Platypus Review 15 | September 2009
At the Left Forum hosted by New York’s Pace University in April of this year, a panel discussion was held on the subject of Politics of the Contemporary Student Left: Hopes and Failures. Organized by Alex Hanna of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the panel consisted of Pam Nogales of Platypus, Carlos J. Pereira Di Salvo of USAS, and Laurie Rojas of Platypus. What follows is a transcript of each panelist’s formal presentation and the subsequent Q&A session. Video of the panel discussion is available at the above link.
Laurie Rojas: What does it mean to be part of the radical student Left today? My political practice is informed by my participation in two very distinct organizations: the Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] and the Platypus Affiliated Society [Platypus]. Platypus began as a reading group at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May of 2006. Its primary aims are to develop an understanding of the reasons for the historical failure of the Left and to clarify its present and future necessity.
In 2008 I joined the new SDS, for which I organized discussion groups across Chicago campuses on immigration rights. I also helped to coordinate SDS’s participation in the May Day immigrant’s rights rally, so that for roughly nine months I worked for SDS on an almost daily basis. At first, I thought I was in Platypus to do theoretical work that my “out in the streets” practice in SDS would complement. I was hardly alone in misunderstanding the relationship between theory and practice in this way. In fact, the most significant obstacle I found in my experience with youth politics in SDS is the fact that we have all naturalized the idea that leftists are either intellectuals or activists. This division cripples revolutionary practice as well as revolutionary thinking.
In Chicago there is a protest or a rally everyday, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what these protests are for, or what effect they have. Of course, I would be the last to deny that there have been certain “successful” campaigns, rallies, and sit-ins, such as the recent action at the Chicago Window and Door Factory, in which more than 200 laid off workers refused to leave the factory until they received the two months of salary and benefits that were due to them. But how does this “success” weigh in comparison to the general situation of unions in the U.S.?
Among my friends, colleagues, and comrades who attend as many of these events as possible, there is a widespread and deeply rooted anti-intellectualism. It seems that the more protests each attends the more prone he or she is to tell me that Platypus does not do anything, to which I reply, “Since when did thinking become understood as inaction?” My experiences in SDS convinced me that this form of anti-intellectualism, which we have inherited from the past, has led to our generation’s depoliticization, whether in the form of activism or passivity.
The new SDS was founded in 2006 and is currently one of the largest political student organizations in the country. I was the master of ceremonies for the New SDS 2008 National Convention, which I have come to understand as a microcosm of the contemporary young Left: As a result of a series of interrelated problems, the convention was an organizational disaster. These problems include, first of all, SDS’s lack of formal leadership or any sort of official national structure. Directly related to this, vague but powerful sentiments of “anti-authoritarianism” undermine any attempts to organize. It is therefore common that the de facto leaders of SDS are met with resentment for their “tyrannical” willingness to take on responsibilities. An overwhelming obsession with proceduralism coupled with the constant fear of being “un-democratic” makes it nearly impossible to arrive at even the most basic practical decisions. At the same time, leading concepts of the group’s current foundational documents, not to mention its historical legacy—concepts such as “revolution” and “democracy”—are largely left at the level of empty abstractions. Their actual clarification has hardly any place within today’s SDS, so that whatever political conversations do occur often prove to be frustrating. One suspects this is the reason for a tacit agreement to avoid ideological conversations. The result is predictable enough—whisper campaigns against individuals who dare to speak openly about their ideological positions.
Although the convention concluded with the formation of an interim leadership and an organizational structure, I came to recognize that the organization as a whole had already proven incapable of achieving its own goals. I was especially disillusioned when I observed a widespread reluctance to address the unresolved problems of the original SDS of the 1960s. In particular, there was a lack of interest in—or perhaps a fear of beginning to address—the most basic question facing the organization: What is it that we are trying to change, anyway?
In place of any serious discussion of aims or strategy, SDS tends to proliferate innumerable “direct action” campaigns, which entail the planning of various interventions or the enacting of civil disobedience. In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, these campaigns amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for “agitation” and “resistance.” The new SDS has become nothing more than an umbrella organization for participating in activism and resistance without strategy or goals. The activism-for-its-own-sake in SDS indicates that it “refuses to reflect upon its own impotence,” as Adorno once said of the student activism in the 60s.
In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The point today would be to invert that phrase, to say that in order to change the world we need to understand it. Or, rather, to say that one cannot be attempted without the other.
Carlos Pereira Di Salvo: I would like to give a critical assessment of the anti-ideological perspective of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in which I argue that this “anti-ideology” actually conceals a profound, unquestioned commitment to identity politics. I conclude with the argument that this commitment is a crucial factor in USAS’s inability to develop a progressive and critical labor politics.
