EN LT
OPPRESSION IS NOT A SIMPLE MATTER: DIRECTED AS REACTION TO ALYTUS MEETING Print
Written by Chus Martínez   

 

[DAMTP COMMENT ATTACHED IN THE END]

 

Oppression is not simple matter. I will start more or less arbitrarily and then stop here and there on different points.

Part of the problem with racism, sexism, etc. is that while capital structures all of our social relations, it also takes over a lot of what preceded it. This is not to say that sexual oppression is very much like it was in other times and places, nor that sexual oppression is expressed or experienced uniformly in the current day, in all places. Capital subordinates the world to itself, and has done so more or less successfully, but it also does so unevenly and without wiping out all particularities. Capital's universality (instantiation of the capital-labor relation, generalization of money and exchange, separation of the producers from the means of producing and the product, etc.) goes hand in hand with production of all kinds of particularity, which often appears as autonomous from or unrelated to it. For a social relation where each difference has become an opportunity to market niche commodities, each 'community' becomes little more than a potential market, and each oppression has generated a new ‘community’, defined less by struggle against a particular oppression, which need not propose a new identity after all, than by its being given the status of an identity through the market (often with the help of the capitalist left, not to mention the nationalists seeking their own market.)

Capital generates differences automatically because wherever/whenever, as well as when/where it is necessary to split labor. In both cases its representatives make use of existing differences and generate new ones. Sometimes this happens consciously as in strikes or other social struggles (in the U.S., The Populist Movement in the 1890's comes to mind as another example) where capitalists, politicians, the media, etc. consciously play upon and generate differences to undermine class solidarity. All bourgeois politics is, except when it is forced to engage in simple, outright oppression, divide and conquer. It is better to make people fight among themselves, than confront a united body head on.

Even more so, capital creates conditions where competition between workers not only takes on the character of competition between individuals, but foments workers looking for the easiest group advantages. Sometimes those grow out of linguistic differences, or out of cultural differences, or out of otherwise irrelevant biological differences or out of all kinds of differences, an of course out of multiple combinations of these. Not surprisingly, those associated with sex, language and culture are especially potent. Added to this is the organization of capital's political power in states, which is explicitly exclusionary and which seeks to formalize in many cases linguistic and cultural differences, and to which racism is inherent implicitly.

That this desire for a group advantage should then involve cross-class alliances is not terribly surprising to me, especially as the petit and big bourgeois elements again concentrate for themselves a market of both producers and consumers willing to enforce their power for the benefits they receive. At the same time, the state makes some ways easier than others where those methods line up with existing methods of social control, hence the argument of “How the Irish Became White” about the transformation of a mostly anti-slavery Irish immigrant population into white Irish Americans (unlike Race Traitor, I don’t believe that there is a choice between ‘white’ or ‘American’; that is a bourgeois left ideology and utterly shameful) who were the social base of the party of slavery, the Democratic Party, in the North.

In that respect, Africa has always struck me as a vivid example of how elites make use of essentially outmoded or declining social relations to reinforce their power, and to move against competing sections of capital to grab a larger portion of the total social capital available, and the means to produce more. But then again, Yugoslavia was little different in the 90's. It is simply that the smaller the share of total social capital available, and in Africa as a whole that is already a tiny, tiny share, the more viscous the conflicts.

There is no 'law' of racial oppression or sexual oppression, per se. There is no general theory of oppressions. They develop in specific ways out of specific concrete conditions in which capital develops, in relation to particular struggles (implicitly or explicitly) against or for capital. They are completely mystified if they are taken in abstraction from the formation of labor and capital, as otherwise slavery makes no sense, the changing relation of women and men to the household, childcare, work, etc. makes no sense, the relation of immigrant and citizen makes no sense, and so on. They certainly make no sense abstracted from capital’s control of labor. If in the short term the generation or reinforcement of oppressions can be utterly destructive developments to capital or to a particular regime, such as the racist strikes in World War II in the U.S. to keep black workers out of industrial jobs previously reserved for whites or the Nazis spending huge resources as they were losing the war to keep the camps for Jews, Romani, etc. going, it nonetheless seeks to disarm the workers, and so protects capital as a whole. Certainly, some instances spiral wildly out of control, such things once unleashed sometimes have a logic of their own, such as in Rwanda, but it is hard to say that they cause capital any significant damage on the whole, while I suspect that proletarian solidarity in Rwanda and the surrounding countries hit new lows and will not recover for some time (especially as now all of the democrats can come in with their democracy programs and their relief and such.)

It is not merely that class structures other forms of oppression, as Revol noted, but also that these forms of oppression structure how class is experienced and expressed. Class is not experienced directly as such, compared to various kinds of oppression, whether it is being poor while others are rich, black where another is white, an immigrant where another is a citizen, a woman where another is a man, homosexual where another is heterosexual, and so on.

