Thursday, April 30, 2009



by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Fellow, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University

Recently appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, whose parents hail from the Barbados, aroused instant ire when he remarked last February 18 that the U.S. remains a “nation of cowards” for not talking enough about things racial. But is this why he thinks the polity remains “voluntarily socially segregated”? And what does he mean by “voluntarily”—do the majority of citizens choose segregation as a way of life? As a result of the Civil Rights struggles in the sixties, Holder thinks that the U.S. is “more prosperous, more positively race-conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated” (Thomas and Ryan 2009). This ABC News item is then followed by polls showing that more whites reported having more friends who are black, and vice versa. And reminiscent of a famous movie, the 2005 poll also showed that 48 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks said someone had brought a friend of the other race home for dinner. However, still, three-quarters of African Americans say they’ve personally experienced racial discrimination.

Holder praises Pres. Obama’s speech about race and looks forward to “healing” the racial division. The medical organic metaphor is revealing, as though the “body politic” was invaded by some virus or germ that needed to be purged, thus restoring the purity and health of the body. We can guess what this means in terms of what is considered the immigrant problem, with the USA Patriot Act and Bush’s Homeland Security State still in place.

More revealing is Holder’s planned visit to Guantanamo to inspect the facility for torturing “unlawful combatants,” which incidentally was partly built by cheap Filipino labor (Filipino contract labor also built US military barracks in Iraq. Guantanamo remains a symbol of what the U.S. stands for many “third world” countries or peoples who are considered enemies of democracy, the free market, and Samuel Huntington/Arthur Schlesinger’s “Western Civilization.”

In spite of all the “post-racial” babble by pundits and academics, it is difficult to disavow the fact that, as African American political scientist Prof. Melissa Harris-Lacewell has noted, Pres. Obama is more white than John McCain in many respects, which partly explains his gaining the votes of whites who would otherwise not vote for an African American candidate like Jesse Jackson. What these qualities or signifiers are, they all point not to race—the phenotypical, physical or somatic indices that constitute the classifying categories of past racist theories—but to class.

The meaning or reference of the conceptual term “class” has been so obfuscated and muddled as a result of the Cold War and its association with Marxism, communism and the “axis of evil” that it will take herculean efforts to clarify the term. It has been so demonized that perhaps it is impossible to rescue it for discussion.

This is just my way of introducing the crux of the debate or controversy in this field: the issue of whether to jettison the term/concept “class” in favor of race, racial formation, racial discourse, or some version of intersectionality: the mantra of race, gender, class—which is quite fashionable still, despite the end of the Cold War, the massive protest against the unilateral, barbaric Bush “global war on terror,” and the collapse of free-market fundamentalism and global economic crisis today.

Intervention from the Sixties

Several years ago, 1992 to be exact, I wrote a book entitled RACIAL FORMATIONS/CRITICAL TRANSFORMATIONS. Among other books, I was influenced by Howard Winant and Michael Omi’s 1986 book RACIAL FORMATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES, which impressed me then because it seemed to complement or supplement something missing in the first book which inspired me to venture forth from the traditionally conservative field of literary studies (modern British and American literature) into social theory and criticism. I am referring to Robert Blauner’s 1972 book RACIAL OPPRESSION IN AMERICA. This I read in the years after the end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, when my energies were chiefly focused on fighting a fascist neocolonial dictatorship supported by successive US administrations. Those were years that also expanded and deepened my acquaintance with the Marxist classics—apart from the works of Marx and Engels, those of Georg Lukacs, Mao Zedong, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, the Frankfurt Critical Theories, Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, Fredric Jameson, and so on, together with cognate thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, C.L.R. James, Amilcar Cabral, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paulo Freire, and many others.
In sum, my critical framework—I like to think—can be described as historical materialist in that, first, life and individual experience can be understood only in the material-historical process and as a totality; and second, that social reality—more precisely, social relations of production--shapes, if not ultimately accounts, for social consciousness; and third, that human agency/creativity in its variegated collective forms can be deepened, sharpened and mobilized to transform social life for the better. The axiom I like to cite often is from Marx and Engels’ Critique of the Gotha Program: “the full development of one person depends on the free and equal development of all.”

Due to various historical and ideological circumstances (too long to recite here), Omi and Winant’s book rejected “class” and “class analysis” as reductive, economistic, and too simple to explain racism in the United States. In an essay posted in 2003 in the electronic journal, Cultural Logic, “Marxism and the Race/Class Problematic: A Re-Articulation”), I criticized their own reductive and simplifying method of dismissing Marxism, identified with economism and mechanical/vulgar materialism. To sum up drastically my conclusion: O/W located class in the sphere of market-exchange, not production relations. Second, it is subsumed into status and life-chances, following Max Weber’s sociological formula. Third, it is finally placed in the economic domain chiefly determined by political and ideological forces, I quote myself: “Race, or racial dynamics, is ultimately elevated as the principal explanatory instrument for comprehending social actors….Racial politics displaces the political economy of class struggle and class functions as the metanarrative of postmodernity.” The end result is philosophical idealism, the opposite of historical-materialism. Class struggle and social structures operating in historically specific dimensions are all thrown into the dust-bin of Cold War history. That includes the possible solutions to racism, hence the permanence of racism, race, racial formations, racial state, and so on.

Let me review this argument here from another angle, a critique indebted to Gregory Meyerson’s (2008-9) unpublished work on this subject.

Deconstructing Racial Formations?

