Radical minorities under capitalism
There’s an article at Comment is Free which neatly highlights some of the problems faced by the Left, both liberal- and extreme. Jane Czyzselska spears Peter Tatchell (and unnamed others) for seeing the change in gay rights activism towards civil partnerships etc as its deradicalization, rather than critiquing the whole notion of the family. She argues that this nod towards conformity is not a turn towards conservatism, that instead it is the realisation of gay equality.
Don’t get me wrong; I despise Peter Tatchell. Every time I read something by that self-important little twerp I have the urge to throw things. On bad mood days, I read Tatchell and think I’d rather just put him in a room with Lord Tebbit, and let the two of them scrap it out, well away from where I have to listen to them or read their arguments. Yet if it is Tatchell’s argument that the LGBT community is accommodating itself to capitalism, social conservatism and family values, he’s right.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this, and if we are, it’s because the Left has dug its own hole by wrongly assessing the nature of minorities under capitalism. We saw an example of this a few months back with John Pilger, talking about Obama as an “Uncle Tom”. For Pilger it was as though it is fair to assume that black people are all radical, should all be radical and should laugh to scorn any black person who is not radical.
There are black conservatives, there are a great number of gay conservatives, though, by all accounts, gay conservatives far predated the struggle for gay rights. There are Muslim conservatives. To a socialist, the notion that these people might join in a group which has made its bones attacking minorities seems confusing. I know gay Republicans in the US, members of a Party which largely thinks what they do is an abomination.
Yet that doesn’t consider the position of the individual. On an ideological level, the Press, the political parties, gutter snipes in school and the bloke down the Pub think that minorities are privileged. We hear it every day; equality legislation is wrong because it privileges minorities. All these immigrants getting houses and jobs before British-born people etc etc. Probability dictates this will have an effect on individuals of those minorities.
Probability is helped along, of course, by the nature of capitalism. There is nothing inherent to the system of capitalism which prevents any individual from a minority, the same as any individual from the white, British majority, excelling at capitalist enterprise. So armed, it is easy to see how they might be drawn towards the political groups which promise pro-business policies, lower taxes and maybe the odd government hand out.
This is one of the features which makes capitalism so versatile, and such a dangerous opponent. What minorities are working against is history. The history of Western European feudalism, where no ‘public sphere’ existed (cf. Habermas’ Structural Transformation), is one where great religious blocs battled each other, while vigorously purging any element of the other bloc from within its own borders.
With the advent of capitalism, this attempt to impose ideological uniformity fell apart with a vengeance – and indeed the nature of capitalism also promoted immigration and emigration, further weakening the ideological, cultural or racial cohesion of each geographical State. Yet still survived many vestiges of the old system; Christianity, for example, was and is still an ideologically motivating factor almost inexplicable using an economistic analysis.
Without a theocratic government, religious dominion over the public sphere was not assured – but that does not take into account the control of Christianity over the ramparts surrounding the public sphere; church, school, state and even media. Many of the revolutionary pamphlets of the 17th century were consequently religious – and there was a great market in the sale of small prayers and such.
Opposition to this came from two disparate interest groups; firstly, an empowered bourgeoisie, unwilling to be constricted in its consumption. Secondly, an awakening proletariat whose praxis directly conflicted with the venality of the churchmen and economic control of the Lords, both temporal and spiritual, whose estates they worked under the new capitalist system and who were imbued with this Christian ideology.
However, as Lenin and other revolutionaries were to note, when threatened by the emergent proletariat, the supposedly radical bourgeoisie forgot its radical pretensions, and, now and again, its espousal of religious tolerance. Indeed, today in the USA, radical religion is directly funded by large corporations, with mega churches and television channels springing up all over the most economically decimated parts of the American heartland (cf. Chris Hedges‘ American Fascists).
Under those circumstances,the bourgeois ideology is going to come into conflict with other ideas; in Hedges’ book, he outlines the direct conflict between radical Christianity and labour unions, and between radical Christianity and homosexuality, racial minorities and Islam. It is a cliché, I would say, that the sort of fundamentalist religion of this type attempts to stifle all dissent whatsoever. It is in these circumstances we can expect minorities to be radical.
Speaking objectively, Capital has mobilised an ideology in defence of its own interests, however awkward these bedfellows often are within the US Republican Party. It’s not coincidence, it builds on the history of Western Europe and by extension North America. Nevertheless, the form this ideological shield of capital takes can change. There will always be an ideological shield, which is a basic part of bourgeoisie hegemony, to distract from the ‘real’ differences which sustain that hegemony, i.e. class relations.
After all, if workers were going to line up beside one another, there’s billions more workers and labourers of all types than there are paid-up members of the capitalist class. This is not to say that the individual capitalists who promote their religion don’t genuinely believe it, but from the outside we should note how much of a coincidence it is that their interpretation of that religion is not the same as the vague “Jesus-was-a-socialist” crew, or indeed Liberation Theology.
