Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: Class Notes by Adolph Reed Jr.

After hearing some of Adolph Reed Jr.’s appearances on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News radio show, I decided to pick up his collection of essays Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene.  Although the book was written over a decade ago -- even before the Year Zero of American politics signaled by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- the work remains very relevant and insightful.  

The pages cover a lot of ground dealing with left politics, black politics, organizing, intellectual political history and academia.  Reed is very critical of many darlings of the political left -- Cornel West (“left in form, right in essence” (86)), Michael Dyson, Obama -- as well as many intellectual trends on the left -- cultural studies, ethnic studies, etc.  Not many political figures or ideas on which Reed casts his gaze come out of the experience unscathed.  The book is divided into four sections: an introduction, “Issues in Black Public Life,” “Equality & Ideology in American Politics,” and “The Question of Practice.”  Each of these sections will be covered in turn presently.

The introduction is perhaps the most interesting part of Class Notes, as it provides a master narrative of left intellectual practice over the past several decades; it really is a must-read.  Reed states in the introduction that his book is part of a “corrective to the flight from concreteness that has increasingly beset left theorizing and social criticism, and as a result political practice, in the U.S. in recent decades.” (vii)  He laments the “symbiosis of defeatist thinking and wish fulfillment that have come to shape political thinking in such quarters.” (viii)  He goes on the criticize strains of sectarianism and identity politics which he believes fit into this framework. [1]

In the “Issues in Black Public Life” section, Reed slams the black organizations of the country who have engaged in what he calls a “‘Brokerage’ model of politics,” (4) essentially speaking for a (not actually) unified constituency without the input or direction of the blacks they claim to represent.  He also has no patience for those that “Romanticise ‘everyday resistance’ or ‘cultural politics,’” (4) believing they’re means of ignoring the fact that there is no extant contemporary popular black political movement.  Reed blasts activists of all stripes for sweeping under the rug differences in the black population under the pretense of a false unity: “I cringe when… I’ve heard white activists rhapsodize about ‘the black community’” (11) and “Whites on the left don’t want to confront complexity, tension and ambivalence in black politics.” (72)  However, he notes that many blacks often play along with this game, providing “Authentic-sounding doses of what [white organizers] want to hear.” (12)  In short, Reed attacks the lack of nuance in the leftist milieu, which he believes is a class politics that serve the individuals at the head of it.  Reed also shares his thoughts on O.J. Simpson, “successful black woman syndrome,” the Nation of Islam, Jesse Jackson’s politics, Mumia Abu-Jamal, etc.

“Equality & Ideology in American Politics” contains essays that are more eclectic, touching on affirmative action, the Labor party, The Bell Curve, and race, among other subjects.  Here, Reed excoriates sociologists (“studying poverty [has come] increasingly to substitute for fighting inequality” (107)), liberals and their “long-standing aversion to conflict and their refusal to face up to the class realities of American politics,” (111) and identity politics:

At bottom, identity politics rests on problematic ideas of political authenticity and representation.  These derive from the faulty premise that membership in a group gives access to a shared perspective and an intuitive understanding of the group’s collective interests.  This leads to two related beliefs that are wrong-headed and politically counterproductive: that only a group member can know or articulate the interests of the group, and that any group member can do so automatically by virtue of his or her identity. (136)

Reed ends the identity politics essay with a warning: “If we don’t organize of a class basis, we’ll be picked off one at a time.” (138)

The final segment, “The Question of Practice,” is similarly eclectic, focusing on ethnic studies, various political struggles that Reed was involved in, the labor movement, sectarianism, etc.  Reed dishes out wisdom relating to political practice throughout, declaring “Cultural production can reflect and perhaps support a political movement; it can never generate or substitute for one” (170) and “Racial subordination is not a constant feature of American life.” (191)  He argues that “We need... a politics that proceeds from a subtle form of what used to be called historical materialism” (195)  The book terminates with the following passage:

The failure of disciplined strategic thinking of the left is a serious problem.  It reflects and stems from the extreme demoralization and isolation that has plagued us for two decades.  We’ll never be able to build the kind of movement we need unless the left can find its moorings and approach politics once again as an instrumental, more than an expressive , activity.  Emulating the model of union solidarity would be a big step in the right direction. (211)

Reed is a master wordsmith and Class Notes is a pleasure to read.  His pithy and erudite prose truly sets the standard for riveting political writing.  Reed’s experience, intellect and study enables him to bring clarity to debates lacking nuance (e.g. black politics) or, worse, where the terms are simply wrong (e.g. affirmative action).  Regardless if one’s politics line up exactly with Reed’s, anyone on the left will surely find much of value between Class Notes’ covers.

