Class Considerations in a Globalized Economic Order

The following is the text of Delia D. Aguilar’s keynote address at the 22-23 March 2007 Pacific Northwest Regional Conference of the National Association for Chicana/o Studies, University of Washington: “Class Dismissed?  Reintegrating Critical Studies of Class into Chicana and Chicano Studies.” — Ed.

I cannot begin to tell you how delighted I am at the opportunity to address this conference.  When I first received Professor Devon Pena’s kind invitation, I immediately thought that he had mistaken me for a Chicana, and felt compelled to clarify my identity as a Filipina.  When he explained that he was aware of my national origin, I was moved by this gesture of solidarity.  And when I read the conference call for papers, I simply had to answer in the affirmative.  I have not seen such an explicit call to break away from the linguistic turn and to openly exhort a reinstatement of class in order to adequately address the subaltern condition.

Over the past several years I have been alternately dismayed and vexed by the persistence in the academy of a perspective that makes radical and progressive claims, yet fails to confront the geopolitics of neoliberalism that is clearly responsible for the ever deepening poverty of nearly half of the world’s population.  Intellectuals within and outside the academy, including the major mainstream media, hailed the publication in the year 2000 of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.  The book deserves mention because it is quintessentially postmodern, a prime example of what this gathering seeks to pull back from.  It argues that imperialism has been replaced by a decentered Empire where power is now diffused, the nation/state has virtually disappeared (it mocks all kinds of nationalism and depicts national liberation movements of the 60s as retrograde), and in which an amorphous category called “multitude” has displaced the Fordist working class.  Surely the events that transpired not too long after its printing — the horror of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the world’s sole superpower, the United States, by no means a defunct nation/state — refuted its chief premise and highlighted its bankruptcy more than any critical review the book may have received.

Yet publication after publication that scholars produce replicate, if in less ambitious ways, the basic postmodern elements of this highly acclaimed book.  To be sure, thinkers like Alex Callinicos, David Harvey, Teresa Ebert, Terry Eagleton, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and Peter MacLaren, among others, have for well over a decade now intervened and countered some of postmodern/postcolonial theories’ more pernicious tendencies, but for the most part these remain entrenched in academic thinking.  What results is often a jarring disconnect between real lives and the postmodern narratives that purport to shed light on these.  I was just hearing over the radio, for example, about the undisguised militarization of the US/Mexico border, the building of a 700-mile wall, the heightened criminalization of immigrants and the attribution of leprosy to so-called illegal Mexicans.  All this is in anticipation of the immigration bill to be taken up shortly by the Senate.  One expects such a response from confused, frightened, and hateful nativists, particularly after the awe-inspiring massive demonstrations of Latinos, Asians, and other ethnic groups a year ago, the largest in US history.  But one wonders how much more talk of bordercrossers negotiating multiple, fluctuating, heterogenous identities navigating an interstitial third space a person can stomach amidst realities that speak an altogether different story.

To repeat, I am deeply honored to be part of a group that has taken the lead in the urgent project of recuperating a class analysis.  I initially thought that, given the shared histories of conquest and the immigrant experience of Mexicans and Filipinos, I would elaborate on their similarities and differences.  The following readily came to mind: 300 years of outright colonization by Spain; the United States’ “manifest destiny,” first applied to the annexation of Mexican territory in 1848 to justify and insure Anglo-Saxon supremacy and extended to the conquest of the Philippines 50 years later, along with the conquest of Puerto Rico and Cuba; notions of benevolent assimilation and “the white man’s burden”; the derogation of both groups as children who required uplifting and civilizing; and their inferiorization as workers and peasants under the prevailing U.S. capitalist mode of production.  In the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican immigrant workers and Filipino “nationals” found themselves together in the agribusiness farms of the West Coast and began to forge solidarity as workers exploited by capital.  Here class emerged as primary, ethnic identity, secondary.  This was clearly the case in the formation of the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez in support of the grape strike of 1965 which was initiated by Filipino farm workers in Delano.  Subsequent decades witnessed intensifying US domination of Mexico and the Philippines by way of the IMF/WB, wrecking both countries’ economies with the debt burden, causing great poverty, and forcing growing numbers to leave in search of employment.  The responses of both governments have been remarkably similar, from the creation of special programs for returning migrants (Paisano for Mexico and Balikbayan for the Philippines, the better to extract remittances), to hailing them as “national heroes,” to granting of dual citizenship.  In effect, US imperialism has made of both countries nations of migrants.

