The Limits of Proving Them Wrong

With the most recent round of aerial bombings and the ground invasion of Gaza by the Israeli military, a plethora of debate around the issue has erupted. In the face of a significant Palestinian death toll to the ongoing genocidal Zionist settler project, Palestinians continue to resist in every possible way and international community is again called upon to condemn Israel. Although I am saddened by the hundreds of Palestinians lives lost, I am also inspired by the sight of a large international chorus of voices taking to the streets and to social media to demonstrate their solidarity with the anti-colonial Palestinian fight for national liberation and self-determination.

One particular phenomenon within the online debates I witnessed during the past two weeks is the extreme frustration those of us in solidarity with Palestinian cause feel when arguing with the Zionists. In spite of an enormous wealth of data, reports, and historical facts that point to the reality that this is not a “conflict” between equal sides, but instead a fight between an oppressed group of indigenous people and a highly militarized Zionist settler state funded annually with $3 billion in U.S. foreign aid, the pro-Israeli crowd remains committed to ignoring these facts and clinging to their pro-settler ideology. You begin to almost wonder and ask how despite all the information about the huge Palestinian death toll and the clear role of Israeli military in committing this violence could someone still support the Israeli state? This phenomenon points to the reality that even with superior logic to support our cause, many of those committed to Zionist settler project will never waiver. A key underlying reason being that the political perspective and consciousness of Israeli settlers is the ideological consequence of living in and benefiting from a social system based on settler-colonial violence.

To explain this point, I want to point to one of my favorite quotes by sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox who in his 1948 work Race, Caste and Class wrote:

“We cannot defeat race prejudice by proving that it is wrong. The reason for this is that race prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact. If, for instance, we should discover by “scientific” method that Negroes and Chinese are “superior” to tall, long-skulled blonds […] our proof accomplishes nothing. The articulate white man’s ideas about his racial superiority are rooted deeply in the social system, and it can be corrected only by changing the system itself.”

For me, Cox’s point illuminates how although education, conscious-raising, political messaging, propaganda, etc  are important for combating the ideological content and justifications of oppression and exploitation, an ideological struggle alone will not end oppression and exploitation. The ideologies that support racism (or Zionism or settler-colonialism) cannot be educated out of existence. As persistent as we can be and as hard as we work, we will never win over enough people who reside in oppressive classes by merely convincing them that oppression and exploitation is morally wrong. Reason being, as Cox points out, members of an oppressive class cling to ideologies that normalize oppression because those ideologies are rooted in social systems from which they directly receive material, social, and economic benefits. Oppressive ideologies are so inextricably and deeply rooted in unequal and exploitative social systems that undoing those social systems is requisite to undermining the power of these ideology. Most importantly, eliminating oppressive ideologies alone will not eliminate the unjust social relations they conceal and normalize.

What is also equally important to clarify is that as easy and comforting as it may be to dismiss our ideological adversaries as misguided, irrational, misinformed, and backwards, we should realize that these people are actually behaving rationally and logically in accordance with their class interests. In the essay “Racism and Culture”, Frantz Fanon writes that a “racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal. He has achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology” and goes on further to add that:

“[R]ace prejudice in fact obeys a flawless logic. A country that lives, draws its substance from the exploitation of other peoples, makes those peoples inferior. Race prejudice applied to those peoples is normal. Racism is therefore not a constant of the human spirit. It is, as we have seen, a disposition fitting into a well-defined system.”

What these quotes acknowledge is that racist ideologies and racist thinking are a direct product of racist social systems such as colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. In deeply unequal societies — whether we acknowledge it or not — all of our politics is based on certain ideological assumptions. There is no objectivity or neutrality with regards to politics in class-divided societies because our social positions, as well as our conscious political alignment with different social classes, fundamentally impacts our political ideology and our political consciousness. Hence, people from the dominant classes within these social systems hold racist views not because they are merely tricked or indoctrinated by hegemony to adopt some backwards, false consciousness. Instead their racial prejudice and adoption of oppressive ideologies is specifically related to their social position and the material benefits accorded to them within a deeply racist class society.  Moreover, because dominant social classes have the material power to control and shape all educational, cultural, civil, and political institutions they ensure that their ideology is hegemonic or as Marx famously noted “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

To truly combat and undermine racism as a political ideology, therefore, involves dismantling of the social institutions and structures that both produce and maintain that ideology as well as constructs race as a powerful means of social stratification, domination, and exploitation. Consequently, this forces us to reckon with the uncomfortable reality that we should foremost be actively engaged in the very difficult (yet necessary) task of organizing and building revolutionary movements to dismantle and transform the material infrastructure that engender all forms of oppression and their concomitant oppressive ideologies. To return to my earlier example, Zionism as a racist settler-colonial ideology will only cease being a hegemonic social force in the oppression and exploitation of Palestinians when we have built and sustained a successful revolutionary internationalist movement committed to Palestinian self-determination and the dismantling of the Israeli settler-state.

