of what had occurred. What happened instead was altogether different: the British state, media and public began almost at once to search for a kernel of ‘Islamic extremism’ around which to build a narrative, looking, if not quite past, through the skin of the suspects to see if it in fact concealed the essence of The Muslim. More or less the same search for The Muslim played out in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing recently, and of the Utoya killings, which turned out to be the work of a white fascist. Subsequently we have seen a nearly 1000% increase in attacks on Muslims, including the firebombing of mosques, and demonstrations by a newly-revitalised EDL across England.

This, I think, tells us something important about the shape of racism in 2013, not just in Britain, but across Europe and ‘the West’. Faced with an event with two fairly distinct possible racist interpretations – ‘violent Africans’ and ‘Muslim terrorists’ – the dominant culture overwhelmingly opted for the latter rendering. To simplify for a moment, we might understand the former as ‘biological essentialism’ – the idea that race has a biological basis and meaning; that all black people, for example, possess common and non-superficial biological traits that in some way determine their behaviour and place in the world – and the latter as ‘cultural essentialism’ – that the basis of race lies in the superiority of certain cultures over others; to use the same example, that black people’s subordinated status results from the backwardness of African culture(s) compared to Westerners – although, as we shall see, this distinction is much harder to make in practice. The first thing we can say about anti-Muslim racism, then, is that it would appear to signify a shift in racist discourse, a break from biological essentialism to a racism that resides entirely within the realm of culture. No one is born a Muslim, there are no Muslim genes, and Muslims exist within a wide variety of ‘biological’ racial categories, including whites. This is not to say, however, that biological characteristics such as skin pigmentation no longer function as racial signifiers, that dark skin no longer attracts the racialising gaze of white society, merely that they now point to one’s cultural rather than biological destiny: brown skin marks one out as a potential terrorist, rather than as a biological inferior.

For anti-racists, this raises important question regarding how we understand and talk about race and racism. What exactly is race? What does it mean to say something – an idea, a practice, a group, an institution, a system – is racist? Given that a culture is composed of ideas and practices, how does one respond to the claim that it is not a group of people but an ideology that is being criticised and attacked? Are we talking about racism at all or is it something else: ‘Islamophobia’? These are not new questions, but they are questions that pose themselves with a new urgency in the face of organised racist violence across the UK.

I think it’s of vital importance, both strategically and theoretically, that anti-Muslim racism is not partitioned off as ‘Islamophobia’, even rhetorically. To understand ‘Islamophobia’ as somehow distinct from racism is to accept the terms dictated by the culturalist racism of the right: that racism is about biological categories which, they mostly accept, albeit reluctantly, are not valid, but that cultural ‘criticism’ is an entirely different matter. From that starting point, it is easy to paint opposition to ‘Islamophobia’ as wooly-headed liberalism or repressive political-correctness. It is vital that Muslims are able to lay claim to the term ‘racism’, with all of its cultural weight built up over years of struggle, to describe their experiences and their situation. In any case, racism has never been simply an ideology of biological superiority – it has always involved claims about cultural superiority. If we consider Nazi anti-Semitism, while the Jews were cast as biological inferiors, and thus a threat to the purity of the Aryan race, it also involved a set of claims about Jewish culture – their cosmopolitanism, their decadent intellectualism, their imputed disloyalty to the nation, their greed – which cast Jews as an immanent threat to the nation. As a result of the horrors of the Holocaust, the collapse of scientific racism and the agitation of postcolonial and anti-racist movements, racism has been forced to gradually shed its bio-essentialist baggage and make a strategic shift to the terrain of culture. If anti-Muslim racism appears to be entirely divorced of biological content, this can only be understood as the outcome of a long-term strategic shift by the right, and not as an entirely new and separate phenomenon.

It would be equally reductive, however, to assume that anti-Muslim racism is merely the old biological racism in new clothes, and to use this as the basis for an anti-racist opposition to state racism and the far-right. ‘Muslim’ is not simply a code for this or that ethnic group (e.g. Arabs, south Asians, people from the Middle East etc.) but a racial category in itself. It is not the case that ‘critique of Islam’ is new packaging for the same old racist content but rather that certain critiques of Islam are in themselves the content of a new modality of racism – that political opposition to Islam as an ideology is the primary discursive mechanism by which Muslims are constituted as a race in Western societies. Outside of the lunatic fringes of the right, there are few who believe in the biological superiority of whites. An anti-racism that aims at mapping anti-Muslim racism onto old racial discourses is unlikely to have much success: those who engage in racist framings of Muslims are unlikely to recognise themselves as covert white supremacists, even if those framings can be shown to be white supremacist in their effects.

