Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dialectics of the Gringo

by David Ellerton

(In this essay, I shall be looking at the phenomenon of political correctness and cultural-Marxism, and one possible intellectual response to it, from the work of a French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. The issues involved can be potentially too abstract for some, so I shall resolve to bring them down to earth - into the nitty-gritty of contemporary political reality - as much as possible).

One of the most significant changes in the history of the Left was the adoption of politically-correct Marxism in the 1990s. Appearing, mostly, on university campuses, the new 'P.C. Marxism' or Leftism took the radical step of abandoning the old-fashioned worker's struggle for socialism, instead focusing on the "oppression" of women, gays, Blacks, Hispanics and other minority and victim groups by the white, male Western culture. The new Marxism first appeared in the humanities departments (mainly literary departments) at the universities, and was inspired by French postmodern thinkers who were, even by academic standards, difficult to read and often incomprehensible. As the Jewish-British writer Loren Goldner (an orthodox, old-fashioned Marxist) complained:

The big debate on the American left in the late 1980's and early 1990's was about the "difference" of the "identity" of every oppressed group, with the notable exception of the working class as a whole, and that this difference was, in fact, just...difference.

Multiculturalism is in... To the pseudo-radicals of the academic intelligentsia, who have turned social class into a "text", multiculturalism is the freeing of a "multiplicity of discourses", a dissolution of the ostensible "phallologocentrism" of an ostensible "Western" cultural tradition... The purveyors of the post-modern "French disease" continue a frenzied production of self-involved books and posh academic journals which communicate nothing so much as a basic ignorance of real history and the pathetic belief that the deconstruction of literary texts amounts to serious radical political activity.

(Loren Goldner, 'Multi-Culturalism or World Culture? On a "Left"-Wing Response to Contemporary Social Breakdown, 1991, at )

Like a good many things from 1990s, P.C. Leftism went out of fashion with the Left - Queer Studies, Women's Studies, Black Studies and other departments still exist on university, of course, but the Left realised, after a time, that postmodern political correctness diverted their energies from what should have been their true focus - communism, anarchism, and the 'overthrow of capitalism'. (Whether or not such goals are achievable is another thing entirely. The reason why politically-correct, cultural Marxism appeared in the 1990s was because of the disillusionment, among the Left, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 'back-sliding' of China into capitalism. According to Marx's theory, these two events shouldn't have happened, but they did).

However, like a cancer, or a poisonous gas which has escaped its containers, P.C. Marxism lingers on. In Tuscon, Arizona, a Hispanic version of Queer Studies and Black Studies existed until recently: 'Mexican-American Studies', which indoctrinates Mexican immigrant high school students in Mexican and Latino nationalist propaganda. A liberal, Tom Horne, who was the state's superintendent of education, opposed the program on the grounds that it created ethnic divisions and helped draft a law against them. So what went on in these classes?

“It’s propagandizing and brainwashing that’s going on there,” Tom Horne, Arizona’s newly elected attorney general, said this week...

To buttress his critique of the Tucson program, Mr. Horne read from texts used in various classes, which in one instance referred to white people as “gringos” and described privilege as being related to the color of a person’s skin, hair and eyes. He also cited the testimony of five teachers who described the program as giving a skewed view of history and promoting racial discord.

For the state, the issue is... some of the texts used in the classes, among them, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Occupied America,” which Mr. Horne said inappropriately teach Latino youths that they are being mistreated.

Teaching methods in the classes are sometimes unconventional, with instructors scrutinizing hip-hop lyrics and sprinkling their lessons with Spanish words.

The state, which includes some Mexican-American studies in its official curriculum, sees the classes as less about educating students than creating future activists.

“On the first day of school, they are no different than students in any other classes,” said John Ward, who briefly taught a Latino history class in Tucson. “But once they get told day after day that they are being victimized, they become angry and resentful.” ('Rift in Arizona as Latino Class Is Found Illegal', The New York Times, January 7, 2011).

Amusingly, 'Mexican-American Studies' was banned in Arizona - under an anti-racist law:

Under the law signed on Tuesday, any school district that offers classes designed primarily for students of particular ethnic groups, advocate ethnic solidarity or promote resentment of a race or a class of people would risk losing 10 percent of its state financing.

