A recurrent conversation I have had with friends during my time at Berkeley has revolved around the question of critical spaces. Thinking back now, I notice that I haven’t really had this conversation in other places I have lived or studied in and so it’s interesting that during this past year it has come up so often. The question is inevitably about why there are so few critical spaces within academia and how to grow without these kinds of spaces. Having done my MA and now my PhD at a place that is extremely critical and where postcolonial approaches in particular are the “common sense” rather than the “critical” I have always found myself telling friends at Berkeley (where despite its critical reputation does not offer a critical space on the whole) that these spaces exist. Having now spent the past week at the Historical Materialism conference hosted by SOAS in London, I am even more certain that these spaces are out there and that the solution for academics who do not feel them is to perhaps try to connect more to the ones that are already there.
The Historical Materialism conference covered a multitude of questions and issues being debated by contemporary Marxists. The topic of the conference was “How Capitalism Survives” and indeed this seems to be a pertinent question given the times. Every single panel I went to was interesting and loaded with thought-provoking analysis and further questions for debate. What was especially amazing was that there were so many shared assumption already there – for example, that imperialism exists and that liberalism is annoying ;) – and so this meant that a lot of exhausting, pointless debates could be avoided. I personally don’t see the point of debating things like whether imperialism exists or whether neoliberalism is bad for the working classes for the sake of having “diverse opinions” when the answers to those questions are blatantly clear. So it was definitely a relief to surpass those kinds of “debates” after a year at Berkeley where they not only happened way too often but also took up most of the time.
In this post I want to highlight some of the interesting debates that happened at some of the panels I went to. There were so many panels on race and sexism and that in itself is a useful refutation for those that automatically label all Marxism as necessarily reductionist, but is also a sign of the continuing tension between these different structures.
The first major theme across a few different panels was the (continuing) weakness of the Left inside Europe. (There weren’t a lot of discussions of the left in the US not only because it’s much weaker than in most parts of the world but also probably because of the dominance of Europeans at the conference.) This was discussed in the context of rising fascism (what is fascism, how is it related to production) and rising racism, including Islamophobia (in contrast to Bill Maher I do see Islamophobia as a form of racism). Two interesting points were: first, the fact that many of the far-right gains in Europe this year were because of votes coming from the petty bourgeois (or middle classes as some would say); in this sense it’s interesting to look at changing class dynamics, and not just racism, as part of the rise of the right, or more accurately, to see how these two structures are co-constitutive; and the second point revolved around questions of race and the working classes, and the ways in which it continues to prevent a “universal proletariat” from emerging.
The second theme was the ways in which a shift to service economies has impacted gender norms. One presenter – Emily Cousens – talked about the ways in which the successful performance of vulnerability has become a part of successfully performing femininity. She notes, following Butler, that gender is performative, and that the ideals of masculinity and femininity are constantly changing. What is new is that with the shift to a service economy in the Anglo-American world, vulnerability has become a much-required asset for many jobs. This reproduces a specific form of hegemonic femininity that automatically excludes women who are stereotyped to not fit this, including women of colour and working class women, who are assumed to be more “assertive.”
The third theme I found interesting was the discussion in one panel – that had focused on settler colonialism – about how anti-colonial resistance had not been a part of any of the presentations, and how this reproduces Eurocentrism even while critiquing European imperialism (indeed one comment was that one can be Eurocentric and against European imperialism, as has been argued by John Hobson). This is an issue that I have struggled with a lot – how to speak about imperialism, hegemony and capitalism, without being over-deterministic. By only focusing on those producing these hegemonic structures (in this case Europeans producing settler colonialism) and excluding the people who were resisting this settler colonialism, aren’t we still being Eurocentric by centering European actions and ideologies? Moreover, what about the ways in which this resistance constituted the colonial process and also the European colonists? Similarly, one can think of how an analysis of class struggles can’t just focus on the ruling class as though it is detached from the subaltern classes. The relationship is much more complex. And yet we need to conceptualise this complexity without losing sight of the fact that there is a power imbalance between the two.
Fourth, there was an especially interesting debate about Marxism and Eurocentrism. This happened in a panel about Marxism in the Arab world during the 1960s, where one speaker focused on how Lebanese Marxists in the Socialist Union had not seen Marxism as European and therefore as inapplicable to the Arab world. He asked: “What are the particularities of our period? Every Marxist work has to come back to this question. If something works everywhere then it is not valid anywhere. We don’t have to throw away the Eurocentric baby with the bathwater.” In my own opinion, the debate about Marxism’s Eurocentrism is obviously a complicated one, especially given Marx’s earlier writings as well as his work on the Asiatic Mode of Production and the assertion that all societies must first go through the capitalist stage. Yet much of this was later reframed, particularly in the Grundrisse, and so it is difficult to create a definitive or simple view of Marx’s opinion of non-Western societies. All of that said, I have found the work of Egyptian Marxists extremely central to my own research and indeed have found their work from the 50s-70s much more useful than most of what is being written about Egypt today. I found the book “Marx and the End of Orientalism” by Bryan Turner especially helpful, and am about to start reading Gilbert Achcar’s “Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism” which I assume tackles similar questions.
Finally, there were two major debates happening at the gender panels (which were attended by equal numbers of men and women – seriously the first time in my life to see that!). One important debate was the problem with feminist movements that 1) focus on legal reforms and 2) that address their demands to the state. It should be clear by now the problems with the liberal tendency to see the solution to patriarchy as having better or stronger laws. Not only does this lead to an increase in criminalization (as pointed out by Jen Roesch at a talk) but it also assumes that the state is a neutral enforcer of laws that can somehow protect women. This view of the state is the main issue: the state’s priority lies (more often than not) with capital, not with those marginalized by capital. This focus on laws also detracts away from the broader conversation of patriarchy as a set of structures and relations that need to be dismantled. The focus on law therefore turns what should be a very broad conversation into an extremely narrow one. Now I know some will say – as has happened to me countless times – that legal reforms “are better than nothing.” What this misses is that once feminist energy goes towards legal reforms as the priority, it redirects away from other ways of challenging patriarchy, including class struggle.
The second important debate in gender panels revolved around intersectionality. Many were uncomfortable with what intersectionality is or what it has become. The growing trend of work using intersectionality that is apolitical and completely liberal raises important question about intersectionality, including the important question of what it is: theory? approach? metaphor? While intersectionality is useful in that it shows us the the ways in which structures intersect, does it explain why this happens? Perhaps it is here where Marxist approaches are more useful, because of their focus on explaining the materiality of oppression rather than just the fact that it exists and that it is intersectional. At the end of the day, if we want to change anything, knowing it exists is not enough – understanding why it exists becomes what is necessary.
I definitely feel recharged and inspired by this conference. The debates I saw were definitely the most complex and nuanced ones on topics such as sexism, racism, and – importantly – the Egyptian revolution. I can’t say how amazing it was to hear discussions about Egypt that were not liberal; that did not simplistically complain about how it’s worse now than ever before without trying to understand exactly what it is that is happening now; that don’t focus on freedom of the press and freedom of speech as if those are the only two important things being challenged; and that instead looked at the basis of what the revolution was trying to change: the political economy of a country being attacked by capitalism. Indeed Egypt becomes an important case study if the question is “How does capitalism survive?” because what we see is a restoration of an older system – not of the same system or same elites, but of the same logic of capital accumulation. Nevertheless, 2011 represented a challenge to capitalism, and because the organic crisis that led to the revolution has not been resolved, there will be more such challenges coming from Egypt, and many other parts of the world. Hopefully!