Yankee theorists are always on the TV: a reply on Americans, academics and so on

Yankee theorists are always on the TV: a reply on Americans, academics and so on

The question of class and things that tend to get described as “identity politics”, whether or not that term is a useful one, seems to be one of those topics that generates never-ending, vaguely circular, discussions, often ones which generate more heat than light. As such, it’s worth checking in on every now and again to see if the latest contributions offer anything new.

A recent example, from Juraj Katalenac, offers one very strong observation, wrapped up in a lot of contradictions and unproved assertions. The following are a few thoughts I typed up in response.

The opening of the essay is pretty woeful, starting off with a series of loaded rhetorical questions:

“Have you noticed how, for example, being rude towards fat people has suddenly become a question of left-wing politics instead of proper upbringing and being a decent human being?”

Of course, the first thing to note here is that “left-wing politics”, whatever that even means, is constructed as somehow being something completely separate from “being a decent human being”, as if the question of interpersonal behaviour was somehow not worthy of consideration by us Proper Lefties. The question of how we behave towards each other – being a decent human being, if you want to put it that way – has been a key aspect of the feminist critique of the left for pretty much as long as there has been a feminist critique of the left. It’s also been formulated in various other ways, such as the situationist insistence that you can’t fight alienation with alienated means, this memorably wonderful parody of the anarchist movement, or this recent discussion of the internal culture of the IWW.
Even beyond that, let’s imagine there is such a thing as Proper Left-Wing Politics, unencumbered by such trivial things as basic decency; I would submit that the oppression of women is one area that Proper Left-Wing Politics might still take some kind of interest in. And here we encounter a problem: it’s difficult to talk about women’s oppression without acknowledging that the reduction of women to their appearance, and the pressure to live up to physical standards that aren’t imposed on men in the same way, is one crucial aspect of how that oppression is actually experienced. So, how is Proper Left-Wing Politics to understand this subject, when talking about how it’s experienced, and how it can be resisted, might lead on to such trivial, illegitimate concerns as how fat people are treated?
In short: one sentence in, and this essay’s already fucked. And it’s about to get worse. The next loaded question asks:

“Have you noticed suddenly embracing your own mental illnesses, instead of treating them in a proper way, and encouraging others to act the same, has become an act of political “emancipation” and “empowerment” of the individual?”

Again, this is very silly. The key here is the way that “treating them in a proper way” is just left there as the simple and obvious answer. I’ve never been to Croatia, and I’ve certainly never tried to access mental health services there, so I can’t speak to what it’s like accessing mental health services in Croatia, but certainly for many people in the UK, and I suspect in other parts of the world as well, “just get proper treatment for your mental health condition” is a piece of advice that’s up there with “just get on your bike and find a job” in terms of how much historical materialist understanding of social conditions it shows.

I’d actually say that one of the most useful, practical features of “radical” social scenes is the way that they can function as a network for mutual support and discussion of mental health problems, and that some of them might be improved by dropping some of their other pretensions and more fully embracing their role as a support group. This isn’t to say that there are no problems with some of the ways people in radical social milieus discuss their mental health conditions – I’m put in mind of the opening sections of this excellent article Research & Destroy put out a few years back – but to pretend the alternative is just “go and get proper treatment, it’s right easy to access adequate mental health services” is to operate at an extreme level of disregard for actually existing social conditions. To see this stuff coming from someone who’s supposed to be a materialist is just weird.

For our next loaded question, we get: “Have you noticed how toxic Western political correctness has become the mandatory language of the left-wing politics with its aim being the enforcement of a certain way of discussion without examining the content?”
To which I suppose the answer would be: yeah, kind of. I suppose trends have changed so that, whereas in previous times, the mandatory language used to enforce a certain way of discussion without examining the content would have been more about “democratic centralism”, “the popular front”, “unity not sectarianism” and so on, whereas now it’s more likely to be about “privilege”, “staying in one’s lane” or whatever. But I’m not particularly about to mourn the fact that one set of thought-terminating clichés has been swapped out for another. The tone of this passage suggests that we’re meant to be getting upset as if this was something new, when in fact, while the precise language used may differ, the basic problem described goes back at least as far as Orwell’s time.