The proletariat does not experience itself, in oppression and exploitation, as a class. We only experience ourselves as a class in our strength, when we fight, when we are drawn together, unify, in order to fight.

At all other times, capital rends us into fragments: gendered, racialized, sexualized, skilled/unskilled, blue collar/white collar, citizen/immigrant, employed/unemployed, dependent/independent, waged/unwaged, educated/illiterate, and on and on and on. The list of fragments is almost endless and capital as a social relation finds ways to perpetuate itself through them.

Non-class identities create cross-class unity (which is of course largely of benefit in one direction because even where some material privileges are gained, capital gains more). When opposition is based on these political identities (and not all resistance to racism takes on an identity, that is a political and ideological struggle), such as 'radical black politics', what is affirmed is that the point of unity is between those who are 'black' against those who are 'white'. This cannot but result in the unity of labor and capital in a sectional competition over the social division of total social capital.

This is not to say that class unity immediately eliminates those oppressions or their effects or the habits and behaviours generated by those oppressions, only that there is no other way to destroy them. Otherwise capital uses social struggles that do not challenge its total social power to adjust itself. Just as economic crises are its mechanism of recalibration of accumulation, so struggles against oppression which do not becomes struggles against the totality of social relations, which do not become radical, go to the root, can allow capital to recalibrate the rest of the social organism, but for the same end: to rationalize and/or reinforce the accumulation of capital.

As far as people really experience class through these fragmentations, these fragmentations appear much more real. Not that poverty is not real, but it is to strike out at some group that seems more concrete and more susceptible to attack because they are weaker. It is not simply that whites look to whites because of some white identity, but because it is easier to attacks black people or Indians or immigrants. It is safer and the results are more certain because the state has criminalized the first, genocided the second, and does not legally recognize the third. In the same way, black people may look first and foremost to attack immigrants. Basically, shit rolls downhill.

On the other side, those oppressed in turn experience the power structure as including not just the cops, courts, politicians, social workers, etc., but also the workers who commit violence against them, conspire with management or the cops to undermine them. This is the appeal of identity politics because it starts from the immediate experience, if only very one-sidedly. Identity politics don't say "Hey, you have to unite with those three whites who keep calling you ni**er, and the other whites who don't shut them up but pretend not to hear" or "We need unity (including with the guys who keep grabbing your ass and asking you to suck their dicks)". Identity politics says, "There, that is the enemy. Sure, you are poor and they are poor, and being more gives you one thing in common, but you are a <insert identity fragment(s) here> and that is the struggle you need to make now." The problem is that we only live in the now. The struggle against this or that oppression, as if it could be eliminated in this society, guarantees, much like anti-fascism, that we never get around to capital. The oppression may get recailbrated, softened, sophisticated, your oppression turned into a niche market, given your own status as a 'culture', your own university <insert identity fragment here> Studies department, etc., but capital rolls on and it generates new oppressions or new forms of the old oppressions.

The only way that people overcome these fragments is in struggle. I know that is a cliche, but only in class struggle does it becomes possible to outline and envision class unity. Our class is divided because it is weak. It can become unified only when it is strong. This does not negate the need to battle all forms of oppression. A unitary critique requires a unitary fight.

What makes communists different is what make class different. Class is not merely one oppression among others. Class is an absolute cut, it is nothing but negative. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense of there being “working class identity” because that positive identity was ultimately connected to the idea of workers running things, a self-managed capitalism that also often was encoded with all of the racism, sexism, national chauvinism, heterosexism, etc. In the U.S., real workers were white, male, straight, pro-America and they defended “American” jobs and “American democracy”, which happened to include segregation for example. The labor movement of the 1930’s was soaked in it and proved it during WWII and afterwards, as the CIO collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan, as white workers went on strike against black workers (and women and immigrants, esp. Mexican workers), and so on.

No, the class I am talking about is not a sociological category, a container or definition to fit people into. Rather, it is the fact that whatever capital does with this or that identity or group, it must, on pain of death, exploit labor. It can never afford for labor to realize itself against capital because then it threatens the whole house. The proletariat either becomes the negation of all of the essential aspects of capital, of money, value, exchange, markets, capital, wage-labor or it is nothing. You can’t market to the negation of the market. You can’t sell to the abolition of money. You can’t negotiate with your gravedigger. This is why capital will accept the most brutal atrocities in human history, using its full and immense productive power, to keep the workers from becoming a class, from becoming a proletariat.