One of the central concepts USAS advocates is the idea that campaigns, not ideas, are what really matter. This position is stated explicitly in their “Principles of Unity,” in which members are informed, “We do not impose a single ideological position, practice, or approach; rather, we aim to support one another in a spirit of respect for difference, shared purpose and hope.” This is also a palpable feature of conferences, where any attempts to put forward issues of ideology or theory are routinely stonewalled. Consequently, USAS produces organizers who think that ideological debates are a waste of time, and that “organizing” is what really counts. This does not mean that USAS claims to have no principles at all. In fact, their “Principles of Unity” contain many political ideas. But these are stated so vaguely as to offer hardly any guidance; they amount to rhetorical Rorschach inkblots onto which people can project their own political positions.
The trouble with the non-ideological or anti-ideological position is its incoherence. As was stated when the group was founded and has been reaffirmed at conventions and meetings many times since, the organization exists to address a certain social problem. Like other social justice organizations, USAS presupposes a theoretical analysis in the very identification of the problems they set out to solve as well as in their proposals for how these problems can be solved. This presupposed analysis is necessarily informed by a social theory—that is, by a theory of how society works. Yet the analysis is always left implicit.
Since the anti-ideological perspective is not a position on which one can build an organization, what, then, is the specific perspective that actually informs USAS organizationally? Although largely a vague and loosely related set of pronouncements, the “Principles of Unity” nevertheless have a unifying theme: postmodern identity politics. Thus it reads, “We struggle against racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression within our society, within our organizations, and within ourselves.” This is a relatively definite expression of consensus activist ideology, though, as we shall see, there are other aspects of that consensus less clearly expressed.
So what? Why is postmodern identity politics problematic? To answer this, we have to look at the role this politics plays in the organization. This role could be characterized in a number of ways: as a perspective informing the analysis of the causes of the problem of sweatshop production, as a perspective on how to effectively organize ourselves to address the problem, or perhaps as some other thing entirely.
It is fairly clear that identity politics does not inform USAS’s analysis of the problem. Not even USAS believes that the problem of sweatshops is primarily a problem of discrimination on the basis of identity. It is, at the very least, a problem of inequality and exploitation, although I would argue it should be understood as a phenomenon of the present stage of global capitalism, one that cannot be eradicated without challenging the entire social structure. Sweatshop workers are not primarily victims of racism or sexism—even though most of them are in fact women of color—and they are certainly not victims of “classism,” whatever that is. They are victims of neoliberal capitalism’s drive to accumulate wealth by finding the cheapest possible supply of labor. In the apparel industry, the rise in sweatshop production in the Third World was a direct result of the phasing out of a protectionist system of quotas called the Multi Fiber Agreement, which was dismantled throughout the 1990s and early 2000s following the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations.
So if identity politics is not used by USAS to grasp the problem of sweatshops per se, then maybe its utility lies in helping students think about how to organize themselves in order to effectively address said problem. I think this has a little bit more traction. Integral to USAS’s structure and to the structure of its conferences are the so-called “anti-oppression training” and the “caucus system.” I will not describe these at length because they are staple elements of the Left today; suffice it to say that about half the conference time at national conventions is devoted to anti-oppression and caucuses. Moreover, the organizational structure includes representation of the Womyn/Gender Queer, Queer, People of Color, and Working Class caucuses.
The justification for this structure given in the “Principles of Unity” is that each individual, and particularly each American college student, harbors racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist attitudes, and is privileged by the unfair outcomes these attitudes create in society. These attitudes, it is further believed, plague our organizing efforts. By fighting the “-isms” in ourselves, we are said to become better able to fight them in society.
So what does this all have to do with sweatshop workers hundreds of miles away, whose primary problems are extremely low wages, extremely long working hours, physical and verbal abuse, and awful working conditions? After all, this is the specific problem USAS constituted itself to address. From the perspective of sweatshop workers, all that matters is that we act as effective “allies,” that we bend the arm of Nike by hitting them where it hurts (university licenses, market share, and public image) so that the workers’ efforts to organize are not undercut by capital flight. It is obvious that workers—and I have spoken with some personally about this—are looking to USAS to play this specific role.
