Race and Social Theory: Towards a Genealogical Materialist Analysis
Cornel West's "Race and Social Theory: Towards a Genealogical Materialist Analysis" first appeared in The Year Left Vol. 2: Towards a Rainbow Socialism - Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Gender, edited by Mike Davis, Manning Marable, Fred Pfeil, and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1987.
(Cornel West, 1988, via The SCI-Arc Media Archive)
In this field of inquiry, sociological theory has still to find its way, by a difficult effort of theoretical clarification, through the Scylla of a reductionism which must deny almost everything in order to explain something, and the Charybdis of a pluralism which is so mesmerized by 'everything’ that it cannot explain anything. To those willing to labour on, the vocation remains an open one. - Stuart Hall
We live in the midst of a pervasive and profound crisis of North Atlantic civilization whose symptoms include the threat of nuclear annihilation, extensive class inequality, brutal state repression, subtle bureaucratic surveillance, widespread homophobia, technological abuse of nature and rampant racism and patriarchy. In this essay, I shall focus on a small yet significant aspect of this crisis: the specific forms of Afro-American oppression. It is important to stress that one can more fully understand this part only in light of the whole crisis, and that one’s conception of the whole crisis should be shaped by one's grasp of this part. In other words, the time has passed when the so-called ‘race question’ can be relegated to secondary or tertiary theoretical significance. In fact, to take seriously the multi-leveled oppression of peoples of color is to raise fundamental questions regarding the very conditions for the possibility of the modern West, the diverse forms and styles of European rationality and the character of the prevailing modern secular mythologies of nationalism, professionalism, scientism, consumerism and sexual hedonism that guide everyday practices around the world.
My strategy in this essay will be as follows. First, I will examine briefly the major conservative, liberal and left-liberal conceptions of Afro-American oppression. Second, I shall point out the distinctive strengths of adopting a refined Marxist methodology and analytical perspective. I then will sketch four influential Marxist attempts to understand Afro-American oppression, Last, I shall argue that if we are to arrive at a more adequate conception of Afro-American oppression, we must build upon and go beyond the Marxist tradition with the help of neo-Freudian investigations (especially those of Otto Ranke, Ernest Becker and Joel Kovel) into the modern Western forms of isolation and separation, as well as through poststructuralist reflections (by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Michel Foucault and Edward Said) on the role and function of indifference, otherness and marginality in contemporary philosophical discourse. I will sketch such a genealogical materialist position.
Conservative Views of Afro-American Oppression
We begin with conservative conceptions of Afro-American oppression primarily because we live in a country governed by those who accept many of these conceptions. Conservative perspectives focus on two terrains: discrimination in the marketplace and judgments made in the minds of people. It is no accident that conservatives tend to valorize neo-classical economics and utilitarian psychology. The basic claim is that differential treatment of Black people is motivated by the ‘tastes’ of white employers and/or white workers. Such ‘tastes', e.g. aversion to Black people, may indeed be bad and undesirable; that is, if it can be shown that such ‘tastes’ are based on faulty evidence, unconvincing arguments or irrational impulse. Yet it is possible that such ‘tastes' may be rational choices made by white people owing to commitments to high levels of productivity and efficiency in the economy or due to evidence regarding the inferior capacities and/or performances of Blacks.
There are three basic versions of conservative views of AfroAmerican oppression: the market version, the sociobiologist version and the culturalist version. The market version — best represented by Milton Friedman's classic Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and his student Gary Becker's renowned The Economics of Discrimination (1957) — holds that it is not in the economic interests of white employers and workers to oppose Black employment opportunities. Friedman and Becker claim that such racist behavior or ‘bad taste' flies in the face of or is an extraneous factor mitigating against market rationality, i.e. the maximizing of profits. In this way, both understand ‘racist tastes’ as the irrational choice of white employers and workers that sidetracks market rationality in determining the best economic outcomes. The practical policy that results from this market perspective is to educate and persuade white employers and workers to be more rational or attuned to their own self-interests. The underlying assumption here is that ‘pure’ market mechanisms (as opposed to government intervention) will undermine ‘racist tastes’. Another basic presupposition here is that market rationality, along with undermining ‘racist tastes’, is in the interest of white employers and white workers and Black people.
