The New Anti-Semitism (which is Very Like the Old Anti-Semitism

We are, unfortunately, beyond the point where we can make a useful distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  This distinction had always been the fallback position of the Israel-bashers, but it doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.  This change has little to do with the undeniable turpitude of the Netanyahu government, which certainly complicates the matter, but doesn’t justify the loss of that distinction. 

In the anti-Semitic imagination, the Jew is always suspect unless he can demonstrate the he is “one of the good ones.”  The conditions for being one of the good ones can vary.  Throughout the history of European anti-Semitism, being one of the good ones meant rejecting Moses and accepting Christ.  But even that was hardly enough.  Those Spanish Jews who chose to convert instead of to emigrate when the Jews were expelled in 1492, the Conversos, were never fully accepted as Christians.  They were accused of being “crypto-Jews, of practicing Judaism in secret, and were hounded by the Inquisition.  Many were burned at the stake. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the unfilial Jessica is welcomed among the Christians for her conversion while the law that convicts her father brands him as an “alien,” because he is a Jew.  While Felix Mendelsohn was always considered a Jew by his contemporaries, he was accepted in German polite society as “one of the good ones” because his family had accepted Christ.

Deborah Lipstadt documents this unfortunate tendency in the American Protestant establishment as late as the 1940s:

Ross convincingly demonstrates that the Protestant press used theological grounds to justify its failure to protest the Final Solution. Ross observes that "Christians were to either seek to convert Jews to the Christian faith or to pray for them. To affirm the Jews as Jews, religious or nonreligious, seems always to have been an unacceptable alternative." In the ultimate irony, after the war was over, rather than condemn those who had perpetrated this action the Protestant press reserved its anger for those who made the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan."[1]

 Even the horror of the Holocaust couldn’t shake the suspicion of the Jew from the anti-Semitic imagination. 

With the advent of late 19th and early 20th century race theory, there was no way for a Jew to be one of the good ones.  Jewishness was now a racial characteristic; conversion would no longer do the trick.  The editors of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic screed,The Dearborn  Independent, claim not to object to the Jewish religion:

"The Jewish Question is not in the number of Jews who here reside, not in the American's jealousy of the Jew's success, certainly not in any objection to the Jew's entirely unobjectionable Mosaic religion; it is in something else, and that something else is the fact of Jewish influence on the life of the country where Jews dwell. ...It is not the Jewish people, but the Jewish idea, and the people only as vehicles of the idea, that is the point at issue. . . What Idea? The old idea of 'get' instead of 'make'"

Since Jewishness is itself the problem for the racist anti-Semite, there is no way for the Jew to redeem himself.  The Holocaust is the logical end-point of this pernicious doctrine.  Notice that this writer makes a hard distinction between Americans and Jews.

Mendelsohn, convert though he was, was no longer acceptable to the racist anti-Semite. There is the famous story of the SS officer who, after the Nazi takeover of Prague, was charged with removing the statue of Mendelsohn from the frieze on the Prague Opera House which included statues of the great composers.  Since the SS officer had no idea what Mendelsohn looked like or which statue was of Mendelsohn, he solved his dilemma by removing the statue with the biggest nose.  He ended up removing the statue of Wagner. 

The doctrine of the suspect Jew is with us once again.  A recent event at UCLA is indicative of this reemergence. A student who had applied for a position on the Students Council’s Judicial Board found herself confronted by the following question by the members of the Student Council: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”  The anti-Semitic trope in this question, the divided loyalties of the Jew, is age-old; the context, however, is new.  The Council was trying to determine whether the applicant would support the Council’s endorsement of the BDS movement’s boycott of Israel.  Apparently, “unbiassed” in this context means pro-BDS.  Interestingly, they didn’t ask the applicant about her attitudes about Israel or BDS; her Jewishness alone was enough to make her suspect.  In this case, only publicly renouncing the Jewish state would have made her “one of the good ones.”

Or consider the following uncomfortable exchange between myself and an acquaintance at a recent dinner party.

She: Isn’t it great the Jeremy Corbin is now the leader of the Labor Party.

Me: While I appreciate the growing influence of the Left, I worry that Jeremy Corbin has a little too much of the Socialism of the fools about him.[2]

She (after I explained the meaning of that phrase): Well, as a Jew, I suppose you have your own opinion . . .

Me: It has nothing to do with my being Jewish; it has to do with my being able to recognize an anti-Semitic trope when I see one and hear one.

What my acquaintance was telling me when she said, “as a Jew, you have your own opinion,” is that because I am a Jew, any argument I make about this subject is automatically suspect and, therefore, invalid because it will be the Jewish perspective.  Therefore, she has no obligation to take that argument seriously.  She, herself, was using another age-old anti-Semitic trope, “the oversensitive Jew.”

What has caused this reemergence of the Socialism of the fools on the left is what we have been calling, in these essays, the sentimentalizing of victimhood, which has little to do with actual compassion of victims, but rather is the impulse to divide the world into a false binary of victim categories and victimizer categories and assigning moral superiority to the victim categories and moral turpitude to the victimizer categories and denying them a legitimate political voice.  In the dinner table conversation, my acquaintance denied the validity of my argument because Jew has become a victimizer category. 