The question, then, is this: Does anti-oppression training make us any better at being good allies? I would argue that it does not. The kinds of tactics USAS employs in order to pressure universities and corporations, like phone and letter campaigns, mock actions, non-violent direct action, and so on, are not more effective when they are executed by people with guilty consciences about their privilege, than when they are executed by people who give no thought to this. The consciousness raised by anti-oppression training simply does not enter into the strategizing for campaigns. Diverse groups such as my own at Purdue University, where the majority of members were in fact women and people of color, are not necessarily more effective allies than groups such as Indiana University’s, which was predominantly white and male during the period of my involvement.
If it is unclear whether anti-oppression makes us better allies to workers in the apparel industry, why is so much time spent on this stuff? Why has it not been rejected organizationally in light of challenges to it at recent national conferences? The reason, I would suggest, is anti-oppression training is used to convince students that workers, merely by virtue of being workers, are more progressive than themselves and their own organizations, and that therefore we ought to declare solidarity uncritically with their struggles. This attitude goes hand in hand with the idea that ideological debates are pointless, and that it is not our place to say, on the basis of some analysis or the other of this society, what the appropriate political responses ought to be in light of a certain situation or problem.
This is not to say that there is necessarily much to be criticized in the organizing efforts of Third World sweatshop workers. But there is one recent American case that particularly highlights the problems that derive from USAS’s uncritical relationship to the labor struggles it attempts to support.
Many of you may be aware of the unfolding fratricide between the UNITE! and HERE sides of UNITE! HERE, and of the ambition of SEIU [Service Employees International Union] to absorb either one or both of the sides once the dust settles. This is a case in which we might expect a student movement primarily concerned with labor issues to have an open discussion and maybe even formulate a position. Instead, a contact in USAS’s inner circle informs me that posts relating to these issues were deliberately deleted for over two weeks from the listservs of the organization, and that the top leadership are loath to take a side. In fact, only recently did an email with a few articles on the issue go out, the purpose of which seems to have been more to obfuscate than to educate. This is but a single instance of how USAS’s anti-ideological attitude constrains the organization’s ability to champion an independent and progressive labor politics. The organization’s anti-ideological stance serves to maintain internal organizational divisions according to ascriptive identities rather than political factionalization. This actively inhibits the political education of members and undermines the organization’s efficacy.
The recent period of flux in USAS provides a valuable opportunity for reflection regarding USAS’s potential as an organization. The significance of this question should not be underestimated: Consider that at least five former Purdue USAS organizers in the past six years are now with major unions. Hence, as a large recruitment ground for union organizers, USAS is a potential resource for a desperately needed renewal of the American labor movement. USAS’s current uncritical workerist stance will not produce the kind of organizers needed to meet this challenge.
If identity politics is abandoned, what is there to take its place? Well, prescribing is always harder than critiquing, of course, and I do not know that there is a politics ready-made at present that can take the place of identity politics. But I can at least say that part of the challenge will be for USAS to foment an organizational culture capable of producing such a politics by seriously engaging theoretical debates and formulating political positions. Central to this, in my view, will be the inclusion of discussions on the nature of capitalism, imperialism, and neoliberalism into its conference agenda.
Pam Nogales: I would venture to say that it is unclear whether or not the recent wave of occupations [at the New School in the spring of 2009] is a step forward for the student Left. Watching the video documentation of the April 13th emergency assembly held at the New School, I realized that much of what I had found compelling about student politics in New York is at risk of being absorbed into the murky waters of protest politics.
During the emergency assembly Pat Korte, a radical student member, delivered a partial critique of the students’ response to the recent turn of events. Korte noted that present political activities should not be limited to ousting the school’s President, Bob Kerry, but ought rather to challenge the corporate structure of the university. Student radicals, he felt, should not accept uncritically the overarching structure of the institutions in which they are enrolled. But as the meeting progressed, Korte’s comments quickly faded into the background. Reports and condemnations of police brutality added to the already festering outrage that dominated the question and answer session, and in a manner of minutes the critique of structural limitations, the context in which someone like Bob Kerry functions, became obscured by immediate concerns.
I wondered if this was an unconscious exclusion, a temporary amnesia in part caused by the blatant misconduct of the New School administration. I should say that I do not take police brutality lightly, and the fact that the New School administration has threatened the students with imprisonment for conducting a teach-in at a campus building is an action that should not be allowed to pass unnoticed and unchallenged. But it is precisely because I sympathize with the defense of those students’ rights to organize, and because I oppose police brutality and incompetent university administration, that I would like to see a coherent challenge that does not confuse the question of limitations of the current structure for the source of the structure’s unfreedom. This is a very important distinction for me.