The sociobiologist version — put forward by Arthur Jensen (Harvard Educational Review, Winter 1969) and Richard Hernstein (Atlantic Monthly, September 1971) — suggests that prevailing evidence leads to the conclusion that Blacks are, in some sense, genetically inferior. Blacks’ I.Q. performance, which allegedly ‘measures’ intelligence i.e. the capacity for acquiring knowledge and solving problems, is such that the ‘racist tastes’ of white employers and workers may be justified — not on the basis of aversion to Blacks but due to group performance attainment. Unlike Friedman and Becker, Jensen and Hernstein consider the ‘racist tastes' of white employers and workers as rational choices made on ‘scientific' grounds. In this way, Afro-American oppression is not a changeable and eradicable phenomenon, but rather part of ‘the natural order of things’.
Last, the culturalist version — as seen in Edward Banfield's The Unheavenly City (1965) and Thomas Sowell's Race and Economics (1975) — hold that the ‘racist tastes’ of white employers and workers can be justified on cultural rather than biological grounds. They argue that the character and content of Afro-American culture inhibits Black people from competing with other people in American society, be it in education, the labor-force or business. For Banfield and Sowell, the necessary cultural requisites for success — habits of hard work, patience, deferred gratification and persistence — are underdeveloped among Afro-Americans. Therefore Afro-American oppression will be overcome only when these habits become more widely adopted by Black people.
Although these three versions of conservative views of Afro-American oppression differ among themselves, they all share certain common assumptions. First, they view market rationality (or marginal productivity calculations) as the sole standard for understanding the actions of white employers and workers. Second, this market rationality presupposes an unarticulated Benthamite felicific calculus or Hobbesian psychological egoistic model that holds self-interest to be the dominant motivation of human action. Third, this calculus or model is linked to a neo-classical economic perspective that focuses principally upon individuals and market mechanisms with little concern about the institutional structure and powerrelations of the market and limited attention to social and historical structures, e.g. slavery, state repression and second-class citizenship. Last, all agree that government intervention into the marketplace to enhance the opportunities of Afro-Americans does more harm than good.
Liberal Views of Afro-American Oppression
Liberal conceptions of Afro-American oppression are under severe intellectual and political assault, yet they remain inscribed within our laws and are still, in some ways, observed. It is crucial to acknowledge that liberal viewpoints adopt the same neo-classical economic perspective and egoistic model as that of conservatives. Yet unlike conservatives, liberals highlight racist institutional barriers which result from the ‘racist tastes’ of white employers and workers. Liberals reject mere persuasion to change these ‘tastes’ and attack genetic inferiority-claims as unwarranted and arbitrary, Liberals focus on two domains: racist institutional barriers in the marketplace and inhibiting impediments in Afro-American culture. Those liberals who stress the former can be dubbed ‘market liberals'; and those who emphasize the latter, ‘culturalist liberals'. Market liberals, such as Gunnar Myrdal and Paul Samuelson, claim that Afro-American oppression can be alleviated if the state intervenes into racist structures of employment practices and thereby ensures, coercively if necessary, that fair criteria are utilized in hiring and firing Black people. Of course, what constitutes ‘fair criteria' can range from race-free standards to race-conscious ones. Furthermore, culturalist liberals like Thomas Pettigrew hold that government programs should be established to prepare people, especially Blacks, for jobs. These programs can range from educational efforts such as Head Start to direct training and hiring to the now defunct Job Corps projects. School integration efforts going back to the gallant struggles of the NAACP decades ago are part of this culturalist liberal position. In fact, it is fair to say that the vast majority of Black public officials are culturalist and/or market liberals.
As I noted earlier, both conservatives and liberals subscribe to market rationality as the primary standard for understanding and alleviating Afro-American oppression. Both groups assume that ‘rough justice’ between Blacks and white Americans can be achieved if Black productivity is given its rightful due, namely, if there is close parity in Black and White incomes. At the level of public policy, the important difference is that liberals believe this ‘rough justice’ cannot be achieved without state intervention to erase racist institutional barriers, especially in employment and education.