Next up, there’s “Have you noticed how being working class has suddenly become just one of the identities, how suddenly you can become working class just by association, instead of needing to work for a wage or being dependent on somebody that does, and how the working class has lost its role as the “wheel of social change” to become “oppressed people”?”

This is a very busy sentence, with a lot packed into it. For now, I’d just like to pick out the bit about “how suddenly you can become working class just by association, instead of needing to work for a wage or being dependent on somebody that does” – I’d like to see more consideration of what this actually means, and who exactly this bit is meant to be a swipe at. The definition of class is obviously quite an important question for class politics, but sadly this essay doesn’t help much.

Next it asks “Have you noticed how the problem of racism is suddenly “challenged” by enforcing particular ethnic identities?” which again I’m not actually really sure what that actually means, and then concludes

“In short: have you noticed how left-wing politics has completely abandoned its content in the pursuit for useless forms and/or smokescreens and how it has stopped being an idea aiming at the creation of a mass movement of the working class with the aim of change and the creation of a better society and has become a social scene for a socially non-adjusted people?”

Again, that’s quite a busy, breathless sentence, but more to the point, it’s a very nostalgic one, crying out for a return to the good old days, before we “abandoned” and “stopped” doing things right. This kind of nostalgia fits OK with social democratic or Stalinist perspectives that want to reinstate the social conditions of the mid-20th century, but as I understand it Katalenac is coming from some kind of a left-communist perspective, a school of thought that could be roughly but not totally unfairly characterised as having the basic assumption that nothing has been good ever, so it’s very strange to see him coming out with this “good old days” stuff.

What did the good old days look like – the Popular Fronts of the 1930s? The self-described Communists who supported the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956? Those groups in the 1960s who rejected the USSR as a model and instead fixated on Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution? Or maybe I’m being too narrow here by just focusing on those who saw themselves as revolutionary Marxists, and I should also include things like the majority of the Second International swinging into line behind their respective governments at the start of WWI as an example of what a proper “mass movement of the working class with the aim of change and the creation of a better society” should look like.

Moving into the main body of his essay, he sets out a critique of what he calls “American Thought”. One point he makes is that “Social networks are crucial for spreading of ‘American Thought’ not only because they promote simplified expression, but also they are simplifying language itself which suits this narrative of theoretical simplification and poverty”. This is debatable – I’d certainly agree that social media plays a role in flattening and simplifying language to some extent (although hope springs eternal, twitter’s just revised its post limit to 280 characters so maybe conversations on there will only be half as stupid in future) (and thinking about it there are definitely counter-tendencies, examples of people using social media to play with language in really fascinating and creative ways), but this point seems odd in light of the fact that another frequent criticism of “American Thought” is that it relies on esoteric, impenetrable academic jargon.

Next he mentions how “social networks allow certain academics, who have not published anything genuine or important in their lives and that cannot even grasp the basics of their own academic disciplines, to gain attention and a following just by saying “shocking things” on the Internet. I am talking about cases such as George Ciccariello-Maher’s “white genocide” stunt or Michael Rectenwald’s stunt to get full time employment at New York University.” I don’t really agree with the characterisation of Ciccariello-Maher here – I don’t think he was deliberately trying to do anything, I think he was just stupid and thoughtless for taking a joke that might be acceptable among close friends behind closed doors and making it in public thinking about the fact that other people might not find genocide to be such a funny word, but whatever, I’m not particularly fussed about leaping to his defence so it’s kind of a side issue.