After several students spoke up at the emergency meeting, an older man who introduced himself as a student protester at the 1969 University of Chicago sit-in gave his word of advice. He cautioned the students that they should veer away from the critique of capitalism, an inquiry that in the past, according to him, led to the Stalinist mumbo-jumbo that eventually fractured and destroyed the New Left. What we are fighting here, he said, is the malignancy of those in power, a malignancy that is still spreading. A loud applause followed. This incident points to a dominant trend in today’s student Left: A vague and ill-defined anti-authoritarianism that effectively inhibits student politics. It also highlights plainly the way this problem represents an uncritical repetition of the past.
The vague anti-authoritarianism so many leftist organizations share has led to ideological incoherence and to a student Left that exists as a tenuous unity quickly running up against its limitations. Without discussion and debate of the content and meaning of political activity, occupations and protests serve only as a means for coordinating more occupations, more protest, more agitation, which are, by the sheer fact of happening, supposed to galvanize a political consciousness in onlookers. The content of this politicization is rarely called into question; it is expected, rather, that the struggle itself takes care of ideological problems. Ideological debate soon dissolves into the question of whether or not one is willing to “fight the good fight.”
It would be unfair to cast the entire student Left in this light. There are those like Pat Korte who will say that the development of ideas is an integral component of developing a radical culture. And yet there is little room in the movement for this kind of activity. There is little follow-up on the kind of organizational work necessary to foster an examination of history, an analysis of political positions, and the development of theory.
Old political problems are still with us. They are the stuff that our perspectives are made out of, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is incumbent upon those of us who call ourselves leftist to inquire into the nature of our ideological inheritance and into the meaning of our political activity. Neglecting this necessary work of political practice means simply relegating our politics to our instinctual responses to current conditions, and ultimately tethering ourselves to the barbaric immediacy of our present. Historical consciousness was meant to tackle exactly this problem of the limitations of political shortsightedness. Although the idea of historical consciousness has prompted a great deal of confusion, there is no serious political alternative today.
The conscious struggle against the limitations of the present is shaped by three defining approaches to our reality: what is possible, what is necessary, and what is desirable. The radical features of our politics are defined and redefined by how we deal with these questions. That which is desirable can appear as an impossible goal, unrealizable under present conditions. That is why it is necessary for political practice to push the boundaries of what is possible, so that our politics do not become a slave to the present.
But how, in the absence of an international Left, can one fight for an emancipatory politics? How we approach this bleak reality is the first question we Leftists today should ask ourselves. We are the inheritors of a failed politics, and how we make sense of this failure necessarily shapes our political goals, our ideological perspectives. If we shy away from this task it will lead only to confusion. The principle of uncritical inclusivity that seems so important for student leftists today assumes that all ideological work is done in people’s private time. The political perspectives of individual members are pushed aside for the good of the organization as a whole, even while it remains unclear how this extremely fractured whole will move forward without an in-depth inquiry into the nature of its politics. “We must be realistic in our utopianism,” as C. Wright Mills put it. We must put forward a thorough understanding of what we are actually against. We must ask, What are the defining features of our present forms of unfreedom?
Platypus does not define itself in terms of organizing protest strikes or building coalitions. We have worked with groups that do this kind of work, and although that work is necessary, our project is different. Our work is geared toward the ideological clarification of the most striking political condition of our time: the absence of an international Left. We believe that this inquiry is the necessary groundwork for rebuilding an emancipatory politics in the present. This ideological work is carried out through public discussions, reading group meetings, film screenings, and interventions, activities that require an organizational structure adequate to long-term goals. What we would like to foster in the current student movement is a culture of debate and discussion. We would like to see students participate in the clarification of their political positions. And we would like this debate to affect the direction of the movement. The student movements, whether consciously or unconsciously, affect the conditions in which a radical politics develops. It is both the context and the force for its efficacy. Only if the student Left directs its activities towards conscious realization of this development will it advance the struggle for freedom.
After the panelists’ presentations, members of the audience were invited to ask questions.
What lies behind the mindless actions that characterize the student Left today and the false positivity that it entails?
Nogales: I think there is a belief that agitational activity will somehow bring in those who have been standing on the sidelines, who have thought about being political but have not gone all the way. There is a mistaken belief that growth in numbers alone will somehow create a better politics.
Pereira Di Salvo: There is a lot of Situationist thought in these circles that actually convinces people that the moments when you are holding the signs are the moments when capitalism is being ripped apart. This is very dangerous; if you think that those are the moments when you are really free, then nothing is ever going to change.
Do you think that a lot of this anti-authoritarian identity politics is really a mask for, in many ways, right wing impulses, and basically anti-Marxist impulses?
