No politics but class politics: but which class and what politics? Joshua Clover and Nikhil Pal Singh argue, against those who seek to cleave race from class, that the proletariat is found, like power, anywhere there’s people.
It is an extraordinary thing to watch someone trembling on the edge of revelation.
The title of No Politics But Class Politics, the recent collection from Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, pointedly bears two senses. The first is imperative, arriving with echoes of “no war but class war!,” directing us away from lesser or mystified activities toward the correct position. This seems to take sides in the recrudescent “race/class debates” with which both authors have been identified. “We love race — we love identity — because we don't love class,” as Benn Michaels imagined a conventional wisdom in his well-remarked intervention, “The Trouble With Diversity.” Race politics, or what the present authors refer to as “antiracism,” threatens to lead us away from class politics. This underpins the title’s initial sense: We should practice no politics but class politics.
But not so fast. The title’s second sense simply states what it takes to be the real condition. There are no politics but class politics.
Importantly, these two senses are not meant just to hover there in tension. Rather, we make the leap from the former to the latter, ought to is, from sloganeering to actuality in the soberly materialist mode. This shift maneuvers us to feel the motion of arriving at a truth — about class, about politics — that presages the book’s insistent, concatenated argument. We are asked, in short, to have the experience of recognition.
The two authors have their emblematic ways of articulating this recognition. Reed’s formula is closest to the title: “antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself,” as he proposes in “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence,” not reprinted in No Politics. He will return to this more than once.
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Benn Michaels is well-known for the repeated observation (sometimes made in tandem with Reed) that, regarding the particular attention to racialized wealth disparities, “It’s the fixation on disproportionality that tells us that the increasing wealth of the one percent would be OK if only there more black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ billionaires” (versions of which occur here both in the editors’ Foreword and authors’ Conclusion). Such politics, we should understand, provide an alibi for the persistence of the moneyed classes, willing if not happy to diversify if it means porting their portfolios and retaining their retainers. A project that makes overcoming racial disparity the measure of social justice while leaving other inequities undisturbed, in this view, merely legitimates capitalist society as it already is: a class politics presenting itself as something else.
In an effort to practice critical generosity, let us accept some underlying propositions. First and most consequentially, there is no path out of broad immiseration to liberation and flourishing absent a class politics, one that features not matching class disparities across groups but the end of class disparities and indeed the end of class (here we need not follow the billionaire tale above so much as Fanon’s earlier and clarion warning against the “national bourgeoisie”). Second, as a descriptive matter, there is no political activity that exists autonomous from matters of class, even if other useful descriptions may also present themselves. Third, while we are perhaps less confident in general that we can know how people understand their own politics and at what level, we accept the proposition that people sometimes find themselves practicing a class politics without knowing it — in the workplace, on Twitter, on the streets of Minneapolis.
This last example is chosen with care. No matter the vintage of individual essays, it is everywhere clear that the occasion for this collection is the George Floyd Uprising, understood as apotheosis of the social phenomenon broadly known as Black Lives Matter. The authors’ Conclusion, meant to draw the collection’s disparate parts into a whole, is not newly written; rather, said conclusion is simply a repurposing of their earlier essay, “The Trouble With Disparity.” It dates to September of 2020. George Floyd appears in the opening sentence.
In all fairness, it is clear that many people who headed out into the streets that summer (and on rhyming occasions) did in fact understand themselves to be involved in class struggle, in whatever terms — but also that many understood their purposes otherwise. The collection gives little heed to the former, while the latter provide the book’s more or less-explicitly stated paradigm: those who, believing themselves to be engaged in race politics, or antiracism, or an urgent will to confront the intolerable and murderous racial dynamic visible down every sightline, were engaged in class politics anyway.
But what politics? And what class? It is here that Reed and Benn Michaels seem on the verge of a revelation regarding the historical, material basis for this particular and persistent form that proletarian struggle takes in the present. The revelation does not arrive.
Instead we encounter a very curious map of reality. The race politics which is really a class politics, we learn, is the politics of the professional-managerial class (PMC), a class fraction of liberal thought-leaders whose malign capacity to direct the will of tens of millions of proletarians, brainwashed and hornswoggled, now animates the perfervid imaginations of reactionary populists mumbling about coastal elites. It won’t be the last time intra-left debate gives fodder to the right. But perhaps we should be more reflective about the ground being ceded. To quote a signal passage in full:
Insistence on the transhistorical primacy of racism as a source of inequality is a class politics. It’s the politics of a stratum of the professional-managerial class whose material location and interests, and thus whose ideological commitments, are bound up with parsing, interpreting and administering inequality defined in terms of disparities among ascriptively defined populations reified as groups or even cultures.
Elsewhere, restating his preferred formula, Reed reminds us that “race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics,” before going on to specify, “the politics of the left wing of neoliberalism.” To state the too-obvious point, the class politics purportedly at stake — not just in the writings of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, but in the largest US uprising in generations — is class struggle contra the true working class and its interests, actively interfering with a truly liberatory project.