What’s more interesting is the characterisation of Michael Rechtenwald. From reading Katalenac’s description of him, it’s easy enough to think “oh, he must be someone in some way affiliated with identity politics who did something silly”, so it’s quite jarring to remember that Rechtenwald is in fact someone who’s made a journey from the Marxist left to the conservative right, via a critique of “PC” identity politics – that is to say, rather than being the representative of “American Thought” that Katalenac wants him to be, he’s someone whose only consistent position has been sharing Katalenac’s antipathy to “American Thought”. It’s difficult to put into words exactly how ridiculous the citation of Rechtenwald is in this context – if I want to prove that idea X is associated with people doing daft shit, and I mention some daft shit done by person Y, who has no connection whatsoever with idea X other than sharing my low opinion of it, that does not help to prove my case, to put it mildly.

He suggests that the American left and those influenced by it have rejected “materialist scientific methods of analysis… mostly because they are asking for you to provide arguments, to handle certain theoretical apparatus and back up your claims with historical evidences”. One might expect someone so committed to the defence of the materialist method to consistently back up his own claims with evidence, but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case. For instance, he claims that attention-seeking “narcissism is present in activist circles too and one of the worst examples of that were “thinkpieces” regarding recent murder of Heather Heyer” with no attempt to name or cite the thinkpieces or their authors, or to evaluate their content or how they were received. I’m perfectly willing to give Katalenac the benefit of the doubt and to accept that there probably were some daft things written in the wake of the Heyer murder, but if these nameless, uncited articles are to be treated as proof of anything beyond “isolated dickhead says daft thing” then more information is needed. If you want to treat them as revealing something about “activist circles” more generally, then you need to show which activist circles produced them, and who shared them or otherwise endorsed their content. (Thinking about it, I notice that Richard Seymour made a similarly unattributed reference to “[r]ecent ‘hot takes’ about Heather Heyer” in an otherwise unrelated article that came out about a week before Katalenac’s, so it’s anybody’s guess as to whether Katalenac even read these mysterious thinkpieces or just copied and pasted Seymour’s reference to them.)

Continuing the trend of refusing to give evidence for his points, he complains that Angela Nagle “found herself a victim of a leftist slander campaign which has produced numerous articles which have not even engaged a single point she made but just aimed to discredit her.” To which I can only say: back up your claims with evidence.

Since he refuses to name or cite these articles or their authors, I have no way of knowing whether the critiques of Nagle’s book I’ve read are the same ones that he’s talking about; I do know that the Jordy Cummings review, and the Richard Seymour review, and the Combat Liberalism review, and the Noah Berlatsky review, all actually engaged with the points she made, and the evidence (or lack of) advanced to support those points, at some length. I would also add that if someone writes a book that contains some obvious, glaring flaws – such as, for instance, conflating the arguments used by the left when advancing radical critiques of Justin Trudeau with the tactics used by neoliberal centrists to discredit radical critiques of Hillary Clinton – and several people independently notice those flaws and point them out, that does not by itself constitute a slander campaign.

Next, he knocks the American left for talking about privilege and oppression when “they mostly consist of university educated white people from the USA – the most privileged people in the World”. There’s a number of things I want to say about this, but the fundamental question is: are they working-class or not? This is worth asking because, at a number of points throughout the article, Katalenac asserts the importance of an economic understanding of class, defined as “needing to work for a wage or being dependent on somebody that does”, which I’m fairly sure would include the vast majority of university-educated white American leftists, no matter how privileged they might be in other areas. Of course, we could dial things back a bit and admit that actually, the working class is divided up into a number of different strata and things like relative privilege play a huge role in affecting relationships between these layers, but to talk about things in these terms is to make a big concession to the sort of politics that Katalenac appears to be attacking “American thought” for.

