At a time when we urgently need to examine and change what we are doing, questions of who we (think we) are tend to override questions about how we should live. As the content of our internal lives is separated from the conditions that we live in, debates about identity, religion and culture have taken centre stage while policy, institutions, and the form of the political economy have fallen out of favour. I am not sure of all the reasons why this has happened, but I will discuss one and try chart a pathway out of the cul-de-sac.
As an indication on the status of public debate, ask the average person about Donald Trump, Steve Biko or Black Panther, and they will have at least something to say. Asking what, say, the Structural Adjustment Programs were and what the Bretton Woods institutions are, you are less likely to get an answer. Living in a time where authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jordan Peterson top the best-seller lists and post-colonial theory holds the mantle of radical critique, questions about difference are seemingly the only questions worth paying attention to.
One reason is that frameworks which allow us to imagine a different political economy that serves human flourishing – as supported by a set of institutions, values, and ideals – has left mainstream debate stage right. Now we live in a time where it is generally held that there is no alternative to capitalism. Karl Marx said that this was merely a controlled hallucination, and he aimed to systematically think what life would be like beyond capitalism.
If I was generous, I would assume that those who lead important debates, such as members of the so called intellectual dark web – which is neither on the dark web nor comprised of intellectuals – have read Capital by Marx. Whether they be liberals, libertarians or conservatives they usually aim to characterise Marxism like this: For Marx, history is a story about the struggle between classes, like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ or the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. Prior to national liberation movements in parts of the colonised world, the proletariat (or the ‘working class’) have historically held the mantle of the revolutionary agent, especially since 1889 in the time of the Second Internationale. The task for the revolutionary agent is to redistribute wealth more evenly from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’ by seizing private property (or the means of production) and distributing them more fairly through state ownership. The next move is to say that Marx’s ideas caused the catastrophes of the 20th Century in the unutterably tragic Communist regimes of Mao and Stalin. If someone put forward this reading of Marx, even if I was generous, it is clear they have not read past the blurb of Capital.
Marx does not explain patterns of action as characteristics of identifiable groups. Marx does not argue in Capital that the relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is defined by one of selfishness, a battle over social status, or that it even required outright oppression to maintain itself. He started Capital an exploration of the commodity, i.e., the sorts of objects that working classes produce under capitalism. Why is this so important?
Neoclassical economists, put very simplistically, see the market as a place of freedom and equality to trade commodities on the market for profit, and the fact of deprivation, violence and unfulfilled freedom is a consequence of an imperfection of reality rather than economic theory. Marx starts Capital with the commodity, the same domain that neoclassical economists operate within. The difference is that he argues that negative social outcomes come from the production of the commodity for exchange on the market with the ultimate purpose of making profit. Life was not always like this, which is what Marx found so interesting.
Capitalism did not only allow people to buy and sell whatever they wanted, but in order to participate in social life, to be alive at all, you have to buy and sell things. This is the condition of market dependency. Societies, prior to capitalism, were not always organised like this. People had ways of meeting their own needs without having to participate in the market prior to capitalism. Market dependency was not a happy or even natural outgrowth of one system to another, it had to be forced. Most of this usually occurred through violent dispossession of the things people used to maintain their independence from the market. I am of course simplifying a complex history, but you cannot have a form of life that is characterised by market dependency without violence. We are still reeling from the consequences of that process today.
But there is another critique of Marx which often comes from a reading of his work, which also has a similar story: as a Marxist concept the notion of ‘proletariat’ is Eurocentric and does not adequately account for issues related to race and gender, hence, it cannot offer a rigorous analysis of colonialism or patriarchy. Of course, since Marxism is not a theory of everything in the known universe there are likely to be some features of reality it misses as models of the universe do too. But from the very beginning of struggles in part of the world which adopted Marxism, it was adapted to describe and explain a local context. Frantz Fanon recognised this, but did not advocate that it should be disregarded entirely.
But why do we imagine the subject of the proletariat being a white, male factory worker in Europe? Why is the imaginary person that comes to our mind, who we ‘see’ when we say the word ‘proletariat’, have to look like Karl Marx himself? Linguistically, ‘proletariat’ does not command a particular definition or image, because definitions are, according to the linguist Edward Schippa, the result of a shared understanding of the world. This means that definitions are both a product of past persuasion and a resource for future debate. Ben Shapiro defines socialism in a totally different way to how Chris Hani defines socialism (also note the difference in comparison to Hani’s honest appraisal of socialist and capitalist regimes in comparison to Shapiro’s rant). Same words, but different values.
When the proletariat (and bourgeoisie) is defined as comprising of only white men then Marxism can be condemned as ‘class/economic reductionist’ and (supposedly) prioritises class struggle over others at the expense of women and people of colour (see a better argument here). In other words, the ‘proletariat’ refers to only one feature or aspect of a person’s identity, and therefore ignores others. As Vivek Chibber points out, once the notion of ‘proletariat’ is interpreted as a form of identity then there is no reason, analytical or moral, to privilege it above others. bell hooks has employed this reasoning, and argues that we should use the concept white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy instead (now imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy). Using such a clumsy concept to describe reality means that our language will follow with it. How often do we hear a term like ‘structures of power’ without referring to example of actual institutions, legal practices and specific people? One could even go on to say that ‘class’ is not adequate to describe the struggles for those in post-colonial Africa, or in patriarchal societies, and, crucially, the schools of thought that employ class categories cannot provide adequate political strategies.