To clarify my point, I am not saying we should stop educating people or raising awareness regarding different causes. All of us should take every opportunity to educate and inform people around us and in our communities about the urgent need for revolutionary social change. The powerful ideological apparatuses  (mass media, public schools, think tanks, etc) controlled by the state and by wealthy propertied classes are committed to maintaining the status quo and we have a lot of work ahead to counter their misinformation. My point, nonetheless, is that there is a severe limit to the effectiveness of education and consciousness-raising when a concurrent large-scale organized political movement is absent or weak. We must never forget that an ideological struggle is only one component of the more important revolutionary political struggle to create a more just world free of all exploitative and oppressive political, economic, and social relations.

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On Reparations: Resisting Inclusion and Co-optation

I finally read “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and I highly recommend people reading the article. Coates does a phenomenal job of detailing and articulating the long history of violent exploitation and oppression of African Americans. Throughout the article he makes a strong case for how this history indicts and incriminates the entirety of U.S. social and political formation. Coates summarizes his arguments by stating “Black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it” and “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it“. I really appreciate seeing articles in traditionally bourgeoisie liberal outlets articulating the harsh and often unsettling reality of U.S. politics. There is no equivocating that without slavery and the brutal subjugation of African people kidnapped from the continent, America would not exist. The United States exists as a colonial-empire strictly because of the immense wealth amassed from the centuries of unpaid, forced labor of enslaved Africans. Moreover, the U.S. still operates under a logic of slavery that views African Americans as non-human, second class citizens worthy of extrajudicial killing by state actors, mass incarceration, rampant discrimination in all aspects of social life, as well as vulnerability to poverty and pre-mature death. The reality of the current racial and national oppression of African Americans is hardly articulated with such detail in the popular press as it was by Coates in his article.

Nevertheless, the article is not without problems. I will preface by saying that my critiques of Coates are coming from an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist worldview that seeks the revolutionary dismantling of U.S. colonial empire. In the section titled “Toward a New Country”, Coates disappoints by veering into a popular and insidious form of liberal, left patriotism and nationalism, which I expected. Ta-Nehisi’s articles are usually written from a perspective that somewhat aligns well with the nominally left in the U.S. and I have often felt the intended audience for his articles are (white) liberals. Given that this article was published in a major bourgeoisie liberal outlet, I was not expecting any truly revolutionary calls to actions and I am not surprised that at times his arguments slips into liberal thinking. The liberal thinking I am specifically referring to here are the moments where he argues “reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans” or “what is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche” or “what I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal […] A revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history“.

The arguments about “spiritual renewal” or “healing of America” are frankly liberal and idealist. They are not only vague, but they implicitly normalize the continued existence of the United States settler-imperial project. White supremacy and anti-blackness will not disappear through spiritual renewals but through the creation of a revolutionary movement of people committed to transforming the concrete and material political, economic, and social arrangements under which Black people suffer. Furthermore, if one recognizes that the United States and its democracy were founded upon and still operate along the logics of slavery and anti-blackness (as well as settler colonialism and indigenous genocide), then “spiritual renewal” should not be the goal. Instead, the dismantling and unsettling of the United States is the goal. The goal of reparations and black liberation is not to improve American consciousness or to be included in the U.S. nation-state. Nor is the goal of reparations to redistribute resources and wealth to African Americans within the context of U.S. capitalist-colonial formation. Restitution for the centuries of unpaid labor is foundational, but a related and crucial goal of reparations and the revolutionary black freedom struggle has been the abolition of the entire anti-black-colonial-capitalist-imperialist entity that is the United States. Black self-determination and reparations are inseparable from each other. We not only want full repayment of the debt owed to us, but we also — as the Black Panther Party argued — want “to able to determine our destinies in our own communities ourselves, by fully controlling all the institutions which exist in our communities.” We want freedom from the anti-Black U.S. colonial empire.

I am also reminded here of Malcolm X who, like Coastes, recognized that white supremacy and anti-black racism were fundamental to America. However, Malcolm X never articulated a desire to improve the American psyche. In fact, he argued against the very identification with ‘America’ when he stated: “I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” Decades later, Malcolm X’s words still ring true. American democracy is predicated upon the violent exclusion of African Americans and thus must be opposed, not redeemed.

I am excited that we are revitalizing the conversations around reparations. Yet, let us not forget the legacy of the Black Radical tradition, which understood that calls for reparations and Black self-determination are articulated from a standpoint that neither validates nor seeks inclusion into the U.S. anti-Black settler-imperial state. Although I sincerely doubt the U.S. neoliberal project will ever take seriously calls for reparations and Black self-determination, I wanted to write this piece to clarify that slavery reparations and Black self-determination are political projects that in their historical articulation resist inclusion and co-option. That legacy must never be forgotten.

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Introductions

To any wayward soul who has the (mis)fortune of stumbling across my corner of the internet, allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Jamilah and I want this space to serve as an opportunity for me to write and most importantly, to escape from the neoliberal hell of 21st century United States “Left” politics.

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“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children”

– Amílcar Cabral

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