Home > Race and Colour, US Politics > The crushing logic of idealism

The crushing logic of idealism

ObamaNeil over at the Bleeding Heart blog celebrates the foiling of a potential assassination attempt against Barack Obama. Whilst thwarting the half-cocked plans of a pair of skinheads is worthy of applause, I don’t think I can go out on quite the same limb that Neil has. Saying that the arrest of these two men, who wanted to kill 88 black people, 14 by decapitation, before trying to kill Obama, deals a heavy blow to white supremacy is going a bit far. Neil also far overestimates the significance of a black win.

Of course this isn’t a sin committed by one blogger, alone in all the world. The media deliberately overplays the significance of getting a black man elected President of the United States. Yet the opinion of one lefty blogger, in my view, matters more than the views of the established media.

The cause of white supremacy is not dealt a blow by arresting the participants – indeed, were that the case, we should simply order the arrest of all neo-Nazi groups and have done with the problem. In this one instance, we’ve stopped a plot and while that is laudable, it is a matter of treating the symptoms rather than engaging with the root of the problem. Nor will getting a black person elected challenge the root of the problem – in fact I can see circumstances where it makes matters worse.

The root of the problem, as Jon Cruddas has been trying to highlight, is the low-level perpetuation of myths and the linking of these myths to local problems to give the far-right a political base. Without this base upon which to operate, the far-right falls back on its thinly-veiled racist cultural scene to sustain it, punctuated only by the occasional and violent reaction to circumstances far beyond the control of their movement – such as their intervention in race-related riots.

Arresting one or two people isn’t going to change that. For as long as people live under the exploitation of capitalism and have little direct say, the idea that this exploitation is increased by immigration or that life generally is made worse by the races living side by side, is an easy way for the simple minded to explain their bad circumstances. An Obama presidency isn’t going to change this – how Obama’s leadership plays out remains to be seen. It could be beneficial and then again not.

One way in which it could be beneficial is through it’s deconstruction of the liberal critique of racism. Obama’s victory, and the failure of white racism to diminish thereafter, will prove once and for all that racism is not just about a battle of ideas. It has a structural element. It will also weaken the left-populist critique of a top-down racism, wherein racism is orchestrated, along with all the other ills of society, by capitalist overlords in charge of where the “glass-ceiling” is set.

Considered from another perspective, it might not be such a good thing because with the accession of a black man to the most powerful office in the land, popular consciousness of racial issues might be diminished. Certainly a lot of Brits, those not connected to the American inner cities where racial issues are the norm, seem to think that with this victory, a decisive blow will have been struck against racism. If some Brits can think that, I can’t imagine the American middle classes will be far behind.

This could inspire a dangerous complacency, creating the space for exactly the opposite reaction that we might logically expect from an Obama presidency. Racists will plausibly be able to say that they’re not racist, but… – an age-old formula that might carry new weight in a country which has just elected its first black President.

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  1. TomE
    October 29, 2008 at 2:18 am

    It seems to me that you confuse a couple of things here. First, Neil’s post at Bleeding Heart Show simply argued that inadequate, failed racialists being arrested on the one hand, and the potential for an inspiring black president being elected on the other reflects a pretty encouraging turn of events in American history. Isn’t it worth celebrating that, whatever one makes of Obama per se?

    Second, you worry that an Obama victory might be taken by some to be a sign of a simple overcoming of racism in the US as such. It might seem obvious to say, but the election to the highest office of state of a black man is hugely important, politically, symbolically, historically. If this happens, as i dearly hope it will, surely you can’t claim it as insignificant, or even as just another ‘stage’ on the road to racial equality? It’s far, far more than that.

    In a broader sense, though, I think you’re pointing to some important issues relating to Obama’s centrism that are worth discussing. You quote the great Aneurin Bevan above as highlighting the danger of the political middle of the road. Obama’s conciliatory tone on race – vastly important no doubt in terms of US realpolitik and the demands of an enormously volatile and difficult campaign – and, more generally, his quintissentially liberal – that is, politically and economically illiterate – rejection of structural explanations for economic and racial inequality are aspects of his politics that the Left should not be (liberally) bullied into being silent about. You’re right to point to this, and I hope that debate will grow. (Although, y’know, maybe it’s best to wait a week…)

    That said, let’s not pretend that Obama isn’t the most exciting (viable) presidential candidate since the 1960s. I, for once, will be on cloud 9 if he’s elected and Neil was absolutely right to rejoice in the chastening of those who would take that historic, heartening choice away from Americans.

  2. October 29, 2008 at 9:56 am

    Yeah, I’ve written better. That post was produced pretty late on the Monday night, shortly after the AP first broke the story, and I think of it more as a ‘first thoughts’ post than anything near a thorough consideration of racism in America. The problem with blogging is that if you turn up wearing anything other than your Sunday best, chances are someone’ll see you and challenge you on it, but I certainly enjoyed reading your thoughts. I should clarify one point, though, which I should’ve made clearer: when I wrote of it as a ‘crushing blow to white supremacy’, I merely meant that in practical terms, the odds of Obama having his head blown off by a skinhead have lengthened somewhat.