Rojas: Anti-authoritarianism is definitely bound up with anti-ideology. It is something we have inherited from the 1960s New Left, but even they dealt with it more directly and self-consciously than we do today. At the SDS convention there were people with serious political disagreements, but there was no space dedicated to addressing or clarifying those disagreements. Instead, participants carry away from these conventions altogether obscure notions of what traditions and concepts such as anarchism, Marxism, ideology, and democracy might actually mean.
I wanted to point out two things. First, anti-ideology is a form of ideology. Secondly, groups like the Black Panthers actually put revolution on the table, and this gave a lot of impetus to other political movements at the time. We need something like that now, an actual revolutionary movement.
Nogales: I agree that anti-ideology is itself a kind of ideology, but I am puzzled by your claims regarding the Black Panthers. It seems that what you are calling for is greater militance in the movement. But I would say that consideration of the substance of one’s own politics is a necessary step that should come before posing any political demands, militant or otherwise. Many people in the Radical Student Union at the New School do in fact look to the 1960s for the content of their politics, but they are unwilling to actually work through that past. So there is an unconscious inheritance that causes them to prioritize certain tactics and goals without first thinking about what those priorities actually entail and whether they are appropriate.
What is the state of student movements and radicalism globally? What kind of international student movement currently exists?
Pereira Di Salvo: I do not think that there really is any sort of international student movement or that students have much contact with one another on a global scale. I will speak to my own experience at Purdue University, where there was an interesting division of labor by which one organization took upon itself the task of having ideological debates, of taking ideas seriously and debating them earnestly. This organization debated the relevance of what USAS was doing, and every single person in this organization also belonged to the USAS group. We were very critical, we wanted to change things from within USAS, but I think we ultimately failed to articulate that well enough. Our critical positions did not make an impact. I am hoping that my future involvement with USAS will in some sense try to address these failures.
Rojas: There are definitely things going on with students internationally. There are student rallies and protests in Iran, there are anti-authoritarian groups in Germany, and there is a Facebook group for an international student Left. But what do these things amount to? I am a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which in my experience has a pervasive anti-activist and anti-political atmosphere. This makes it very hard to be “political,” to present oneself as a political person. What I might be calling for is a radicalization of intellectuals. That is what I would like to do on my campus: politicize these students who are very smart, who read the same things I read, but do so apolitically. On some campuses there is a widespread fear of politics. So there is the matter of dealing with anti-intellectualism within activist groups, but there is also dealing with anti-political impulses within intellectual circles.
When you are trying to build a movement in the United States or internationally, where the majority of the workingclass are people of color, immigrants, and gays and lesbians, is it not necessary to address the relationship between white skin privilege and these oppressed groups? The problem is that the reaction to the type of postmodern identity politics manifested in USAS turns into a reaction against all identity politics. Do you not need some form of identity politics to fight racial oppression, sexual oppression,and so on?
Pereira Di Salvo: I would hate it if people came away from here thinking that I think fighting racism and sexism is a waste of time. That is not at all the point I am trying to make. I am arguing that the primary problem that USAS constituted itself to solve was the problem of sweatshops. In that context, the primary problems that workers are dealing with relate to their situation as workers. They face cases of sexual discrimination. For instance, women who work in sweatshops are often forced to undergo pregnancy tests. These are obviously problems and I think USAS should denounce such practices, but denouncing the violations that female sweatshop workers face as women is not going to change the fact that they are working in sweatshops and that sweatshops exist. So we have to get down to what the problem really is about. This does not mean that we keep silent on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, it just means that we have to take seriously what our goal in USAS is and we have to work backwards from that.
In terms of theoretical investigation, when you speak of the “failure” of past revolutions, do you not risk starting from square one, and thereby overlooking the tremendously emancipatory dimensions and achievements of those earlier revolutions?
Rojas: When I say “failure,” I mean it in the sense that we still live under capitalism. The Left has not overcome capitalism, and until we have done so, we have ultimately failed.