On the one hand it is difficult to imagine anything more ironic than the disparagement and dismissal of class considerations — that is, of labor/capital relations, and here I include women’s assigned duty of social reproduction — in light of such realities and at the very moment in history when all the nations of the planet have been drawn together into one global capitalist order.  On the other, if one assumes a materialist view on the rise and popularity of specific conceptual frameworks and the ruling classes they serve, this intellectual stance should come as no big surprise.

To prepare for this conference I gave myself a crash course in Chicana Studies, an undertaking that I found illuminating in a variety of ways.  Above all else, however, I discovered to my chagrin (but admittedly, also relief, probably a perverse reaction on my part) that the reigning approaches in Philippine Studies are the exact same ones deployed in Chicana Studies.  In the course of my exploration I came upon one work that I am sure you are all familiar with, but which for me was new and rather eye-opening.  As I read chapter after chapter of A Century of Chicano History by Gilbert Gonzalez and Raul Fernandez, I could have sworn they were writing about Filipino scholarship!  What the book revealed to me is the existence of an academic template, circulating across various disciplines, where only the particulars need filling in.  All I had to do was substitute the Philippines for Mexico.  This discovery made me realize the extent to which a type of formulaic thinking has established residence in the academic mind, a condition that in my opinion actually functions to hamper social change.  I made a decision at that moment to shift gears and direct my talk to a discussion of Philippine writings, hoping that it would have some relevance for Chicana Studies.

A new book on the US conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century demonstrates these very trends — in this example, a revision of history that effectively obscures capital’s expansionary imperatives, its search for new markets and raw materials.  Titled The Blood of Government, Paul Kramer puts race at the heart of his argument: he maintains that prior accounts demonstrate the ways in which race serves empire, whereas he wants to make the case that it is race itself that constitutes empire.  It is not an exaggeration to state that this book is cultural reductionist without apology, which is not to say that it is without virtue.  The research the author undertakes is extensive, as is his documentation of the racialization of Filipinos; their characterization as childlike, savage, indolent, and superstitious is, without a doubt, common knowledge for Chicanos and other subordinated groups.  But alas, he then proceeds to describe Filipinos as colonizers themselves!  He labels them “nationalist colonialists” who would “demonstrate their capacity for independence precisely through their ability to conquer, rule, and uplift the savages [Muslims, animists, and non-Christian Filipinos] in their midst” (p.32).  Ultimately the relationship between conqueror and colonized is conveniently wished away with the following statement: “The symmetry between imperial indigenism and nationalist colonialism suggests the ways in which the new racial formation was the product of intense contestation and dialogue, a joint American-Filipino venture situated inside a broader, evolving colonial project” (p.435).  Imagine that.  “Symmetry,”  “intense contestation and dialogue,” “joint venture” — do not these suggest a relationship of equality, fraternity, even?

Another historian writing of that same period, Kristin Hoganson, in Fighting for American Manhood, asserts the notion that it was fear of male degeneracy that impelled US conquest and colonization of the island nation.  She concedes, as she would have to, that economic factors can be seen to “partially account” for what she calls “later decisions to fight Filipino nationalists for the control of the islands,” owing to their proximity to the China market.  But she insists that the more compelling, though not readily discernible motive, was to build and sustain the masculine character of white, middle- and upper-class men who had been softened by the comforts provided by wealth and civilization.  She cites several reasons for why combat formed the crucible for maleness.  The first was that the  “splendid little war” in the Philippines would serve to revive memories of military heroism in the Civil War, perceived as having fostered manliness in youthful soldiers.  It would, like the British experience in India, allow manhood to evolve as the chief outcome of learning how to properly rule one’s inferiors.  Lastly, conquest of the Philippines would be a remedy for the effeminacy ostensibly spawned by soft living.