    With regards your own post, I think it’s important to distinguish between the hardened white supremacist and the much ‘softer’ (though not necessarily less ingrained) racism you might find in, say, small town Ohio, which is detailed beautifully in this essay by George Packer. You’ll have to forgive the generalisation, but for the white supremacist, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, misogeny and a fairly generous helping of conspiracy theories are wedded to a seething anti-federalist philosophy. White supremacists often hate the state as much as they hate blacks or hispanics and their somewhat half-baked solution is a kind of extreme, self-policing libertarianism that fetishises the firearm as the source of stability and self-reliance. My point is that their concerns aren’t primarily economic; they’re political, and completely incompatible with America as it is today, or as any socialist would wish to see it. This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean you can eradicate the problem by simply arresting their members, but what they lack in numbers they more than make up in fervour, and I think it would be self-defeating for an anti-racism strategy to prioritise this group.

    However, you’re certainly correct to identify the economic hardships of capitalism as being responsible for formenting those more widespread forms of racism. It might be an incomplete explanation – my alma mater’s own version of Bullingdon was well-known for its own well-tailored brand of bigotry – and it doesn’t, in my view, render other interpretations such as culture or history as completely irrelevant. But if you were to pick one predominant factor behind racism, the inequity of capitalism would be it.

    Indeed, this may be one of the few areas where you and Senator Obama are in some kind of agreement. In the comments that led to the ‘bittergate scandal’, Obama identified the routine failure of Washington to improve the material conditions of the white working class as being responsible for their retreat into cultural issues. He didn’t mention racism directly, but it was implied and is a fairly logical extension. The two of you differ, of course, on how to fix that – unless you happen to be Melanie Phillips, in which case you’re a soft centrist compared to the ObaMarxist.

    I also wouldn’t disagree with your contention that racism won’t just dissolve with an Obama victory, and if I’ve given that impression, then it’s my mistake. Anyone who’s seen the unbridled contempt from McCain-Palin supporters will be able to detect some racial undertones, and the flagrant racism inherent in the GOP’s anti-immigration rhetoric is one of the primary reasons why a hispanic voting block which was previously split has now solidified behind the Democrats. Moreover, one of my favourite blogs is by a journalist, David Neiwert, whose life’s work has been investigating the far-right and its ties to the GOP, and I’d very much recommend his essays on ‘Eliminationism in America‘. What I would say, however, is that whilst economic inequality has remained over the past 50 years – indeed, it has risen in modern times – racism has diminished. In the long run, I expect that to trend to continue under an Obama presidency and beyond.

  3. October 29, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Well, in both of those posts there’s an awful lot to deal with so I’ll get right to it, and if this follows any order, I assure you that it’s purely by accident.

    Neil, why do you expect that trend to continue under an Obama presidency and beyond? Certainly that is possible – but by recognizing the factors which have combined to create that effect, we must also recognize that it is a reversible process.

    I won’t – and no other Marxist would – challenge the historical and cultural factors that have laid to the types of discrimination you’ve outlined. Yet those very historical and cultural factors are themselves the result of an underlying economic process, without being reducible to it – and that economic process has not come to a close. Ergo, historical and cultural factors might suffer redefinition in a changed economic era.

    By which I mean, to give a hypothetical, should American capitalism seek a rapid intensification of the rate of exploitation of labour, one of the potential effects is an increase in racism and anti-federalism in all its guises. Ten years from now, the Republican Revolution might happen all over again, once the need for state intervention in the economy diminishes greatly.

    Setting that all to the side, there’s nothing in your reply to me that I disagree with; I think my initial contention has been satisfied – that an Obama victory will not dissolve racism “just because” and that no serious blow has been delivered to white supremacy movements [i]in general[/i].

    Tom, I’m all for an Obama victory – but I am worried that too much is being read into it. Not being black or American, I can’t speak to the energising effect it might have on minority rights campaigns across America. In that sense, an Obama victory is something to hope for. However as a step on the road to racial equality, it’s no more significant than Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.

    Right now, we can’t say what the significance of an Obama presidency will be because its significance will be determined by his actions while in office – and his centrism rings alarm bells in my head. He could be the black American equivalent of Thatcher – a love-to-hate figure for groups of mothers and women who wanted to seize their equality with both hands.

  4. October 29, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Neil, why do you expect that trend to continue under an Obama presidency and beyond? Certainly that is possible – but by recognizing the factors which have combined to create that effect, we must also recognize that it is a reversible process.

    Well, there is – and has been for a couple of years now – some evidence that attitudes about race are significantly more tolerant amongst the post-boomer generation (the relevant section is on page 39, but I’d advise against reading the whole thing), in spite of the fact that this generation has witnessed a sustained increase in economic inequality in recent years. Obviously, the usual caveats need to be made that these surveys rarely take into account the nuances of geography & social class, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to argue that racism could diminish in the long term, as the political power of the boomer generation begins to recede.

    But you’re right, of course, that it’s equally possible to see how this could be reversed and I agree that the danger of complacency which you warn about in your post is always something to be wary of.

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