Saturday, February 27, 2016

Racism and Knownothinism as Capitalist Weapons. . .

One of Karl Marx's most famous dictums was that socioeconomic systems create the conditions of their own demise. This process could be said to happen in two ways. On the one hand, a system of production creates the conditions for a 'better' and 'more advanced' one to take its place. This rather teleological idea can be easily conceived like this - capitalism evolves such a complex system of production and distribution that mechanisms of cooperation and planning become more and more necessary. Forms of socialism become, in other words, necessary for the system to continue. One take on this process was famously outlined by Eduard Bernstein when he created (much to the chagrin of revolutionaries everywhere) the idea of evolutionary socialism. There is no doubt that capitalism has, indeed, created elements of socialism at its very heart (universal education, healthcare, an extensive public service, welfare, etc.). But capitalism has also evolved greater and greater mechanisms of exploitation, and society, by many accounts, is less equal today than it was fifty years ago.

This fact brings us to the second way in which a socioeconomic system creates the conditions for its own demise - the greed and stupidity of the ruling class. There is a growing consensus that in order to operate effectively capitalism needs to tend toward a surprisingly high degree of economic equality. Inequality leads to all sorts of socioeconomic crisis. The framers of the modern welfare state understood this clearly; they knew that without some degree of universalism, capitalism would lead inevitably to revolution. The reasons that this seems less clear today are globalization and the decline of traditional methods of industrial production in 'advanced' countries. If capitalists can effectively atomize society and production, the impulses for socioeconomic evolution are made considerably less acute. This process is both good and bad for the rich and powerful. In the short term it buys them space and time to amass unprecedented wealth while bypassing traditional revolutionary impulses. But in the long term it creates conditions for new, never before seen kinds of opposition and crisis (including potential environmental disaster).

History is littered with states and societies in which the ruling class failed to see the looming crisis, the crisis that would lead either to complete social breakdown or to the overthrow of their system of power. One of the ways in which societies attempt to draw out their period of demise is to get the 'common people' on side in their own exploitation. To do this, the ruling class has to convince the people that it is not the rich and powerful that are leading the society to inequality and disaster but that it is some external threat or that it is being poisoned from the inside by groups that are corrupting 'traditional' values. This internal target can be anything from a particular religion and/or ethnicity to intellectuals or homosexuals. These are all easy and soft targets which can be blamed for 'destroying the values' that once made the nation 'great.'

This kind of rhetoric has been much in evidence lately. Recall Stephen Harper's famous quip that we shouldn't "commit sociology," for example. The last thing leaders like Harper want is for people to attempt to analyze the origins of social threats or crises. Analysis leads to discovery of the actual socioeconomic relations behind such crises. The attack on intellectualism has always been a central weapon in the rightwing armoury. Just the other day Donald Trump said in his Nevada victory speech "I love the poorly educated." This offhand remark will surely go down in the annals of rightwing knownothinism. Jews were once the central internal target of diversion for the fascist cause. Today Muslims have taken their place. And Muslims are a much more effective target because they can be portrayed as both internal corruptors of our system as well as an external threat. When the racists ministers (and Harper minions) Chris Alexander  and Kellie Leitch stood up in front of the nation to announce a "barbaric cultural practices" snitch line, they knew exactly what they were doing; they were attempting to use race and ethnicity to whip up fear of an internal corruptor of "our" values. This classic smoke and mirrors technique goes to the very heart of capitalism's crisis, a self-made crisis of inequality that the rightwing wants you to believe is rooted in the threat of the 'other.'

I am not one of those radicals that says that capitalism leads "inevitably" to its own demise per se. I believe that as a socialist that position is dangerously hypocritical. If I believe that we can make society we choose, it would be problematic for me to claim that we can't make some form of more sustainable capitalism. But I do agree with Marx's basic premiss that a system creates the conditions for its own replacement with something different. I think some 'market' mechanisms will go on for a very long time even if we do choose to move toward a more socialist society. On the other hand, I think that within a modern context fascism is an inherently unstable system that will lead to disaster. At the moment the real political question for our generation is 'can we avoid the pitfall of the fascist impulse in the face of a capitalist crisis?' Can we see through the smoke and mirrors of scapegoating internal and external threats and come to grips with the fact that capitalism's present crisis is of its own making and the people we need to reject are the very ones pointing to the "other" while it is really they who are leading us to disaster?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Harper minion sent out to sell the "barbaric cultural practices" bill was Chris Alexander. You may have been thinking of Con lawyer Arthur Hamilton.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks Anonymous - I knew it was Chris Alexander, I just wrote it too early in the morning. I have updated it.

Owen Gray said...

A superb bit of analysis, Kirby.

Marie Snyder said...

Just an aside - I once inadvertently had Leitch speaking to my civics class. I had invited my MP to come, a small c con who spoke up about climate change near the beginning of Harper's time in office, but she had come to see him and insisted on coming along to the school visit. My MP normally fields tons of questions and gets the kids interested in how our system works. Leitch spoke like a drill sergeant, and the kids were terrified to say anything. I had never met anyone like her. She argued against removing sales tax from menstrual products because women shouldn't get "special treatment" (no taxes on a necessity), and she was the Minister of Status of Women.

More to the point of your post, I was talking to a university prof recently, and we were both swamped with tedious administrative work. I wondered aloud if it's a new form of genocide of the intelligent in society. Corrupt governments used to just shoot all the intellectuals; now they bludgeon them with paperwork.

Kirby Evans said...

Thank you for you comment Marie. Though I have never met Leitch, I find her deeply frightening. Drill Sergeant is probably too kind a phrase for her. Gastapo or SS Officer might be more fitting.

I think your idea of "bludgeoning with paperwork," right on the money!

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that it is rather the "common people" who are the primary source of racism and xenophobia, not elites. Distrust and hatred of the "Other" is an innate tendency of the human condition.

Tyrants and would-be tyrants who stoke and abuse this unfortunate baseness deserve to be pilloried, but let's not pretend they aren't giving the People want they truly want.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous, I certainly didn't mean to suggest that a significant segment of the general population isn't racist. There is no doubt they are. However, change happens slowly and perceived leaders play a part in those opinions that are socially acceptable. And when leaders open up the space for racism it legitimizes it in many people's eyes. On the other hand, the longer certain opinions are socially considered anathema the more they will actually disappear.