Come to think of it, if having a university education is enough to discredit one’s position, I’d be curious to know more about Katalenac’s own educational background, since he seems to think that’s a relevant thing to discuss when it comes to other people. Certainly I don’t think that I learned much about the 16th century Spanish philologist and humanist Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas when I was doing my GCSEs, but maybe Croatian schools are more thorough when it comes to that kind of thing. Or maybe having gone to university makes you bad and privileged if you do it in the US, but there’s no privilege involved in going to university in Croatia. It’s also worth noting that this article is approvingly rehosted by Ross Wolfe, of the University of Chicago, as fine an academic waste of space as any ivory tower has ever produced – does he include himself in this critique of “university educated white people from the USA”?

Next, he quotes one of his mates as saying “the idiocy of American left academia can easily be explained through an example of Judith Butler, because she at the same time considers an academic essay as a violence and Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the broad left”. This would be a much stronger point if it was boiled down to just the Hamas and Hezbollah bit – assuming that’s true, I’m not completely convinced that Katalenac and his mates can be relied on to represent their opponents honestly so it would be nice to see a citation of Butler’s views on that subject. Y’know, backing up one’s claims with evidence and so on. (EDIT: That citation has now been belatedly supplied, see the comments below this post.)

But anyway, the really puzzling bit here is the faux-naïve bit about “ho ho ho, Judith Butler thinks academic essays can be violent, what a dafty.” If we’re actually going to go down the route of the kind of wilfully obtuse empiricism where nothing except actual rifle butts and truncheons can ever be considered to be violent, then we end up by making any kind of structural analysis impossible. Are urban planning academics who help shape the theory of estate regeneration completely innocent of the violence and death that project produces? Do we really think that the hands of the Chicago School economists can be considered entirely clean of the blood of Pinochet’s victims? How about academics who write in the field of policing studies – is there really no connection at all between the academic essays that formulated the “broken window” theory and the death of Eric Garner? Next time I get kettled, would I be completely wrong to find myself thinking resentfully of John Drury and his mates? Or what about those academics who developed the study of race science, or their contemporary followers who write for the National Policy Institute and American Renaissance – is it so completely wrong to think there might be some kind of connection between them and the violence in Charlottesville, Seattle or Sacramento? Or are Katalenac and his mates just keen to get any kind of cheap dig in, even if a moment’s reflection shows that the jibe they’re making is actually completely inane?

After this, we get the one really strong, sensible observation of the article: that “American thought” is developed as a reaction to a specific set of social and historical conditions and so analyses derived from those conditions cannot be assumed to apply elsewhere – for instance, categories like white supremacy, antiblackness and so on are useless for explaining hostility to EU migrants in the UK, or conditions in the former Yugoslav republics. If he trimmed out all the daft, petty point-scoring and contradictory attempts at class analysis, and instead turned this essay into a detailed explanation of how the working class is currently composed in Croatia and neighbouring states, and the role played by national, religious and ethnic identities in structuring the workforce there, it could have been a really good, useful piece of analysis. (EDIT: since writing this article, I’ve now got around to reading “Three Theses on the Crisis in Rakhine” by Soe Lin Aung and this piece on migrant workers in Italy, both of which are good examples of proper materialist class analysis that involve serious consideration of exactly these kinds of issues.)

Since Katalenac seems to be too lazy to provide much in the way of evidence to support his argument, I’ll be polite and do it for him here, even if it is only anecdotal. In this recent post, several continental Europeans discuss the way that the language used to discuss “race” in their countries differs from the language used in the Anglosphere, and are then shouted down by various Americans who are convinced that they must know better, and that their views on how ethnicity and language function in various European countries must automatically trump those of people who actually live there and know the context they’re talking about. It’s quite eye-opening to see people who would presumably consider themselves anti-racist and anti-imperialist going on in this arrogant fashion, and there’s a good article to be written critiquing this phenomenon; but I’m not convinced that this is that article.

