The Basis of “Whiteness”
I was asked to comment by a long-time comrade on this article:
I wrote the following in response:
Apart from many factual errors about the WUO and May 19th Communist Organization, and some about STO, the deeper problem is that it is an attempt to critique left liberal thinking from what seems to be a left liberal perspective. The only mention of the word “communist” is in naming May 19th. I read it quickly, but I don’t think he uses the word “capitalism” at all.
All the various positions he critiques, and some he mentions but doesn’t criticize, deserve to be engaged with, criticized, and superceded, and I have done so over the years with little apparent impact or traction, but I keep trying. I could point you to my articles over the years about identity politics, intersectionality, Ignatiev and Race Traitor, white fragility, etc etc.
I have been in a prolonged process of critical engagement with especially AWARE-LA and WP4BL about the limits and problems of “building an anti-racist white identity and community” and the concept of “classism” as if it’s primarily a form of cultural discrimination (thereby also essentially reducing “racism” and “sexism” in the same way). As I am sure you are aware, I have never attempted to make a living as a “white anti-racist guru” in the manner of Tim Wise or Robin di Angelo, which I think is inherently self-serving and hypocritical.
Whiteness to me has always been based on settler colonialism and land theft as much as on the ideology and distinctions needed to enforce and institutionalize the enslavement of African people, and on the role the stolen lands of the Americas and slave labor played and play in constructing a global capitalist system that is racialized to the core. I advocate for decolonization, and for an attendant revolutionary anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-sexist transformation of society, which will involve dismantling the imperial, settler colonial US state, and expropriating the expropriators. The exact form the future societies that emerge will take is beyond my powers of prognostication, but it will be based on some form of eco-socialism, self-determination, mutual aid and solidarity. Restoring indigenous sovereignty and ending the Eurocentric privatization of land (as absurd as privatizing air or water or space — as is now being done) are as central to that as social and collective organization of labor and distribution of its product.
The initial form of productive CAPITAL in the world (as opposed to commercial profit from buying cheap and selling dear, or financial gain from lending money at interest) were the stolen and privatized land of indigenous people and the actual human bodies of the enslaved Africans. This was modeled on some pre-existing and pre-capitalist imperial practice in Europe, but was transformed into CAPITALISM, the ruling form of social production for private profit that now shapes all of society globally, in the West Indies, Brazil and Meso- and North-America. Enslaved Africans were, in their person, simultaneously capital, a commodity, and the source of profit-producing labor, a unique position on the basis of which the enclosure of the commons and the creation of a proletariat in Europe took place.
Stolen land and super-exploited labor are the basis of the actual “American exceptionalism,” the moderation of class contradictions among so-called “white” people, and the cultivation of class collaborationism among “white” working people. Additional conquests, and rationalized forms of racialized super-exploitation that surpassed slavery in profit potential, enabled the US to act as a global safety valve for the class contradictions in European society, encouraging whiteness and class collaboration there (alongside the impact of the European colonial empires).
The US still functions that way, though more weakly and with greater contradictions, in regards Latin America and various of its client states elsewhere; the US is the world bastion of reaction, and supports not only reactionary “white” nationalist forces in Europe, but also Arab reaction and fundamentalism in the Muslim world, Israeli zionism and occupation of Palestine, and comprador-capitalist and militarist death squad elements and governments in Latin America, Africa and Oceania/Asia. None of the latter reactionaries are “white”, but US whiteness, identification with the oppressor and with the Empire, uphold and sustain them against the pressures of the “their own” people.
Around the question of privilege, including white skin privilege (Ted Allen et al) or white privilege (AWARE et al), what I always try to convey and get people to see is that:
A) privilege is the flip side of oppression and exists in relation to and as a corollary of oppression and exploitation, so that the primary target is to end oppression so as thereby to eliminate privilege, rather than vice versa (trying to eliminate or “use” privilege and by that means, end oppression) and
B) privilege is a form of social control found everywhere throughout hierarchical oppressive and exploitative systems, particularly settler-colonial capitalism and imperialism. Parents use privileges to obtain compliant behavior from their kids; teachers to control students; wardens and guards to dominate numerically superior prisoners; etc. etc.
As Marx said, capitalism rests on competition among the workers, and privilege regulates and institutionalizes that competition. It is one of the fundamental techniques of “divide and conquer,” and is especially insidious because it is internalized into the conciousness of the both the privileged and the “under-privileged” (as sociologists used to say in the 50s) and thereby self-imposed and sustained. Filipinas fight over the privilege of exactly where they get to scavenge in the junkheaps outside US military bases. Teacher’s pet got to clean the chalkboard erasers. Favored drug dealers get better corners.
Anything you have as a privilege is not yours by right, and embodies a threat that it can be taken away for non-compliance. It is not a personal failing in and of itself, although there can often be a measure of personal choice and complicity involved, as well as the self-delusion that it is the consequence of personal merit. Privilege is the sugar coating on a poison pill, the nut in the monkey’s fist that keeps the monkey trapped in the hole. It is not the unique moral burden of white people, it is one of the key organizing principals of a society we need to overcome and replace root and branch. Again, the “solution” to privilege is not a moralistic one of some kind of personal sacrifice, but a political one of fighting to the finish for rights and freedom, for liberation for all.
On the question of “white fragility,” whiteness IS fragile, and thankfully so. Whiteness is a construct based on the “othering” of supposedly “non-white” people, and on anti-Black racism in particular, meant to enforce the economic and social system based on stolen land and enslaved Africans. Whiteness is brittle, just as capitalism and imperialism are far more vulnerable than we realize; but the capitalists and imperialists are far more aware of their vulnerabilities than we are. We tend to get mired in defeatism, and to opt for the best deal we think we can get, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively.
However, the capitalists and imperialists are more aware than we are that they need us, but we don’t need them. Thus the fascist and white supremacist turn is a manifestation of their weakness, vulnerability and yes, fragility, not their strength. Black liberation, indigenous sovereignty, and a resolute struggle for an eco-socialist future will shatter whiteness like a pane of ice, or melt whiteness like a spring snowflake.