O/W’s concept of “racial formation” and its cognate, “the racial state,” intends to connect the individualism of identity politics and the presumed reification of Marxist functionalist structures of class. By mixing problems of identity politics with a distorted structural analysis, the diagnosis results into liberal pluralism and its own racial functionalism. O/W dismiss the objective primacy of class division in society, the structural inequality of wealth and power in society, into economic determinism—a negative label. Objective class analysis does not rule out political agency, nor social and historical construction, which O/W privileges as their special focus. They argue that class interests are “never objective, never simply given.” In short, objective social structures (class antagonisms, the complex ideological and political contradictions in society) are deconstructed and falsely equated with the obvious, the given, the transparent facts, thus Marxist class analysis is confounded with empiricism and positivism. In this empiricist reading, “race” and “racism” become epiphenomenal, so that racial categories and racial discourses are rendered secondary or less important than fundamental class conflicts, functions, etc. The charge is entirely false and misleading.

When one says class is an objective process/fact, a dynamic interaction of multiple groups and sectors, one doesn’t deny its historical constructedness. Race is an ideological concept, whereas class is objective “in the sense of carrying explanatory weight.” Both race and class are historical; as historical processes they are objective and capable of being gradually understood by a structural totalizing explanatory method. However, for O/W, history, including class antagonisms, can only be grasped in the epistemological and political languages of contingency. This is why O/W claim that Marxism, or historical materialism, reduces racism simply as a functional instrument of class exploitation and therefore do not recognize how racial categories are framed, how they change over time and vary comparatively, their centrality to key discourses in science, religion, politics, culture, etc.

Race, racial formation, and racial discourse, with their associated concepts, ccan explain nothing because “race” is not an explanatory concept but an ideology. What happens is that most academics posit questionable, baseless dualisms: structure/class/objectivity versus subjectivity/history/contingency, the open and complex versus the closed and totalizing system. So we confront the following dichotomies: class structured societies with no class struggle, sites of structureless struggles whose nature depends on what people decide in articulating or interpellating the popular, common sense, etc (Laclau and Mouffe). The antinomian concepts of structure and struggle vitiate the concept of “the racial state.”

For O/W, the “racial state” functions to produce and reproduce white supremacy, a racial dictatorship (now blown apart by Obama’s election). This racial functionalism tied to a racial state becomes contested terrain, an unstable equilibrium in which the racial state (Reagan’s administration then) is opposed by racially based groups and progressive forces who might be able to seize the state apparatus and re-articulate it in a leftward direction. But this will not happen. Why? Because, for O/W, the racial state can absorb, coopt, marginalize or suppress anti-racist resistance.” They assert that it is almost impossible to break “the supposedly consensual aspect of U.S. politics: the logic and justice of the free enterprise system, anti-communism, the morality and truthfulness of government…a hegemonic domain from which challenges are effectively excluded and within which basic political unity is preserved.” But O/W refuse to label this “racial state” a capitalist state. O/W rhetorically emphasize contingency and hegemony, while they dilly-dally and say it’s possible the next elections might end racism, on the other hand the hegemonic domain will persist and strengthen. In short, racism is merely verbal, whether or not we say “nigger” or “kike.”

In his next book, Racial Conditions (1994), Winant suspects that all arguments pro or con regarding identity politics are muddled and counterproductive. He therefore shifts from racial discourse to structures, macro analysis and micro analysis. He wants to connect race and articulate it with class, but he thinks institutions are like discursive meanings, so institutions and other macro processes become sites of contestation. In articulating class with race, his definition of class is a plulralist one. In short, he avoids talking of a ruling class, for that would be too structural or Marxist. He may mention a “racial dictatorship,” but that is not the same as a ruling class with control if not ownership of the means of production and all the political institutions required to maintain a system of class domination and privilege.

The concept of race then is a reification. To explain the concept of racialization, you need class analysis. Class analysis explains processes of racialization (to quote Meyerson), “class analysis explains processes of racialization whereas the theory of race’s relative autonomy merely notices racialization (while claiming falsely that Marxism must be blind to it).” Marxism recognizes and understands racialization of class identities. Class is not like an economic base
which exists prior to race, like a ground foor to which one adds a second floor, following the now erroneous reading of the “base/superstructure” metaphor.

Obscurantist Pragmatism in the Age of Obama

By denying the existence of ruling classes, Winant perceives no structural barriers to democratizing society. He celebrates Clinton’s victory and Clinton’s populist platform as marking the drift towards a “democratic solidarity granting equal access to all the institutions of society, recognizing difference and carrying out the commitment made so long ago to rid this nation of the last vestiges of racial dictatorship.” It is silly and utterly misleading to talk of “racial dictatorship” in lieu of “class dictatorship.” In capitalist USA, racism has played and will continue to play a central role, with its forms varying and changing depending on anti-racist resistance. “Herrenvolk democracy” is an ideology, not a reality. For Winant, racial dictatorship (the macro racial project) will last considerably longer than the shifting and contingent micro racial projects—his dialectic of structure and subject mimicking the marxist dialectic that Winant already repudiated in Racial Formations.

But there is a profound, irredeemable incoherence in Winant’s dialectic of necessary racial dictatorship and contingent racial projects, between the invariant and the constantly shifting. Here Winant becomes part of the post-marxist crowd that strives to supplement their theory with essentialist psychoanalysis, a contradictory or inconsistent practice of this group. The language of racial context and change is formulated with an essentialist psychoanalysis which characterizes the long duration of the racial project. Winant utilizes a psychohistorical framework derived from Joel Kovel’s stages of white racism in order to explain the permanence of race.