Instead, we go back to swipes at the “American Thought”/identity politics crowd, with the observation that “for social scenes: change is not a goal. Their main goal is to preserve themselves and they are hostile to any intrusion that could shake their foundations.” There’s probably a deal of truth in that; on the other hand, it’s noticeable that that could also serve as an equally good description of most of your classic Marxist organisations, which is a bit tricky for anyone wanting to peddle rose-tinted visions of the good old days when the left were “aiming at the creation of a mass movement of the working class with the aim of change and the creation of a better society”.

We then get a bit on cultural appropriation, and a dig at people who defend the hijab… followed by a hasty backpedal in the form of an admission that “solutions like the idea of banning the hijab in the European Union is a completely different problem connected with European Islamophobia and needs to be discussed through a proper discourse”. I’d be interested to see where this “proper discourse” leads; I suspect that, when faced with the challenge of responding to actual conditions and context, the Proper Serious Marxists might find themselves lining up with the “American Thinkers” after all, since it turns out that much of the defence of the hijab is motivated less by a love for patriarchal religious oppression for its own sake and more by a desire to oppose state-imposed Islamophobic solutions.

Moving onto the subject of class, we’re told that “modern day leftists identify themselves as working class just by association” and asked “how is it possible to identify with a class if you do not share its position in production?” I’m very curious to know who exactly he’s talking about here – certainly, there are a great number of university-educated leftists whose cultural identities do not correspond with traditional “working class” cultural identities, but Katalenac is at pains to make it clear that he’s arguing against this kind of definition, and in favour of one defined by one’s relationship to the means of production. So for the argument he’s making here to work, there would need to be a great number of bosses and landlords active in leftist politics. If that’s the assertion he’s making, I’d like to see some evidence for it. I’m sure there are probably a few individual leftists who aren’t dependant on wage labour or the benefits system, but they’ve got to be a tiny minority, so without any evidence it’s hard to see why they should be taken as representative of “modern day leftists” in general.

On the question of class identity and culture, Katalenac asserts that there’s no reason to be proud of being working class, because all it is an exploitative relationship to capital, and beyond that “an individual worker (or prole) has nothing in common with other workers. Which makes it impossible to create a specific working-class identity or social category.”
This is one of those assertions that’s true in quite a limited way, but also false in a much more important way. Certainly, beyond the fact of being a worker, I have nothing else in common with every-single-worker-in-the-entire-world, and I might not have anything obvious in common with, say, a Bangladeshi garment worker; but if I compare myself to other specific proles – say, my mum, or one of my mates, or, crucially, the bloke I sit next to at work – I might find that I have really quite a lot of things in common. This is important, because, if I’m going to start organising to challenge the conditions of my life, I’m considerably more likely to start off by turning to the guy I sit next to at work than to the Bangladeshi garment worker.

This dual truth – that there’s no specific characteristics shared by every-single-worker-in-the-entire-world, but that there are often quite strong, meaningful sets of characteristics shared by specific groups of workers – means that the conclusion about how it’s “impossible to create a specific working-class identity or social category” is also true-but-false. There is no single working-class identity, but there are a multitude of specific identities and cultures, which arise out of specific shared conditions, and it’s possible for being working class to be an important feature of these cultures.

This, in turn, explodes the bit about how no-one could be proud of being working class – that’s true enough if we imagine “a prole” with no background and no connection to anyone else, a sort of Marxist version of the abstract rational individual so beloved of classical liberal economists, but if we turn to actual workers as they actually exist, we find that they often have strong, meaningful connections to one or more forms of working-class culture. It doesn’t really matter whether that specific culture involves brass bands, football, graffiti, food, knitting, skinheads or juggalos – what matters is that people have positive attachments to it.

The whole “but why would anyone be proud of being exploited?” bit is about as much use as when smug liberal univeralists ask “but why would anyone be proud of where you’re born?” and feel that they’ve struck a decisive blow against nationalism. I think most communists would accept that the Richard Dawkins-style smug-atheist “but the Bible doesn’t make sense!” critique of religion doesn’t have much to offer; it would be nice to see similarly shallow pseudo-critiques of other forms of community getting equally short shrift.