Pereira Di Salvo: Yes, we need theoretical investigation, and yes, we are not starting from nowhere. I do not think that any of us has suggested otherwise. But as Laurie said, the project of the Left is, or ought to be, the overcoming of capitalism. We have failed in this task so far, and I think we have to take that failure very seriously. This involves looking at our history critically. |P
New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Platypus Review 15 | September 2009
IF THE COLOR LINE WAS THE PROBLEM of the American 20th century, then the 20th century did not manage to solve it. De jure segregation ended some forty years ago, and American social norms mostly bar the public expression of racist sentiment or stereotype. Yet by any measure—access to quality healthcare and education, rate of incarceration, etc.—black Americans remain proportionally worse off than their white peers. There remains a color line, but why? This question has bred a whole genus of specious answers. Take the Bell Curve genetic inheritance theory: poor genes make for poor IQ, poor IQ makes for poor minds, and poor minds make for poor people. For slightly less controversial variations, substitute “welfare queen” or “single mothers.” Rightly uncomfortable with transferring blame for a social pathology onto its victims, anti-racism activists offer another explanation. Racism, they claim, persists—invisible, yes, but inherent in oppressive social structures caused by the instincts of white society. For instance, when faced with two equally qualified candidates, employers will hire the one with the white sounding name. Such unconscious discrimination stalks black Americans, dooming them to social death. The persistence of the color line, this “anti-racist” explanation suggests, is a problem of race relations. Change the race relations—through multicultural education, affirmative action, and supporting black-owned businesses—and the color line will vanish. Call this the “race relations paradigm.”
Michael Rudolph West, in his recent study, argues that the race relations paradigm begins with Booker T. Washington. This is an unusual suggestion: Few consider Washington as a theorist of much of anything, let alone the inventor of a paradigm. Depending on one’s viewpoint, Washington is either a pragmatic race leader, doggedly working for the advancement of his people, or an Uncle Tom, a race traitor who sells out to segregationists. But West neither glorifies nor excoriates his subject, nor does he portray Washington merely as the clever tactician he certainly was. West’s Washington appears as a theorist of the “Negro question,” struggling to find political possibility in the wake of Reconstruction’s failure. Like other theorists of the Negro question, for instance Thomas Jefferson or Gunnar Myrdal, Washington is out to understand and resolve the place of black people in America. But West also suggests that this may not be the right question, that there might be another, more fruitful way of understanding Washington as a theorist of the Negro question. Thinking race qua racial difference delinks the problem from broader questions of politics, class, and capitalism. The problem of race after this delinking appears susceptible to resolution without broader social change. Jefferson’s “solution” was simply to ship adult slaves back to Africa, and undo the whole problem. Although Jefferson’s idea of colonization never had broad appeal, Washington’s solution, by contrast, has had a real, lasting legacy. West calls this solution the theory of “good race relations.”
Lithograph commemorating Booker T. Washington’s 1901 White House dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt.
Unlike other biographies of its subject, West’s Education stands out as a unique synthesis of political and social history, psychology, and ideological critique. As West shows, Washington’s education was not the “industrial education” he later advocated for others. Rather, Washington’s theories of race and the meaning of history for understanding the “Negro question” must be understood with reference to the unfinished, but stymied, history of Reconstruction itself—what Eric Foner has called “America’s unfinished revolution.” West argues that the race relations paradigm, which he calls Washingtonianism, displaced the radical democratic aspirations of Reconstruction. Washington himself participated in Reconstruction electoral politics as a teenager. For example, he put radical Republican ideas into action as secretary of the Tinkersville, West Virginia Republicans (160). Before the collapse of the Freedman’s Bureau and, with it, black participation in Southern governments, black politicians overtly fought for mass political franchise, the redistribution of land and property, and social integration. Yet out of his disappointment with his experience as a freedman and Republican activist, Washington fashioned a new mission. In the wake of Reconstruction’s failure, instead of fighting for social power, Washington argued that blacks should work hard and whites should play nice.
There was a real appeal to the idea of “good race relations” in post-Reconstruction America. This way, despite the grim retrenchment of landlords and capitalists, progressives could still feel like one was advancing the cause of black people. Washington, a good-hearted opportunist to the core, did what opportunists usually do: He accepted defeat, while refusing to call it by that name. Reconstruction attempted, and failed, to bring real social equality to the emancipated slaves. Washington offered a comfortable solution that seemed to work; hard work and mutual respect might not fully substitute for the radical Republican agenda, but they could offer harmony and “progress.” Washington and his race relations paradigm helped to bury radical Reconstruction by claiming to share many of its goals. West argues, it was only in the context of this political failure that Washington found a broad hearing among sympathetic liberals, and established himself as de facto race spokesman and leader. But Washington not only reconciled blacks to their exclusion from the polls, he was complicit with it. “Progress” was Washington’s name for (and affirmation of) the diminished political horizons blacks faced after the collapse of Reconstruction: political disfranchisement and segregation. If American society is basically well-ordered, but segregated, and if emancipation had finally secured the precondition of black improvement despite the conflicts engendered by Reconstruction, then at least blacks could control their lives more by improving themselves and others’ perceptions of them. Washington himself, in his Atlanta Address of 1885, gives the best explication: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Separate and unequal, but working real hard.