The New York Times article about the UCLA incident tells us about the aftermath of the Student Council’s anti-Semitic outburst:

“But in the weeks since, that uncomfortable debate has upended this campus of 29,600 students that has long been central to the identity of Los Angeles. It has set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated, particularly in comparison with other groups that are more typically viewed as victims of discrimination, such as African-Americans and gays and lesbians.”

Interestingly, the discussion centered on the condition of victimhood, the all-important consideration in the neo-Anarchist imagination.  Are Jews in a victim category because of the Holocaust, and so due the same deference we give to “African-Americans and gays and lesbians,” since they fit the definition of a victim category, or are Jews now in a victimizer category because they are seen as victimizing Palestinians?  Clearly, the verdict has settled on the latter, leading to the reemergence of the Socialism of the fools among the neo-Anarchist left.  So the only way to become “one of the good ones” is to renounce Zionism and any allegiance to the idea of a Jewish state.

In his account of the Labor Party annual meeting last year, Howard Jacobson tells us:

“But condemnation of Zionism was as febrile as ever and any Jew — particularly any Israeli Jew — willing to join in could count on a standing ovation. No man is a prophet in his own land but an anti-Zionist Israeli is a hero in this one.”[3]

The spectacle of Jewish Labor Party members approaching the microphone, eager to identify themselves as “one of the good ones” to the cheers of the rest of the conclave is grotesque and frightening.

 

[1] Deborah E. Lipstadt

Modern Judaism

Vol. 10, No. 3, Review of Developments in Modern Jewish Studies, Part 1 (Oct., 1990), pp. 283-296

 

[2] “Anti-Semitism is the Socialism od the fools” This all-too-true remark is generally attributed to the German Marxist, August Bebel.

[3] “The Phony Peace Between the Labour Party and Jews,” By Howard Jacobson

New York Times, Oct. 6, 2017

 

Expanding the Boundaries of Materialism

This essay is a response to John Searle’s article:http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/searle.prob.html

 

 

EXPANDING THE BOUNDARIES OF MATERIALISM:

THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

In attempting to understand a phenomenon like consciousness from a materialist perspective without falling prey to a biological reductionism, it is instructive to look at the recent work by John Searle on this subject.  Searle bravely attempts to put a materialist stamp on the phenomenon of consciousness, to avoid a concept of mind, only to fall victim to scientistic fallacies. 

Searle argues correctly that consciousness is the outcome of a system. In this context, a system is something that produces an outcome, and an investigation into a system needs to determine the necessary components and the necessary relationships among those components to produce that outcome.  A system also has a set of boundaries.  Everything necessary to produce that outcome belongs inside those boundaries and what is not necessary is in the environment of that system but not inside. 

Searle claims that the system that produces consciousness consists only of a particular neurobiological process and is bounded by the brain.  The best counterargument is Searle’s own argument against the AI types who insist that technological developments will eventually yield a thinking computer.  Searle shows that no amount of technological sophistication will produce a mechanism capable of behaving like an organism because of the strictures of mechanical, closed, systems.  Here, however, he goes in the opposite direction and concludes that the brain is an organism, or at least a component of an organism, behaving like a closed mechanical system:

As far as we know anything about how the world works, variable rates of neuron firings in different neuronal architectures cause all the enormous variety of our conscious life. All the stimuli we receive from the external world are converted by the nervous system into one medium, namely, variable rates of neuron firings at synapses. And equally remarkably, these variable rates of neuron firings cause all of the colour and variety of our conscious life. The smell of the flower, the sound of the symphony, the thoughts of theorems in Euclidian geometry -- all are caused by lower level biological processes in the brain; and as far as we know, the crucial functional elements are neurons and synapses.

 

To say that stimuli come from the “external world” is to accept as QED a bifurcation that remains questionable.  Once you define something as “external,” you have defined the boundaries of a system.   Searle has accepted the epidermis as a finite boundary that defines what is external, when it may be only a convenient or phenomenal boundary within a larger system. 

Searle makes no distinction between perception and thoughts, equating the smell of the flower with thoughts of the theorems in Euclidean geometry.  To say that both are caused purely by the firings of neurons, Searle would have to argue that just as there are receptors for the chemicals of floral aromas, there are receptors for Euclidean formulations.  Searle would ultimately have to stipulate a Chomsky-like reductionism, an innate capability for Euclidean formulations within the human brain, as Chomsky stipulates an innate capacity for syntax.    It is a reductionist argument because innateness cannot be proven or disproved.  Stimulus and response is a communication mechanism that occurs within a complex system and between a system and its environment.  That system may involve neurons firing across synapses, but it does not follow that lower level brain processes cause the things they may be involved in making appreciable.  It is a treacherous business to assign causality solely within a closely bounded system, and Searle does so too easily.

For Searle, the key to avoiding a non-materialist explanation of consciousness is to insist that a system based on lower level components can produce higher level features:

More pointedly, does the claim that there is a causal relation between brain and consciousness commit us to a dualism of ‘physical’ things and ‘mental’ things? The answer is a definite no. Brain processes cause consciousness but the consciousness they cause is not some extra substance or entity. It is just a higher level feature of the whole system. The two crucial relationships between consciousness and the brain, then, can be summarized as follows: lower level neuronal processes in the brain cause consciousness and consciousness is simply a higher level feature of the system that is made up of the lower level neuronal elements.