“Governor Brewer signed the bill because she believes, and the legislation states, that public school students should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people,” Paul Senseman, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement on Thursday. ('Citing Individualism, Arizona Tries to Rein in Ethnic Studies in School, The New York Times, May 13, 2010).

So what is at the basis of 'Mexican-American Studies', and the entire identity-politics movement of the 1990s? The answer is: dialectics, and the German philosopher Hegel's parable of the master and the slave.

'Dialectics' is not a mere subject for academic study by philosophers. As students of Marxism know, dialectics is at the centre of the communist ideology - which went on take over large parts of the world, and oppress, starve and kill millions. So what is it?

In the textbooks, it is explained as a form of argument: one starts with a proposition (thesis), engages in discussion with someone who has an opposing view (antithesis). Finally, an agreement is reached, where both opposing viewpoints are reconciled (synthesis) and blended into one another to form a new whole. Importantly, there are always left-over elements of the original thesis, but these are transformed and never entirely culled. They undergo a process of what Hegel calls sublation, or elsewhere, 'Aufheben', or overcoming.

This is, admittedly, quite abstract. Dialectics is easier to understand if we look at it from the point of view of the Marxist version of history. Capitalism appears, and enslaves the working class. The workers adopt socialist ideas, and revolt against their capitalist masters, and negate him and all his works. Finally, there is the overthrow of capitalism and the appearance of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The 'sublation' occurs when the capitalist's technology is used - his modes of production. So capitalism, its technology, its methods, have not disappeared entirely - it has been 'sublated'.

In the ideology of politically correct Leftism, it is probably Hegel's famous parable of the Master and the Slave which has been the biggest influence. The parable is a strange passage, 'On Lordship and Bondage', in his master work 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit' (1807). It is an answer to the question: how did slavery come about? What was the state of consciousness of the two parties, master and slave, at the beginning of slavery?

The parable describes, at the dawn of history, an encounter between two human beings who are complete strangers to one another. At first there reaction is one of mutual astonishment, that another like himself can exist, and both are thrown into a state of confusion. Then one, attempting to regain control of himself, attempts to gain control of the other. The two beings undergo a fight to the death - one is braver than the other, and more willing to risk his life, so wins. Then the winner becomes the master and forces the loser to work for him as a slave. But the good news is that the slave is forced to labour and produce products and then develops consciousness of himself, for the first time, during that labour, and his conquest of nature, through that labour. The master, in the meantime, develops a parasitic dependency on the slave for his products, and, worse, he needs the slave for recognition: he needs to be recognised as the master. But recognition from a lesser being - a slave - is insufficient. Eventually the institution of slavery passes away. As Francis Fukuyama writes, in his classic book, 'The End of History and the Last Man' (1993):

By Hegel’s account, the desire to be recognised as a human being with dignity drove man at the beginning of history into a bloody battle to the death for prestige. The outcome of this battle was a division of human society into a class of masters, who were willing to risk their lives, and a class of slaves, who gave in to their natural fear of death. But the relationship of lordship and bondage, which took a wide variety of forms in all of the unequal, aristocratic societies that have characterised the greater part of human history, failed ultimately to satisfy the desire for recognition of either the masters or the slaves. The slave, of course, was not acknowledged as a human being in any way whatsoever. But the recognition enjoyed by the master was deficient as well, because he was not recognised by other masters, but slaves whose humanity was as yet incomplete. Dissatisfaction with the flawed recognition available in aristocratic societies constituted a “contradiction” that engendered further stages of history.

One can recognise, of course, the 'dialectical' overtones of the parable; and also see how it would apply to any ideology - Marxism, feminism, Black Power, Hispanic Power, and so on - which takes itself to be the ideology of the oppressed, the slave, the victim. (The academic, Susan Buck-Morss, wrote a paper, 'Hegel and Haiti, for the journal Critical Enquiry, which argued that Hegel was influenced by the slave uprising in Haiti at the time - an uprising which saw the thorough slaughter, by blacks, of the white French of the island).