Left-Liberal Views of Afro-American Oppression
It is important that we do not confuse left-liberals with liberals — just as we should not confuse conservatives with neo-conservatives (which latter tend to be market liberals and culturalist conservatives). This is so because left-liberals have what most liberals and conservatives lack: a sense of history. This historical consciousness of left-liberals makes them suspicious of abstract neo-classical economic perspectives and sensitive to the role of complex political struggles in determining the predominant economic perspective of the day. In other words, left-liberals recognize that classical economic views shifted to neo-classical ones (from Adam Smith and David Ricardo to Alfred Marshall and Stanley Jevons), not only because better arguments emerged but also because those arguments were about changing realities of 19th-century industrial capitalism and inseparable from clashing political groups in the midst of these changing realities. Similarly the versions of market liberalism associated with Franklin Roosevelt in regard to state/economy relations and John Kennedy in regard to state/economy/race relations were transformations of neo-classicism in the face of the Depression, the rise of organized labor and the struggles of the Southern Blacks under evolving capitalist conditions. Left-liberals understand Afro-American oppression as an ever-changing historical phenomenon and a present reality. They locate the ‘racist tastes’ of white employers and workers and the racist institutional barriers of American society within the historical contexts of over two hundred years of slavery and subsequent decades of Jim Crow laws, peonage, tenancy, lynchings and second-class citizenship. It is no surprise that left-liberals remain in dialogue with Marxist thinkers and, in many cases, are deeply influenced by sophisticated forms of Marxist historical and social analysis.
Left-liberals such as William Julius Wilson (The Declining Significance of Race, 1978) and Martin Kilson (Neither Insiders Nor Outsiders, forthcoming), who think seriously about Afro-American oppression, are usually Weberians or followers of contemporary Weberians like Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. The major theoretical models they adopt and apply are not those of neoclassical economics but rather structural-functionalist sociology. This difference is not as broad as it may seem, but the historical orientation of left-liberals radically separates them from most liberals and conservatives. In fact, this sense of history constitutes a kind of ‘crossing the Rubicon' by left-liberals. After such a crossing there can be no return to ahistorical conceptions of Afro-American oppression.
Left-liberals tend to be a rather eclectic lot who borrow insights from conservatives (e.g., a stress on Black self-reliance and the need to acquire efficacious habits for Black upward social mobility) and from liberals (e.g., the necessity for government action to regulate employment practices and enhance Afro-American cultural deprivation). They acknowledge the crucial structual social constraints upon Afro-Americans and, like Weber, conceptualize these constraints in terms of groups competing for prestige, status, and power over scarce economic resources. For left-liberals, strata and social position supercede class location and financial remunerations at the workplace, i.e., income, serves as the basic measure of societal well-being. The major index of Afro-American oppression for left-liberals is that Black incomes remain slightly less than 60% of white incomes in the USA. The public policies they support to alleviate Afro-American oppression focus upon full employment, public works programs and certain forms of affirmative action.
Marxist Views of Afro-American Oppression
We come now to Marxist conceptions of Afro-American oppression. And one may ask, given the conservative tenor of the times, why Marxist theory at all? Is not Marxism an outdated and antiquated tradition that: 1) has tragically produced widespread unfreedom in the communist East; 2) utterly failed to attract the working classes in the capitalist West; 3) primarily served the purposes of anti-colonial mythologies in the Third World that mask the butchery of present-day national bourgeoisies in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America; and 4) is presently overwhelmed by information, communication and technological revolutions as well as non-class-based movements like feminism, gay and lesbian rights, ecology, and the various movement among people of color in the First World? These questions are serious indeed, and must be confronted by anyone who wishes to defend the continuing vitality and utility of the Marxist tradition.