Racism, finally, is explained as originating from “the white male normalizing gaze which ranks, scales, hierarchizes bodies—this scaling of bodies is in turn derived from Kristeva’s concept of the abject, where the very formation of the self requires a kind of reaction-formation or ritual of purification that becomes the precondition for all hierarchies, all scales.” By a resort to psychoanalysis to explain the particularities of racism, Winant and his associates have abandoned the theory of ideology, as historical-mateialists use it, to demonstrate how the capitalist ruling class maintains hegemony/dominance in a class-divided polity. In rejecting the concept of ideology as elitist, Winant and other post-marxists accept the main premises of a liberal pluralism and its corollary methodological individualism, the cornerstone of capitalist ideology.

This is clearly confirmed in the latest manifestation of O/W’s thinking, its bankruptcy and mystifying role: their adoption of pragmatism, albeit radical, as their master-narrative, paradigm, philosophy, world-view, methodology, etc. Perhaps aware of the serious inadequacies of their previous thinking, they repeat “color-blind racial ideology,” structure, politicization of the social, structural racism, and intersectionality. This gestural acknowledgement of the macro level, however, does not offset their obsessive emphasis on “racialized experience” and identity, whether multiple, performative, etc. They bring in Dewey’s “situated creativity,” “racialized self,” Du Bois’s “double consciousness.” They bring in intersectionality and relativism of methods and fields. While insisting on structural racism, they never explain what its function or purpose is, as though it was a given, self-evident ingredient of the politics of identity.

The politicization of the social has now become more enigmatic with the complicating factors of gender and sexuality, war and peace, as well as citizenship, a whole slew of factors making the tie-up between personal experience and institutions much more difficult to tease out or disentangle. But the means of clarifying the tie-up and explain the racial dynamics, “racial project,” continues to mystify race into “racialized structure” in the long term, and its product, racial subjects. This final formulation is telling: “The linkages between racial signification and racialized social structure are ongoing and intrinsic as well as unstable and conflictual.” The recurrent motif of “self-reflective action” and “self-activity”—the hypothetical “self” here is color-blind, even as it acts colorlessly-- signals the strong nominalist pragmatism (quite at odds with C.S. Peirce’s critical realism, but in harmony with Rorty and other chauvinist neopragmatists) which now legitimates their updated discourse, post 9/11 and at the point of global finance’s collapse. Even so, “structural racism” can only be reduced, not finally terminated. Everything also becomes mixed up in a relativistic brew of politicizing the social: structural racism, neoliberalism, masculinism, nativism, white racial nationalism, etc. Eventually and ultimately, everything boils down to “taste,” which is especially true for “racial studies.”

“Color-blindness,” structural racism, etc. cannot be understood and remedied without paying attention to the reality in which we live: global capitalism’s endemic crisis, imperialist military interventions by the U.S. State, sharply intense inequality of nation-states and peoples, classes within national polities, regional conflicts, etc. Only a historical-materialist critical framework, attentive to the social relations of production and the political class-conflicts taking place within it, the political and social contradictions of each society at every historical period and conjuncture, and the international or global framework of political economy that subtends this ongoing crisis of capitalism—I think this is the only tried and tested way in which we can make sense of racism, racial inequality, and other problems connected to race and ethnicity in the contemporary world.
Historical Background
It might be instructive to review how the dialectics of race/class unfolded in the history of US imperialism in the last century. The colonial annexation of the Philippines is an exemplary point of departure. The Filipino-American War of 1899-1902 was a brutal war, the "first Vietnam," for many historians. However, most textbooks devote only a paragraph, if at all, to this period--a crucial stage in the construction of the American national identity. Over 1 million Filipinos died, more than 8,000 American soldiers perished, for the sake of "manifest destiny." Then president McKinley didn't know where the islands were--officials joked whether the Philippines was a brand name of canned goods or some kind of pineapple. McKinley justified the forcible annexation of the Philippines to a delegation of Methodist Church leaders in 1899 with these words: Since the natives were "unfit for self-government,” McKinley intoned,” …there was nothing left for [the United States] to do but to take them all, …and uplift and civilize and Christianize them." Samples of these natives who would be uplifted by the Puritan work ethic and individualist self-help were exhibited in the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, one of a series of industrial fairs intended to project the global stature of the United States as the fit successor to the European imperial powers. One of the scandalous if censored incidents of the U.S. campaign to pacify the islands was the defection of some African American soldiers to the side of the "enemy," the revolutionary Philippine Republic. Soldiers fresh from the campaigns against the Plains Indians considered the Filipinos savages and "niggers" that needed taming and domestication; reservation-like hamlets had to be set up to cut short a guerilla war that was becoming costly. Right from the beginning, it was a thoroughly racialized war. The rhetoric and discourse of that "civilizing mission," which had earlier legitimized the genocide against the Native Americans, slavery of Africans, and violence against the Mexicans, continued up to the time when thousands of Filipinos were recruited for the Hawaiian Sugar Plantations after the entry of Asian migrant labor then--Chinese and Japanese—was banned. Objects of the policy called “Benevolent Assimilation,” Filipinos, the new "nationals" who were neither citizens nor aliens but a hybrid of sorts—postcolonial denizens avant le lettre, were attacked by white vigilantes in Yakima Valley and the entire West Coast in the thirties and forties. We should insert here a reminder that the famous Plessy v. Ferguson judgment took place in 1896, two years before the outbreak of the Spanish American War. The system of apartheid--not to be altered for half a century--was finally given its legal imprimatur.
Calling attention to the gap between the idealized representation of democracy in foreign adventure and its actual operations in the heartland reveals the authentic character of the expanding nation-state as a racial formation. It is one constructed on the basis of racial segregation, hierarchy, and violence. While the claim of "Manifest Destiny," the American messianic mission, and the reality of a racialized system may appear incompatible, from a larger historical perspective, that discrepancy is itself the condition of possibility for the justification of empire.
Genealogy of Racial/Class Politics

