Liberals oppose Sanders’ worldview regarding racism. However, they lack an alternative worldview to fill in the void left if his explanation is wrong. Because of this, they lapse into right-wing conceptions of racism. I use a thread from twitter pundit David Atkins to make this point.
A few weeks ago, before New York Times released their laughable dual endorsement of Warren and Klobuchar, they were doing a media circus where they ask the presidential candidates questions.
So, while this thread is lagging behind “The Discourse”, that’s by choice. After all, this blog usually shies away from the culture war point of the day, so I didn’t want to do a short write-up that’s lost to time.
But I wanted to write about it, because Sanders’s answer about racism to the New York Times is a strong one. And more specifically, the liberal reaction to Sanders’s answer shows how ineffectual a liberal worldview is at answering for, and solving, racism. In fact, the liberal reaction shows that their only answer is one that enables racism.
New York Times asked Bernie Sanders about what to do, and how to understand racism. Sanders’s answer was basically that individual racism is a reaction to economic injustice. When people come to terms with the fact that their economic and material reality is suffering, they look for explanations.
When people are looking for those answers, it’s easy for the dominant class to wrangle those people into racist views, in order to neutralize their class consciousness.
Political-economies are always premised on, and supported by, class alliances. A revolution can be achieved when there’s a strong enough union between the exploited and oppressed classes and sub-classes.
Conversely, racism flourishes when the middle class is suffering and downwardly mobile. When this happens, the capitalist class makes it a higher priority to form an alliance with the middle class. The capitalist class’s biggest fear is the middle class realizing that they are, indeed, an exploited class, even if they’re much less exploited than, say, workers in the developing world.
However, there’s little economic grounds on which the capitalist class and middle class can unite over. So what the capitalist class does is turn the middle class against lower classes. This often takes the form of xenophobia and racism, but also misogyny, homeless-hatred, etc.
The social democratic position is that the way to stop racism is for the state to form an alliance with the middle class, and to some extent, the working poor, by instead improving their quality of life and reducing their sense of an impending threat.
Liberals on twitter were very offended by this idea. They said that reducing racism to economic factors is itself racist, because some people are racist just because.
If you interrogate this issue for even a little bit, you’ll see why this position causes a lot of issues for liberals; they’re backing themselves into a corner.
For one, if you don’t think economic issues cause racism, then what else does? Liberals don’t offer an alternative, or a competing worldview. However, you’ll see in the tweets I refer to later, that some liberal’s competing worldview is the same as the racist’s worldview.
The fact that they don’t offer a legitimate alternate cure to the cause of racism doesn’t speak highly for them. It seems like liberals want racism to exist, so they can be seen as the one perennially fighting it.
If people saw that more socialistic policies did indeed reduce racism, then liberals would have no leg to stand on. Liberalism pitches itself by saying “sure, the left might offer you stuff, but they can’t solve racism!” This is most exemplified when Hillary Clinton infamously said “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow […] would that end racism? Would that end sexism?”
In the rest of this post, I will dissect a twitter thread, from over two weeks ago now, that was in reaction to Sanders’s explanation to racism.
The posts are by a pro-Warren verified reply guy named David Atkins. I wanted to use this thread, because it offers a stark example of the ideological hollowness, and implicit capitulations to right-wing racism, of liberal “anti-racism”.
The existence of rich white racists doesn’t disprove a material conception of racism.
Capitalist systems use different techniques to stratify itself as a class society. One of the most obvious examples of this is chattel slavery. Black people were slaves, and after that, the capitalist conception of “blackness”, was changed. Blackness in the United State was invented to help stratify the capitalist class structure. Of course, black people have darker skin, but our conception of race depends on class positioning along racial lines.
There are racist rich white people because they are at the top of a racialized class-based structure. Rich people don’t have to be racist, because they already systemically benefit from a racist system.
The material understanding of race says: yes, there are racist rich people because they have contempt for the people who perform the labor that enables their lavish lifestyle. There are also white supremacists like David Duke since he was a teenager. He will probably be racist his entire life.
Both of these groups have an incentive to preserve and enforce racism. The rich racists are incentivized to cleave racial divides, because by dividing up the working class into smaller groups, their superior class status is preserved. White supremacists are incentivized to cleave racial divides for ideological reasons.
We can’t count on either of those groups to stop being racist. But the question was more about people who, in the past were latently racist, in the way American society in general is. A lot of people like that voted for Obama twice, then voted for Trump. How could those people be allured by racism?
That’s where the material explanation comes in. Capitalism, and all economic systems with classes, depend on class alliances.
When there’s massive inequality, and growing dissatisfaction among the working class, the capitalist class needs to “correct” their relation to the economy. They do this by offering concessions to the working class, or more often the “middle class”. Often these concessions are made to specific groups and sub-classes, specific types of workers.