We find ourselves scratching our heads at the contrarian wisdom that antiracism, more than racism itself, presents the real obstacle to anticapitalist solidarity in these times. Preserving a spirit of criticism seeking common ground, we might recall Reed in an earlier incarnation. What if the race line is important precisely as a class line, that is, as what comes to define the distinction in the class between the working and workless poor. What if it is a main driver in the production and reproduction of this internal division? This insight has a long pedigree on the left. Reed himself laid it out forcefully in the 1990s, rejecting as abstract fancy Ellen Meiksins Wood’s contention that capitalism can exist without racial hierarchy. Race/racism comprises a “regime of civic hierarchy,” he wrote then, in a passage we find exemplary, “woven into class dynamics as people live them every day.” Far from epiphenomenal, this is endogenous to “the most elemental processes of class differentiation,” and a major obstacle to creating a “coherent,” class-based, leftist politics.
[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]In this racialized division of the proletariat between the waged and wageless, we see instantly what is unacknowledged in Reed and Benn Michaels’ title and core formulation: if antiracism is a class politics, so too is racism. And this scarcely attaches only white nationalists. Every time a centrist hack warns the Democrats about the abandoned heartland and the salient whiteness of its virtuous but neglected denizens; every time the congenital fecklessness of a criminal, “urban” underclass is invoked; every return to the grievous concerns over our porous borders; every murmur that blue lives matter; every time, most pressingly, that we let the figure of the implicitly waged working class stand in the place of the proletariat as a whole — we are in the presence of another type of racialized class discourse.
Reed once grasped this keenly. Against Wood’s flat “retreat from class,” he frankly demurred. “Race,” he proposed, “has typically been a language through which American capitalism’s class contradictions are expressed.”
One might say that Reed’s conceptual argument has not changed — it’s still class, expressed otherwise — but that now he thinks that the racialized language of class mainly serves the professional aspirations of a stratum comprising managerial and administrative brokers advancing themselves as representatives of oppressed groups (mainly on behalf of the Democratic Party and its corporate overlords). This may accurately describe said cadre. But does the “progressive” management and administration of diversity really exhaust the field of race politics as we encounter them in the present and present-past? It is worth remembering the context for Reed’s debate with Wood, namely the stark framing of an underclass that attached criminal stigma and sanction to several proletarianized fractions, from the southern border to the deindustrialized urban core, banishing them from the scene of politics so as to better ventriloquize on behalf of a “hard working” (implicitly, sometimes explicitly white) working-class. Amazingly, Hillary Clinton was still pursuing this gambit (against Obama) as late as 2008. Trump ran the script yet again.
That this type of discourse now saturates the field of right-wing politics, providing the conceptual anchor for contemporary populisms, should not detract from our sense of its enduring and promiscuous political provenance. Tracing the arc that extends from the Clinton era to the present, we might offer a more robustly materialist formulation than one that posits race as merely a “language of class.” Instead we might observe with Ruth Wilson Gilmore the fateful divergence of proletarians deemed surplus to capitalism’s requirements, those often renamed simply as “the poor,” who are overcharged and underpaid; those who are frequently undocumented for work, or alternatively forced to check the felony box and proscribed from work (and political life); who are wageless but market-dependent, forced into the informality of the hustle; and who in the final instance are likely to find themselves subject to an apparatus of unprecedented coercive force.
The material recomposition of class along these lines — however symbolically articulated, and yes, racialized, its internal scissions ceaselessly reinscribed from all corners — seems to us a far more durable and significant impediment to coherent and organized proletarian struggle in the current moment than does neoliberal identity politics. Indeed, the idea that a real and more or less homogeneous working-class “interest” and “consciousness” (qua collective agency) lies dormant in the face of mute compulsion, its activation foreclosed by the veil of identitarian divisions and mystifications, is not just methodologically faulty but is mirror image to the very PMC moralism it opposes.
[book-strip index="3" style="buy"]James Boggs, reflecting on these same matters in 1965 — the wage line within the proletariat and the path to revolution — offered the following, at once theoretically apt and historically grounded: “Very few revolutions start with a conscious attempt to take power. No revolution has ever started with everyone in the country agreeing with the goal of the revolutionary movement.” To expect such agreement in advance is baseless; to demand it is thought-leader shit.
A truer picture of the world we inhabit tells us that while class division and struggle is present, ongoing and intensifying within contemporary capitalism as a structural matter, it is not always signified as such. The task of signifying in turn is less about a sectarian polemic yielding the received truth of working-class strategic capacity and agency (the “identity of workers”), than of plural antagonisms finding commonality and commensurability in and through struggle.