A review of the political formation of the United States demonstrates a clear racial, not simply ethnic, pattern of constituting the national identity and the commonality it invokes. As many historians have shown, the U.S. racial order, following the logic of the expansion of the free market, evolved from three or four key conjunctures which, I submit, should be studied as the core of any general education program: first, the suppression of the aboriginal inhabitants (Native Americans) for the exploitation of land and natural resources; second, the institutionalization of slavery and the postCivil War apartheid or segregation; third, the conquest of territory from the Mexicans, Spaniards (Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam), and Hawaiians, and the colonization of Mexicans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans; and, fourth, the subordination of Asian labor. In the shaping of the national formation, the necessary element has been the norm of racial stratification, the sociopolitical construction of racial hierarchy. I think all questions of citizenship and individual liberties hinge on the theorizing of "race" and its deployment in various political and ideological practices of the State and civil society. While chattel slavery is gone, “wage slavery” is still with us. I am not denying progress on the civil rights front. However, the legal scholar Lani Guinier argues that race continues to be an organizing principle of the democratic nation state. She holds that "majority rule is not a reliable instrument of democracy in a racially divided society… In a racially divided society, majority rule may be perceived as majority tyranny." While vestiges of scientific racism exist, the political use of race as a biological/anthropological concept is no longer tenable. Ever since I came to this country in 1960, people always ask me: Where are you from? Where do you come from? I believe that Darwin has given that question a generic answer. On second thought, the question may be diagnosed as a symptom of the need to affirm a measure of common value in the modern milieu of alienation and reification. Identity politics has arrived. Today, the problem of cultural ethos or ethnicity has become the major site of racial conflict. The notion of cultural diversity implies that there is a norm or standard—call it the American Way of Life, the common culture, the Great Books, the canon, whatever—compared to which the other is different, alien, strange, weird. Some people become problems by the simple fact of their existence. No doubt, racial thinking still pervades the consensual procedures of our society--from the categories of the Census to the neoconservative attack on Affirmative Action and the gains of the Civil Rights struggles. It has acquired new life in the sphere of public, especially foreign, policy whenever officials rearticulate the binary opposition beween us (citizens of Western civilization) and them (the barbaric fundamentalists, rogue states, terrorists of all kinds). The common life or national identity rises from the rubble of differences vanquished, ostracized, and erased. The twentieth century that ended with wars in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, thus began with the entry of the United States as competitor in the game of colonial plunder. Defeating Spain in a few unspectacular engagements, the United States seized territories in Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean inhabited by peoples with their own cultures, economies, and histories. The imperative of modernization covered up for their loss of sovereignty. The century began with the United States becoming an imperial power that would, after World War II, displace its old European contenders and declare a pax American of the free market on the ruins of fascist Germany and Japan. This peace, however, rested also on a neocolonial discourse in which the Western democracies legitimized their mastery of the “Free World” in the crusade against Communist despotism. But, as historians have shown, this hegemony over nation-states (especially among formerly colonized and now neocolonized countries) is always already predicated on the continuation of the European narrative and vision of world domination, on white supremacy. W.E.B. Du Bois questioned the presumed universality of American nationalism when he wrote in 1945, in an essay entitled "Human Rights for all Minorities,” that black people in the United States were "a nation without a polity, nationals without citizenship." Liberals like Nathan Glazer and Michael Walzer condemn any talk about national autonomy, collective rights, or empowerment of communities, as inimical to the unity and stability of the country. The "national question" involving people of color in the United States, which I think is the key to unlocking the race question, remains still unanswered by all participants in the culture wars, by relativists and law-and-order folks alike.
Global Ideological War

