Saturday, January 25, 2014

property rights - of some individuals over others - conferred by law, custom, and institutions - is the issue

nonsite |  The rhetoric of antebellum fire-eaters and the ordinances of secession they crafted stand out for the vehemence of their protests that their essential liberties were under attack. The secessionists framed their extravagant denunciations of the national government for its potential infringement of their right to hold property in human beings in language that from our historical location seems Freudian in the blatancy with which they declared themselves as literally fearing enslavement by the United States. But it wasn’t psychological projection or reaction formation. They considered any potential infringement on absolute property rights as indeed tantamount to enslavement. For them property is the only real right; therefore, property-holders are the only people in the society with rights that count for anything, and their rights trump all else.

This is a perspective that can provide some badly needed clarity on debates in contemporary politics regarding the relation of race, racism and inequality. For example, Ron and Rand Paul, libertarians of the highest order, do not oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Law because they hate, or even don’t like, black people. (And, for the record, whenever one finds oneself agreeing at all with Kanye West about anything, it’s time to take a step back, breathe deeply and reassess.) They oppose it, as they’ve made clear, because it infringes on property rights. They dislike black people because they understand, correctly, that black people are very likely to be prominent among those committed to pursuing greater equality. They oppose black people’s demands and all others intended to mitigate inequality because any efforts to do so would necessarily impinge on the absolute sanctity of property rights. I don’t mean to suggest that the Pauls aren’t racist; I’m pretty confident they are, no matter how much they might protest the assessment.  My point is that determining whether they’re racist, then exposing and denouncing them for it, doesn’t reach to what is most consequentially wrong and dangerous about them or for that matter what makes their racism something more significant than that of the random bigot who lives around the corner on disability.

And that is a quality that makes multiculturalist egalitarianism, or identitarianism, and its various strategic programs—anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heteronormativity, etc.—neoliberalism’s loyal opposition. Their focus is on making neoliberalism more just and, often enough, more truly efficient. Their objective is that, however costs and benefits are distributed, the distribution should not disproportionately harm or disadvantage the populations for which they advocate.

But what if neoliberalism really can’t be made more just? (And, to be clear, when I say neoliberalism, I mean capitalism with the gloves off and back on the offensive.) What if the historical truth of capitalist class power is that, without direct, explicit and relentless, zero-sum challenge to its foundations in a social order built on its priority and dominance in the social division of labor, we will never be able to win more than a shifting around of the material burdens of inequality, reallocating them and recalibrating their incidence among different populations? And what if creation of such populations as given, natural-seeming entities—first as differentially valued pools of labor, in the ideological equivalent of an evolving game of musical chairs, then eventually also as ostensibly discrete market niches within the mass consumption regime—is a crucial element in capitalism’s logic of social reproduction? To the extent that is the case, multiculturalist egalitarianism and the political programs that follow from it reinforce a key mystification that legitimizes the systemic foundation of the inequalities to which those programs object.

Regimes of class hierarchy depend for their stability on ideologies that legitimize inequalities by representing them as the result of natural differences—where you (or they) are in the society is where you (or they) deserve to be. Folk taxonomies define and sort populations into putatively distinctive groups on the basis of characteristics ascribed to them. Such taxonomies rely on circular self-validation in explaining the positions groups occupy in the social order as suited to the essential, inherent characteristics, capabilities and limitations posited in the taxonomy’s just-so stories. These ideological constructions and the social processes through which they are reproduced, including the common sense that arises from self-fulfilling prophecy, are what Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields call “racecraft.”31 An implication of the racecraft notion is that the ideology, or taxonomy, of race is always as much the cover story as the source of even the inequalities most explicitly linked to race.


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