[1] I consider this excerpt from the introduction (which, forgive me, I like so much I must quote at length) one of the high points of the book:

Recent debates that juxtapose identity politics or cultural politics to class politics are miscast.  Cultural politics and identity politics are class politics.  They are manifestations within the political economy of academic life and the left-liberal public sphere -- journals and magazines, philanthropic foundations, the world of ‘public intellectuals’ -- of the petit bourgeois, brokerage politics of interest-group pluralism.  Postmodernist and poststructuralist theorizing lays a radical-sounding patina over this all-too-familiar worldview and practice. 
As it moves beyond the academic arena, the limitations of this approach to politics become all the more striking.  Insofar as identity politics insists on recognizing difference as the central truth of political life, it undercuts establishing a broad base as a  goal of organizing.  Its reflex is to define ever more distinct voice and to approach collective action from an attitude more like suspicion than solidarity.  Not unlike left sectarianism, its tendency is to demand that a movement be born fully formed, that all its participants possess an evenly developed, comprehensive progressive critique from the outset.  
This stance typically requires demonstrating knowledge of and appropriate gesture of respect for the differences and ‘perspectives’ of a broad range of potential participants as prerequisite to acting in concert; this is how the ‘politics of recognition’ takes shape as a practice.  Whites must demonstrate their antiracism; heterosexuals must prove their opposition to homophobia; men must establish their antisexism; each nonwhite group must convincingly show its appreciation and respect for the perspectives of the others -- all before strategic consideration of possible points of mutual concern.  Also as with sectarianism, managing the internal politics of the movement comes easily to take precedence over externally focused action. 
Anyone with experience in left-of-center activist politics in the last thirty years has been exposed to the dynamic  The standards of proof vary, not only with the specific context, but also with the mood, personal and political idiosyncrasies, and sincerity of the participants.  Because there is no such thing as ‘the perspective of the X’ apart from the pronouncements of those who claim privileged access to it, no one can ever be fully certain not to be committing disrespect. (Just as in mainstream interest-group politics, the ironic truth underlying this style is that it requires the good will of those who are presumed to be insensitive; otherwise, they would feel no guilt or concern to prove themselves.)  In such conditions, opportunists or wackos can deploy the language of distrust with the destructive effect of provocateurs. 
Because identity politics does not grow from a coherent vision of how the society should work, it cannot build broad unity around a coherent common program.  Instead, its model of movement-building revolves around constructing and imposing formal images of representativeness.  This approach reduces political criticism to scrutinizing the official composition of a movement to ascertain which ‘voices’ are present in what proportions and with what prominence, and which are not.  The tendency, therefore, is to subordinate consideration of a movement’s or organization's program, goals, and strategies to the appearance of its freeze-frame photo.  A standard form of intervention from the mindset of identity politics illustrates this limitation. 
A predictable moment in progressive meetings of virtually any sort, even at incipient stages of an organizing effort, is when someone -- more or less piously, more or less smugly, always self-righteously -- rises to introduce the concern that, ‘As I look around the room, I don’t see enough of the X, the Y or the Z present’ and to issue the standard calls for inclusiveness and for making greater effort to reach out, etc.  This intervention has a pro forma, gestural quality.  It is a ritual act that seems automatic and obligatory.  Like a mantra or a Catholic prayer of ejaculation, its purpose seems more therapeutic and aesthetic than instructive.  It is typically offered as a self-sufficient commentary, seldom accompanied by specific proposals for correcting the perceived imbalances.  
Sometimes, in the unfolding of a meeting or event, it is possible even to notice identitiarians surveying the room, seemingly with only scant regard to the progress of the meeting’s agenda, doing an inventory of the groups arguably not represented -- in preparation of tailoring the predetermined intervention to the specific gathering.
This kind of political intervention is fundamentally counter-solidaristic.  Its default posture is accusation; it is propelled by presumption of others’ bad faith.  In its narrowness and self-righteousness it parallels left sectarianism in yet another way.  Yet this intervention has an opportunist quality that also displays marks of its ancestor in black-power era racial politics.  A political stance that pivots on accusations of exclusion or disrespect sets up a role for the accuser as either a special conduit to -- or a proxy for -- the excluded or overlooked constituencies. 
This is not to argue that those issues are trivial, just as noting the wrongheadedness of the identitarian rhetoric of inclusiveness is not to deny either the importance of building an inclusive politics or the fact that doing so may require special effort.  The point is that these characteristics of identity politics militate against mobilizing a popular base broad and large enough to hope to have any significant effect in advancing democratic and egalitarian interests.  In fact, insofar as politics is about the effort to mobilize an effective base for concerted public action, it may be improper to call the ideology and rhetoric of identity a politics at all.  Its focus on who is not in the room certainly does not facilitate strategic discussion of how best to deploy the resources of those who are in the room, and its fixation on organizing around difference overtaxes any attempt to sustain concerted action. (xxii-xxvi)

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