Saturday, January 25, 2014

cultural politics worse than no politics at all: the ruling material force dominates intellectual and cultural production

nonsite | Race theory, that is, took shape as a defense of slavery only in the last decades of the institution’s life; it was the expression of a beleaguered slavocracy doubling down to protect its property rights in human beings.

Hammond may have believed that he’d always believed the positive good argument and that black slavery was nature’s racial decree. If he did, he would only have been demonstrating the power of ascriptive ideologies to impose themselves as reality. Marxist theorist Harry Chang thus analogized race to Marx’s characterization of the fetish character of money.  Just as money is the material conden
sation of “the reification of a relation called value” and “a function-turned-into-an-object,” race is also a function—a relation in the capitalist division of labor—turned into an object.35

Race and gender are the ascriptive hierarchies most familiar to us because they have been most successfully challenged since the second half of the last century; ideologies of ascriptive difference are most powerful when they are simply taken as nature and don’t require defense. The significant and lasting institutional victories that have been won against racial and gender subordination and discrimination, as well as the cultural victories against racism and sexism as ideologies, have rendered those taxonomies less potent as justifications for ascriptive inequality than they had been. As capitalism has evolved new articulations of the social division of labor, and as the victories against racial and gender hierarchy have been consolidated, the causal connections between those ideologies and manifest inequality have become still more attenuated.

Race and gender don’t exhaust the genus of ascriptive hierarchies. Other taxonomies do and have done the same sort of work as those we understand as race. The feebleminded and the born criminal, for example, were equivalent to racial taxa as ideologies of ascriptive hierarchy but did not hinge on the phenotypical narratives that have anchored the race idea. Victorian British elites ascribed essential, race-like difference to the English working class. The culture of poverty and the underclass overlap racially disparaged populations but aren’t exactly reducible to familiar racial taxonomies. Some—like super predators and crack babies—have had more fleeting life spans. Their common sense explanatory power hinges significantly on the extent to which they comport with the perspectives and interests of the social order’s dominant, opinion-shaping strata; as Marx and Engels observed in 1845, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”36