Let me make it very clear why I like Michaels’s argument in the interview and book referenced below. I know from experience what it is to be a victim in this country of the oppression and violence whose sole true agency is simply that of capital. Not “white people,” not “men,” not any form of social discrimination based on membership in a demographic group and the ability to seize upon this and make it the basis of a positive identity. Further, I have witnessed personally, and in many essentially, indirectly, or blatantly violent forms, the authoritarian thuggery, often thinly disguised, wielded by all kinds of persons who are employed to work in managerial or administrative capacities (and this includes all of the helping professions), against persons like me if we rebel or are suspected of the slightest tendency towards doing so. Or if we seem to them to have some kind of problem.
My experience, and I will not shut up about this, is that the most visible and palpable forms of this exercise of oppression (obviously these people are not its original cause, which does not lay with attitudes) are performed by people who are in a position to tell themselves that they are “oppressed,” usually by virtue of the social type markers (race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion — not politics or ideology, though making that an identity would be no kind of solution). The reason is that the institutions that they work for and that have socialized them encourage such identification because it is a pseudo-political distraction, and it is useful in serving to neutralize all opposition and nip in the bud any possible complaint.
So, for instance, I was wrongly incarcerated 3 years ago on a psychiatric ward of a New York hospital. Twice a guard or n nurse gave me an order and gave me to understand that if I had better “comply” or else. When I later complained about it, they documented my having done so in my personal record (of observations made by professional employees that become the record of “true” statements about my behavior, and thus attributable to my “illness” alone), and they were careful to say only that I had accused a Black employee of using violence against me. As he did. The question was never entertained of whether he did use violence or not, or whether his violence was justified or not; nor indeed, whether my complaint was or might have been true. They don’t care about the use of violence against patients unless it threatens their interests, which are controlling poor people, exercising professional power (the medical profession is traditionally and still the most respected among those that constitute, more or less, the one percent who rule America), avoiding all semblance of disorder that would be harmful to the smooth conduct of business, and profit. A priori, my complaint could not have meant anything to them except that my illness disposes me to be disagreeable. (In fact, my personality and politics, which are a unity, do, and only when there is injustice; call this Democratic Personality Disorder if you like).
That man was brutal and full of hate, or else he is a good performer and chose to appear as such. That must have been calculated to make me angry. Why? Because they can use that against me. And that will then seem to justify their violence, which was the object in the first place.
He had given me an order that was illegal. I refused in a demonstrative and expressive act. For this he threw me to the ground with a kind of hand-lock on my neck, while five of his colleagues watched. Then they took me into what I call the Punishment Room. There he and another employee, whom I am sad to say was female but also Black, proceeded to utter more threats of violence, obliquely enough that I probably could not prosecute them even if there had been unbiased unwittnesses.
These thugs were both Black, as was the security guard who had me beaten up by white colleagues upon arrival when I refused to obey his order to relinquish my possessions, a demand that was presented, just like the police do, with no representation of any law or policy requiring me to do so.
I was violated by Black thugs. That sounds like a racist thing to say. It is not.
Rather, I simply refuse anti-racist discourses that are dishonest, false, and at best distractions. And that are designed for no other purpose than to defend the corporate status quo by any means necessary.
The hospital and the corporation that runs it, a New York City owned “Health and Hospitals Corporation,” obviously hires Black people to serve as enforcers in cases like this. Why? First, because they are more often easily persuaded to do so. Secondly, because they can always trot out the stupid calumnies of racism whenever anyone criticizes the barbaric violence that these institutions are based upon.
Based upon them as much as slavery was and its sequelae are. That is, the prison and police victims who are mostly Black are victims of the same system I am a victim of and for what are ultimately the same reasons.
But as long as Blacks and white liberals can be fed the garbage about all oppression in this country being essentially about what type of person you are in demographic terms, so that they can actually talk in one sentence about both “oppression” and being “white” as though these are intrinsically related. But they are not.
Moreover, reasons and persons can be separated and must be, and practices and intentions can be separated. I have a hatred for people who act as those hospital employees did. But my hatred is not of their race or any other attribute of them. Indeed, it is the hospital and they themselves, who believe this racist ideology (that is, that they are oppressed because they are Black by people who are White — especially those who disobey their orders), that are racist.