While it is appropriate for Searle to be talking about a system, he does not address the problem of system boundaries.  He assumes that systems simply have higher level features without investigating the possibility that these higher level features arise from higher level boundaries and are simply perceived at a lower level as a particular phenomenon, such as the two dimensional creature in Abbott’s Flatland perceiving a point becoming an increasingly larger circle and then diminishing to a point again, which is really a three dimensional sphere moving through his plane.   The creature bounded by a two-dimensional system simply had no reference point from within that system to understand an object that was perfectly explainable from a higher bounded, three dimensional system that is capable of including the lower level two dimensional system.  Consciousness, which Searle claims is a higher level feature of a low-level system, may be perfectly explainable from a set of higher level boundaries.

To explain how a system comprised of lower level components can give rise to higher level features, he refers to the phenomenon of liquidity:

Lower level elements of a system can cause higher level features of that system, even though those features are features of a system made up of the lower level elements. Notice, for example, that just as one cannot reach into a glass of water and pick out a molecule and say ‘This one is wet'’ so, one cannot point to a single synapse or neuron in the brain and say ‘This one is thinking about my grandmother’. As far as we know anything about it, thoughts about grandmothers occur at a much higher level than that of the single neuron or synapse, just as liquidity occurs at a much higher level than that of single molecules.

 Here, Searle is simply wrong.  Liquidity is not a higher level feature of a system that is bounded by molecules alone.  Rather, liquidity is a property of molecules moving at a certain speed.  If we can determine the speed of a molecule of H2O, we can determine whether that molecule has the property, liquidity.  Searle wants to reference systems, but seems to have little idea what a system is or what its characteristics are. 

Searle wants to say that liquidity is a feature of a system bounded by molecules.  No higher level component need be present to produce liquidity, simply an aggregate of lower level components.  But speed needs to be a property of those molecules if they are to achieve liquidity.  The problem is that speed can vary.  At a higher speed, those molecules will no longer be liquid but will be gas.  At a lower speed, the molecules will be solid.  Clearly, a particular speed is a necessary feature of water molecules to be classified as liquid.  Nothing inside the system bounded by molecules can produce that variability. Some event or stimulus from outside that boundary must be present.  Speed is a response to a stimulus, i.e., heat, which comes from beyond the boundary defined by molecules.  So liquidity is not a higher level feature of a system bounded by lower level components, i.e., molecules; it is a feature of a lower level component in a system whose boundaries extend beyond that component to include a source of heat.  And when you consider that heat is work, we must expand the boundaries yet again to include an agent that produces work.  Since liquidity is molecules moving at a particular speed or range of speeds, the boundary of that system will need to expand to include something capable of controlling work.  Once Searle introduces someone reaching into a glass of water and feeling wetness, the system will expand yet again to include a perceptor and whatever else needs to be added to understand the phenomenon of perception.

The boundaries of our system will eventually expand to include the entire universe, and we will be stuck in what we might call an augmentatio ad absurdum.  Whatever boundaries we assign to a system are provisional boundaries that we set to define a unit of analysis that allows us to understand a particular phenomenon, like wetness.  The boundary that Searle has set around this particular system, i.e., molecules, is too narrow for understanding the phenomenon of wetness.  A lower level component only has a higher level feature by participating in a higher level system.  The molecule in aggregate does not cause wetness as Searle insists.  Since it is impossible to have a molecule without speed, i.e., without a material state, the boundary that Searle wants to put around molecules is factitious.

Searle has the same problem with neurons that he has with molecules.  Elsewhere, Searle has shown that computers will never think, i.e., that binary decisions, however multiplied, will never produce thinking.  Now, however, we are told that the firings of neurons, exponentially multiplied, will produce consciousness.  But the neurons will not produce consciousness any more than the molecule will produce wetness or binary decisions will produce thinking.  Consciousness will be a feature of those neurons as those neurons play a role in whatever higher level system is implicated in the production of consciousness, whatever those boundaries may be. 

Searle is quite certain that brain processes, and brain processes alone, produce consciousness.

I want to argue that we simply know as a matter of fact that brain processes cause conscious states. We don't know the details about how it works and it may well be a long time before we understand the details involved. Furthermore, it seems to me an understanding of how exactly brain processes cause conscious states may require a revolution in neurobiology.

This is a treacherous statement.  An eighteenth century scientist could easily have said that we know as a matter of fact that phlogiston causes fire but that it would take a revolution in our understanding of chemistry to know how it causes fire. 

Searle wants the boundary of that system that produces consciousness to be, at most, the brain.  But even in purely physiological terms, that boundary is unlikely.  The body is best understood as communities of cells in communication with each other.  The endocrine system is the communication system, sending chemically coded messages among these communities of cells, telling them what to do next and how to cooperate with other communities of cells.  Searle seems uninterested in the question of why neurons fire or in the biology of that process; that they do is sufficient for him. The firing of neurons, however is a response to the messages coming in to the brain via the endocrine system from other communities of cells.  So consciousness is at least a function of the entire body if not the function of a higher level system whose boundaries may extend beyond the body itself.  But the real question is whether that boundary extends beyond the epidermis.  Searle is trying to take Cartesian reductionism one step lower in discovering the irreducible.  If Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am,” then Searle is saying, “Neurons fire, therefore, I think.”

