Blog post

A Response to Clover and Singh

Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr. share their response to Joshua Clover and Nikhil Pal Singh's "Revelation's Edge", regarding No Politics but Class Politics.

Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr. 1 June 2023

A Response to Clover and Singh

Joshua Clover and Nikhil Pal Singh imagine that the “occasion” for our book No Politics but Class Politics is “the George Floyd Uprising” in the summer of 2020. As it happens, this isn’t true but the more relevant fact is its importance for them, since they understand the Uprising (and similar events like Standing Rock and the “national riots after Ferguson”) as expressions of the way in which movements where “class division and class struggle” are not “signified as such,” can nevertheless mark “the path to revolution.” And they understand our skepticism about such movements – and more generally about “the social phenomenon broadly known as Black Lives Matter” – as a form of blindness to the ways in which the racialization we criticize can be both justified on its own terms and crucial also to the “anticapitalist politics” that they and (when they’re practicing “critical generosity” they think) we share.

On what does or doesn’t count as “the path to revolution,” we got nothing. We all understand very well that the triumph of the working class would involve its destruction as a class (that is, the end of class society) but, in the meantime, our writing has been focused on what the working class can do for itself in the struggle against capital. No doubt there are movements where class struggle, although not “signified as such,” is nonetheless signified. But we argue that the race-based movements that Clover and Singh defend not only don’t signify class struggle as such, they don’t signify it at all (even when the events they responded to did!). What they signify is mainly what they say they signify – racial struggle as such. And, we argue, they not only fail to advance a working-class politics, they don’t even provide a basis either for explaining those extant inequalities that appear as racial disparities or for mounting popular challenges to the most egregious attacks on weak and vulnerable populations: for example, privatization and destruction of public education and other public goods, the publicly supported, rent-intensifying redevelopment commonly summarized as gentrification, or other domains of regressive redistribution. 

Clover and Singh do not respond to these arguments. Their interest is rather in a more abstract (or, as they perhaps think of it, more fundamental) insistence on the importance of racial disparities for class struggle because, they think, properly understood, the race line, far from being an alternative to a class line is “important as a class line.” Why? Because where we, in our narrow conception of the working class, supposedly think only about those who are actually working, Clover and Singh remind us first of the distinction within “the class between the working and workless poor” and second that race is “a main driver in the production and reproduction of this internal division” – “the racialized division of the proletariat between the waged and the wageless.” The echo here of “Negro poverty is different from white poverty” is presumably unintended, but the moral is nonetheless that we should pay attention to the difference, and that the poverty we’re paying attention to (our version of the working class) is too white.

Since, in an entirely orthodox fashion, we actually think of the working and the workless both as part of the labor force, we’re not entirely sure what difference to our views their racialization of the working and workless would make if it were true.1 But we are pretty sure it’s not true. Of course, it is true that in the U.S. the black unemployment rate is consistently higher than the white unemployment rate: for example, in 2021, black unemployment was 8.6% and white unemployment was 4.7%. But, also of course, many more whites (5.854 million) than blacks (1.756 million) were unemployed in 2021. And this is hardly news. In 1966, publicly introducing the Freedom Budget, A. Philip Randolph made the point that, “while most Negroes live in poverty and desperation, it is not true that most of the poor are Negroes. We must not forget that 75 percent of the poor are white. No less than Negroes are they denied adequate income, decent housing, quality education, sufficient health care and security.”

So, when workless white people outnumber workless black people by three to one what sense does it make to say that race is “the main driver in the production and reproduction” of the distinction between the working and workless poor? The logic of this claim is that the race line matters as a class line because blacks are disproportionately unemployed but, as we argue in the book they are discussing, focusing on disproportionality is precisely a way of obscuring the question of class. Why? Because complaints about disproportionality – whether it's blacks being disproportionately unemployed, disproportionately under-represented in the top income decile or even disproportionately killed by the police – are complaints about discrimination. And no project of anti-discrimination – that is, no project devoted to making sure that everyone has a chance to succeed in a class society – can ever make the slightest contribution to ending class society. Moreover, as we also argue at various points in our book, universalist egalitarian policies provide disproportionate relief to blacks and other nonwhites who, for reasons that undeniably have to do with racism, are over-represented among the poor and economically insecure. 

From Clover’s and Singh’s standpoint, of course, that appeal on behalf of the working class itself looks racialized. Reminding us (in italics!) that “racism” is “a class politics,” they further note that it’s not just the politics of avowed racists but of centrists like Hillary Clinton, who ran against Obama, “ventriloquiz(ing) on behalf of a ‘hard-working’ (implicitly, sometimes explicitly white) working class.” But readers of this discussion will also remember that she ran against Sanders with much greater success, speaking against what she derided as Sanders’ economism. (“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) We would have thought that the fact that racism was a class politics went without saying, although, in the book we do in fact say it: “one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people.” But we go on to say, “one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people” i.e. to make people mistakenly feel that the black beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism and its black victims form a black community, meaningfully identified in slogans like, for example, Black Lives Matter.