But, there’s another way where you don’t make concessions on economic ground: instead, the capitalist class stokes latent racial and xenophobic anger. This gets the middle class on the capitalist class’s side, because the middle class begins to feel more aligned with the capitalist class, as both feel above minorities and the poor.
It’s a misunderstanding, and a tendency for liberal discourse, to reduce this down to a matter of where or not “people are fundamentally good”.
The material perspective on racism is not that anyone is fundamentally good, or bad, but rather people are motivated by material. People are motivated by who gets what, and for what.
But it’s more complicated than that, because you’d assume working class people would be aware of what advances their material interest, and vote in favor of advancing those interests.
But people often have different, and competing, interests. Some people can be convinced that some conception of their national identity is more important to preserve than material reality. Or more accurately, they’re convinced that preserving their national identity, by increasing national oppression and constricting what constitutes a nation, will consequently increase the quality of their material reality.
The point isn’t that people are “fundamentally good”. The point is, if you were to look at the Raw State, comprised of conventional state apparatuses like the legislature, judges, cops, etc, you would recognize that those people are conspiring to repress you.
But the state also constitutes an ideological apparatus. This includes things like mainstream news, astroturfed alternative news and organization, schools, social media and civil society in general.
All parts of the ideological apparatus are bombarding you with ideologically loaded information, trying to sway the general public to different worldviews.
Some of the ruling class have interest in preserving a neoliberal, centrist, status quo civility politics, and will push public discourse towards that.
Some of the ruling class have interest in pushing civil society as far right as possible. The reason is, they need to make some type of concession to the working class, but being conservative, don’t want to make material concessions, so they funnel those “concessions” into xenophobic policy instead of labor policy.
All of this is to say: people are, in theory, in the most basic sense of motivation, motivated by material interest. It’s not about being “fundamentally good” or bad, but they’re motivated to be materially fulfilled.
However, if material gains was the only motivation in society, the capitalist governments would have no legs to stand on. People would have no allegiance to their employer or their country.
Capitalism depends on cross-class alliances. And the way they make these alliances is by using the ideological apparatus.
This causes alliances of different factions within the upper lass, laundering their ideology through the working class, so parts of the working class feel a sense of class alliance with part of the upper class.
This is how racism metastasizes through society: the xenophobic ruling class want to make concessions to the working class. But instead of material concession, they launder false concessions through right-wing ideologues, into the working class.
This tweet is baffling because he’s admitting the material root of racism. He’s acknowledging racism arises out of different groups forming alliances to exclude an out-group. That is the premise for the material worldview of racism.
However, David is unable to talk about how those alliances and out-group exclusions come to exist. Because he has nothing. For him, it’s human nature. For him, people tend to be vicious.
This is where this rhetoric becomes dangerous. Because David is offering an accurate diagnostic: “We make in-groups and out-groups”. But he couches that within a deeply right-wing worldview.
Describing racial groups as “vicious and tribal” is far-right framing. He’s saying “racism is human nature!”, drawing the genealogy of racism back to primates, and describing it as “tribal,” which relies on colonialist tropes about “all those savages are constantly at war with each other!”.
He then says that racism must be battled “forever”, because it has existed forever, and will exist forever.
This shows the hollowness of David’s worldview. His response to “racism is fueled by in-groups, which are determined by class alliances, based on misdirected economic motivations,”, is “nuh uh, racism is fueled by in-groups, which have always existed and always will exist, based on nothing but human nature.”
What the hell am I supposed to do with that? There’s nothing you can do except finger-wag at the racists. And how can you even do that, when you’ve already conceded to the racists that they’ve existed forever, and will exist forever?
Sentiment like this makes me believe liberals want racism to exist forever. I mean, he straight-up says it will exist forever, and has always existed.
I don’t know what to make of this position, but it seems to be three potential options: 1. He wants to believe racism exists forever, so that he can virtuously oppose racism, forever. 2. He is subconsciously racist, and doesn’t know how to deal with that except by saying racism always exists. Or 3. he prescribes to the liberal “both sides” tendency, that he feels obligated to take what is perceived to be a “centrist” framing.
This is a reductive presentation of the argument. No one is trained to be racist – it reverberates throughout our society. But it is reverberated throughout society. And it is often stoked by the dominant, ruling class, who typically are capitalists.
Capitalism depends on racism always being there as a latent force. It never “goes away” because class societies reify itself along class lines.
This isn’t different than David’s position, he is arguing against a strawman. The place where it is different, is he attributes this same idea to being “hairless monkeys”.
The “hairless monkeys” bit is a starkly right-wing frame of racial and ethnic issues.
Right-wingers won’t racism to not only be a perpetual presence in our society, but they want to be absolved of it by claiming racism is as natural as human evolution!