I shall begin by making some basic distinction between Marxist thought as a monocausal, unilinear philosophy of history which accurately predicts historical outcomes; Marxism as it is exemplified in diverse ‘actually existing’ communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Poland, et. al.; and Marxist theory as a methodological orientation toward the understanding of social and historical realities. Needless to say, I readily reject Marxist thought as a monocausal unilinear predictive science of history or a homogeneous, teleological narrative of past and present events. Such infantile Marxism has been subjected to persuasive criticism by Karl Popper, John Plamenatz, John Dewey and Raymond Aron from outside the Marxist tradition and by members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse), Raymond Williams and Antonio Gramsci from within. I also reject, although not without sympathy for, the undemocratic regimes which regiment and dominate their peoples in the name of Marxism. As a democratic and libertarian socialist, I find these regimes morally repugnant, yet I wish to stress the detailed historical analysis of why they evolved as they have is required if we are to grasp their tragic predicament. Such analysis does not excuse the atrocities committed, yet it does give us a realistic sense of what these regimes have been up against. Despite rejecting Marxist thought as a philosophy of history, and Marxism as it has appeared in diverse ‘actually existing’ communist regimes, I hold that Marxist theory as a methodological orientation remains indispensable — although ultimately inadequate — in grasping distinctive features of Afro-American oppression. As a methodological orientation, Marxist theory requires that we begin from two starting points.
First, the principle of historical specificity impels us to examine the various conditions under which Afro-American oppression emerged, the ever-changing structural constraints under which Afro-Americans have accommodated and resisted multiple forms of oppression and the crucial conjunctural opportunities (e.g., those in the 1870s, 1920s and 1960s) which Afro-Americans have either missed or seized. This historicizing approach entails that we highlight economic, political, cultural and psychosexual conflict over resources, power, images, language and identities between Black and other people as among Black people themselves.
The second starting point for Marxist theory is the principle of the materiality of structured social practices over time and space. This principle maintains that extra-discursive formations such as modes of production, state apparatuses and bureacracies and discursive operations such as religions, philosophies, art-objects and laws not only shape social actions of individuals and groups but possess historical potency and effectivity in relation to but not reducible to each other. Marxist theory is materialist and historical to the degree that it attempts to understand and explain forms of oppression in terms of the complex relation of extra-discursive formations to discursive operations. Classical Marxists view this relation in terms of a more or less determining base and a more or less determined superstructure, whereas neo-Marxists understand this relation as (in Raymond Williams’ famous phrase) "the mutual setting of limits and exerting of pressures." The explanatory power of Marxist theory resides precisely in the specifying of the complex relation of base and superstructure, limits and pressures, extra-discursive formations and discursive operations, that is, in establishing with precision the nature of determination. This problem remains unresolved in the Marxist tradition, while the most impressive efforts remain those enacted in the best of Marx's own textual practices.
Marx's own effort to account for determination highlights the multi-leveled interplay between historically situated subjects who act and materially grounded structures that circumscribe, i.e., enable and constrain, such action. This human action constitutes structured social practices which are reducible neither to context-free discrete acts of individuals nor to objective structures unaffected by human agency. The dialectical character of Marxist theory resides precisely in the methodological effort to view the interplay of subject and structure in terms of dynamic social practices during a paricular time and in a specific space. The aim of Marxist theory is to view each historical moment as a multidimensional transaction between subjects shaped by antecedent structures and traditions and prevailing structures and traditions transformed by struggling subjects. As Perry Anderson has recently put it, Marxism is "the search for subjective agencies capable of effective strategies for the dislodgement of objective structures."
Each evolving society then becomes — as an object of investigation — a ‘complex articulated totality’ produced by social practices (including those that constitute the investigation itself) shot through with relations of domination and conflict in an overdetermined economic sphere and relatively autonomous political, cultural, ideological and psychic spheres. By ‘complex articulated totality’ I mean that the specific conflicts on the various levels of society are linked to one another, while the specificity of one level is neither identical with nor reducible to a mirror-image of the specificity of another level. Yet the articulation of these specific conflicts within and across the various spheres constitute a ‘totality’ because the relations of these conflicts are not arbitrary or capricious. They are shown not to be arbitrary in Marxist theorists’ accounts of them, nor in explanations useful for effectively resisting prevailing forms of domination. These accounts or explanations privilege the economic sphere without viewing the other spheres as mere expressions of the economic. In other words, Marxist theory claims that social and historical explanation must view, in some discernible manner, the economic sphere as the major determining factor in accounting for the internal dynamics (or synchronicity) and historical change (or diachronicity) of human (and especially capitalist) societies. It should be apparent that Marxist conceptions of Afro-American oppression reject the ‘bad tastes’ starting point of conservatives, the ‘racist institutional barriers’ starting point of liberals, and the Weberian views about the economic sphere of left-liberals, i.e. the stress on strata and status. Nonetheless, there remains considerable controversy among Marxist theorists about how to construe the economic sphere, whether as a mode of production, as merely the forces of production, or as primarily a mode of surplus-extraction or form of appropriation of surplus-value. Consensus has been reached only insofar as all hold that the economic sphere is constituted by conflict-ridden classes characterized by their relation (ownership, effective control or lack thereof) to the means of production.