It is likely that consciousness occurs at the species level but we experience it at the individual level because we have self-consciousness but not species-consciousness.  Just as the denizen of Flatland understands the sphere as a special kind of two dimensional experience because he cannot comprehend a third dimension, Searle asserts that consciousness is a special kind of individual experience.  When he asserts that “we simply know as a matter of fact that brain processes cause conscious states,” he is merely insisting on an individual cause for what he experiences as an individual phenomenon but which could be something else.  But the fallacies he runs into while attempting this explanation and his constant assertion that we don’t know yet how this happens suggest that he’s missing something important. 

The primacy of language in the experience of consciousness suggests a cause beyond the individual level.  Any thought beyond the level of elemental drives or emotional states is going to require a symbolic language to contain and express.  Language being a tool of and an emanation from human association means that human association is the necessary condition for the level of consciousness that enables abstract thought.  The flaw in the Cartesian formulation is the a priori assumption that thinking is an entirely individual experience.  Only under that assumption can thinking precede being as Descartes asserts.  Searle is simply expressing his faith in the Cartesian formulation, cogito ergo sum.  Since the self is the basic unit of bourgeois social organization, Descartes was building the foundation for the bourgeois intellectual superstructure.

Bell, CA

The outrageous corruption of the city council in Bell, CA was in the news in 2010 and occasioned these comments on the nature of corporations

Bell: The Shock of the Familiar

We are becoming used to headlines about the latest outrages from Bell, California, a decent, working class town whose city government rivals Kabul for corruption and deceit.  The latest scandal involves city managers pressuring the police department to impound automobiles in an effort to raise city revenues to cover the exorbitant salaries and pensions the city managers awarded themselves.  None of this is terribly surprising, however; we’ve seen it all before.  The city managers of Bell are simply mimicking the behavior of corporate executives.  Cities are corporations, after all.  Why should we be surprised if they behave like corporations in the  private sector?

Corporations are not democratic institutions.  They are autocracies.  The CEO is king, beholden only to the Privy Council, i.e., the Board of Directors, that appointed him.  The first task of the new CEO/king is to ensure the safety of his throne by dominating the Privy Council.  He, and increasingly, she, accomplishes this by demanding and getting astronomical salaries, benefits, pensions, and perks.  Once the Privy Council members accede to these outrageous demands, they are dependent on the King to protect them from the shareholder/peasants, whom they, as good aristocrats, are obliged to protect, but who will come after them with pitchforks and torches if the stock price isn’t maintained. 

It is in the king’s interest to encourage that dependency.  The spectacular rise in executive compensation, beyond all bounds of reason, shows the modern CEO/king’s success in dominating his Privy Council.  But the cost is increasingly short-term decision-making to protect the stock price quarter to quarter that sheds jobs and scants reinvestment.  Can we not recognize in this the behavior of the Bell city managers and city council, the exorbitant salaries and pensions, the slashing of payrolls and city services?  How is the latest outrage, impounding cars to raise city revenues any different from the behavior of banking executives who raised revenues by spiking overdraft fees?

We cry foul when we see this kind of behavior in a municipal corporation, but accept it as a matter of course in private-sector corporations.  But the analogy works in the opposite direction.  The behavior of private-sector corporations is just as undemocratic, unpatriotic, wasteful of public resources, and contemptuous of the public good as the city government of Bell.  The California Republican Party is running two CEOs for the top spots of Governor and Senator (i.e., in 2010).  Check out the behavior of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina as CEOs of their respective corporations, and you will find perfect models for the behavior of the Bell city managers.  The corporate sector is no model for good government.  Do we really want CEOs running the public sector?

Patriarchy, Race, and Caste: The Delusion of Privilege and the Layering of the Oppressed

 This essay was originally intended as an addendum to the article on burka bans to reinforce the need for supporting women’s rights in the Muslim world.  It turned into something larger.

To understand the necessity of supporting women’s emancipation in the Muslim world, we need an understanding of patriarchy and why patriarchy is endemic to traditional societies.  In that world, where large families provide social security and farm labor, the control of women’s bodies has an economic rationale.  That has been the case in every place and at every time in which families are the social unit responsible for the economic well-being of the individual.  However, the economic rationale is necessary but not sufficient for explaining the forms and persistence of patriarchy.  For that, we must understand patriarchy as a sexual caste system in which women are at the bottom.

The usual definition of caste requires that the groups within a caste system be endogamous.  So any consideration of caste that includes gender defined groups is offering an expanded definition.  Our focus is less on caste as a social layering of groups with particular characteristics and more on caste as a system of groupings that tends toward a particular political outcome, the preservation of a dominant group’s economic hegemony.  As patriarchy produces this result, its groupings could be considered a caste system.

Caste systems also have an economic rationale related to the one reinforcing patriarchy.  They are reflections of economic class divisions though the divisions within the caste system are never purely economic ones.  They are, quite literally, shadows of class divisions.  At the same time, they reinforce the economic hegemony of the dominant class while deliberately obscuring the economic nature of that hegemony.  They enlist one group of oppressed to further oppress a more abject group, allowing the middle groups to identify with the oppressive prerogative of the dominant class.  That more abject group is always defined in non-economic terms so that the middle groups’ identification with the dominant group never turns into economic envy.