What I find interesting in these two historical revisions is the way in which political economy, the class character of empire, is summarily dismissed in favor of unabashedly culturalist explanations.  And why at this historical conjuncture?  For answers it might be useful to turn to a brief sketch of the Philippine situation.

Fifty years of colonial rule and continuing economic control by the United States of the Philippines have imbricated every facet of life and all the institutions in the country — the media, courts, schools, civic society and, according to Filipino nationalist economist Alejandro Lichauco, even the churches.  Various agreements were entered into at the time of the granting of independence in 1946, and new ones proposed and acceded to by every succeeding administration, to insure that this would remain the case.  This concession to imperialism has resulted in a lopsided, maldeveloped, principally agrarian economy, one that produces goods for export and is unable to supply its own people’s basic needs.  On the cultural level it has created an enduring colonial mindset held more firmly captive in this globalized era by a conglomerate-controlled consciousness industry.

While Subic and Clark, the two largest US bases, were shut down in 1991 due to nationalist protest, a Visiting Forces Agreement was signed in its place that gave the US 22 entry points, “lily-pad”-style, throughout the country.  Currently US Special Forces scour the South, ostensibly to hunt down the Muslim Abbu Sayyaf bandit group of under two hundred, but whom activists believe to be providing aid to the Philippine Army in wiping out dissenters.  In 2005 a Filipina was gang-raped by four US servicemen; one of the soldiers was found guilty in a trial last December, only to be whisked away from a local prison by the US Embassy in the middle of the night.  Recently the UN Alston Report confirmed human rights violations of “significant” proportions, consisting of 839 extrajudicial killings of suspected protesters, among them grassroots organizers, religious, journalists, and students.  Reports of these killings continue practically on a daily basis.  Despite this finding, an anti-terrorism bill, the Human Security Act of 2007, has just been signed by Arroyo, following the moves of her master in the White House.  This bill would allow repression that could easily outrank that of the martial law years.

Continued indebtedness to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and faithful compliance with Structural Adjustment Programs have forced presidents after the dictator Marcos, who launched the practice, to resort to sending masses of unemployed abroad to ease tensions at home.  With the country in a chronic state of crisis, the deployment of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is the largest dollar earner ($12 billion in 2006) and has become a permanent fixture in the socioeconomic landscape.  It is estimated that up to 12% of the population of 88 million is overseas, 75% of whom are women mostly destined for domestic and nanny work.  President Arroyo has recommended skill-training to transform and package them into even more marketable “supermaids.”  Three thousand Filipinos — economists predict this figure could go up to 5,000 — leave their homes daily for 180 different countries; an average of 3 workers come back in coffins every day.  A new development is the re-training of doctors in a special two-year nursing program; in 2006, 6,000 doctors underwent such training, up from 2,000 of the previous year.  The Philippines sends more nurses to the US than any other country.  Meanwhile, health care services are in a state of decay.

And how have scholars responded to this situation?  For an answer, let me turn to a study of Filipino American migration titled Home Bound by Yen Li Espiritu.  I chose this because unlike most students of immigration writing today who routinely preface their studies with an obligatory disavowal of class (here they mean poverty) or what they commonly refer to as “the economy,” Espiritu recognizes the importance of sociopolitical economic context.  She announces at the outset that she will be “attentive to the larger political, economic, and cultural context of migration and to the human agency and subjectivity of the migrants . . . ” and that it is “. . . the intersection of macro and micro forces that shapes . . . migration — and eventual settlement — of Filipino women and men. . .” (p.24).  Throughout the book she uses a vocabulary that suggests a cognizance of what she calls “the big picture”: colonialism, imperialism, capital investment, economic and military assistance, pervasive Americanization, etc. to which she repeatedly returns.