Meanwhile, the theme of global ideological conflict has now been revitalized. It moves up to center-stage in a recasting of the Cold War as, in Samuel Huntington's words, a war of civilizations. Primarily a war between the West and “the Rest.” We need not prophesy the details of this coming "war" within one world-system of transnational corporate business. In fact we all live in one world where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund occupy pride of place in the pantheon. We are confronted everyday in the media with scenes of ethnic cleansing, earlier in Bosnia, now Kosovo, all over what was formerly the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan, in Ruwanda and earlier in apartheid South Africa. Racialized antagonisms smolder in various parts of the world, in Quebec, in Los Angeles, Indonesia, Haiti, and elsewhere. With the propagation of the Murray-Herrnstein notion of genetically defined intelligence, we are once more surrounded with ideas first synthesized by Comte Joseph de Gobineau in his book Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1953-55) and later elaborated by Social Darwinism, eugenics, and pragmatic utilitarianism. Its latest manifestation is, in my view, the theory of common culture--the heritage of Western civilization. It inheres in all philosophies and policies that legislate a scheme of general education for everyone based on a narrative of development framed by the classics of the canon, from Aristotle to Rorty and Lacan. Whether formulated in terms of modernity, progress, Enlightenment, competency, or individual self-fulfillment, the old belief in "our civilizing mission" persists despite claims of tolerance, liberal latitude, respect for cultural diversity, and so on. The aim of the cultural literacy espoused by E.D.Hirsch, for example, and assorted schemes of "general education" is to reproduce the liberal self, now assuredly more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, founded on centuries-old strategies of domestication and devaluation of Others. I express here a view that may outrage defenders of tradition and the accepted disciplinary boundaries--perhaps evidence that despite changes and modifications on the surface, the deep structures of habitual thought and feeling remain entrenched. But what are teachers for, asked James Baldwin, if not to disturb the peace? While critical of the metanarrative of modernizing progress (courtesy of the IMF/World Bank), I should also say here that I do not count myself as one of those postmodernist skeptics who believe that everything is a manifestation of pure power, discourse or textuality, arbitrary social constructions whose truth-claims cannot be adjudicated. After all, reality is what hurts…. Multiculturalism is celebrated today as the accompaniment to the fall of the Evil Empire and the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. Ishmael Reed, among others, has trumpeted the virtues of "America: The Multinational Society." His term “multinational” continues the thought of Dubois, the proponents of La Raza Unida, and the theories of internal colonialism. Ironically, however, Reed declares somewhat naively that "the United States is unique in the world: The world is here" in New York City, Los Angeles, and so on. Reed, I suspect, doesn't mean that the problems of the underdeveloped peoples have come in to plague American cities. With this figure of subsumption or synecdochic linkage, America reasserts a privileged role in the world--all the margins, the absent Others, are redeemed in an inclusive, homogenized space where cultural differences dissolve or are sorted out into their proper niches in the ranking of national values and priorities. We thus have plural cultures or ethnicities coexisting peacefully, without conflict or contestation, in a free play of monads in "the best of all possible worlds." No longer a melting pot but a salad bowl, a smorsgasbord of cultures, the mass consumption of variegated and heterogeneous lifestyles. There is of course a core or consensual culture to which we add any number of diverse particulars, thus proving that our principles of liberty and tolerance can accommodate those formerly excluded or ignored. In short, your particular is not as valuable or significant as mine. On closer scrutiny, this liberal mechanism of inclusion—what Herbert Marcuse once called “repressive desublimation”--is a mode of appropriation: it fetishizes and commodifies others. The universal swallows the particulars. And the immigrant, or border-crosser like Guillermo Gomez Pena or Coco Fusco, our most provocative performance-artists, is always reminded that to gain full citizenship, unambiguous rules must be obeyed: proficiency in English is mandatory, assimilation of certain procedures and rituals are assumed, and so on and so forth. Cultural pluralism first broached in the twenties by Horace Kallen has been refurbished for the needs of the "New World Order." What the multiculturalist orthodoxy (of left or right varieties) of today elides, however, is the history of the struggles of people of color--both those within the metropolis and the peripheries. While the political armies of racial supremacy were defeated in World War II, the practices of the liberal nation-state continue to reproduce the domination and subordination of racialized populations in overt and subtle ways. The citizen-subject, citizenship as such, held to be the universalizing virtue of the liberal nation-state, remains defined by the categories that govern the public sphere and the marketplace, categories of race, geopolitical location, gender, nationality, sexuality, and so on. Meanwhile, the highly touted concept of civic nationalism, a framework for harmonizing ethnic differences, is bound to reproduce the racialization of identity and the processes of stigmatization and marginalization witnessed in the history of the sociopolitical formation. Others who are different, inferior or subordinate to us, are constructed to define the rights-bearing subject of the liberal nation-state; these Others are excluded or exteriorized--undocumented aliens, etc.--to establish the boundaries of the nation-state. In the process, a fictive ethnicity of the nation as its primordial guarantee emerges to validate its legitimacy and naturalness. Opposed to those who insist on conformity to a uniform monolithic culture, I am for the recognition of the integrity and importance of peoples' cultures and ways of life, and for their right to exist and flourish. But how can this recognition of multiplicity be universalized? I believe it cannot happen within the existing global logic of corporate accumulation. I believe that multiculturalism, as along as it is conceived within the existing framework of the hegemonic nation-state or bloc of states founded on inequality and hierarchy, cannot offer the means to realize justice, fairness, and recognition of people's singular identities and worth around the world. The multiculturalist respect for the Other's specificity may be the appropriate form of asserting one's own superiority. This paradox underlies multiculturalism as, in fact, the authentic "cultural logic of multinational" or globalized capitalism. So I am afraid the race question will be with us in the next millenium as long as the conditions that produce and reproduce it are the sine qua non of the prevailing social structures and institutional practices of our everyday lives.