Unfortunately — and largely due to the European character of Marxist scholarship on race — there exists a paucity of sophisticated Marxist treatments of racially-structured societies. Outside of the historical work of W.E.B. DuBois, the grand efforts of Oliver Cox and C.L.R. James, and the pioneering recent writings of Eugene Genovese, Stuart Hall and Orlando Patterson, the richness of the Marxist methodological orientation and analytical perspective in relation to race remains untapped. Instead, Marxist theorists of Afro-American oppression have put forward rather bland and glib views. For example, class reductionists have simply subsumed Afro-American oppression under class exploitation and viewed complex racist practices as merely conscious profiteering — or a divide-and-conquer strategy — on behalf of capitalists. Although this view captures a practical truth about racist employers' practices during a particular period in racially fractured capitalist societies, it inhibits more thorough theoretical investigation into other crucial aspects, features and functions of racist practices. Furthermore, it tacitly assumes that racism is rooted in the rise of modern capitalism. Yet, it can be easily shown that although racist practices were appropriated and promoted in various ways by modern capitalist processes, racism predates capitalism. Racism seems to have its roots in the early encounter between civilizations of Europe, Africa and Asia, encounters which occurred long before the rise of modern capitalism. The very category of race — denoting primarily skin color — was first employed as a means of classifying human bodies by François Bernier, a French physician, in 1684. The first substantial racial division of humankind is found in the influential Natural System (1735) of the pre-eminent naturalist of the 18th century, Carolus Linnaeus. Yet both instances reveal racist practices — in that both degrade and devalue non-Europeans — at the level of intellectual codification. Xenophonic folktales and mythologies, racist legends and stories — such as authoritative Church Fathers’ commentaries on the Song of Solomon and the Ywain narratives in medieval Brittany — operate in the everyday lives of ordinary folk long before the 17th and 18th century. In fact, Christian anti-Semitism and European anti-Blackism are rampant throughout the Middle Ages. In short, the class reductionist viewpoint rests upon shaky theoretical and historical grounds.
The other simplistic Marxist conceptions of Afro-American oppression are those of the class super-exploitationist perspective and the class nationalist view. The former holds that Afro-Americans are subjected to general working-class exploitation and specific class exploitation owing to racially differential wages received and/or to the relegation of Black people to the secondary sector of the labor force. Again the claim is that this is a conscious divide-and-conquer strategy of employers to fan and fuel racial antagonisms between black and white workers and to ‘bribe' white workers at the expense of lower wages for Black workers. Again, this perspective contains a practical truth about the aims of white employers during a particular period of particular capitalist societies, yet the ‘bribe’ thesis is a weak reed upon which to hang an account of the many levels on which racism works. More importantly, this position still views race solely in economic and class terms.
The class nationalist viewpoint is the most influential, widely accepted and hence unquestioned among practicing black Marxists. It understands Afro-American oppression in terms of class exploitation and national domination. The basic claim is that Afro-Americans constitute or once constituted an oppressed nation in the Southern Black Belt and, much like Puerto Ricans, form an oppressed national minority within American society. There are numerous versions of this so-called Black Nation thesis. Its classical version was put forward in the Sixth Congress of the Third International in 1928, slightly modified in its 1930 resolution and codified in Harry Haywood's Negro Liberation (1948). Subsequent versions abound on the sectarian black Left — from Nelson Peery's The Negro National Colonial Question (1978), James Forman’s Self-Determination and the African-American People (1981) to Amiri Baraka's formulations in his journal, The Black Nation. More refined conceptions of the class nationalist view were put forward in the form of an internal colony thesis by Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) and Robert Allen in Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969); yet even in these two seminal texts of the sixties the notion of Afro-America as an internal colony remains a mere metaphor without serious analytical content. Ironically, the most provocative and persistent proponent of a class nationalist perspective is Maulana Karenga, who arrived at his own self-styled position that infuses a socialist analytical component within his cultural nationalism. His Essays in Struggle (1978) and Kawaida Theory (1981) stand shoulders above much of the theoretical reflections on Afro-Americans oppression proposed by the Black Marxist Left.
