Wednesday, 3 February 2016

(Coates on) Johnson on Coates

I'm still a Coates fan, and I do disagree with Sanders' response to the reparations question - while also disagreeing with some of the specific criticisms of that response. But this is a thought-provoking, if slightly uneven, piece by Cedric Johnson; and Coates' reply is equally so (on both counts). To some extent, Coates is misinterpreting, and so talking past, Johnson; but Johnson bears some responsibility for that.

Johnson is trying to accomplish two conflicting tasks simultaneously: providing a Marxist critique of Coates' position, and defending Sanders' social democratic policy program against Coates' criticisms of Sanders.

The crucial line in Coates' piece is this: "But eventually, I came to believe that white supremacy was a force in and of itself, a vector often intersecting with class, but also operating independent of it."

There are two claims that need to be considered:

(1) White supremacy/institutional racism is an effective social force, the result of which is that black American poverty is significantly different than white American poverty; and

(2) White supremacy/institutional racism is independent of the class struggle.

Because Johnson is trying to defend Sanders, Coates takes him as denying both of these claims (although that's a little unfair at this point, given Sanders' response to his encounter with Black Lives Matter, namely, his development of far-and-away the most comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform); and Coates spends the first half of this piece defending his central thesis - thesis (1), the difference between white and black poverty - from Johnson, who does not, I think, mean to dispute it.

What Johnson, qua Marxist, does dispute is thesis (2). Coates may be right (almost certainly is right) that white supremacy/institutional racism would survive a series of social democratic reforms of the sort Sanders is advocating (and that remains true even if we include his criminal justice reforms). Johnson's position, again qua Marxist, on this point would have to be that it would not survive the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, because the class struggle is causally and explanatorily prior to white supremacy/institutional racism. Unlike non-hegemonic racism, which derives from the early hominid evolution of in-group/out-group dynamics, white supremacy/institutional racism is held up, as it were, by the fact that it serves the interests of economic power - which means, in the modern age, capital. The two best books on this are this one (from an econometric perspective) and this one (from a historical one). But it is impossible to stress this point in the context of a defense of Bernie Sanders' campaign, since Sanders is not running (this time) as an actual Marxist.

What Coates does not deal with is Johnson's critique of his alternative identity politics. Coates is unable to see that white supremacy/institutional racism would be unscathed by reparations in any form, or by any other action which he or anyone else might propose in the context of capitalist society, especially neoliberal capitalism. This is why the Marxist point about the causal and explanatory priority of the class struggle is important. It is Coates' greatest blind spot, as far as I'm concerned - his worst pieces, at least among all the ones I've read, are posts on his old Atlantic blog which defend the present day de facto requirement that writers be willing to work for free indefinitely if they really want a shot at "making it", and then having the opportunity to write for compensation.

One final complaint - Coates is self-consciously playing to an uninformed white audience with the digs he takes at Johnson's worries about the "Black managerial class". This is a persistent theme in the writing of black Marxists who are even deeper thinkers than either of them, like Adolph Reed, Jr (who subjects Coates' arguments to far more scathing critique than Johnson does).

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