Class Struggle Against Racial Politics

The goal of a class-less communist society and strategies to attain it envisage the demise of racist ideology and practice in its current forms. But progressive forces around the world are not agreed about this. For example, the World Conference against Racism World Forum of Non-Governmental Organizations held before September 11, 2001 in Durban, South Africa, publicized the global problem of racism but was unable to formulate a consensus on how to solve it. Its final declaration highlighted the historic origin of racism in the slave trade, colonialism, genocide, and the possibility of reparations for its victims, but did not offer a concrete program of action (see Mann 2002).
Given its composition, and the pervasive climate of reaction, the Forum could not of course endorse a radical approach that would focus on the elimination of the exploitation of labor (labor power as commodity) as a necessary first step. Given its limits, it could not espouse a need for a thoroughgoing change of the material basis of social production and reproduction—the latter involving the hegemonic rule of the propertied bloc in each society profiting from the unequal division of labor and the unequal distribution of social wealth—on which the institutional practices of racism (apartheid, discrimination, genocide) thrive. “Race is the modality in which class is lived,” as Stuart Hall remarks concerning post-1945 Britain (Solomos 1986, 103). Without the political power in the hands of the democratic-popular masses under the leadership of the working class, the ideological machinery (laws, customs, religion, state bureaucracy) that legitimizes class domination, with its attendant racist practices, cannot be changed. What is required is a revolutionary process that mobilizes a broad constituency based on substantive equality and social justice as an essential part of the agenda to dissolve class structures; any change in the ideas, beliefs, and norms would produce changes in the economic, political and social institutions, which would in turn promote wide-ranging changes in social relations among groups, sectors, and so on.
Within a historical-materialist framework, the starting point and end point for analyzing the relations between structures in any sociohistorical totality cannot be anything else but the production and reproduction of material existence. The existence of any totality follows transformation rules whereby it is constantly being restructured into a new formation (Harvey 1973). These rules reflect the dialectical unfolding of manifold contradictions constituting the internal relations of the totality. Within this conflicted, determinate totality, race cannot be reduced to class, nor can class be subsumed by race, since those concepts express different forms of social relations. What is the exact relation between the two? This depends on the historical character of the social production in question and the ideological-political class struggles defining it. In his valuable treatise, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen has demonstrated the precise genealogy and configuration of racism in the U.S. It first manifested itself when the European colonial settlers based on private property in land and resources subdued another social order based on collective, tribal tenure of land and resources, denying the latter any social identity—“social death” for Native Americans. We then shift our attention to the emergence of the white race and its system of racial oppression with the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677 and the establishment of a system of lifetime hereditary bond servitude (for African Americans): “The insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group, is the hallmark of racial oppression” (Allen 1997, 243). In effect, white supremacy defining the nature of civil society was constructed at a particular historical conjuncture demanded by class war. The result is a flexible and adjustable system that can adjust its racial dynamics in order to divide the subordinates, resist any critique of its ideological legitimacy, and prevent any counter-hegemonic bloc of forces from overthrowing class rule.
Class struggle intervenes through its impact in the ideological-political sphere of civil society. Racial categories operate through the mediation of civil society which (with the class-manipulated State) regulate personal relations through the reifying determinations of value, market exchange, and capital. Harry Chang comments on the social mediation of racial categories: “Blacks and whites constitute social blocks in a developed setting of ‘mass society’ in which social types (instead of persons) figure as basic units of economic and political management…The crucial intervention of objectification, i.e., relational poles conceived as the intrinsic quality of objects in relation, must not be neglected here. Racial formation in a country is an aspect of class formation, but the reason races are not classes lies in this objectification process (or fetishization)” (1985, 43). Commodity fetishism enables the ideology of racism (inferiority tied to biology, genetics, cultural attributes) to register its effects in common-sense thinking and routine behavior in class-divided society (Lukacs 1971). Because market relations hide unequal power relations, sustained ideological critique and transformative collective actions are imperative. This signifies the heuristic maxim of “permanent revolution” (Lefevbre 1968, 171) in Marxist thought: any long-term political struggle to abolish capitalism as a system of extracting surplus value through a system of the unequal division of labor (and rewards) needs to alter the institutions and practices of civil society that replicate and strengthen the fetishizing or objectifying mechanism of commodity production and exchange (the capitalist mode of production). If racism springs from the reification of physical attributes (skin color, eye shape) to validate the differential privileges in a bourgeois regime, then the abolition of labor-power as a commodity will be a necessary if not sufficient step in doing away with the conditions that require racial privileging of certain groups in class-divided formations. Racism is not an end in itself but, despite its seeming autonomy, an instrumentality of class rule.
Reification of nature and all social relations is the distinctive logic of the political economy of bourgeois domination. Racial differentiation and class antagonism converge in the revolutionary process when, as C.L.R. James states in a gloss on Lenin’s thought, the colonized subalterns (e.g., the Irish in 19th century Britain) and racially oppressed peoples/nations (African Americans, indigenous communities) begin to act as the “bacilli” or ferment that ushers onto the international scene “the real power against imperialism—the socialist proletariat” (1994, 182). Socialist revolution is thus the requisite precondition for ending racism.


Allen, Theodore. 1997. The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. Vol. 2 of The Invention of the White Race. New York: Verso.
Chang, Harry. 1985. “Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry
Chang.” Ed. Paul Liem and Eric Montague. Review of Radical Political Economics 17.3: 34-45.
Harvey, David. 1973. Social Justice and the City. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
James, C.L.R. 1994. C.L.R.James and Revolutionary Marxism. Ed. Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. The Sociology of Marx. New York: Vintage.
Lukacs, Georg. 1971 (1923). History and Class Consciousness. London: Merlin Press.
Mann, Eric. 2002. Dispatches from Durban. Los Angeles, CA: Frontlines Press.
Meyerson, Gregory. 2008-2009. “NeoMarxism as Compromise Formations.” Unpublished paper.
Solomos, John. 1986. “Varieties of Marxist conceptions of ‘race,’ class and the state: a critical analysis.” In Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations. Ed. John Rex and David Mason. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Thomas, Pierre and Jason Ryan. 2009. “Stinging Remarks on Race from Attorney General.” ABC News (Feb. 18).