In the UK, gays, racial and religious minorities are not treated equally – though I would be hard pressed to name State-led sanctions on the above. This is one reason why the argument that minorities seek special privilege is so convincing (not to mention so pervasive). How then are they not treated equally? From a subjective point of view, its easy to see black and Asian people discriminated against economically speaking.
Speaking generally and noting obvious exceptions, they function as the lowest rungs of the working class. In Camden, if you walk into a McDonalds, all the faces are black. In Belfast, if you walk into a McDonalds, the faces are a combination of Polish, Belfast-born and other assorted foreigners. The composition of these rungs is a game of swings and roundabouts, determined by immigration levels. That there must be a lowest rung is a function of capitalism; who comprises it is not so crucial to capitalism.
Muslims, on the other hand, can read daily in several papers ill-thought out criticisms of issues they feel to be important. This performs an ideological function; on the pages of the Mail, bile filled vituperations about whatever mad mullah they’ve dug up sit side by side with attacks on welfare mothers and populist rants about stealth taxes against the middle class. Obviously the goal is to sell papers, but this is achieved by selling the fears and directing the anger of the Mail target audience.
For example, say Person A is a well-paid professional who would like to send their kids to a good school (equating ‘good’ with ‘private’) and who wants to live in the suburbs. Through taxes, the government makes this harder – and the Mail teaches them to be angry at those groups not seen to be paying their way. In the Mail, this means the poor, though for the rest of us it means the millionaires and billionaires rolling in cash bonuses as their businesses sink.
It’s easier, in a way, to be angry at the poor because it doesn’t require a grasp of the Labour theory of value, and because so many of the activities reported from among the poor (or chavs, if one prefers) are objectionable. It’s hard to find a punchy headline-fitting answer to the question, “Why should we give houses to women who get pregnant simply because they hear they’ll get a council house?” There are a number of answers, not the least of which is to dispute the premise of the question.
Yet complicated and in-depth debate is not what the media does, whether Left or Right. It is this simplification which sees Islamic immigration as in some way related to terrorism, as though going to a mosque was the same as being in a terrorist training school. Sure, the Koran says some terrible things, but then so does the Bible and I don’t see Melanie Phillips whinging about that. It’s the same sort of simplification which permitted the victimisation of women’s groups and gay rights groups in the 1980s as the “Loony Left”.
We must recognize that this is an ideological function of capitalism, but we must also recognize that, now that state-led constraints are removed, there will be a readjustment amongst all minority communities. In some sections of the ethnic minorities in the UK, a right-wing allegiance seems almost normal given the strong attachment to the family and other socially conservative views, including homophobia. Similarly for some gay people, the Tories will be the natural party because they share views on Europe or want small state government.
This isn’t new – but with the attempted depoliticization of the 1990s, it has certainly become more pronounced. Michael Portillo, Alan Duncan…there is a growing list of gay Tory MPs. Sayeeda Warsi sits in the Shadow Cabinet, though she does have something of tokenism about her. Theresa May ran for the leadership of the Tory Party. Hell, in today’s California, Harvey Milk, whom Czyzselska attempts to appropriate for gay family values, may have been a Republican.
In the same way that today there are Conservative Feminists, much as that may sound a contradiction in terms to a socialist, so every minority eventually accommodates itself to one side or other of capitalism and, having done so, to a position on each question facing it not just as a minority but as citizens within a State.
There is no ‘homosexual ideology’ with which to critique foreign policy (for example). Homosexuality is simply a life choice that has no inherent ideological compass, though the individual may react to external pressures foisted upon him or her because of their life choice. This is one of the reasons why the sweeping comments of Pilger and Nader about how black people should think and vote are outdated. There are now black millionaires and billionaires in America, and a growing strain of black conservatism.
There’s now a black President, and whatever supposedly radical credentials President Obama carries, he’s not going to end the economic exploitation of black labour. He can’t. If in four years a Latino, gay woman is elected, she won’t be able to fix that particular problem either. Minorities will remain minorities, and many will remain oppressed even while this acclimatization goes on – but in so being oppressed, they are no different from the majority who serve the same economic function.
It will always be the case that a section of that majority will be the oppressors, motivated by an ideology not concomitant with their economic location in the capitalist mode of production. Conservative, wealthy white people have no problem employing other white people on crap wages, with no benefits to speak of, under the tyranny of a bosses whose only goal is to meet targets. Why should ethnic, racial, religious and other minorities be any different?
In terms of the gay-themed article I mentioned, the problem of the radical Left is to understand this and adapt their rhetoric accordingly, to provide nuance. The problem of the liberal left is that they never had the radical critique of family values, of social conservatism to begin with and now they’re finding themselves content to settle down with their civil partners, unquestioning of the social function that the family, the suburban house, the car and the 2.4 children play in the struggle for hegemony.