Since the last major round of class struggles, the destruction of colonialism, the civil rights struggles, women’s struggles, and the not-insignificant class struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s, capital has maneuvered again and partially met the demands of those struggles with identity politics on one side (generally the side of the bourgeois left, nationalists, feminists, union reformers, i.e. all of the hustlers on the make, all of the democrats who made it an issue of rights and wages and new workers’ representatives and a stronger state), and repression (COINTELPRO, counter-insurgency, economic isolation, union busting) and restructuring (de-industrialization, greenfielding, computerization, cyberneticization, flattening organizations, partial or total elimination of social programs including both transfer payments/social welfare and social equalization such as anti-discrimination) on the other hand.

Identity politics and multi-culturalism were, in effect, forced on the ruling class as central to the counter-revolution. The old milieu hated it: the Nixons (who had by today’s standards of a U.S. president, a very liberal social program), Fords, Reagans, who led the backlash and architected the right-wing shift of the U.S. working class, but not more so than the union leaders who were threatened by it and who broke strikes and cut deals and managed lay-offs in order to make sure that Carter and Reagan’s attacks did not provoke a more generalized class struggle. Now however it is almost impossible, even while one is a sickeningly retarded Christian, right-wing moron (it is not possible to run in the U.S. without proclaiming one’s Christianity, and if you want to see the state of U.S. politics, watch what is happening to the rather conservative Barak Obama for refusing to wear a USA pin on his lapel), to not accept practically multiculturalism, even if one admonishes it verbally. Bush exemplifies this, as on the one hand with Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Gonzalez, and the whole crew, as he has had the most integrated cabinets in U.S. history, and on the other hand he constantly stresses that the ‘war against terrorism’ is not a war against Islam or Muslims.

But the old guard did not create multiculturalism and identity politics, the ‘radicals’, the ‘left’, the post-structuralists, the nationalists and the feminists, did. By this, I don’t mean this or that movement, but the politicos and ideologues who succeeded in giving becoming the expression of it, of course in no small part because of the limits of those movements themselves. Just as in Germany from 1918-23, Nazism was not the beginning, but the completion of the counter-revolution begun by Social Democracy (and quickly thereafter the CPs), so Clinton and George W. are the completion of a counter-revolution begun by a combination of reformers and ‘radicals’ inside the social movements of the 1960’s and 70’s (Trotskyists, the union reformers, Maoists, SDS, The Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, SNCC, the Black Panthers, the McGovern campaign, and so on.) Certainly, none of them had the weight of the Social Democratic Parties in 1918-21, but as a whole they formed and expressed each in their own way, identity politics and multi-culturalism.

 

 

 

 

 

DAMTP COMMENT

 

The key point that our comrade Chus Martinez should note from Robin Kelley ( http://nova.wpunj.edu/newpolitics/issue22/kelley22.htm ) is that (s)he is not engaging with real instances of class struggle as experienced by "blacks" or "women" against oppression. Just judging them from his/her own situation.

 

I would state that a situation is known from the letter to the name to the nation - and thats how we know his perspective: situated - in body and mind, in place - and only then in its situation - the aspects of its class. Robin's text demonstrates some good examples of how one leads to the other when followed through to maturity - in other words - the autonomy of capital itself rests upon the identity of bourgoisie and the identity of proletariat. ie power flows to concrete individuals called capitalists - through others who are workers - on the way it divides the workers - unequally.

 

The text by Chus looks only at moments of opression - it sees capital and labour as equal things. They are not.

 

(S)he actually engage with the struggles (s)he writes about. That way (s)he is situated within and may comment on black power movements - on womens movements. But it seems evident (s)he can only comment from the perspective of the opressor ((s)he writes of what the nazis did - what the racist white workers did) - never from the perspective of one engaged in struggle with concrete examples.

 

(S)he states "racial opression or sexual opression ... are completely mystified if they are taken in abstraction from the formation of labor and capital..." this for me is telling. Firstly for me capital is indeed an abstraction. It is abstracted from labour. Labour is not an abstraction - it is the disalienated expression of humanity. So for me (s)he is perpetuating the foundations of bourgois psychopathic/ spectacular geometry - that labour and capital are equal. This is why (s)he imagines that his perspective and interpretation of our struggles as an academic exercise can ever be equal to the perspective of us who are carrying out these struggles.

 

It would be easier maybe to locate problems more precisely if i saw what (s)he is proposing instead - is it anarcho-syndicalism? invisible dictatorship? leninism? the party? But for this (s)he would have to present his/her actual situation – his/her position in class struggle - and (s)he has not done this once. This is the main abstraction and mystification (s)he is creating. If (s)he is arguing for working class unity then how does that manifest/ organise? In industries? Then that is nation and identity - the identity of the worker - and it is at the heart of our disagreements with the IWW.