E. SAN JUAN, Jr., emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies, is currently a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. He was recently a Fulbright professor of American Studies at Leuven University, Belgium, and visiting professor of Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines. His most recent books are From Globalization to National Liberation (University of the Philippines Press), In the Wake of Terror: Race, Nation, Class and Ethnicity in the Postmodern World (Lexington), Toward Filipino Self-Determination (SUNY), and Critique and Social Transformation (The Edwin Mellen Press).

Sunday, April 05, 2009




Friends from U.P. Diliman have continually informed me that the most popular author among students and teachers today is Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian exile, now residing in London, UK. Not Ambeth Ocampo nor Jessica Zafra. Of course, Joma Sison is still around; but he has become trivialized, if not banalized, not less by his detractors now shooting polemical missiles from Japan, Australia, and Europe. Joma may have become the victim of an insidious repetition-compulsion (embodied in the habitus/ethos of megamalling/consumerism and migration) which has also wreaked havoc on the cult-groupie adherents of sikolohiyang Pilipino and its more exclusivist offsprings: pantayong pananaw, regional sectarian enclaves, etc. etc. If Mao and Joma are fading, will Che Guevara and Fanon—not to mention Antonio Gramsci, W.E.B.Du Bois, and Renato Constantino--be coming up soon in a revivalist trend, side by side with ‘Pareng Barack, Beyonce and Rihanna? No, Zizek has taken over!

Aside from his books on Lacan (applied to Hollywood films) and Hegel, Zizek has suddenly become a kind of Leninist after migrating to the UK where he heads a think-tank for the floating and eclectic intellectuals of the global North, including the not-so-mighty USA. The pragmatic US elite act like bricoleurs in raiding new ideas anywhere and commodifying them. (Except maybe for the original hypotheses of Charles Sanders Peirce, the real founder of pragmaticism, since then vulgarized by his epigones.) In the “belly of the beast,” academics are still looking to the French and the German thinkers (after Habermas, Derrida and Foucault, the Italian Agamben and the French Badiou are trying to catch up, jousting with Adorno, Bakhtin, and Walter Benjamin) for needed sustenance. They cannot get it from the late Rorty, nor the Hardt and Negri of Empire; much less from postcolonialists like Bhabha, Spivak, Appadurai, etc. Of course, the anarchists and neo-marxists proliferate, but they are impotent in affecting public discourse and institutional practices. As for the U.S.left, one hopes that someone will come to revive this dead Lazarus. Meanwhile, third-world immigrants are mobilizing….

Meanwhile, Zizek is still alive and functioning. From his launching-pad in London, and his video self-promotions in YOUTUBE and the Internet, Zizek has achieved some kind of hegemonic status among elite pundits and public intellectuals in the metropoles and hinterlands like the Philippines. My colleagues are not reading Chomsky, Zinn. Charles Taylor, or The Nation—they are perusing the humor and humours of Zizek.

Zizek’s entire corpus is based on Lacanian axioms, with heavy allusions to Freud, Marx, Hegel of course, and the anti-Cartesian and Nietzschean archive. This Lacanian foundation has never been questioned, presumably because it is obscure and highly speculative. Not the least daunting is the fact that there is a breed called Lacanian feminists (Kristeva may be one), just as there used to be Freudian feminists (Juliet Mitchell comes to mind). Aside from the linguistic orientation of Lacan, the whole Freudian apparatus of the analytic situation and its metapsychological implications are fully invested in the Zizek utterance-machine. Lacan in fact boasted that he restored the original Freud, or rescued him from the perfidious revisionists. Lacan’s logocentrism informs the wide-ranging applications deployed by Zizek in his commentaries on current issues and quotidian happenings. Zizek’s eclecticism appeals to the pedestrian scholars and practitioners of mainstream cultural studies all over the world, afraid of socialist or other utopian alternatives to the status quo.

One commentator in the field, Jean Laplanche, in his Essays on Otherness, has acutely provided illuminating distinctions in the levels of theoretical sophistication found in Freudian discourse.
Among his many shrewd insights, I offer for readers Laplanche’s view that “the theory of seduction” (which underlies Freud’s transference theory, the key lesson of the “talking cure”) is not a reading language one can use universally for all communication situations. Rather, it is chiefly an attempt to understand the analytical practice of Freudian therapists. To apply it elsewhere is a gross imposition bound to generate misreadings and misrecognitions. In fact, Laplanche emphasizes, what is known as “psychoanalytical reading” is “a direct means of repression.” This is an ironical finding that seems to rival the “shock and awe” of Bush’s infamous “global war on terror.”

In this context, the British philosopher Peter Osborne aptly comments on the “repetitive structure” of Zizek’s work: “’Psychoanalytical readings are a means of repression to the extent that they shield the reader from the productive enigma of the text/object/practice by imposing a standardized narrative interpretation: the Oedipal reading, the ‘depressive position’ reading, the Real reading…. Such readings offer the comfort, not of strangers, but of all-too-familiar codings of strangeness which serve to reinforce the interpreting subject’s existing formation. As such, they offer a theoretical version of the pleasure in repetition which is an essential part of all cultural experience” (Philosophy in Cultural Theory, London, 2000, pp. 114-15). Who would want to reject repetition if it gives pleasure? The obsession with affects, the body, Butler’s performative and ludic exhibitions, and of course sexual/erotic fantasies, is still universal.