The most common image of caste is the highly complicated Indian caste system.  Oliver Cox, in his book, Caste, Class, and Race, attributes the following theory of the origin of the Indian caste system to John Nesfield:

The importance of the sacrifice to the well-being of society gave the priesthood a position of great honor; the tendency was for the priesthood to become hereditary, like royalty.  “When the Brahmin had thus set the example of forming himself into an exclusive and highly privileged caste, the other classes in the community were compelled to take what precaution they could for securing privileges as were within their reach; and they did this, not merely in self-defense, but in imitation of a class of men whom they had been accustomed for centuries to regard with deepest veneration.”[1]

In this account, Nesfield identifies the Brahmin priesthood as the dominant group securing for itself economic privileges.  Lower groups scrambled for whatever leftover privileges they could secure for themselves, and they did so in emulation of and in identification with the most privileged group, all the way down to the untouchables, the most reviled group with no privileges at all.  It is important to understand that privilege is a relative term, the middle groups having less of it that the dominant group.  It is this feature if privilege as relative that allows the middle groups to identify with the hegemonic winners even though they are actually being oppressed themselves.  Nesfield identifies occupation as the non-economic rationale for the groupings of the Hindu caste system. 

The level of disgust for the untouchables, shown by any of the middle orders of this caste system, reflects both the level of identification with the oligarchic winners and the level of anxiety about falling to the bottom.  So it becomes terribly important for the middle groups to maintain both the top group and the bottom group in their relative positions as a way of preserving whatever dignity and self-worth they can muster under oppressive conditions.

A caste system need not be so elaborate to protect a reactionary status quo.  It needs only three groups distinguished by anything except economic class to be effective. The American South at the time of the Civil War is a case in point and would enable us to understand the workings of caste systems in an example closer to home than traditional Muslim society where women are the reviled bottom.  We need to answer the question why did Confederate soldiers fight and die to preserve slavery when most of them were too poor to own slaves themselves?  Only about six percent of white southerners at that time owned slaves. They did so to preserve a racially-based caste system in which they were not the reviled bottom. 

That defense of slavery became further alienated as a defense of States’ Rights.  Confederate apologists to this day maintain that States’ Rights was the true cause of the Civil War, not slavery.  But what is States’ Rights if not the right of the local élite to exploit the local underclass unhindered by a central authority’s protection of that underclass?  The intensity of the Civil War reflects the intensity of the fear of becoming the bottom social class, the fear of losing the caste distinction that differentiates the middle group from the bottom.  Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle make this point quite explicitly in their discussion of the propaganda campaign surrounding secession in 1860 South Carolina:

Some pamphlets targeted non-slaveholders—a narrow majority of the white population—arguing that slavery served as a bulwark against the possibility of white servility. One tract insisted that non-slaveholders had even more at stake in maintaining the peculiar institution than slaveholders, for “no white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, [and] wait on his table…. His blood revolts against this.” A Republican victory put this racial hierarchy, so important to poor and middling whites, at risk.[2]

It is the same fear that motivates the intense violence of fascism, although the hatreds of fascism can be more nakedly economic.  Secession was a reactionary rebellion in defense of a racist caste system.  It is significant that the benefits of white privilege are negatively defined.  This obscures the fact that the positive benefits are minimal to non-existent, illusory; they were still poor and miserable.   Instead of resenting the hegemonic winners, the poor whites are encouraged to feel rage at anyone who would make those servile demands of them, the demands that are made of slaves.

The Civil War became inevitable when the rise of a new hegemonic class, the industrialists, threatened the economic base of the agrarian, slave-owning hegemonic class in the South.  The economic rationale for slavery had been the labor intensive methods necessary for exploiting the resources of the new world, large estates producing crops for trade, not subsistence.  Independent yeoman farmers were not about to supply Europe with sugar, tobacco, and cotton.  (That’s the reason Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1863, to assure that all newly opened lands would be peopled by yeoman farmers who had no use for slavery.) Under these conditions, owning labor made economic sense as long as growth came from opening new lands for exploitation and not from any characteristics intrinsic to capital itself. 

Industrialists had no use for slave labor, only free labor, in which labor is a commodity, not capital.  The political victory of the party of the industrialists meant that slavery could no longer expand into new territory in the West, which doomed the hegemony of the slave-owning class.  The racist caste system struck out violently against the threat to its dominant group and in defense of the prerogatives of the middle group, the non-slave-owning poor whites. 

Even though abolition and Appomattox destroyed the economic rationale for that racist caste system, so strong were the resentments that it engendered that it lives to the present day.  Since the Civil War destroyed the legal basis for the caste system, its enforcement went underground, in the form of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and in freebooters, like Jesse James, who supported his racist thuggery by robbing banks.  As the political climate changed, it reemerged into legality with Jim Crow laws but still required the support of quasi-legal violence from groups like the Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils. 

The Reconstruction-era laws that enabled African-American political participation were aimed more at decimating the vestiges of the defeated Southern ruling class than at elevating African Americans, who were abandoned once that result was achieved.  The new hegemonic masters required free labor but not racial equality and so, in the manner of imperialists everywhere, grafted themselves onto the existing caste system to protect their own class hegemony.