On the practical level, the class nationalist perspective has promoted and encouraged impressive struggles against racism in the USA. But with its ahistorical racial definition of a nation, its flaccid statistical determination of national boundaries and its illusory distinct black economy, the Black Nation thesis serves as a misguided attempt by Marxist-Leninists to repudiate the class reductionist and class super-exploitationist views of Afro-American oppression. In short, it functions as a poor excuse for the absence of a viable Marxist theory of the specificity of Afro-American oppression.
Such a theory is, however, in the making. The recent efforts of Howard Winant and Michael Omi to develop a class racialist position contribute to such a theory. As I noted earlier, the pioneering work of Eugene Genovese, Stuart Hall and Orlando Patterson is also quite promising in this regard. The Marxist conception of racially-structured capitalist societies as ‘complex articulated totalities', buttressed by flexible historical materialist analysis, looms large in their work. Genovese is deeply influenced by Gramsci's nuanced conception of hegemony; Hall, by Althusser and Gramsci’s notion of articulation; and Patterson by Marx's own concept of domination, by a homespun existentialism, and by recent studies of Rytina and Morgan in demography. A distinctive feature of these class racialist (or class ethnic) views is that they eschew any form of reductionism, economism and a priorism in Marxist theory. Furthermore, they attempt to give historically concrete and sociologically specific Marxist accounts of the racial aspects of particular societies. This means that they accent the different forms of racial domination and reject racism as a universal and unitary transhistorical phenomenon, e.g., as a prejudicial proclivity of individual psychology or race instinct.
In this way, recent forms of Marxist theory demystify the conservative idea of ‘bad tastes' by historically situating the emergence of these ‘tastes' as socially pertinent, functional and potent; they structurally circumscribe the liberal notion of ‘racist institutional barriers' by viewing such mechanisms within the operations of racially fractured and fractioned capitalist modes of production; and they contest the Weberian assumptions of left-liberals by linking struggles for prestige and status to changing class conflicts and by stressing peoples’ empowerment (participation in decision-making processes), rather than mere increased financial remuneration at the workplace (higher incomes). In stark contrast to vulgar Marxist views, this body of Marxist theory holds racism to be neither a mere conspiracy or ideological trick from above, nor a divide-and-conquer strategy of capitalists, but rather a complex cluster of structured social practices that shape class relations and create a crucial dimension in the lives of individuals throughout capitalist societies. The linchpin in this refined Marxist view is that the economic sphere is the ultimate determining explanatory factor for grasping the role and function of racism in modern societies. My own somewhat hesitant rejection of this linchpin leads me to build upon, yet go beyond, this last incarnation of Marxist theory.
Toward a Genealogical Materialist Analysis
In this last section, I shall set forth a schematic outline of a new conception of Afro-American oppression that tries to bring together the best of recent Marxist theory and the invaluable insights of neo-Freudians (Ranke, Becker, Kovel) about the changing forms of immortality-quests and perceptions of dirt and death in the modern West, along with the formulations of the poststructuralists (Derrida, de Man, Foucault, Said) on the role of difference, otherness and marginality in discursive operations and extra-discursive formations.