Next we get a citation from Monsieur Dupont’s book Nihilist Communism, which Katalenac considers to capture the situation well. As it happens, I read that extract way back in around 2009 or so, and thought it was a bad piece of writing then; re-reading it now, I’m still struck by how absolutely dire the central image is: “MD have a penchant for Champagne and Tarkovsky movies whereas our neighbours prefer White Lightening and WWF wrestling”. For starters, there’s no such thing as WWF wrestling; the franchise changed its name to WWE in 2002, and anyone who actually had any contact with wrestling fans would be aware of this. This sentence is meant to do the dual job of establishing MD’s impeccable high-culture tastes while assuring the reader that they’re still grounded in proletarian reality, but it doesn’t really work, because making an error that basic actually just highlights the fact that they never talk to their wrestling-loving neighbours, or if they do they certainly don’t pay any attention to what they’re saying.
The other bit of the sentence – champagne vs White Lightning (which they also manage to misspell, clearly nihilists don’t believe in proofreading) really doesn’t work either. It’s offered up as some neutral matter of taste, as if favouring one over the other was just like preferring Kanye West or Dolly Parton; but this only works if you magic away the fact that different consumer goods cost different amounts of money. I drink Aldi’s Saint Etienne more regularly than I drink Hennessy or Tanqueray, but it would be foolish in the extreme to conclude that that must be because I like one better than the other. Obviously, economic class relationships can’t just be boiled down to whether you can afford expensive consumer goods or not, but it’d be equally stupid to try and pretend your class position has no effect on whether or not you can afford expensive things, which is what MD end up doing here. And Katalenac cites this dreck as if it were saying something insightful!

After having spent all this time building up a picture of workers as a kind of “homo economicus”, with no specific features other than our relationship to capital, he then turns around and acknowledges “in reality, the working class is highly divided by various interests that are based on the position of certain workers within the capitalist division of labour or on certain industries/sectors they work in. Various identities, such as gender, ethnicity etc. also divide the working class.”

But what does it mean? What lessons do we draw from this? What strategies might be effective in addressing these divisions? If this essay was to be a good, useful one, it would spend some time actually engaging with the implications of these issues – the actual problems facing workers that identity politics/“American Thought” attempts, however imperfectly, to address. Instead, we just get a brief acknowledgement that these things exist, and then they’re immediately waved away. One of the central problems – arguably the central problem – of contemporary communist politics gets raised, mentioned in a sentence or two, and then immediately forgotten about.

We’re then told that “Class and identity function on different levels. Identity is transclass – i.e. it is not connected with a specific class within the capitalist mode of production.” As with the earlier stuff about there being no proletarian culture, this again is both true and false simultaneously. It’s true that, if you look enough, you can find individuals holding whatever “identity” in whatever class, but it’s also the case that, if you examine any specific position within class society, any specific neighbourhood or job role within the workplace, it will often (not always, but often) be heavily associated with a certain identity. I raise this point not because I hate class politics and want to tear it down in favour of identity politics, but because I think class politics is important, and I want it to feel relevant to people’s lives, and I’m worried that a version of class politics that denies obvious features of people’s lived experiences is going to feel like a joke.

And, to complicate things further, there are some cases where it’s difficult to say where exactly “identity” ends and specific relations to capital begin – is it a transclass distraction to talk about disabled people, but proper class politics addressing proletarian experience if we talk about people receiving ESA or PIP? Because there is definitely a specific “identity” connected to that particular economic position. Or what about “migrant” – is that one of those transclass identities, or a specific form of relationship to capital and the state? How about if we break down “migrant” further into the different categories that constitute it – EU migrant, Tier 2 migrant, illegal immigrant? There may have been a black president, and a female prime minister, but I can’t imagine that we’ll see an undocumented head of state any time soon.