Despite the success of the Civil Rights movement in extirpating much of the legacy of that caste system, it lives on in the persistence of race as a masking of class antagonisms in the United States.  One can detect it clearly in both the overt race-baiting and coded language of the current Tea Parties, in the Republican attack on voting rights, in patterns of incarceration, and certainly in the Trump victory. 

The truth that emerged from the Ferguson protests is that patterns of law enforcement were being used to recreate Jim Crow restrictions on African- Americans.  Traffic stops aimed at black drivers resulted in unpayable high fines which in turn led to arrest warrants.  If you had an arrest warrant out against you, even if it did not lead to incarceration, it would render you unable to get a job, to get a loan, or even to vote, effectively reestablishing Jim Crow conditions in St. Louis County.  The extrajudicial killing of black motorists by police is a form of lynching that supports the remnants of the racist caste system.

A caste system will tend to reassert itself in this way so long as it effectively plays the role of layering the oppressed to the advantage of the hegemonic winners.  And race continues to play this role in the United States.  To fully wipe out the racist caste system and keep it from reemerging, we must shine a light on the economic shadow play that maintains it, expose it as a defender and generator of economic inequality.  However, this will be difficult to do in the US where the liberal left has sacralized affirmative action, the neo-liberal, pro-corporate policy initiative that effectively put a stop to the forward motion of the Civil Rights movement.  Martin Luther King put together a multi-racial coalition that supported black issues out of a sense of justice.  Affirmative action turned justice into a zero-sum game, which effectively broke up any possible unity of the working class into competing constituencies and prevented the Civil Rights movement from shifting to a focus on economic inequality, where it was headed at the time of Martin Luther King’ death.  More left-wing solutions, like a full-employment policy, were admittedly more difficult to implement but less open to the charge of right-opportunism.  The cost of that right-opportunism is the current weakness of the left.  Pragmatism is a euphemism for right-opportunism.

Similarly, even current black political awareness, most recently reconstituted as Black Lives Matter, poses itself in opposition to the political movement attempting to focus on economic inequality.  In the 2016 primary campaign, we saw Black Lives Matter activists disrupt Bernie Sanders’ speeches, claiming that Sanders was ignoring African-American issues because they felt economic inequality to be a white issue, whereas the truth is that economic inequality is the quintessential black issue because that is what racism has been used to propagate. 

In the current political climate, I fully expect a hyperbolic reaction to this criticism of Black Lives Matter, charging that any criticism is racist.  So let me take this opportunity to say that I fully concur with their appropriate and necessary focus on police injustice towards the African-American community and only regret their divorcing this issue from income inequality.  A real triumph against the vestiges of Jim Crow will require unmasking it as a strategy to layer the oppressed in defense of income inequality.  If Black Lives Matter cannot make that connection, their victory will be limited.

If we understand the layering of the oppressed as the principal tactic of the ruling class acting in its own defense, then we have also to understand that both left and right in this country currently engage in that layering.  The right, as is expected of them, play the traditional role of favoring the middle over the bottom.  There is nothing surprising about this.  But the left has also been colluding in the layering of the oppressed by supporting the bottom against the middle when a more appropriate left response would unite both groups against the ruling class.

It should be noted that middle and bottom are relative terms; both groups, in this era of heightened inequality, are equally abject.  The only thing distinguishing these groups is race.  But what keeps them apart is the delusion of white privilege which both left and right, unfortunately, invest with reality.  And by doing so, they, reinforce the caste system which only serves the ruling class. 

The illusion of white privilege is what poor white Confederate soldiers fought and died for, so it is ironic that white privilege should become a standard feature in the rhetoric of diversity.  A student from my school reported the following exercise from a workshop on diversity he attended called “the walk of privilege.”  Students were asked to line up side by side.  They were then told that if you were white, you should take a step forward, and if you were black, to take a step back.  Privilege attaches itself to wealth.  This privilege construct identifies all white people as middle class and falsifies the reality of most whites in this country.  Poor whites are invisible in this idea; they become associated with a power structure that does not benefit them. 

Similarly, the privilege construct cannot admit to any class distinctions among African-Americans, which are becoming increasingly more prominent and more important.  I find teaching schoolchildren that privilege is attached to whiteness deeply troubling.  The privilege construct sees white privilege as absolute and denies the relative nature of privilege and the relative nature of oppression, the very thing that makes the cast system work to benefit the hegemonic winners. 

Consider how this idea plays itself out on the political arena.  How would a poor white single mother who works a sub-minimum wage day job and who cleans offices at night to afford daycare react to being told she is privileged because she is white, “I’ve worked hard all my life and have nothing to show for it, and you tell me I’m privileged!  I’m going over to the Republicans.  They understand my struggles more than you do.”  Could she be blamed for feeling the left has abandoned her?

On the other hand, Trump also played on the delusion of privilege, telling whites they are right to feel aggrieved that the privileges of being white have not materialized.  “Make America great again” was a direct appeal to that sense of grievance.  It is in the direct interest of the ruling class that Trump represents to stoke that sense of grievance.  But no one on the left has told them that the reason they are not enjoying the benefits of privilege is that their sense of privilege is a delusion that traps them in misery and that their true interests lie with a unified working class.  How can the left deliver this message when they themselves are reinforcing the delusion of white privilege at the base of the American caste system? 

