Class and race were both at the heart of the two major political events that rocked the cosy consensus-politics of Western democracies this year: the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In the aftermath of both of these events fissures have opened amongst people on the broad left, trying to make sense of and respond to the current moment.
There is a broad, and clumsy, division between those who want to shoehorn the Brexit/Trump phenomena (and indeed the rise of right wing, racist movements throughout the West) into a neat, mechanical understanding of class; and those who insist on the absolute priority of race and racism as categories for understanding the contemporary crisis.
Neither of these approaches, as currently formulated, seem adequate to the historical moment we find ourselves in. Which means that in the midst of a profound crisis of the capitalist system, sections of the left appear to lack the capacity to meaningfully comprehend, explain and approach the current conjuncture.
The sharp division between those who emphasise class and those who emphasise race as the key optic through which to understand the present moment is nothing new. In the late 196o’s Fred Hampton noted how many people were uncomfortable with the Black Panthers for insisting on the centrality of class analysis, as Hampton put it:
You know a lot of people have hang-ups with the Party because the Party talks about a class struggle. And the people that have those hang-ups are opportunists, and cowards, and individualists and everything that’s anything but revolutionary. And they use these things as an excuse to justify and to alibi and to bonify their lack of participation in the real revolutionary struggle.
It may be that Hampton’s harsh words cannot, easily, be transposed to the current moment. But what is significant about them is that they reveal that the most important black liberation movement in the United States (after the Civil Rights movement, perhaps) had class and race at the centre of it’s analysis, and also had it’s detractors, even back then, who wanted to emphasise a disembodied, de-classed concept of race.
With the defeat of the Panthers, and some time later the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist West entered a period of triumphalism. In a period where economic growth was fuelled by a succession of speculative bubbles, mass movements built around issues of class receded from the stage of history. In their place, contentious politics shifted to questions of identity: race, gender, sexual orientation and so on
This period saw a flowering of interesting and important theories about these various other vectors of oppression, which had, historically, been neglected (though not uniformly) by thinkers and organisations on the socialist left. This era also saw the mainstreaming of legislative interventions that explicitly outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other grounds (for example the Equality Act 2010 in the UK).
This era, loosely sketched, is the period we now file under “the era of neoliberalism”. We should be clear, that throughout this entire period the leading Western countries remained, at all times, structurally racist. People of colour consistently suffered diminished life chances, and were far more likely to find themselves at the coercive end of state violence. While the mainstream media continued to peddle and reproduce racialised narratives that copper-fastened wide-spread racism.
It’s interesting, that during this period the question of class (and even the idea of capitalism as such) disappeared from much public discourse. While awareness of and sensitivity to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on proliferated in the formal, neoliberal discourse, questions of class were persistently elided. This, of course, is not surprising.
Class is the fundamental antagonism at the heart of the capitalist system, and as the neoliberal era was one of capitalist triumph, it should come as no surprise that it was also one in which discussion of the ghost at the banquet was forsworn. In this context class analysis, as such, was divorced from any meaningful, vibrant political movement, and as a result atrophied.
With the unfolding crisis of capitalism, since at least 2008, class tensions and class divisions have once again come to the fore, but they have not necessarily been understood as such. In a gambit to “regain some control”, or make their countries “great again” racist, right wing demagogues have sprung up throughout the world (particularly in the West) and mobilised racism, xenophobia and reaction to try to explain the current crisis.
The left has found itself toothless in the face of this rising tide of reaction. The centre, as represented in the UK by New Labour and the US by the Democrats, has ceded ground, made excuses for the racism and xenophobia stoked by the mainstream media, and cleared the way for the far more virulent forms of racism that Trump and others represent.
Following the shocks of Brexit and Trump, then, we have been left with moribund class analysis, and inadequate race analysis divorced form one another. With neither of them up to the task of comprehending the current conjuncture. The limitations of many, contemporary approaches to race are well captured by Adolph Reid Jr. who writes that:
The rise of neoliberalism in particular suggests a serious problem with arguments that represent race and class as dichotomous or alternative frameworks of political critique and action … [a] historical materialist perspective throws into relief a fundamental limitation of the “whiteness” notion that has been fashionable within the academic left for roughly two decades: it reifies whiteness as a transhistorical social category … whiteness discourse functions as a kind of moralistic exposé rather than a basis for strategic politics … The whiteness discourse overlaps other arguments that presume racism to be a sui generis form of injustice. Despite seeming provocative, these arguments do not go beyond the premises of the racial liberalism from which they commonly purport to dissent. They differ only in rhetorical flourish, not content … [they] reify racism by disconnecting it from the discrete historical circumstances and social structures in which it is embedded, and treating it as an autonomous force. Disconnection from political economy is also a crucial feature of postwar liberalism’s construction of racial inequality as prejudice or intolerance. Racism becomes an independent variable in a moralistic argument that is idealist intellectually and ultimately defeatist politically.
That is to say that in the era of neoliberal capitalism, questions of race were successfully divorced from questions of class in many mainstream discourses. The limits of class analysis is illustrated in simplistic claims that Brexit was a victory for the working class, or the simplistic equation of class with income bracket following the US election.
As a consequence, when confronted with the rise of mass movements that mobilise around questions of race, but are situated in a deeper, structural crisis of capitalism (that requires an understanding of class to make it intelligible) many people are left with little more than fear, and moralistic outrage. While the fear is completely understandable, particularly for people of colour (and more specifically migrant and working class people of colour, who are and will be the ones bearing the brunt of this racist onslaught), the outrage is no substitute for analysis.
We need an analysis now that can make the term “intersectionality” meaningful. Race is always situated within contexts of class, and class is always racialised. In the current moment we can, and must, insist that our political priority is uncompromising resistance to racism, xenophobia and solidarity with the people of colour who will feel the brunt of this rising tide of reaction. However, we must also insist that the racist character of these movements does not mean that a de-contextualised, de-classed race analysis must take priority in how we understand the current moment.
The analysis we need, of course, will not flower in darkness. It is only through organising with one another, building movements and campaigns to resist racism in it’s various forms, and connecting that up to the broader need to fight against a system that necessarily produces barbarism in all it’s forms, that a clear, meaningful set of ideas will emerge to inform the struggles ahead.