This is an identification that Clover and Singh themselves acknowledge should be resisted. “There is no gainsaying what Reed and Michaels decry as "anti-solidaristic" dimensions of a reductive emphasis on racial disparity, essentialism, and particularism.” But that acknowledgment is prologue to dismissal. “This is particularly true,” they aver, “as these are manipulated or opportunistically advanced in the present moment, perhaps especially in the professional and corporate milieux of media and academe. But to transfer such concerns wholesale when considering the mass response to police violence in the decade since Ferguson – that is, to conflate Black Lives Matter with Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. – redoubles the injury of cooptation. It is the basest of ideological inversions, recasting those regularly figured as beneath the working class (the dispossessed, the excluded, the wretched of the earth) as class oppressors from above.” 

There is much to dispute in those sentences. But, setting aside the fact that nowhere in No Politics but Class Politics nor anywhere else, does either of us make anything that could reasonably be understood as such a contention, two aspects of their analysis are particularly striking. The first is the “you may be correct about the publicly known activity that you point to, but we have special knowledge of a more authentically radical and righteous strain out there” character of their account of people’s motives. Very little if anything that’s happened under the banner of Black Lives Matter since the summer of 2020 has suggested, what Clover and Singh seem to believe, that the race line highlighted in every demonstration was really understood as a kind of class line. Clinton’s reactionary ventriloquy here finds its revolutionary equivalent in the anonymous and conveniently mute “mass response” that functions as Clover and Singh’s Charlie McCarthy and Lester.

Second, the fact that the actual institutional response to the “mass response” has mainly taken the form for liberals of an intensified commitment to DEI et al and for conservatives of an intensified hostility to DEI is in no way explained as an “injury of cooptation.” Cooptation never explains a political initiative’s failure; it’s a dilettante’s form of political interpretation. Who coopts whom? How do the processes work? What characteristics make an initiative susceptible? Cooptation and repression, two sides of the same coin, commonly have been adduced for nearly half a century to preserve the romantic appeal of radical movements of the 1960s, surrounding their disappearance with an aura of tragic “if only…” narratives, as an alternative to examining the limits of those movements, the politics they advanced, and the contradictions that fed their demise. But, to stick to the Black Lives Matter example and to the extent that supporters of Black Lives Matter mean what they say, there’s no reason to regard what the people in the streets wanted – an end to racialized police violence – as significantly different from what their corporate supporters say they want. Or from what we all want. The difference is just that we don’t mistake it for an anti-capitalist politics. 

So, in search of a “truer picture of the world we inhabit,” Clover and Singh more or less completely reproduce the default liberal understanding of American inequality (one way to avoid “thought-leader shit” is to go with thought-follower shit). Their contribution is to try to gin it up into something more glamorous, hence, for example, the George Floyd Uprising, or more precisely, the effort to find in that uprising something they can’t really show was there. 

Not that there’s everything wrong with that. At least they’re trying! By contrast, philosopher and tourist in black American political history Olúfémi Táíwò has attempted to reinvent cooptation, if not as a virtue, at least as a natural process that we must accept. In a strikingly superficial account, Táíwò argues that criticism of BLM or other antiracist expressions is misguided because “elite capture” happens naturally to left-of-center expressions. His argument urges celebration of performative radicalism past and present – Combahee River Collective, Black Lives Matter – and acceptance of its failure to produce changes in social relations. This is the quintessence of neoliberal leftism. Not only has he been true to the neoliberal ideal of monetized social justice advocacy in his own practice; in an interview in The Drift Táíwo declares it as an ideal: Actually, I think woke capitalism represents a substantive victory of the left and the forces of justice. From this perspective, Elite Capture could become an Acres of Diamonds for the identitarian left. We can’t really imagine that this is the sort of left Clover and Singh prefer. But if it is, then their politics and ours – like their analyses and ours – are not at all compatible. 

[1] Similarly, Clover and Singh persist in asserting that Reed’s current argument about the relation of race and capitalism is a reversal of his arguments in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s not clear why that assertion is so important to them; they never accompany it with an argument, and it feels rather like an accusation without the courage of its convictions. This essay is the second time they’ve made it on the Verso blog. The earlier instance, instructively, was a non-response to Reed’s corrective that the earlier arguments that they believe to contradict his current views were a “substantive critical foundation of the arguments about identitarianism that they don’t like.” Neither in their non-response then nor when they assert it again now do they even acknowledge, much less engage with, Reed’s counterclaim. They certainly don’t give any hints that they’ve so much as thought it over to reject it. That they repeatedly assert the claim without ever considering differences in political context between then and now that could explain what they present as a contradiction, if not apostasy, also suggests their point is mainly burnishing a brand.


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