But think about where the conception of race came from, or more general, a conception of an in-group and out-group along ethnic lines:
The first class societies arose because tribes of hunter-gatherers, or early agrarian societies, began producing enough resources that they had an excess.
That small society would then find workers, who they could sustain with the excess production, to do work for them. They would do this by finding people who were outside their society, kidnapping them, and enslaving them.
This is, by many measures, the way History as we understand it starts: the formation of the first class societies by enslaving out-groups. And similar processes continue throughout history.
Why do Empires expand? They expand to have a larger labor force and to have more command of land and resources. They do so by enslaving – or if not enslaving, some other asymmetric class form – the people who live in other places. This is the material basis and reality of racism.
Material and tangible racism of this sort is most exemplified by the slave trade, where black people were enslaved as chattel. This practice took the same form as the early agrarians enslaving smaller tribes around them, it was reformatted for capitalist and colonial enterprises.
Because of all this, racism, or social dynamics like it have indeed existed in some form or another as long as class society has existed. That makes it feel as primal and fundamental as any biological function. But it’s a side-effect of the creation and stratification of class society.
David wants to fall back on heady metaphysical material about “choice”, alluding to ideas of free will, to reinforce his point. This alone is, again, feeding into right-wing narratives on race.
Conservatives want to make racism into a matter of choice. Because then they can say “I never once chose to be racist”. If racism is a choice, then a very small amount of people would qualify as racist. Even people who do hate crimes or say racist slurs can then deny their racism, with the mentality “well I never chose to be a racist person, doing [this or that racist thing] doesn’t make me racist if I didn’t choose to be.”
Reducing racism to choice is ignoring the ways in which racism most dramatically and directly effects people’s lives – in the structural foundation of class society.
But beyond all that, what do we have to work with here? Let’s look at Nazi Germany, as Sanders alluded to that in his original statement. If you’re tasked with diagnosing the causes of the rise of Nazi Germany, what can you say, if your worldview is “racism is a choice”? Do you poo-poo it and say “oh, well the Nazis made a choice to be racist”.
Even if that’s a social dynamic that happens – people accepting racism into their hearts (which doesn’t happen) – how can you do anything about it?
Not only does the “choice” idea not cohere to the structural underpinnings of real society, but it doesn’t yield any solutions. There’s nothing you can do about people privately making a choice.
At this point, David starts getting pretty redundant, so I don’t have much to say on this.
Except, he has a weird, bizarre conception of what humanism is. A materialist critique of racism isn’t a humanist perspective, it’s… a material one.
I don’t even know what David means by humanism, what he understands it to mean, and why he sees a material critique of racism as humanist.
That’s not exactly his fault, because humanism is the most ambiguous, ill-defined, and useless signifier I can imagine. It means nothing!
However, to indulge David a little bit, there is “Marxist Humanism”. Marxist humanists were Marxists in the first half of the 20th century who re-focused their attention on Young Marx. Young Marx emphasized the personal elements of life under capitalism, like alienation.
That’s being charitable though, because a material critique of racism – a perspective that understands and critiques society on a structurally materialist level – isn’t typical of Marxist humanism, it’s more typical of orthodox or structural Marxism.
But again, that’s me reading this as charitably as I can, because it’s nonsense.
This is more of the same.
One thing I want to highlight is the “angel on their shoulder” bit. This is in line with everything he types before this, with the “choice” rhetoric and all that.
But this cartoonish formulation shows how hollow his worldview is. If racism is as solipsistic as picking your good side or your bad side, that makes it even more clear that there’s nothing we can do about racism.
Absolutely, all of this can be explained by a historical materialist worldview. In fact, that explains all of these things much better than “angel on my shoulder lol”.
At this point, his argument just reeks, absolutely reeks, of someone who wants to be racist. Racism is in our DNA???
I haven’t commented on this until now, but David has a peculiarly Christian interpretation of racism. To him, racism is original sin. By being worldly, by existing in the world, we are tempted by racism. In fact, our whole existence is racism. We can only Not Be Racist if we submit to the democratic party to absolve us of our racism.
He then mixes the basic worldview of Christianity (that we are fallen people living in a fallen world and can only absolve ourselves of our fallenness by submitting to Jesus Christ) with a scientific, biological framework.
This is how racists see the world. They have a regressive and simplistic worldview of good vs evil, and then they jam biology into that worldview to create what they call “race science”.
David reduces all of race relations to a “gorilla mindset”, biological imperative, which is indeed, the framework white supremacists use.
And then I included these last two tweets to show how much of a knob this guy is lol.
It’s clear that he’s not a communist, because he doesn’t have a communist worldview.
His last statement about “fully automated luxury communism” is a perfect example of the futility of utopian socialism. If you’re interested in that, I have written a critique of that on this blog before.
I don’t have much of a conclusion to all of this, because I feel I iterated and re-iterated the main points enough times.