West’s story of late 19th century radical defeat closely resembles another trajectory closer to our own time: the decline of Civil Rights and the rise of Black Power, the ideological consequences of which remain with us today. After ending de jure segregation, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement attempted to address and resolve the social position of American blacks. Bayard Rustin urged cooperation with the labor movement, but the means of attack proved inadequate, and the attempt failed. Militant activists then turned to slogans such as “community self-determination,” and exhorted their colleagues to promote racially segregated cooperatives and institutions. The Black Panthers seem to have little in common with old Uncle Booker; like the race relations paradigm, however, the politics of Black Power marked a turn towards internal racial transformation rather than transforming the political and economic order. Today’s proponents of “good race relations” take a less militant tone, but they, too, look inwards. Multiculturalism views respect between racial communities as imperative to progress. Yet, capital accumulates among a wealthy few and social disparities between the rich and the poor continue to increase. When activists substitute “good race relations” for social politics, the entire working class—white and black—suffers.
If the ideology of “good race relations” obscures crucial aspects of anti-black racism and poverty, then the critique of this ideology should point toward the overcoming of racism. However, West leaves us critical of the race relations paradigm but unsure where to turn for a more adequate analysis of American racism. Most fundamentally, West leaves the long-term defeat of radical Republicanism largely undiagnosed. After all, post-Reconstruction politics were not solely dominated by Washingtonianism. Populist, socialist, and communist movements all tried and failed to eliminate racism through the late 19th and 20th centuries. The failure to ground his analysis of the race relations paradigm more firmly in the history of the Left thus leaves underspecified West’s implied critique of 20th century anti-racist politics. For instance, although he suggests that the civil disobedience strategies of the Civil Rights Movement were effective because they broke the shallow consensus of segregation endorsed by Washington and his followers, it is unclear where the forerunners to Civil Rights fit into the story. West’s work is therefore only a promising beginning to reassess the ideology of the Civil Rights Movement; nevertheless, it still performs a vital service. By tracing the race relations paradigm to the rise and ignominious defeat of Reconstruction, West calls attention to the historical roots of what has become common sense about race today. He challenges us to imagine the possibility of a movement for social reform that is not satisfied with the scraps the ruling classes are willing to throw its way. |P
Resistance to the Olympics coming to Chicago
Platypus Review 15 | September 2009
NO GAMES CHICAGO WAS FOUNDED in the summer of 2008 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Chicago was among the bid cities for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The group’s aim is to prevent Chicago from hosting the games—nothing more, nothing less. The reason for this opposition is No Games Chicago’s claim that, if Chicago wins the bid to host the Olympics, the city’s working class would bear the bulk of the costs. They substantiate their claim by pointing to the experience of previous host cities, the lack of transparency in the decision process within Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago Bid Committee, and economic statistics that show Chicago is already too financially strained to host the games.
Certainly, No Games Chicago is right to highlight the experience of other host cities, as previous Olympic bids have been rife with administrative duplicity, including back-room deals, frivolous spending, and financial maneuvers that favor big businesses at the public’s expense. It is evident from recent Olympics history that the Games tend to bring more problems than benefits to host cities. Nor is there any particular reason to imagine, as No Games Chicago rightly insists, that the 2016 Olympics in Chicago will be any different from the past and current experience of other host cities. As the world is now experiencing a financial crisis, No Games Chicago argues that it is even more imperative for the city of Chicago to be careful with how money is spent. Additionally, they emphasize that Mayor Richard Daley’s fiscal irresponsibility, legacy of corruption, and lack of concern for public welfare would only be amplified if the Games were to be hosted through his office. The Olympics would most likely lose—not raise—revenue for the host city, though many of Mayor Daley’s crony contractors would make a killing before the spending bonanza ended.
It is true that Chicago’s ability to finance and support the Olympics without overburdening taxpayers is highly suspect, as is the political capacity of Chicago’s democracy to oppose hosting the games. Before recently reversing on the issue, City Alderman Manny Flores raised public skepticism regarding Chicago’s ability to host the 2016 Games in a manner commensurate with the city’s other needs. Flores’s call for greater transparency and a cap on total city spending for the games echo, and were almost certainly influenced by No Games Chicago, which has retained its stance of “unconditional resistance” to the Olympics Games being held in Chicago, despite Flores’s change of heart.
