Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

Filed under: affirmative action,class-reductionism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Walter Benn Michaels

After posting a critique of Adolph Reed Jr.’s class-reductionism, the aggrieved professor emeritus who has written for Harpers, the Atlantic, the Nation, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and countless other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed magazines over the years felt the need to chew me out on my insignificant, little blog. His invective-filled comment charged me with racism. On top of that, just two days ago, I made the mistake of posting a link on Facebook to an article I wrote in 2016 critiquing Reed for endorsing Hillary Clinton in the DP primary. And for that transgression, Todd Cronan, one of his sycophants, repeated the charge, “Your fixation suggests you might be a racist.” Fixation? I’ve only roasted Max Blumenthal 10 times more often.

Cronan is the editor of nonsite.org (don’t ask me what that means), a peer-reviewed journal out of Emory University, where Cronan is a tenured art historian. So, what prompted someone regarded as one of America’s leading African-American Marxists, and a professor at a prestigious university regarded as the Harvard of the south, to resort to such a crude and demagogic attack? The answer is simple. Neither is prepared to defend an indefensible idea, namely that BLM is anti-leftist.

While Reed and Cedric Johnson have been critiqued on this blog over the past month or so for their class-reductionism, they are not nearly so bad as Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Michaels is white so if he bothers to respond to this article, I trust that he won’t accuse me of anti-Semitism since we are both Jews. I happen to like Jews. I just don’t have much use for self-important academics.)

Lately, Michaels has entered the fray over BLM just like Reed and Johnson before him. Like Reed, Michaels got a softball interview on a Jacobin podcast conducted by Jennifer Pan. Pan writes for Jacobin but you’d have to read her article on New Republic on “Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough” to understand why she’d refuse to ask Michaels tough questions. In her article, she takes up “whiteness” studies and particularly a book by Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”. It was already a NY Times best-seller but it went totally viral after the George Floyd protests because it charged white Americans with benefiting from structural racism, a not very controversial analysis in my view. However, when she decided to make an amalgam between DiAngelo, Ted Allen and David Roediger, that seemed kind of nutty. How can you link a pop sociologist with these two Marxists? Pan refers to Cedric Johnson’s dismissal of their work:

From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

I guess comrades Johnson and Pan have no idea that Ted Allen worked as a coal miner in West Virginia as a member of the United Mine Workers, serving as an organizer and president of one Local and later a member of another. He also co-developed a trade union organizing program for the Marion County, West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. (From a useful article in Wiki.)

Listening to the 109-minute schmooze-fest between Pan and Michaels was almost as agonizing as listening to Bhaskar Sunkara interviewing Adolph Reed Jr. on another Jacobin podcast. If you need any evidence that Jacobin is deep into class-reductionism, just listen to these podcasts which are as devoid of critical questions as a Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.

In preparing a response to Michaels based on this podcast, I found a 2011 interview Sunkara did with Michaels that really needs some commentary. I missed it at the time since I was preoccupied with the Arab Spring but reading it now makes me wonder if Sunkara is even more politically degraded than I ever suspected. He let Michaels off the hook on some really rancid remarks.

Titled “Let Them Eat Diversity”, it gives Michaels a platform to denounce anti-racism as a capitalist plot to exploit immigrant labor at the expense of our good citizens. At the higher tier, it enabled Asians to get positions as doctors and lawyers in the USA. At the lower tier, it enabled Mexicans to fill dirty, low-paying jobs of the sort that has made them victims in the pandemic. In order to get red-blooded Americans to tolerate those flooding into the country, either legally or illegally, it was necessary to promote anti-racism so that Chinese, Indians, or Mexicans wouldn’t be victimized. Human Resource departments were analogous to Pinkerton guards defending scabs.

The agents of this anti-racism plot are HR officers that have seminars on diversity so as to make white people more open to the invasion of our homeland by those bent on stealing our jobs.

You might ask yourself at this point if I am misrepresenting Walter Benn Michaels. Let him speak for himself. Sunkara does offer a featherweight challenge to his narrative about identity politics trumping good old fashioned, virile class politics. Could HR departments really be nipping class-based movements in the bud? This is where Michaels jumps the shark. It seems he sees “neoliberalism” everywhere. In the HR departments. In the radical movement. Nobody seems to be ready to fight it except guess who… The Tea Party. He tells Sunkara:

The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible.  They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

Next, Sunkara delicately asks how he felt about The Nation’s Richard Kim referring to his opposition to affirmative action as “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment…masquerading as class-consciousness.” To which, Michaels replies, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.” Maybe so, but at least he can be consoled by the support of Bhaskar Sunkara and Jennifer Pan.

Probably because he has been writing books about topics like “The Beauty of a Social Problem” and writing articles like the kind submitted to the yearly Modern Language Association conferences ever since he became a don in 1974, Michaels sees everything through the prism of the academy. He is so worked up about diversity and affirmative action being a tool for the upward mobility of petty-bourgeois elements, rather than one for the hairy-chested, lunchbox-toting proletariat, that he misses how such programs got started.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would understand why the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism would be get so riled up about the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member. His fiery attacks on privileged blacks like Barack Obama must make him feel like Lenin taking apart Kautsky. Too bad that he didn’t pay attention to what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, had been dropping around the time Sunkara sat down with Michaels. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, painted a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

More to the point, affirmative action had little to do with the academy or becoming a Goldman-Sachs partner when it was first conceived. It was a legal tool made necessary by the racism that had infected the United Steelworkers Union, one of the flagship CIO unions that the Sandernista left and its class-reductionist contingents look back at as if it was the Garden of Eden.

NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…

Problems were deepest in the south where Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills. White workers got used to viewing them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. About the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies and long shut down), Herbert Hill wrote:

[I]n steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem Lackawanna case, a federal Judge made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs. This was how affirmative action became the law of the land, not by co-opting black college graduates into Wall Street jobs but by allowing blacks to have access to well-paying and desirable jobs in factories.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana).

From that point on, affirmative action has been a lot like abortion rights. Republicans push to get rid of it and Democrats put up a feeble defense. With Jacobin authors trash-talking about diversity and affirmative action, they hardly act in the interests of black working people.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 3, 2020

Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

Continue reading

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

Filed under: class-reductionism,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Chris Maisano

On June 23rd, Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times’s rightwing opinion writers, came out with a piece titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders” that saw him as being out-of-step with the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. Perhaps as a result of reading Adolph Reed Jr. or Cedric Johnson’s class-reductionist articles, Douthat smeared BLM as a corporate tool:

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

This was not the first NY Times article that described Sanders as being superseded by these protests. On June 19th, an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” took on the question of class-reductionism frontally:

When Mr. Sanders spoke about racial equality, it was often in the context of economic equality, championing proposals and prescriptions that he believed would improve the lives of all working Americans. He said that policies like single-payer health care would address higher maternal and infant mortality rates in black communities. And he wanted to legalize marijuana and end cash bail, policies he said were aimed in particular at helping black Americans and other people of color.

This is essentially the analysis put forward not only by Sanders but by Reed. Instead of raising race-based demands like defunding the police (which Sanders opposes) or—god forbid—reparations, Sanders, Reed, Sunkara, the Bread and Roses caucus in DSA, and the “democratic socialist” movement in general stresses economic demands to create black-white unity. In fact, this has been the foundation-stone of socialist groups since the time of Debs. Except for a brief period when the CPUSA raised the idea of a Black Belt, the party also envisioned a movement based on economic demands. In the 1930s, this meant getting workers of all races into a CIO union even when FDR was stabbing black people in the back. So irked by charges that FDR was a racist, Reed defended his record in a New Republic article titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”.  Oh, did I mention that the word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the article?

The NAACP had persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill but it needed FDR’s support. When he met with the two Senators, he said, “Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR was annoyed by these men interfering with his New Deal reforms. He reminded them that if he backed an anti-lynching bill, the Dixiecrats “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” It also must be said that FDR was every bit of a racist as Teddy Roosevelt, whose statue is finally being removed from the front of the Museum of Natural History. In the chapter on FDR in  Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, we get the goods on the “friend of the Negro”:

Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Despite it being obvious that Jacobin was fully behind Sanders’s class-based “socialism” that most black leaders regarded as woefully blinkered, Chris Maisano insisted that Jacobin/DSA was for combining  class and race demands. Like most left groups, the DSA is not into self-criticism. With 70,000 members, they are feeling their oats.

Maisano is astute enough to acknowledge the similarities between what Douthat wrote and what Reed and Cedric Johnson have written in dozens of articles. He even considered the possibility that Douthat was wooing the DSA in the same way that Tucker Carlson has wooed Max Blumenthal (or maybe the other way around in this case.)

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns.

Maisano clears the air by making the record that when Douthat counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing so. This might be true but you better bet your ass that Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson are not into demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” Is there anything clearer than their opposition to anti-racism? All you have to do is Google Reed and anti-racism and you come up with something like this:

Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist “militancy,” this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. [emphasis added.]

Got it? All those mass actions, including one organized by five Louisville teens that produced a rally of 10,000 people, are “anti-leftist”. What a job that Jacobin has on its hands in trying to resolve the contradictions between what Reed writes and Maisano’s hollow attempt to put some distance between him and them. For Christ’s sake, his boss Bashkar Sunkara does an hour and twenty minute interview with Reed on June 10th and the George Floyd protests are not even mentioned.

To give the appearance that he is trying to deal with Reed and Johnson’s class-reductionism, he offers this:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

I spent a few minutes trying to decipher these two sentences and wondered why Maisano wasn’t more straightforward and capable of writing this instead:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which he or Adolph Reed Jr. reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

The last time anybody wrote something critical of Reed on Jacobin was back in 2016 and that was when the authors Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman were still in the ISO and capable of independent thinking. Now, after having drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid, they’ve seen the light.

Toward the end of his apologetics, Maisano urges patience with these young activists who haven’t been exposed to the brilliance of NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber or neo-Kautskyite legend Eric Blanc:

More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Yeah, okay. Maybe if Jacobin/DSA cadre had been spending more time getting behind organized anti-racist activism, they’d have been in a better position to “educate” these raw youth. I only hope that they don’t recommend Adolph Reed Jr. to the young’uns. To paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, they might say, “You would not enjoy Adolph Reed Jr. He is fundamentally unsound.

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