The liberals and the left are now divided, and most people have not noticed. Those opposing the police violence, mass incarceration, and the abusive treatment of prisoners — among other things, I would like to hope — are on the left; the liberals who have triumphed on elite college campuses and in corporate environments are not on the left, and we who are need urgently to deprive them of their claim to be. They are right-wing liberals who are defending ideologies that are in fact forms of neoliberalism. Their social class interests ally them more with the one percent than the rest of us. They sell diversity, identity, and respect, the same respect that some people will demand in the streets at the end of a gun. Black people were sold this after the end of the Civil Rights Movement. It leads only to fascism in the extreme, and support for neoliberal corporate capitalism in happier climes and times.
People in the middle and upper-middle classes do have some common interests with the Black poor and the poor generally. These interests have not been at all well or much articulated on college campuses. Liberals do not, and we can suspect in most cases cannot, recognize them.
No such interest can be usefully captured by the concept of identity. There is not even a poor person’s or communist identity. Democracy, which is the best we have for what we can call for (a radical, participatory democracy, not one of candidates and elections, at least not in the first place, as those are always of secondary importance), is not an identity. It is not a way of being a persons. It is a form of social life, a highly politicized one permitting the ready expression of social antagonism and conflict in what are normally peaceful but not unacrimonious terms.
There is also a name for what we must oppose. I have two names. The more particular one is “the neoliberal therapeutic consumer police state.” The more general one is “capitalism.” Neither of these things have race, gender, sexuality, or any other identitarian
component as a significant component. There are structurations of inequality that sometimes are articulated partly in terms of some of these categories. But they cannot be fought in the name of these categories.
I also extend this to religion, including (trigger warning: my identity to come in this sentence) my own religion, the one I chose (while never ceasing to be a German-Irish radical (and so also a bit philo-Catholic) opposed to modern bourgeois bureaucratic society with all my heart, mind, and being), Judaism, which is traditionally thought of in terms of communities and identities. I claim that these exist but are secondary to other concepts (like God, justice, and liberation, which is a specifically Jewish concept in origin even if in the modern world it has been a more distinctively French and socialist one — indeed, almost all interesting thought since 1789 that can in any sense, thematic or identitarian, be called “Jewish” has been in the German, French, Italian, and English languages, which are also (along with Latin to the end of the 17th century) the modern languages of the Western philosophical traditions as we know them; for contingent historical reasons, Hebrew has became a major literary language, like Japanese, Arabic, and Portuguese, but not a major language of social and political thought). I also claim that there is no politics of identity for ourselves or anyone. Even the defense of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, if you support it, as I do in a certain way, cannot be meaningfully understood in terms of the politics of the self-determination of national groups, including ours. Israel has the same right to self-defense in the case of attack by foreign powers (say, Iran, or ISIS) that the US has in relationship to Russia (or France and the US against ISIS). But most such talk is a displacement and a distraction. The national security state is one in which citizens are expected to be insecure and manage their insecurities in ways that point to the state authority as a protection racket. (Feminism mostly fell wholesale into this trap, and most women like the therapeutic ideology for this reason, and because the related “communication skills,” centered partly on emotional management, are useful ideologically in legitimating the forms of domination they can participate in wielding when they are functionaries in managerial positions). The therapeutic state says that all problems are personal, and do not indicate the need for social change, in institutions and practices, and so call only for therapeutic technologies and the treatments they make possible. The neoliberal ideology is one of ultra-liberalism, based on notions of property and inviolability, and so fully compatible with Kantian and other bourgeois notions of autonomy. We can all draw, and should, from the values in our particular traditions (like the valorization of argumentation in ancient Greek culture and in Jewish culture after the appropriation of the former in rabbinical Judaism, which centers around textual interpretation; or like storytelling in a certain Arabic tradition, or romantic love in the Franco-Italian literary traditions at the origin of modern Europe, or the American extreme insistence on equality of status)
the potentiality for universally valid claims or modes of struggle which are only loosely totalizable in terms of social theory (what we oppose, which is capitalism as well as its increasingly barbaric current forms; the latter cannot be made object of critique or oppositional politics without indicting the former and recognizing this as our true and ultimate target) and political philosophy (articulating the forms of democratic social life we desire and must demand and struggle to realize).
It can begin to seem difficult when your natural allies have some disposition to spurn you for having made impolite remarks on occasion about some of them, or rather, some people who are like them in some ways, including the demographic categories from which they draw their identity. Can’t be helped. I think that when oppressed people organize, there may be an initial period where people try in various ways to negotiate the terms of recognition of the fact that we, strangers in some ways, are neighbors. But if the struggle is real enough and important enough, those barriers will be fairly rapidly overcome. Who will insist on maintaining them? Those whose social class position, and the possible ways of rendering intelligible their appropriation of its meaning for them and their relationship to it, dispose them to make identities and differences the threads out of which all oppositional politics must be woven. Those of us who are on the left have other needs, and so we think in different terms.