I suggested earlier that affirmative action, a neo-liberal, pro-corporate program, has been successful in raising up a black petit-bourgeoisie who see their class interest as supporting the ruling class while leaving the vast majority of the African-American community still mired in poverty and hopelessness.  Hillary Clinton’s primary victory was secured by the coalition of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and the right-opportunistic, pro-corporate black leadership as represented by Jesse Jackson, as opposed to a more forward-looking black leadership, as represented by Nina Turner, which supported Bernie Sanders.  It should be noted that Clinton’s loss in the general election was the spectacular failure of that corporate wing of the Democratic Party, pointing out the necessity of an anti-corporate strategy that could unify the working class and split Trump’s constituency.  True to form, the Democrats have not figured this out yet.

Recently, black students at Harvard and at other colleges, to the consternation of many, demanded a separate black convocation.  Here is the black petit-bourgeoisie reinforcing the conditions that gave rise to their class distinction over other African-Americans.  The fact that Harvard granted that request shows a ruling class more than willing to let the emerging black petit-bourgeoisie do the job of layering the oppressed for them.

Much has been said in the punditocracy about the so-called “white working class” and about whether the Democrats can ever appeal to them.  To whatever extent that group is a reality, they are not the constituency of the left and never will be.  That they exist at all is a consequence of the left’s abandonment of the concept of a unified working class and their collusion in the layering of the oppressed.  When the left engages in identity politics, the only winner is the ruling class.

It is a truism of political philosophy that whenever the right makes political gains, it is because the left has somehow abandoned its constituency.  Throughout these essays, I have called this phenomenon by various names—neo-Anarchism, the rhetoric of moral superiority, the politics of personal purity, identity politics, the sentimentalizing of victimhood.  This latter is one of the more pernicious forms of layering the oppressed.  It has little to do with actual compassion for victims, but instead is the tendency to see the world as a false binary of victimized groups and victimizer groups and assigning moral superiority to the victimized and denying a legitimate political voice to anyone in a victimizer category.  When Laura Kipnis calls for an “adult feminism,” for instance, she is calling for a feminism devoid of this sentimentalizing of victimhood.

The following incident, reported in a New Yorker article about student activism at Oberlin College, lays bare the divisive nature of the sentimentalizing of victimhood and the rhetoric of diversity.[3]  In a campus discussion, a student objected to vague language in a sexual harassment statute because he felt that such vague language could lead to targeting ethnic groups.  He was accosted afterwards by another student: “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male.”  The student who made the comment, unfortunately for him, inhabits the intersection of three victimizer categories.  As such, it was unthinkable and even maddening to the screamer that he might presume to have a legitimate political voice.  How can a left imbued with this divisiveness hope to unify the working class?

All these terms mentioned previously are different phases of the left’s collusion in the layering of the oppressed.  The left will not be a viable political force or gain a mass base until it can stop colluding in this layering of the oppressed.

The truth of structural racism is that we live in a world that has been designed by economic power to benefit economic power.  The layering of the oppressed is the principal vehicle by which those with economic power derive those benefits.   Structural racism has made that layering, as it were, a fact on the ground.  Much depends, however, on how we define the problem.  If we define the problem as white privilege and create a political movement to attack white privilege, which the American left has effectively done, then we will be driving a large segment of the working class into the arms of the ruling class, and we have colluded in the layering of the oppressed and reinforced the American caste system.  That such a movement can only fail has contributed to the hopelessness that is evinced in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent work that sees America devolving into the cultural despair of autocracy and fascism as the reactionary movement to defend white privilege gains strength.  Of that movement, Trump is the emblem and the harbinger. 

If, on the other hand, we define the problem as economic power, and design a movement that attacks the hegemony of the ruling class, such a movement could unite white and black and be the harbinger of a new humanism that would counteract the tribalism enforced by identity politics, for which the Oberlin screamer and all her divisiveness is the logical end-point.  This humanism would not deny the relative privilege for whites created by structural racism, but would point out that black and white have a common goal for different reasons and would honor those differences.  That common goal is the need to fight against economic hegemony that benefits from the layering of the oppressed.  It would be a new humanism of common needs and goals and is an urgent necessity.  The left, as currently constituted, will not take us there.

 

[1] http://www.islam4all.com/the_origin_of_caste.htm

[2] “Dancing Around History, New York Times, January 22, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/dancing-around-history/?hp

[3] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/30/the-new-activism-of-liberal-arts-colleges

 

Michelle Rhee's Dark Support

An article in the LA Times about Michelle Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, prompted this Op-Ed piece which the LA Times would not publish.

MICHELLE RHEE’S DARK SUPPORT

At one point, during my career as an organizational consultant working in Latin America, I asked my friends there whether they send their children to public schools.  They laughed heartily and said of course not.  They send their children to private schools or to Church schools.  There is no way, they told me, that they could maintain the middle class status of their families if they send their children to public schools. 