Identity categories are not identical to class, but they’re not class neutral either. And, rather than waving the whole subject away as a bourgeois distraction, I think that any attempt at serious class analysis, trying to get to grips with the actual composition of a specific sector of the class at a given point in time, is inevitably going to have to include identity as one way the workforce is structured.

This has mostly been at the level of vague generalisations, so for a concrete example, how about the recent wave of cleaners’ struggles in London? They’ve definitely been a “proper” class struggle by anyone’s standards, but these workforces are also heavily coded as being associated with a certain gender, and with Latin American and African migrant identities. As struggles in the real world are often messy, this wave of struggles has taken place through a range of different organisational forms, but, especially in the early days, it seems to be widely accepted that the Latin American Workers’ Association played a useful role. If talking about identity inevitably leads in the direction of bourgeois individualism, then how is it that this group, starting from a shared Latin American identity, was able to help catalyse class struggle?

Or how about the Durham Teaching Assistants? Again, theirs seems to be pretty much undeniably a “proper” class struggle by anyone’s standards, but it’s also one that’s bound up with specific identities – both in the heavily gendered makeup of the workforce, and also in that the cultural/regional identity of Durham as a former mining area has been reflected in their campaign, from the meetings held at the miners’ hall at Redhills to their appearance at the miners’ gala as the one of the first major public appearances of the campaign.

Or, for a visual illustration, here’s a picture the AWW shared of one of their former workplaces. See if you can spot which one’s the boss:

The point of talking about these experiences is not to uphold any of these identities as inherently good things – they may well provide resources useful for mobilisation, but certainly they contain their own internal contradictions, and it’s necessary to go beyond them in order to make contact with other proletarians. But I do think it’s worth trying to properly understand them, and I don’t think that the “identities are always inherently trans-class, therefore giving any further thought to this subject is automatically bourgeois” approach has anything useful to offer.

The next point is about cultural and economic definitions of class: “It is also important to notice how a lot of modern day self-proclaimed Marxists have really conservative view of what working class (proletariat) actually is. This view owes more to 19th and 20th century bourgeois sociology than it owes to Marxist understanding of class. Which is why it being common to refer to working class only as industrial workers. You know, working class equals strong hairy men that swing heavy hammers!”

It’s a fair enough criticism, but it also seems at odds with what’s repeatedly suggested in the rest of the essay. Katalenac seems convinced that many contemporary leftists are not really proper workers, but that critique would be far more defensible if he was saying that they’re not strong hairy men who swing heavy hammers; if he really means it, and he’s also sticking with an economic rather than cultural definition of class, then it must take him to some far-out conclusions: not even “antifa are secretly funded by George Soros” and more “George Soros somehow manages to literally make up the majority of antifa’s membership.”

Moving towards the conclusion, he reassures us that while the reader “could think that with change and rejection of ‘American Thought’ I am in favour of a conservative falling back to “classics” and “orthodoxy” of “golden age European Marxism””, in fact “Such a position would indeed be quite ridiculous today”. It’s nice to see that he recognises this, but then once again I find myself wondering what was up with all the nostalgic shtick at the start – why all the harking back to a time when the left was “aiming at the creation of a mass movement of the working class with the aim of change and the creation of a better society” if he’s not “in favour of a conservative falling back to “classics” and “orthodoxy” of “golden age European Marxism””?

Wrapping up his criticisms of “American Thought”, Katalenac says that “we can recognise that all these ideas are coming from above – from a self-proclaimed intelligentsia and vanguard, and are a reflection of its petty-bourgeois and bourgeois view of society”. Once again, it would be nice if he could argue by backing up his claims with evidence instead of just asserting them. And what does it mean for ideas to “come from above”? Certainly, many “identity politics/American Thought” ideas have been articulated by people connected with academia, but is that enough to condemn a set of ideas outright? After all, the First International split apart in a vicious feud between those who were influenced by the ideas of an actual aristocrat count (and his mate the prince) on one hand, and an actual, fully bourgeois, factory-owning boss and his son-of-a-lawyer-slumming-it mate on the other – does that mean that the Marxist and anarchist traditions are both ideas that come from above?