The problem facing us today, in short, has less to do with the analyst’s fidelity to mistaken or mystified class politics than to the abjected and disorganized terrain of class struggle itself. To put it most pointedly, from our perspective, asserting the primacy of class vis a vis other differentiated “identities” is all well and good; we even find sympathy with the structuralist insistence that class is different in kind from other social relations. However, this analytical framework fosters blindness rather than insight when it homogenizes and flattens class in terms of a national, social history of wage labor that excludes social relations anchored in rightlessness, wagelessness, and extra-economic coercion, and in so doing catastrophically narrows the full proletariat down to a narrow idea of the working class.
An anticapitalist politics of any scope and significance will always elude a flat and abstract conception of class, as people live out class relations through gender, race, sexuality, geography, nationality, disability, among other salient differences. It is consequently assured that the lure toward a bourgeois and nationalist politics of rights and representation along lines of identity is ever present; it is also true that insurgent political struggle with general import and significance frequently breaks through from self-determined needs and demands of individuals and communities whose social experience of direct domination, exclusion or bodily or territorial dispossession takes precedence over interests understood in pecuniary, or even predominantly economic terms.
Let us move toward a conclusion by offering a final agreement. There is no gainsaying what Reed and Benn Michaels decry as “anti-solidaristic” dimensions of a reductive emphasis on racial disparity, essentialism and particularism. This is particularly true 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.
Do bureaucratic formations endeavor to subsume, direct, and gain from proletarian struggle even as they defang its militancy? We could scarcely suggest otherwise. But this is familiar to social movements of any scope. The true oddity is that it is here imagined as somehow peculiar to race politics. Surely such a dynamic is no less present within the socialist renaissance to which Benn Michaels and Reed appeal: if we retain faith in the radical rank and file, this must be because we do not believe them mere instruments of cynical Democratic progressives finally bound to the party line, self-reproducing non-profits, compliant business unions, and so on. We believe their interests and their reach exceed the bureaucratic layer always ready to stretch itself atop a movement.
With this, we understand that the vulnerability to cooptation and corruption is by far less significant than the staggering openings for cooperation and experiment on display. Most of all, it seems strange to see mass confrontation against the contemporary organization of policing, especially in cities — a persistent dimension of significant street protests around the world over the past two decades — as a sign of failure, rather than the very grounds of a liberatory politics on which we will surely build.
Reed and Benn Michaels take as self-evident that the proper priority of political struggle has been reversed:
Finally, although some anti-racists — and certainly many liberals — express indifference toward or disdain for poor and working-class whites, it is practically impossible, as generations of black proponents of social democracy understood clearly, to imagine a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people’s conditions without winning them for all working people and without doing so through a struggle anchored to broad working-class solidarity.
Again, there are grounds for assent. Any socialist reform worth the name ought by definition help all of those in poverty. This itself decides nothing about priority. The “black proponents of social democracy” hailed here would not include Du Bois, who affirmed that the “first proof” of socialism would be "the abolition of color and race prejudice among the laboring class.” Neither Boggs, clarion in his formulation that
the Negro struggle in the United States is not just a race struggle. It is not something apart from and long antedating the final struggle for a classless society which is supposed to take place at some future time when American capitalist society is in total crisis. The goal of the classless society is precisely what has been and is today at the heart of the Negro struggle. It is the Negroes who represent the revolutionary struggle for a classless society.
With respect to the US in particular, it is difficult for us to imagine an emancipatory politics in the current moment that does not run through the precinct house, the national guard station, or the military base, those sites of local, national, and global police power whose voracious demands on budgets, public priorities, and political imaginations have shaped the broad organization of US society over the past half-century, if not longer. Moreover, it would be strange to ignore how movements, mobilizations and gatherings on the ground function today, including an often-tight rapprochement between abolitionist, labor, and tenant organizing. To suppose that the participants in these rebellions, as a general matter, proceed vacantly unaware that the police represent a systematic imperative to subordinate humans on behalf of property seems in equal parts insulting and blinkered. If there is one thing that everyone knows, it is that George Floyd was murdered by police protecting the sanctity of a twenty-dollar bill.
[book-strip index="4" style="buy"]We are close, finally, so very close. We share the project of trying to recognize that events like the George Floyd Uprising, or the national riots after Ferguson in 2014, or the Standing Rock and Wet’suwet’en blockades, or the movement to Defend the Atlanta Forest, are among other things class politics that appear from some viewpoints otherwise. We ask again: what class and what politics?
We would suggest that the proletariat is found, like power, anywhere there’s people; that it is vastly larger than the set of waged workers; that this distinction is among other things persistently racialized; and thus that proletarian movements, class politics to their core, are likely to take racial domination as an immediate experience and concern. Consequently, class politics will also be race politics and more, and in the United States, these proletarian uprisings offer class politics at its most militant and confrontational. One might be forgiven for hoping that this truth will appear to the rest of us. But we need not expect it, nor wait.