From their incredulous laughter, I learned a valuable lesson, which reflects, I think, on Michelle Rhee’s radical project to empty money out of the public school system.  The political legacy of Latin America is oligarchy, and the impoverished public schools of those countries are part of that legacy.  In the United States, however, you can still defend the middle class status of your family and even enter the middle class through the public school system.  Our public school system, therefore, is the great guarantor of democracy.  It plays an important social leveling function and is a bulwark against advancing oligarchy.  But that bulwark is threatened by Michelle Rhee and her supporters.

In this country, the agenda of the Conservative movement has become, transparently, to establish an oligarchy, and given the large and growing income disparity in this country, they seem to be having some success.  They have commandeered the Republican Party to their cause, abetted by the conservatives on the Supreme Court handing us the Citizens United ruling, allowing these oligarchs to secretly fund acquiescent politicians and support antidemocratic voting rights restrictions by Republican state legislatures and governors. 

A major component of the oligarchic agenda is to attack the social leveling function of the public school system by emptying money out of that system through charters, vouchers, and any other means possible, to reduce the public schools to resemble their Latin American counterparts.  The only things standing in their way are the teachers’ unions, the principal targets of Michelle Rhee’s attack.

Now the teachers’ unions are hardly paragons of probity, but one need not claim that they are such paragons to be suspicious of one-sided attacks on teachers.  Another thing I learned in my organizational consulting career working with both union and non-union organizations in this country is that managements get the unions they deserve.  So if there is a problem with teachers’ unions, look to school managements to find out why.  The job of administrators is to create and protect the conditions that enable the people who work for them to do the best job possible.  So when schools do not perform, it makes more sense to blame the administrators for failing to create those conditions than to blame teachers for not doing their best job under those sub-optimal conditions.  But taking a balanced approach to school problems that looks at the entire system and not just at teachers doesn’t advance the oligarchic agenda.  Enter Michelle Rhee, who has made teachers and their unions the sole focus of attack of the school reform movement.

Michelle Rhee complains that “the purpose of teachers’ unions is to prioritize the pay and privileges of members,” but she is mistaken.  Teaching is a profession like medicine or the law but with the anomaly that it cannot be pursued as an independent enterprise.  Teachers’ unions are necessary to protect teachers’ professional prerogatives against employers who would interfere with their professional need to determine how their service gets delivered and how best to serve the public interest. 

Service is the primary issue for teachers’ unions as it is for any professional group.  Shall we evaluate doctors by their cure rate?  Who then would become an oncologist for whom cure rates are low?  Shall we evaluate lawyers by their win rate?  Who then would take the difficult cases?  No one is proposing that we evaluate doctors or lawyers in this way because it would not serve the public interest.  Yet Michelle Rhee proposes that we evaluate teachers solely by test scores.  How is the public interest served by that? 

Michelle Rhee represents the deprofessionalization of teaching which fits the oligarchic agenda hand in glove since it requires disempowering teachers’ organizations, her own liberal and professional credentials providing convenient cover.  She would reduce the student-teacher relationship into a customer-supplier relationship wherein education becomes a commodity and teachers man the assembly lines.

The Times lists the backers of her Students First organization, charitably, as “entrepreneurs and philanthropists,” but they are the same big money oligarchs supporting antidemocratic, anti-union agendas all over the country, no matter how many Democratic billionaires she lists on her masthead.  Typically, she has refused to provide a full list of her donors. 

Michelle Rhee seems genuinely to be taken aback by liberal criticism, claiming that she herself is a liberal and a lifelong Democrat.  There is no reason to doubt her sincerity on this score or to suggest anything but that she is sincerely, however mistakenly, dedicated to school reform.  But for whatever reason, she is allowing herself to be used by some very dark forces that do not share her professed concern for the public school system.

*         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *          *         *         *        

 

Epigrams

Libertarianism is indifference masquerading as principle.

 

States’ rights always means the right of a local élite to exploit a local underclass.

 

France and America appreciate each other’s clowns.  The French love Jerry Lewis; Americans go for Derrida. 

 

Ever since Descartes subordinated being to thinking, the French have been trying to make the world disappear.  The problem is they think they have done it.

 

When truth is on trial for its very existence, irony is a witness for the defense.

 

Irony is the shadow of truth.  Where you detect irony, somewhere nearby truth is standing in the sunlight.

 

On the difference between Democrats and Republicans

When a Republican legislator says: “The million dollar contribution of Oilslick Industries to my campaign fund did not influence my sponsoring a bill to give them a billion dollars in tax breaks, contracts, and environmental waivers,” he’s telling the truth.  When a Democratic legislator says: “The million dollar contribution of Oilslick Industries to my campaign fund did not influence my sponsoring a bill to give them a billion dollars in tax breaks, contracts, and environmental waivers,” he’s lying.  Here’s the difference: Republicans grovel before money, power, and privilege on principle; Democrats prefer to be bribed to do the same.

 

One of the more memorable scenes from the Bertolucci’s movie, The Last Emperor, occurs after the military has entered the Forbidden City and deposed the emperor.  The huge central courtyard of the Forbidden City fills up with a thousand grey-clad figures, kneeling in supplication, moaning dolefully, and holding little black boxes.  These are the court eunuchs, begging their new masters to allow them to be buried with their detached testicles so that they can enter heaven as complete men.  This scene reminds me of the Democratic Party. 

 

Peace of mind is the ability to enjoy the moment before the rope snaps.