But if No Games Chicago is truly not against the Olympic Games per se, as they claim, is it not misguided to center the attack on the Olympics rather than the conditions that create the problems experienced by host cities? Do they not risk addressing the symptom while doing nothing to eliminate the disease? As it is, if the Olympics are stopped from coming to Chicago through the actions of No Games Chicago—and they will likely claim responsibility if Chicago does not receive the bid, whatever the reasons—this cannot be counted as a total victory. The absence of the Olympics in Chicago will only burden another city with the same problems that Chicago avoided, while doing little to make the broader changes necessary to ensure these problems do not arise in the future. Where is a vision of how Chicago—or any other city—could host the 2016 Games without adversely effecting the working class? It is worrisome that because of its self-limitations No Games Chicago will likely have little impact on the larger, long-term fight in Chicago for greater political and social freedom, because No Games Chicago never squarely addresses this greater fight.
The socioeconomic problems that coincide with hosting the Olympics are felt across the globe in every city. Yet, there seems to be no real solidarity between No Games Chicago and similar movements elsewhere, leaving Chicagoans to fight for themselves. Indeed, it remains unclear to what extent there exists any real desire to extend support to other cities. Rather, the consensus position seems to be simply negationist.
Granted, in part, No Games Chicago can only take on the tasks of organizing and protesting as fast as the other cities move and organize themselves. But there is no development of a coherent language in No Games Chicago beyond the local self-interest of keeping the Olympic Games out of Chicago. It is troublesome to hear Tom Tresser, one of the chief organizer’s of the group, say on Chicago Tonight, a local television news show, “We [No Games Chicago] say take the games somewhere else,” and to read Ben Joravsky ask the IOC, in an open letter published in Chicago Reader, to “please do us all a favor: Give the games to Rio. Or Madrid. Or Tokyo. Send them anywhere but here.” The concern over the social problems caused by the Olympic Games does not seem to extend beyond Chicago.
It is ironic that the prospect of the Olympics coming to Chicago—a series of games meant to bring about an international, shared experience of athleticism to the world’s citizens—has sparked such an insular protest politics. Throughout their public statements, protest actions, and outreach to other Chicago-based political and community groups, No Games Chicago’s chief concern has been to raise awareness of all the things that are wrong with Chicago. But, after demanding “better hospitals, housing, schools, and trains” instead of the Olympics, there has been little attempt to actually address the root causes of these problems, much less to begin considering how they might be overcome. Without any vision for the future of how Chicago could become a city that can and should host colossal international events, No Games Chicago will likely remain a venue for angry complaints with little ability to move beyond Chicago or to make positive change after this single issue is settled, one way or the other. In order to fulfill its goals, No Games Chicago would have to change its goals. It would have to substantially redirect its operations and rhetoric towards future goals beyond simply halting the 2016 Summer Olympics bid. Otherwise, it will continue to remain a fixture of protest culture with no positive program beyond riling up local citizens to achieve a hollow sense of empowerment. At best, it will successfully deflect misfortune away from Chicago to another city.
The lack of ambition to be found in No Games Chicago has become an altogether usual problem for movements that consider themselves “progressive.” Far too often, activists concentrate on the moment of “resistance,” as if this will automatically help change things for the better. Solely resisting political maneuvers in the system cannot substitute for an alternative programmatic view for the future, which is where the real struggle for change begins. Resistance—or protest—as an end in itself typifies the helplessness and powerlessness of so-called activists in our time. Although movements like No Games Chicago maintain a sense of urgency for the necessity of social and political change, the lack of vision in how to organize themselves towards these overarching goals means that their resistance can never make the leap into emancipation. In effect, No Games Chicago, like other single-issue protest groups, ends up mirroring the activities of the Olympics: The act of protesting turns into a sport that has little to no bearing outside the immediate outcome of the game. If there is a true will to overcome this demoralized state, protest groups must envision their actions as a means to organize toward goals that go beyond mere resistance. |P
. For all the evidence No Games Chicago has compiled, see <nogameschicago.com>. For a better organized and supposedly more objective approach to the issue, see London’s Games Monitor at <gamesmonitor.org.uk>.
. For an account of Flores’s original opposition, see <nogames.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/alderman/#more-1131>. About his recent change in position, see Ben Joravsky, “Who’ll Be the Bad Guy Now? Manny Flores Backs Away from the Cap he Proposed on Public Funding for the Olympics,” Chicago Reader, August 12, 2009, <chicagoreader.com/chicago/wholl-be-the-bad-guy-now/Content?oid=1176781>.
. Ben Joravsky, “An Open Letter to the IOC,” Chicago Reader, April 2, 2009, <chicagoreader.com/chicago/an-open-letter-to-the-ioc/Content?oid=1098601>.