This means that the ideological front of the fight against racism is significantly more complex than it has been in the past. It is relatively easy to win the argument that it is wrong to make judgments about a group of people on the basis of the colour of their skin – that one should be judged on the content of one’s character. Pinning the charge of racism to political framings of Muslims, on the other hand, requires large numbers of people to understand and accept a much deeper theorisation of race, since one’s religion or culture is demonstrably a body of ideas and practices that might be validly criticised. If cultures are made up of ideas, is it not valid to make judgements about those ideas, to assert that some are superior to others and to organise politically to oppose the proliferation of destructive ideas? Does the anti-racist position then reduce to placing Islam above criticism?

This is the point where I stopped writing, originally. What follows is an attempt to reconstruct from memory what I had intended to say by way of conclusion.

One form of discursive intervention which I think is crucial for anti-racists to make is to break apart the dominant constructions of ‘Islam’ as a unity in both their rightist and liberal forms, which necessarily entails breaking apart the unity of the ‘we’ which is counterposed to the ‘they’ without merely falling back on a class reductionism which renders race invisible by asserting the a priori unity of the international working class. The right constructs Islam as an inherently political and colonialist ideology which is by definition opposed to the West militarily and culturally. Muslims are positioned as inherently incompatible with Western liberal democracy, and it is therefore concluded that it is only through the exercise of coercive state power (immigration control, surveillance, and policing on the domestic front, and pacification through the exercise of overwhelming military force on the international) that the Muslim threat can be contained. The liberal multiculturalist counternarrative is superficially better, in that it at least refuses the framework of race war in understanding Islam. However, liberal narratives almost inevitably end up reducing cultural difference to a kind of ‘citizenship flavour’ with no political content or meaning – we may worship different Gods, eat different foods, etc., but within the political sphere we are all merely citizens of the nation – which constructs those Muslims who articulate political ideas or demands through an Islamic discourse as bad Muslims who refuse to behave as proper multicultural subjects, who must then be disciplined into the appropriate form by various hard and soft (coercive and persuasive) forms of disciplinary state power. Both constructions are motivated by an underlying fear of meaningful difference which might divide the political sphere, which in both cases is understood as fundamentally unified: there may be differences of political opinion, but there are no fundamental political divisions that cannot be reconciled through, or at least contained by the state. It is precisely the fear that political Islam might really exist which unites the Islamophobic right and the tolerant liberal. The anti-racist left must refuse this binary in two ways: First, we must emphasise that there is no single ‘Islam’ which is or is not political, or that is or is not antagonistic to ‘Western values’ (whatever they are). There are, in fact, a multitude of Islams which are in various ways and to varying degrees, political or apolitical, and through which a great heterogeneity of ethical and political claims are articulated, some of which might be considered reactionary, others progressive, but none of which necessarily characterise the essence of Islam as reactionary or progressive. Second, we must critique the supposed unity of ‘the nation’ or ‘the West’ so as to emphasise opportunities for affinity and collective self-organisation across the ‘racial divide’.

Additionally, it is necessary to recognise the politically ambiguous nature of “critique of religion” in modern discourse. The leftist critique of religion was always only secondarily (if at all) concerned with the actual content and truth-value of religious beliefs. The key concern was the structural role played by religion in maintaining the power of the dominant class and critique of religion necessarily went hand in hand with critique of bourgeois rationality. The hegemonic form of contemporary atheism instead involves the veneration of bourgeois rationality in opposition to religion, and is utterly disconnected from any wider project of liberation. Most troublingly, the construction of religion as oppressive in itself (without any wider critique of society) provides a vector by which racist and colonialist attitudes towards Islam might become legitimated within the left. It is therefore imperative that the Dawkinsian critique of religion be understood as what it is: an exercise of a fundamentally bourgeois and racialised power and not the discourse of liberation which it presents itself as.