Zahari Richter is a graduate student, artist and blogger at DidIStutter.org. He and I had this discussion shortly after the election of Donald Trump about the limits of intersectionality and the possibility of bringing it closer to its original intention.
C. Derick Varn: In light of Trump's recent victory, there has been a lot of critiquing left-liberals and far left ignoring of the working class in general, and the "white working class" in specific. Conversely there has been a lot of double-down on identity in face of oppression and a racialist turn in the country's politics. You and I have been discussing the use and abuse of intersectionality in contemporary left politics. How do you think intersectional thinking can help us get between what seem like two almost caricatures of the relationship between class and race in contemporary U.S. politics?
Zachari Richter: Intersectionality would caution us against dividing experiences into singular categories. The enumerative logic that divides "white working class" problems into one list and "white supremacy" into another list ignores how racialization and class compositon facilitate the separation of oppression into two distinct types and political languages. Media rhetoric perpetuates the illusion that people oppressed by race and class are separate groups that must be spoken to separately. In fact, Afropessimist theories speak to how race constitutes a different language of class formation and autonomist thought speaks to how class hierarchies constantly change in line with cycles of worker resistance and bourgeois sabotage. The false dualism that places the liberal democratic establishment as most capable of speaking for racialized people ignores just how much is in common with the so-called "wwc". Police securitization, benefits cuts, globalization and privatization cut across the neat divisions of language but were not ignored by voters. Low turnout rates are not proof of apathy nor false idealism. Many voters did not return this year because the wider population can see past the illusion of "liberal" and "conservative" nationalisms. Crenshaw was hugely critical of reducing identity to single issues. Democrats attempted to monopolize black issues as part of a strategy that allowed them to avoid committing to actual left wing policy and republicans attempted to use religious rhetoric and xenophobia to maintain a capitalist-theocrat coalition. Trump's victory by way of low turnout is proof that fundamentalists will remain loyal despite class contradictions and that more conscious proletarians fall for neither trick. Clinton attempted to use specific celebrities to tokenize the black left but spectacularly failed as evidenced by the number of intellectuals that could not be fooled by her wordplay. An optimistic leftist would be encouraged by the reluctance of the broad majority to be fooled by divide and conquer tactics. A more cynical leftist might view the situation as one that assures the repetition of disenfranchisement through forcing rhetorical compromises that essentialize distinct parts of the working class while depoliticizing those that fit outside the categorically polarized mode of intra-class divisiveness.
Do you think Democrats coopted Social Justice Ideas explicitly or was this an accident of various activist cultures around social media? Or was it some combination of both?
I do not believe that "social justice" can be co-opted because an idea so ephemeral as one that seeks to actualize the virtue of justice in the abstract field of "the social" has already lost any substance it might have had. I believe that "social justice" as a concept as well as the Democratic party platform are both products of the class logic of linguistic divisions that prevent the recognition of overlapping material and policy stakes for a much wider group than those subdivided by xenophobia and racialization.
Why do you think "social justice" became the signifier for the otherwise diverse set of conditions that the term can be used to refer to?
"Social justice" became the signifier of choice for a diverse set of conditions due to the guise that Marxism has been allowed to take in Western Capitalism. The intellectual Marxist has been allowed to advance social and cultural analyses with great depth but is stymied as soon as those efforts start to involve practice or praxis. Social critique then has been allowed as a walled garden where truths may be spoken but never acted upon. Justice in the social as an idea is amnesiac of this fact and conflates critique with action.
Do you also see this as an effect of a Marxist detente with elements of liberalism?
I do not see this as the result of a marxist detente with liberalism because I do not believe liberalism is coherent enough a thing to have a detente with. I see it as a result of the contradiction of continuing to try to express and debate Marxist ideas in a capitalist dominant world.
While many ideas in social justice rhetoric have origins in critical theory or Hegelian Marxism, their most popular expressions from the 1980s and 1990s weren't made by clear Marxists and their lineage, particularly in psychology, came out of dialogues with explicitly non-Marxist post-structural thinkers. So how did functioning in a capitalist world force that?
Postructuralism, I believe came about from the limits of political action allowable in academia. I believe Marxist ideas are further decontextualized in poststructuralist thought because Marx demands a turn to the material and to action but intellectuals who use Marxism are restricted to the social. The restriction to the social has meant theoretical innovation required developing increasing diversity of linguistic types of analysis but rarely straying from the linguistic and social. So the Marxists had nowhere to go but recursive revisions.
What do you see as being a useful change in direction now?
I see some hope in the materialist turn's resurgence in academe. While I am not a particular fan of Deleuze, his theories do encourage greater materialism. Additionally, Crenshaw's intersectionality might be embraced for its potential use as a call to internationalism among those making use of identity. The way forward is definitely one that can utilize materialism and internationalism to ground the false delusions that circulate widely and deceive the oppressed.
How much do you think the left and liberals are going to have to change their approach in light of this election?
It will be very interesting to see what establishment Democrats choose to learn from the election results. I could see Democrats giving up on identity politics in a major way or doubling down. If the conclusion among Democrat elites is that Hilary's strategy of PR was successful but her ability to carry it out failed, then we will see some of the same liberal identity politics deployed as well as a new rural poor targeted plank. If the conclusion is that redistribution is required, we will see more open uses of medicare as a wedge issue to get aging boomers to the polls. At this time, it is unclear what the liberal consensus will derive. The current fear of "fake news" as if any news is "real", points to a doubling down on Democrats as a voice of moderation. However, the narrative remains unclear and will be shaped by whoever replaces Hilary as the heir to establishment Democratic politics.
Do you see a lot of hope for radicals working with the Democrats?
If we are to lower our standards for what a radical is, to the point that we can accept democratic socialism as having a redistributive effort, then I think the survival and vindication of the Berniecrats may yield some dividends. However, Marxists, that are dedicated to a longer term outcome than one or two elections in the future, should not waste their time on the democrats. During this period, community survival initiatives could gain support. If Marxists had meetings and offered free food and childcare during their meetings, they could lessen the academic elitism that colors our work in the popular imagination.