Identity politics, dialectics, Hegel's parable, are all about defining oneself as a slave, as oppressed, and the question is, ultimately, about how one defines oneself philosophically. Is there, then, a philosopher who is anti-Hegel, anti-dialectic, anti-identity politics (as described above)? According to Gilles Deleuze, the answer is yes: Friedrich Nietzsche. In his influential 1965 book on Nietzsche, 'Nietzsche and Philosophy', Deleuze outlines Nietzsche's position. I will quote from some of it here and show, in brackets, how the passages can apply to the problems we have considered already (all quotations are from Deleuze, pp.9-10]:

It is an exhausted force [e.g., Hispanic radicalism, Black revolutionaries] which does not have the strength to affirm its difference [e.g., its own individuality, its own sense of itself as a separate, self-contained race or ethnic group], a force which no longer acts but rather reacts to the forces which dominate it [e.g., the white man] - only such a force brings to the foreground the negative element in its relation to the other [e.g., the desire to revolt against, and destroy, the white "oppressor"]. Such a force denies all that it is not and makes this negation its own essence and the principle of its existence [e.g., the ethnic group defines itself only in opposition to its oppressor, the white man]. "While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is 'outside', what is 'different, what is 'not itself' and this No is its creative deed" (Nietzsche, 'The Genealogy of Morals'). This is why Nietzsche presents the dialectic as the speculation of the pleb, as the way of thinking of the slave: the abstract thought of contradiction [e.g., the desire for revolution, for reconquista of land taken from the Mexicans by the white man] then prevails over the concrete feeling of positive difference [e.g., the white man's sense of individuality], reaction over action, revenge and ressentiment take the place of aggression.

The essential thing is that the identities of the oppressed - Black, Hispanic, and so on - in identity politics are, in effect, created in response to the white man and his activities. They do not exist independently:

Nietzsche shows that what is negative in the master [e.g., the presence of Blacks in America, Hispanics] is always a secondary and derivative product of his existence [e.g., the white man's founding of the American state]... Who dialectises the relationship? [i.e., who invents Hegel's parable?]. It is the slave, the slave's perspective, the way of thinking belonging to the slave's perspective. The famous dialectical aspect of the master-slave relationship depends on the fact that power is conceived not as will to power but as representation of power, representation of superiority, recognition by "the one" of the superiority of "the other" [i.e., when the slave triumphs over the master and delivers his comeuppance].

In other words, what the 'oppressed minority' wants, above all, is to be recognised by the white oppressor:

What the wills [i.e., the human beings] in Hegel want is to have their power recognised, to represent their power. According to Nietzsche we have here a wholly erroneous conception of the will to power and its nature. This is the slave's conception, it is the image that the man of ressentiment has of power. The slave only conceives of power as the object of a recognition, the content of a representation, the stake in a competition, and therefore makes it depend, at the end of a fight, on a simple attribution of established values [i.e., becoming respectable, a 'success' in American, and Western, society]... The portrait of the master that Hegel offers us is, from the start, a portrait which represents the slave, at least as in his dreams, as at best a successful slave. Underneath the Hegelian image of the master we always find the slave [i.e., in his mind, the slave misrepresents his master, and imagines him to be only a version of himself].

Deleuze himself would be shocked by my interpretation of Nietzsche in this fashion: Deleuze was a Marxist and was one of the leading philosophers of the French postmodern Left. His philosophy of 'difference' was one of the influences on politically-correct, Marxist thought (only not as big an influence as Hegel). Contradictorily, though, he thoroughly approved of Nietzsche's ideas - perhaps he was unable to see the implications of them for P.C. identity politics. (Deleuze died in France in 1995, and quite possibly he never encountered culture Marxism, which first appeared in American universities).

There is much in Deleuze's book on Nietzsche - and in certain of his other books - for the nationalist intellectual to ponder. Quite possibly, the ideas could form the basis of a new intellectual defence of the white Western culture against the onslaught cultural Marxism and multiculturalism. This would be ironic, given Deleuze's own political views, but postmodernism is full of ironies.