The ‘proletariat’ does not need to refer to a certain kind of person with a particular culture, biological traits, language or even refer to identity at all. It is an open representation. ‘Proletariat’ is neither gender biased because it can refer to factory or mine workers (who are generally male) and domestic labourers (who are generally female), nor is it ‘Eurocentric’ since the overwhelming majority of the proletariat are in the so-called ‘Global South’. ‘Proletariat’ can refer to the finite strategies a person can pursue because of their position within a system of private property under conditions of market dependency, regardless of your identity. For example, someone who does not own a house or a car cannot do things that someone who does can.
Interpreting ‘proletariat’ as a kind of identity suits a political purpose as rhetoric. Arguing that problems of racism and sexism are disconnected from political economy has been detrimental both to women and people of colour, especially in the ‘Global South’ who do not have the means to live a decent life: adequate safety, a fair wage, clean water, healthy food, decent housing, education, healthcare, and leisure time which are all necessary to sustain and nourish social bonds (and create new ones). Marx is not merely a dead white man and his relevance for the lives of women and black or brown people is enduring. There are plenty of sound reasons to critique Marxism and flaws in Marx’s thought exist, yes, but it is often because his thought pops the bubble that authors like Steven Pinker or Hans Rosling. Instead, as identity has superseded class, we are largely left without a framework that interprets social problems as related to the basic elements of everyday life, like the fact that we work to participate in the market instead of sustaining a system that supports human flourishing.
With the fact of poverty and conflict, what frameworks do we use explain wealth distribution that mimics colonial patters? Well, we are forced to appeal to explanations of patterns of action as characteristics of identifiable groups. Obviously your social context has a role to play in your thoughts, desires, and values, but it is not the whiteness or blackness of a person’s skin colour that determines what those values are. To assume that someone does or does not share your values or politics because they look like you or don’t is misguided. Imagine how this would have played out in the Civil Rights movement if Angela Davis derided Malcom X’s political credentials because he was a man? Imagine if you had shut the front door to Frantz Fanon before a plenary in an anti-colonial struggle because he was educated in France and was not born in Algeria! From these examples I hope it is clear that it is foolish to believe that people with the same aims and shared vision should be enemies because they do not share the same skin, organs or background. I agree that letting go of shared collective identities – particularly for people who have come to rely on those bonds in harsh circumstances – would be asking for something of a heroic deed in the face of deep insecurity brought on by far-right politics.
It seems that part of undoing the debate about identity must, to use a cliché, start from the assumption of a common humanity that allows us to move together towards a shared future. It is obviously not enough to say this, because it can so easily be co-opted by liberal non-racialism. Yet without it, we run into trouble. For example, even freedom has been sub-categorised as evident in Coates’ critique of Kanye West who, for Coates, desires a “white freedom” (which is really a far right American libertarian’s conception of freedom). But how could Coates feasibly believe that it is progressive to racially distinguish freedom into two separate categories, and call Kanye “back to that place where he sought not a disconnected freedom of “I,” but a black freedom that called him back – back to the bone and drum, back to Chicago, back to Home”? This kind of statement should make us deeply uncomfortable. The bankruptcy of Coates’ thought is excused by many, though not by Cornell West, even as Coates employs a volk conception as an answer to ‘who we are’. It is one step removed from notions of separate development and “good neighbourliness” advocated for by the likes of Verwoed. Indeed, Coates would do well to recall the history of his own name, and rally against the colonial logic that his own critique of Kanye West is embedded in.
How we describe our society and the theories that we use to elaborate human behaviour are extremely important, because it affects what pathways of action are imaginable. With the demise of Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism from mainstream thought, we have seen a host of social theories flourish which increasingly describe the world in terms of conflict between different groups. The effect is that the most salient categories in social life are race, gender and/or cultural constructions that create more confusion than clarity. In South African universities, for example, some argue that only black people can carry out the decolonial mission, while others say black women are better suited.
The problem is that once we conceive of the undesirable present as a political struggle between groups or identities, then the proposition of what to do is conceived in terms of identity as well. Why is this bad? Well, we are not certain whether politics premised on a bounded “us” and “them” works in the long run, and it ensures that we do not talk about the economy, policy and institutions that serve a common future, or that when we do they are seen as extensions of identities. Debates carry on while wealth is still distributed ‘up’ to the already wealthy (and, as Thomas Piketty shows, increasingly up) rather than ‘down’ to the deprived. It means we cannot live in a society where everyone has a house, access to healthy food and clean water, good working conditions, time to enjoy leisure and friendship, and the energy to invest in one’s inherent creative potential to better their lives and deal with problems. We could even call this vision, freedom. Indeed, imagine what innovation would be possible.