If your politics is about your identity, than it is only a fact about you. (“Hi, my name is Leon and I am a communist.” “It’s alright, Leon, I’m a communist too, but I’ve been sober and working well for six weeks now. It’s tempting to touch my radical books when I am alone, but so far I have resisted the temptation.” (Applause).) Your precious identity: Market it, get treatment for it, confess it, make it the basis of your sexual preference (or that the basis of it), join a group of like-identified persons to express it together, console each other on its basis, vote for candidates who belong to it, or claim to represent or care about it, etc.
All meaningful thought is public, not private, because it is “intentional” in the Husserlian sense, that of being “about” something. If I say, X is F, that is a statement about something in the world, indeed, about Xs and the property of F-ness, which are entities in the world of say-ables constituted in discourse. Of course, implicitly I am also informing you, or can be thought to be, that I believe that “X is F” is true, and that this believing is a fact about me, but that should be obvious and not need pointing out. All of my statements could then be totalized as the truth about what I believe and thus part of the truth of my characterological disposition (or, if you prefer, personality disorder). They also form a set of statements about things in the world as understood from my point of view. And they form a subset of the possibly true statements about things in the world that can be made in the language I speak or any and all languages that anyone might.
People speak and act to intervene in the world, and that we must want to do is a condition of being the kinds of beings we are, and what this condition amounts to in terms of social practices is what I would call simply “the political.”
Of course managers in the professionalocracy will acknowledge such notions readily, but only in meaningless speech or on paper. They will act contrariwise. It is pointless to assert our right to resist. We have only to do so in the ways we judge most likely to be effective. They will stop us from, or punish us for, doing so, if and when they can see, and this is almost always visible at a glance, that we are actually threatening through our opposition some of what they are committed to both ideologically and practically. And Marx is right against Hegel in that real social antagonisms are not subject to discursive mediation at all. So you should never delude yourself that you can speak truth to power. The antagonistic parties will be able to grasp in an instant, a Kierkegaardian Augenblick or blink of an eye, that you must be in the wrong (because your act or statement, and every meaningful act or statement is both act and statement) is a challenge to their interest. In the next instant they begin almost automatically to construct a loose theory consistent with their position of how you are wrong. For all ideology moves within the sphere of the Obvious, and this is also true of oppositional discourse and action, though we can build theories that are not contradictory in ways that they cannot. Hegel is right because reason always triumphs over unreason, but it does so only on its own ground. Thus, in a hypothetical conference in which in two different rooms professionalocrats are discussing their theories of us and we ours of them, predictably we can steal one of their pages and demonstrate, to everyone in our room who is there out of interests that we share, that our theory comprehends and critiques theirs while they cannot understand ours, except in terms of categories and theories that reduce our way of thinking to mere ways of behaving that are proper objects of their theory. However, all true antagonisms are won or lost on a plane of forces, and that is where the Habermasians are dead wrong. If they were right, democratic socialism would be creeping even now through our professional managerial bureaucracies, and those university graduates would be justly entitled to rule. Giving us in effect something like the French Socialist Party. If a Marxist rather than Kantian Hegelianism is right, then that is impossible.
Everything we do or say can be identified with us as part of our individual manner of being in the world within some larger form of social life that we are essentially born into and inevitably part of. But very few meaningful statements are only or essentially expressions of our identity, or manner of being in some particular way that can be recognized or appropriated with a claim to recognition. A totally depoliticized society is an impossibility, but one that approaches this state will be in which most people at least are not recognizable as authors of utterances that other persons must or might regard as statements with important consequences for a community of persons with something in common, such as inhabiting a common space, like the Internet, and so that are intrinsically and necessarily true or false in some more or less important way about some state affairs in the common world.
Because neoliberalism tends to erase this common world, a radically democratic politics must aim to reconstruct it.
First principle: Be unafraid to argue passionately, and reluctant to accuse others of immorality.
Somewhere there is a political club that has a sign on its entry door, “Only those whose politics and sentiments are morally pure may enter.” Liberals will say this is “progressive” and “left” (of their own “center”). I say, instead, Suspect everyone who claims to have clean hands. The political movement we need to build will not be a Church.