My perspective can be characterized as a genealogical materialist analysis: that is, an analysis which replaces Marxist conceptions of history with Nietzschean notions of genealogy, yet preserves the materiality of multi-faceted structured social practices. My understanding of genealogy derives neither from mere deconstructions of the duplicitous and deceptive character of rhetorical strategies of logocentric discourses, nor from simple investigations into the operations of power of such discourses. Unlike Derrida and de Man, genealogical materialism does not rest content with a horizon of language. In contrast to Foucault and Said, I take the challenge of historical materialism with great seriousness. The aspects of Nietzsche that interest me are neither his perennial playfulness nor his vague notions of power. What I find seductive and persuasive about Nietzsche is his deep historical consciousness, a consciousness so deep that he must reject prevailing ideas of history in the name of genealogy. It seems to me that in these postmodern times, the principles of historical specificity and the materiality of structured social practices — the very founding principles of Marx's own discourse — now require us to be genealogical materialists. We must become more radically historical than is envisioned by the Marxist tradition. By becoming more ‘radically historical' I mean confronting more candidly the myriad of effects and consequences (intended and unintended, conscious and unconscious) of power-laden and conflict-ridden social practices — e.g., the complex confluence of human bodies, traditions and institutions. This candor takes the form of a more theoretical open-endedness and analytical dexterity than Marxist notions of history permit — without ruling out Marxist explanations a priori.
Furthermore, a genealogical materialist conception of social practices should be more materialist than that of the Marxist tradition to the extent that the privileged material mode of production is not necessarily located in the economic sphere. Instead, decisive material modes of production at a given moment may be located in the cultural, political or even the psychic sphere. Since these spheres are interlocked and interlinked, each always has some weight in an adequate social and historical explanation. My view neither promotes a post-Marxist idealism (for it locates acceptable genealogical accounts in material social practices), nor supports an explanatory nihilism (in that it posits some contingent yet weighted set of material social practices as decisive factors to explain a given genealogical configuration, i.e. set of events). More pointedly, my position appropriates the implicit pragmatism of Nietzsche for the purposes of a deeper, and less dogmatic, historical materialist analysis. In this regard, the genealogical materialist view is both continuous and discontinuous with the Marxist tradition. One cannot be a genealogical materialist without (taking seriously) the Marxist tradition, yet allegiance to the methodological principles of the Marxist tradition forces one to be a genealogical materialist. Marxist theory still may provide the best explanatory account for certain phenomena, but it also may remain inadequate to account for other phenomena — notably here, the complex phenomenon of racism in the modern West,
My basic disagreement with Marxist theory is twofold. First, I hold that many social practices, such as racism, are best understood and explained not only or primarily by locating them within modes of production, but also by situating them within cultural traditions of civilizations. This permits us to highlight the specificity of those practices which traverse or cut across different modes of production, e.g., racism, religion, patriarchy, homophobia. Focusing on racist practices or white Supremacist logics operative in premodern, modern and postmodern Western civilization yields both radical continuity and discontinuity. Even Marxist theory can be shown to be both critical of and captive to a Eurocentrism which can justify racist practices. And though Marxist theory remains indispensable, it also obscures and makes the ways in which secular ideologies — especially modern ideologies of scientism, racism and sexual hedonism (Marxist theory does much better with nationalism, professionalism and consumerism) — are linked to larger civilizational ways of life and struggle.
Second, I claim that the Marxist obsession with the economic sphere as the major explanatory factor is itself a reflection of the emergence of Marxist discourse in the midst of an industrial capitalism preoccupied with economic production; and, more importantly, this Marxist obsession is itself a symptom of a particular Western version of the will to truth and style of rationality which valorizes control, mastery and domination of nature and history. I neither fully reject this will to truth, nor downplay the crucial role of the economic sphere in social and historical explanation. But one is constrained to acknowledge the methodological point about the degree to which Marxist theory remains inscribed within the very problematic of the unfreedom and domination it attempts to overcome.
Genealogical materialist analysis of racism consists of three methodological moments that serve as guides for detailed historical and social analyses.
1) A genealogical inquiry into the discursive and extra-discursive conditions for the possibility of racist practices, that is, a radically historical investigation into the emergence, development and sustenance of white supremacist logics operative in various epochs in the modern Occidental (Orient, African, Indian) civilization.
2) A micro-institutional (or localized) analysis of the mechanisms that promote and contest these logics in the everyday lives of people, including the ways in which self-images and self-identities are shaped and the impact of alien, degrading cultural styles, aesthetic ideals, psychosexual sensibilities and linguistic gestures upon peoples of color.
