Crisis, Chains, Change: The American Exception to Marxism

A Plenary Address at the American Studies Association Presidential Panel, San Antonio, Texas, 18 November 2010

For Ruthie Gilmore.

I am an imposter here: not a real American Studies scholar.  I went to graduate school in the late 1980s to study History and Anthropology.  My interest was in the contemporary history of India.  When I got to graduate school, I was surprised by the lack of interaction with the world at large: ideas seemed to run things.  One expects that of intellectual life, and I cherish it, to be fair, but not to the exclusion of the world out there.  My faculty was driven by the debates of the age, which referenced other debates, which in turn was built on yet other debates.  I’m not a reactionary who has no sympathy for the post-structural turn.  Quite the contrary, I recognize that we can only know the world as it is being told to us, whether by words or by our affective, embodied experience.  What rankled me about my graduate education was the abandonment of the world for what seemed like an aesthetics of inquiry.

One of my readers puzzled over my dissertation, and gave the 500 pages back to me with one word underlined, this on the first page; the word was concrete, and in the margins he had written “cement.”  A ton of bricks fell on my illusions of intellectual life; this was frivolousness at a time of immense planetary tragedy.  We were not debating ideas, or even the value of different frameworks; we were dismissing each other based on our frameworks, a Chinese Wall raised between Post-Structuralism and Marxism, in this case.

I was saved, to use the words of Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub, “by virtue of Marxism.”  Raised in a Sudan colonized by the British, Mahgoub found himself suffocated by the twin allergies of Occidentosis (the bad breath from the West that came out of the foul mouths of the Sudanese bourgeoisie) and clericalism (the bad breath from the Saudi-backed clerics of the Islamic Charter Front).  He found no solace in either.  Then in Cairo he came upon Marxism.  In his statement before a military court in 1959, Mahgoub said, “We found in Marxism an oasis, a healing formula for suffering, an enabling epistemology that brings personal integrity, intellectual stimulation and positive emotions into a single field of thought and praxis.”

Marxism saved me.  I read widely, from Foucault to Spivak, from Rawls to Amina Mama.  But everything had to run through an optic that I had brought with me to graduate school, my readings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci — all of them, like sentinels, allowed me to read with my fellow graduate students, and yet maintain a sense of autonomy from what I saw was an epidemic among my peers: a paralysis when confronted with the world.  Some could not write, having been silenced by putting not only certain words but their own creativity under erasure.  I read Christopher Norris’ searing critique of post-structuralism, and found that to be unequal to the task.  It was snotty.  Some things were to be gained from the analysis, but it was not everything, and, unfortunately we were being asked to take it as the total field of vision.

If not for Marxism, I fear that I would be like Jack in Emma Donaghue’s Room (2010): stuck in the Room that he was born into, with a mother who finds a way to make his ignorance eternal, until she breaks down, tells him that there is a world outside, and then they plan their escape together.  Marxism helped me escape the rigors of graduate school.

I was dazzled by one of the attacks on Marxism, that it was a type of determinism with the base (economy) governing the superstructure (culture, politics).  This perplexed me because it seemed to reflect a very narrow strand of Marxism (Bukharin, for instance) rather than Marx or even Gramsci or EMS Namboodiripad, whose writings I grew up reading.  It is like holding Machiavelli responsible for Karl Rove.  In 1859, in a widely read preface to his first attempt at Capital, Marx wrote that “a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short ideological forms in which people become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”  It is not the material that is the key to the ideological, but that it is in the ideological domain that we fight out the constraints that encumber our lives.  And so it has seemed to me.

* * *

It is quite clear that Marxism in America suffered from the drumbeat of repression: the Red Scare and McCarthyism took their toll.  Many good Marxist thinkers fled the country, some for India, and others simply decided to write, like an imprisoned Gramsci, in the codes of positivism.  It was not kind.  But to be fair, Marxism in America didn’t have much of a tradition to begin with.  In the late 19th century, around the crisis of 1873-96, a popular upsurge overtook the land: the Socialist Party, the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, and so on, took up the cudgels for the distraught.  The explosion of a railroad bubble left casualties in the construction trade, in the industrial sector, and from the cities, the crisis stalked the cornfields, as farmers saw the prices of their crops fall and their own wealth eaten by financial boll weevils.  The organizations of this period gathered the suffering of the people, but now no longer as individual sorrow; the struggles provided an avenue to see a future, where the distress did not rule their lives.

From the struggles of the people came the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, other progressive legislation, and the horizon that would form the basis of the New Deal in the 1930s.  But no Marxism and no enduring left-wing workers party.  That dynamic was squelched by two other developments: American imperialism and American racism.  The US state turned aggressively to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii and the Philippines, setting the stage for the government’s expenditure on the military.  Such spending propelled industrial growth, tying the workers to the benefits of imperial rule.  Additionally, the government provided a series of reforms that benefitted the white working class at the expense of the Black workers and farmers (post-slavery Reconstruction ended and a quasi-apartheid Jim Crow regime took its place).  Advantages of skin color and empire enabled the United States to be exceptional in circumventing the development of a socialist agenda, and so, of an authentic American Marxism.

During the Popular Front period, as Michael Denning and other have shown, the elements of radicalism made a decisive impact on popular culture; largely this was because the great repressed of America made its reappearance: Poverty, Racism and Empire.  All of these come together, for instance, in people like Langston Hughes, who would write so eloquently about the survival and joys of poverty, and the viciousness of imperialism and racism (between “Let America Be America Again,” Scottsboro Limited and Emperor of Haiti).  This period offered some sniffs of hope for the emergence of an American Marxism, but it was not to be: the Popular Front intellectuals returned to pragmatism, empiricism, and aestheticism.