Elsewhere Espiritu refers to the “dialectic” relationship between the macro and the micro (p12).  Yet simultaneous with the assertion of the link between neoliberal policies and individual decision-making is its rejection, as witness this statement: “Although Filipino migration needs to be situated within the larger history of US (neo)colonialism and capital investment in Asia, these structural forces do not shape actual patterns of migration” (p.24).  Why bother to mention US neocolonialism at all then?  Further on, the same contradiction appears — and the book is replete with similar contradictory statements, enough to make the reader dizzy — when she explains that because Filipinos she has interviewed migrated only after family and social networks were already set up,  “the macrostructural context, while important, does not determine or shape specific migration responses” (p.44).  She illustrates this by reproducing the narratives of four Filipinos, each one of whom departs the country for different reasons.  A. B. Santos ran away to Manila because his grandfather wanted him to enter the seminary; while in Manila, he met some townmates who were bound for the United States, so he joined them.  Maria Rafael, who had previous experience in the US as an exchange high-school student, didn’t care to return, but her husband was petitioned by his brother.  Cecilia Bonus, a nurse, had made plans to return to the Philippines, but a car accident in which she was involved led to a meeting with a man who became her husband; they now reside in San Diego.

All this is to delineate and underscore the intricacies, nuances, and complexities of people’s decisions to migrate that are then unhinged from the metanarrative of neocolonialism.  All four are migrants by accident; none of the reasons they give has to do with class considerations — by this she means poverty or the desire for better employment opportunity — which seems to be what the author is looking for.  It appears, then, that either Espiritu fails to understand what neocolonialism means, or she has deliberately limited “contextualization” to an immediate cause-effect relationship — a rather simplistic view, I’m afraid, that beats the presumed simplemindedness and “determinism” of Marxism to which postmodernism is a response.  Still, this is a predilection that Gonzalez and Fernandez know all too well.  For them what has occurred in this instance is the detachment of migratory practice from its original cause.  Once migration flows begin and migration networks have been established, migrants are seen as self-propelled and self-governing.  It is now their “subjectivities” that warrant examination, no longer US immigration policies designed in collaboration with local elites.  The latter have been erased from the picture.

This fragmentation of thinking is also evident when Espiritu proposes the concept of “differential inclusion” to describe the status of Filipino Americans; that is, to show that they are not totally excluded, but rather marginalized, by mainstream Anglo society.  She proceeds: “. . . Filipino American lives have been shaped not only by the historical racialization of Filipinos in the United States but also by the status of the Philippines in the global economy” (p.48).  Here the “but also” suggests a somewhat tangential relationship between the situation of Filipino Americans and the subjugated nature of their home country that, one notes, is curiously sidestepped in this statement’s neutral phrasing.  In contrast, let me return to Gonzalez and Fernandez who object to any such tangentiality.  Instead, they vigorously insist that the only way to view Chicanas as a national minority is to acknowledge their centrality to the US colonial empire.  Put another way, US socioeconomic cultural machinery could not operate as it does without the labor exploitation of national minority groups and its attendant gender and racial oppression.  Moreover, for them Mexican migration, like that of Filipinos, is primarily a labor migration which can be comprehended only when situated squarely in the context of US hegemonic control of Mexico, a view that Espiritu, as we have seen, appears to subscribe to, but barely.

As a result, Espiritu’s rendering of migration ends up with all the pitfalls that Gonzalez and Fernandez describe in their book.  Without a firm grasp of the totality of capitalist globalization and the ways in which it encroaches into every nook and cranny of human existence — for this, one needs to have an understanding of the social relations of production — studies of migration end up, according to Gonzalez and Fernandez, as studies of migrants themselves (p.115).  Given this, the choice presented is to project them as either victims or actors, which the two consider to be a fallacious dilemma.  To quote Gonzalez and Fernandez, on the ubiquity of “agency”: “Rational choices made by migrants to acquire commodities, or to reestablish community, cultural lifestyle and family ties, motivate migrations.  International economic relations are relegated to the margins, and . . . economic domination . . . is ignored while the ‘independent’ decision making of the migrants is centered” (p. 46).