3) A macro-structural approach which accents modes of overdetermined class exploitation, state repression and bureaucratic domination, including resistance against these modes, in the lives of peoples of color.
The first moment would, for example, attempt to locate racist discourses within the larger Western conceptions of death and dirt, that is, in the predominant ways in which Western peoples have come to terms with their fears of ‘extinction with insignificance', of existential alienation, isolation and separation in the face of the inevitable end of which they are conscious. This moment would examine how these peoples have conceptualized and mythologized their sentiments of impurity at the visual, tactile, audial and, most importantly, olfactory levels of experience and social practice.
Three white supremacist logics — the battery of concepts, tropes and metaphors which constitute discourses that degrade and devalue people of color — operative in the modern West may shed some light on these issues: the Judeo-Christian racist logic that emanates from the Biblical account of Ham looking upon and failing to cover his father Noah's nakedness, thereby provoking divine punishment in the form of blackening his progeny. This logic links racist practices to notions of disrespect for and rejection of authority, to ideas of unruly behavior and chaotic rebellion. The ‘scientific’ racist logic which promotes the observing, measuring, ordering and comparing of visible physical characteristics of human bodies in light of Greco-Roman aesthetic standards associates racist practices with bodily ugliness, cultural deficiency and intellectual inferiority. And the psychosexual racist logic endows Black people with sexual prowess, views them as either cruel, revengeful fathers, frivolous, carefree children or passive, longsuffering mothers. This logic — rooted in Western sexual discourses about feces and odious smells — relates racist practices to bodily defecation, violation and subordination, thereby relegating black people to walking abstractions, lustful creatures or invisible objects. All three white supremacist logics view black people, like death and dirt, as Other and Alien.
An important task of genealogical inquiry is to disclose in historically concrete and sociologically specific ways the discursive operations that view Africans as Excluded, Marginal, Other, and to reveal how racist logics are guided (or contested) by various hegemonic Western philosophies of identity and universality which suppress difference, heterogeneity and diversity. Otto Ranke and Ernest Becker would play an interesting role here, since their conception of societies as codified hero-systems or as symbolic action systems which produce, distribute and circulate statuses and customs in order to cope with human fears of death or extreme otherness may cast light on modern Western racist practices. For example, with the lessening of religious influence in the modern West, human immortality quests were channeled into secular ideologies of Science, Art, Nation, Profession, Race, Sexuality and Consumption. The deep human desire for existential belonging, and for self-esteem — of what I call the need for and consumption of existential capital — results in a profound, even gut-level, commitment to some of the illusions of the present epoch. None of us escapes. And many Western peoples get much existential capital from racist illusions, from ideologies of Race. The growing presence of Caribbean and Indian peoples in Britain, Africans in the USSR, Arabs in France, and black soldiers in West Germany is producing escalating black/white hatred, sexual jealousy and intraclass antagonisms. This suggests that the means of acquiring existential capital from ideologies of Race is in no way peculiar to the two exemplary racist Western countries, the USA and South Africa. It also reminds us that racist perceptions and practices are deeply rooted in Western cultures and become readily potent in periods of crisis, be that crisis cultural, political or economic.
The second moment, the micro-institutional or localized analysis, examines the elaboration of white supremacist logics within the everyday lives of people. Noteworthy here is the conflict-ridden process of identity-formation and self-image-production by peoples of color. The work of Goffman and Garfinckel on role-playing and self-masking, the insights of Althusser, Kristeva and Foucault on the contradictions shot through the process of turning individual bodies into ideological subjects (e.g., “colored’, ‘Negro’, ‘Black' subjects), and the painful struggle of accepting and rejecting internalized negative and disenabling self-conceptions (e.g. pervasive lack of self-confidence in certain activities, deep insecurities regarding one's capacities) among people of color as highlighted in Memmi and Fanon are quite useful to this analysis.
The third (and last) moment, the macro-structural analysis, deepens the historical materialist analyses of Genovese, Hall and Patterson, with the proviso that the economic sphere may, in certain cases, not be the ultimate factor in explaining racist practices. As I noted earlier, there is little doubt that it remains a crucial factor in every case.