There are some exceptions.  Merle Curti, the Progressive historian who founded the ASA.  And, more than most, the Monthly Review group, whose deft analysis of military Keynesianism helped show that U.S. economic expansion after 1945 was premised on military spending.  Capitalism is prone to crises.  A social democratic response to the down cycle of capitalism is social spending: welfare, unemployment insurance, infrastructure, and so on.  In the United States, quite wisely, the ruling class avoided a massive social outlay.  Such an outlay would create the basis for social solidarity.  The US typically keeps its social spending below the trip wire of 15% of GDP (1938, it was 14.5%; 2007, it was 14.6%).  Far better to conduct its countercyclical policies through the forces of repression: military and police.  Spending on guns is rational for the US, not irrational.

By the 1950s, Marxism remained as a rumor.  One heard of it, but only in odd corners.  The defeat of a failed start, this time, had “a special poignancy and self-consciousness.”  As Paul Buhle put it, “the working class neither appeared within reach of emancipating itself nor demonstrated any interest in Marxist doctrine.”  The great social movements of the 20th century took the stage, the Civil Rights Struggle, the student movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the gay liberation struggle.  These walked onto a stage abandoned by the working class.  To be fair, the intellectuals of these movements came with a strong dose of Marxism, people like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, C. Wright Mills, Shulamith Firestone, and onward.  One of the great advantages of these movements was that they won their victories during the midst of the Golden Age of American capitalism (and expansion), squarely in the 1960s, between 1945 and 1973.  No doubt that resistance was strong, but the ruling elite had no stomach to mount a massive campaign against these demands, one that would have been an extension of McCarthyism.  The movements’ gains were modest, and any attempt to push them further was scorned (think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Poor People’s Movement; and think of Barbara Jordan, “for all its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future”: struggle is eternal).

The real tragedy of the victories of the social movements of the 1960s was that they came too late.  By the time claims began to be made of the State, the very form of the State changed.  It was now globalized.  The ruling elites divested themselves of any responsibility of these major advances.  A massive number of Americans found themselves disposable, excluded.  Just after the Clinton administration rode into the sunset, I wrote a book called Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses (South End, 2003).  I wanted to try and articulate a framework to capture such disparate elements as the end to welfare, the expansion of prisons, the rise in personal debt, and the freeing of the banks from any regulation.  What I was most interested in was the emergence of this disposable population, now in the tens of millions.  The disposable population was largely gathered out of the formal working class, whether the children of the white working class studied by Jay McLeod (Ain’t No Makin’ It) who had abandoned hope a long time ago, or the children of the newly enfranchised working class of color whose recent victories allowed them to keep hope alive, but with no material evidence that they should do so.  Clinton’s trilogy against the poor, the Crime Bill, the Welfare Reform Bill, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagal law, provided the scaffolding for my own thinking about the new era in the United States.  The Republicans had no answer; they were too churlish, too masculine in their derision of social welfare (matching Bill Clinton, although he allowed his voice to quiver as his hand cut the safety net into tatters).  And they were given over to the corporate sector.  The leaders of both parties resembled frogs, sitting on their own lily-pads, flicking their tongues at the occasional fly, but unable to say anything of solace as the water level dropped on the pond.

The white working class was somewhat protected from the fallout of the stagflation of the post-1973 period, largely by the enormous debt-driven spending that favored those who already owned their homes (given with discriminatory loans in the Jim Crow era).  The effects of the post-2007 recession, on the other hand, have been equal opportunity.  The white working class and the low end of the managerial sector have been the ones hit hard by the layoffs (this is to say, that they were not prepared to lose their jobs, believing that their white skin had emancipated them from the mass misery of the 1930s).  The Tea Party is the political expression of the fears of the white working class and the managerial sector.  Most of its supporters are older, white, and male.  Many also happen to be Christian fundamentalists.

The new unemployed, who have joined the disposable in a structural sense but not at all in a subjective sense, are white-collar managerial workers who inhabit the office parks, answering phones, managing inventory, and straightening up databases.  With the new information technology, secure communication lines, and the lower wages of Ireland, India, and China, these white-collar jobs have begun to disappear from the suburban enclaves where they had grown.  The foreclosure epidemic hit their neighborhoods, where edifice envy now crumbled into cashless anxiety.  These new jobless did not expect to lose their jobs; their sense of entitlement is fierce, grounded in imperial and racial advantages.  Unlike the industrial working class, they know how to use the system and are kindling for the kind of rhetoric of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.  One Tea Party member wrote, “Outsourcing is a pit that America needs to climb out of.”  At the bottom of the pit is India.

The Tea Party movement seeks a restoration of an early bargain, one that the white working class has lost as a result of the social processes of globalization.  For its support of U.S. imperial adventures, it is willing to put up with a livable wage even if the CEO class captures the bulk of the social wealth for itself.  Such a dream is anachronistic.  The Tea Party does not recognize that the “United States of America” no longer exists.  Its elite class shares far more with the elites of the other G20 states, that it is committed to globalization as long as these Davos Men do well, and that it has no loyalty to its own population.  The Tea Party represents the patriotism of fools, who believe that the problem is the gains made by people of color within the United States.

The Tea Party has no political economy.  Nor do its critics.  The Tea Party will take refuge in the politics of toxicity.  But one would imagine that their critics would not dismiss the social conditions that produce them, from where one can find ways to move their rage toward analysis, and create the long-term platform for unity against the real system that oppresses us all — not the fake system that they believe has taken their jobs away.  But the critics are also empty-handed.  Liberal hero Jon Stewart holds a rally and finds his enemies in odd places: “Marxists actively subverting the Constitution, racists, and homophobes.”  Remarkable.  And George Bush, for him, is not a “war criminal.”  We have work to do.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.  His most recent book, The Darker Nations (New Press), won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Award.

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