As we have seen earlier, that is exactly what Espiritu does in disclaiming the power of structural forces.  Countless examples of the exercise of “agency” — always individual and mainly discursive — abound in Espiritu’s book.  She details the ways in which individual migrants resist by showing “how the ‘margins’ imagine and construct the ‘mainstream’ in order to assert superiority over the latter” (p. 158).  An example she gives is how Filipinos look down on the morality of white women (in actuality a residue of Spanish Catholicism’s repressive sexuality), generally perceived as “loose,” as a strategy of resistance.  In doing so, according to her they are able to “mark and decenter whiteness and locate themselves above the dominant group, demonizing it in the process” (p.177).  It is precisely this tendency that Gonzalez and Fernandez attempt to correct, with good humor, by turning the notion of “agency” on its head while appropriating a bit of postmodern jargon: “Focusing on issues of ‘macro’ subjectivities or the agency of empire, allows a vision of how the networks of US domination in Mexico are complemented by the direct intervention of state agencies in the US ” (p.117).

No current study of migration is complete without its use of that most favored of postmodern devices, bordercrossing.  To her credit, Espiritu rejects Appadurai’s dismissal of nation/states and maintains that “local spaces, memories, practices” have “enduring importance” (p.12).  But, following a well-worn path, she cannot resist depicting Filipino Americans as agile bordercrossers capable of discursively discrupting their subordinate status.  To paraphrase Chicano scholar Marcial Gonzalez (questioning Gloria Anzaldua’s “mental nepantilism,” the foundation that lies at the base of “bordercrossing”), it is hard to imagine how the mere act of freely traversing conflicted discursive spaces can result in any real challenge to the existing order.

I should reiterate that I chose Yen Li Espiritu’s work not because it is particularly defective, but rather because it is one of the few that actually attempt to account for the international political economy, to try to project North/South relations of power as the backdrop for immigrant experience.  If it fails in this stated goal, it is not the limitations of the author but those of the intellectual framework whose very design, as I’ve tried to show, is to detach culture from political economy and to debunk class considerations.

In my immersion into Chicana Studies 101, I found enough of a historical materialist grounding to help elucidate the subaltern experience in US society.  I might cite Nicholas de Genova’s Working the Boundaries as a parallel study to Espiritu’s.  De Genova probes into the subjectivities of a sample of Mexican immigrants in Chicago, but he never abandons the metanarrative of neocolonialism underpinning Mexico-US relations.

It would not hurt to recall the following statement from Juan Gomez-Quinonez on the inseparability of class and culture written in 1977: “Culture is the context in which struggle takes place; however, conflict or resistance is primarily economic and political and constitutes class resistance.”  The hundreds of thousands who staged actions in over 200 cities and towns this time last year remind us as much.

Thank you for allowing me to take part in this important undertaking.



De Genova.  2005.  Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Espiritu, Yen Li.  2003.  Home Bound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Countries.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gomez-Quinonez, Juan.  1977.  On Culture.  Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Center Publications, Popular Series No. 1.

Gonzalez, Gilbert G. & Raul A. Fernandez.  2003.  A Century of Chicano History: Empire, Nations, and Migration.  New York: Routledge.

Gonzalez, Marcial.  2004.  “Postmodernism, Historical Materialism and Chicana/o Cultural Studies.”    Science and Society, vol. 68, no. 2, 161-186.

Hardt, Michael & Antonio Negri.  2000.  Empire.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hoganson, Kristin.  1998.  Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked  the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kramer, Paul.  2006.  The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines.  Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press.

Delia D. Aguilar has written extensively on feminism and nationalism, among them a book titled Toward a Nationalist Feminism published in the Philippines.  She recently co-edited a collection of essays, Women and Globalization, with Anne Lacsamana.  She was on the faculty of women’s studies and ethnic studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University and now teaches at the University of Connecticut.

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