It is, I think, precisely this pleasure in repetition of now familiar Freudian/Lacanian strategies of reading that we find in Zizek.Take, for example, a typical performance illustrated by his article “The Not-so-Quiet American” in IN THESE TIMES (Feb. 14, 2005). This is vintage Zizek. Here he criticizes U.S. imperial policy in Iraq as a perfect illustration of Graham Greene’s satiric portrayal of the “quiet American” who, in spite of or because of humanitarian, altruistic motives produce enormous disaster and death, the opposite of his good intentions. The Freudian paradigm of the libidinal unconscious wrecking all the master plans of the rational ego is obvious here. Lacan observes that the Iraqi people react ungratefully to the U.S. gift of democracy and freedom—“they look at the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, and America then responds like a sullen child in reaction of the ingratitude of those it selflessly helped.” Lacan follows this up with the method of double reading, one that looks backward in a genealogical fashion to what lies behind appearances (the hidden motive) and one that looks forward to the eschatological effect (the result that validates the discovery of what’s hidden). After excavation, then an allegory of anticipation and, if there’s no transference, repetition. This formula is applied to the excavation of the U.S. motive. Zizek diagnoses further: “The underlying presupposition is that under our skin, if we scratch the surface, we are all Americans. That is our true desire—all that is needed is just to give people a chance, liberate them from their imposed constraints and they will join us in our ideological dream.” Hence, US feminists’ self-righetous crusade against clitoridectomy in Africa, the Middle East, and everywhere.

Zizek tries to complicate his rather conventional Freudian/Lacanian reading by inscribing in his text the authoritarian/totalitarian binary introduced by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a neoconservative policy bureaucrat during the Reagan administration. Semantic and ludic discriminations take over. Kirkpatrick approved the pragmatic authoritarian dictators supported by the US in the seventies and eighties (Marcos,Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, etc.) but disapproved the totalitarian rulers modeled after Soviet and Chinese communist teachings. Lacan seizes on the irony of the U.S. overthrowing the pragmatic authoritarian Saddam Hussein, thus proving that its real and authentic desire—yes, the hidden subterranean drive—is for totalitarian domination, the exercise of absolute power over everyone. In effect, Lacan has revealed the real motive, the source of the imperial drive, in analyzing the process of transference by using Saddam Hussein, and the US policy in Iraq, as the enigmatic signifiers whose binding and unbinding can produce the cure. But by confining himself to the discourse of the texts he reads, its concepts and assumptions, Zizek reproduces all the ironies and ambiguities he is trying to resolve. We thought everything was clear, we include in the “overall picture the ideological and political effects” of US occupation, but the Iraqis remain the victims. Iraq remains occupied with at least a million Iraqis dead and thousands of Americans killed. And the redeeming Gospel of Zizek has not changed the picture. (Recently, the African American political commentator Melissa Harris-Lacewell cogently argued that what changed the picture, at least within the US consensus, is the Katrina-New Orleans disaster and its erosion of support for Bush’s unilaterialist, war-mongering racialist policy.)

Armed with Zizek’s apercus disseminated in numerous books and articles circulated all over the world, are we any wiser or more fully informed of the total picture of the world today after his brilliant disclosure? Are we more adequately mobilized to confront Obama’s imperial mission in Afghanistan and all over the world, including the Philippines, via the subservient neocolonial Arroyo regime? Can the Lacanian-Freudian theoretical framework clarify the root and solution to the unprecedented global economic crisis started by the financial collapse of 2008? Is US hegemony still standing after the powerful Zizek diagnosis of self-deception, seduction, and traumatic cathexes?

The problem is our uncritical acceptance of Freud’s flawed premises and fundamentally complicit world-view. Despite the heroic efforts of Marcuse, Fromm, Wolfenstein, Reich, Ollman, and others, Freud remains a seriously misleading explainer of what is wrong with Western civilization, and the human psyche in general. The Freudian doctrine has of course been repudiated by psychologists and psychiatrists trained in scientific positivism, as well as by social scientists in general. However, Freud’s metapsychology (as elaborated in Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, for example) continue to exercise a profound and pervasive influence on humanists, writers, artists, and so on. This is not the space for an extended critique of Freud, or even a review of everything wrong and counterproductive in Freud if we are concerned with advancing a revolutionary, socialist project. Allow me to quote Richard Lichtman’s concluding judgment in his important but neglected book, The Production of Desire (Lichtman’s caveats on Freud complement Christopher Caudwell’s critique of Freud in Studies in a Dying Culture):

…This is precisely Freud’s weakness; he lacks an understanding of social relations and therefore of the social nature of ‘individual’ existence. Consequently, his efforts at the demystification of personal experience always reproduce some critical aspect of that mystification., for he never escapes taking the consequence of capitalist individualism for its cause. The framework through which he reveals the reality of the human condition is limited by the inhumanity of the capitalist condition which is then mistaken for the human condition itself. So, while Freud eschews any assertion of the significance of social structure, he reproduces this very structure in his uncritical acceptance of the deepest aspects of the capitalist world view” (1982, 258).

I think Lichtman’s analysis and evaluation of Freud’s whole psychoanalytic cosmos are solidly grounded on a historical-materialist critique and seems to me irrefutable; and, mutatis mutandis, they apply also to Lacan and Zizek. May it reach our friends in Diliman, “sitting in darkness,” to use Mark Twain’s ironic epithet of the U.S. civilizing mission, the brutal “Benevolent Assimilation” conquest of the islands that led to 1.4 million dead Filipinas/os and its other toxic consequences. --##