Also, if we’re interrogating ideas to see whether they come from the “intelligentsia”, it would be interesting to know more about what Katalenac himself does. I would really hope that, having put that much effort into criticising people for being academics, it’s not going to turn out that he’s an academic, but I can’t say I’m entirely confident on this score – the fact that he has an academia.edu profile seems to raise a few questions about his relationship to the vanguard intelligentsia, anyway. And once again, it’s worth restating that this essay was re-hosted by Ross Wolfe, of the University of Chicago. Presumably academic ideas aren’t petty-bourgeois ideologies coming from above if Ross Wolfe, of the University of Chicago, agrees with them.

For a decent understanding of this question, we’d first need to decide whether academics are workers or not. Are the Leeds and Manchester UCU strikers organised workers withdrawing their labour or aren’t they? Should we feel free to cross their picket lines? Certainly, if we’re using the definition that “working class equals strong hairy men that swing heavy hammers”, most academics aren’t working class… but then again, Katalenac is explicitly arguing against that view. So if academics are workers, and as Katalenac insists there’s no meaningful working-class identity or culture for them to be outside of, it’s hard to find any grounds for viewing their ideas as “coming from above”.

It’s probably also worth distinguishing between different job roles within the broad category of “academic”, as we might with any other industry, since the material conditions of a securely tenured professor are quite different to those of a precariously employed PhD student who balances academic work with other, more straightforwardly proletarian jobs like care or service sector work. But again, this just shows that an actual materialist analysis of the university environment is quite a different project to just going “I don’t like these ideas, so I’m going to point to the fact that some academics talk about them as a way to slag them off by association.”

To clarify: throughout this piece, I’ve taken the piss out of Katalenac for not being able to decide if he wants to use an economic view of class (where, for instance, academics would just count as highly-paid workers with relatively relaxed working conditions) or an identity/culture/status/privilege view of class (which would give much firmer grounding for viewing academics as an intelligentsia outside and above the working class). I actually think both these viewpoints can be useful, as they both describe some aspects of social reality; I think we should consider the identity/status definition of class in a similar way to how we think about things like race, gender, sexuality and other things that aren’t exactly the same as economic class, but can’t be entirely separated from it either – one part of the picture, which an intelligent, nuanced analysis of class composition should be able to take into account.

The problem is when people want to lean on a culture/identity view while pretending that they’re doing something completely different – to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, “The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of identity politics, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.”

Of course, to point out that Katalenac’s critique of “American Thought” is extremely shaky is not to automatically defend everything, or even most things, that could be described as “American Thought”. Just like with orthodox Marxism, or any other substantial body of work really, there’s an awful lot of crap there, so it’s necessary to sort through it attentively to work out the bits that actually help us understand the world. But I would say that the best elements of what Katalenac seeks to dismiss as “American Thought”, from the Sojourner Truth Organization to Viewpoint Magazine, are part of a genuine effort to understand how the specific historical conditions of North America have shaped the specific sets of relationships existing between workers and capital, and between different groups of workers, in that continent. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that an analysis that’s content to stay at the abstract level of “an individual worker (or prole) has nothing in common with other workers” has anything helpful to tell us about the actual relations existing between any actual groups of workers anywhere.

Re-posted from https://nothingiseverlost.wordpress.com/2017/10/28/yankee-theorists-are-always-on-the-tv-a-reply-on-americans-academics-and-so-on/

Posted By

Mike Harman
Feb 21 2018 21:59


  • I raise this point not because I hate class politics and want to tear it down in favour of identity politics, but because I think class politics is important... and I’m worried that a version of class politics that denies obvious features of people’s lived experiences is going to feel like a joke.

    Cautiously Pessimistic

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