Notes from Asad Haider

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On Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

McIntosh writes “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tool and blank checks.” The knapsack is carried by an individual navigating an entirely open social field. It contains tools that enable the individual to navigate this field with greater effectiveness than those whose knapsacks are comparatively empty. The resources contained in the knapsack constitute whiteness as privilege, because the knapsack is carried by an individual who belongs to the white identity.[1]

[It is assumed that] If the knapsack of privileges is carried by an individual already identifiable as white, then whiteness must be understood as a biological trait. The falseness of this notion is evident: the people who are currently described as white have a wide and complex range of genetic lineages, many of which were previously considered to be separate “races” of their own…In reality, whiteness itself is constituted by the contents of the knapsack. The constitution of whiteness as identity and its constitution as privilege are simultaneous: the knapsack’s provisions confer not only advantages but also identity upon its bearer.[2]

On the “white race”

This racial phenomenon is not simply a biological or even cultural attribute of certain “white people”: it was produced by white supremacy in a concrete and objective historical process. As Ted Allen wrote on the back cover of his The Invention of the White Race: “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there.”

Allen was pointing to the fact that the word white didn’t appear in Virginia colonial law until 1691. Of course this doesn’t mean there was no racism before 1691. Allen’s argument was to show that racism was not attached to a concept of the white race. There were ideas of the superiority of the European civilization, but this did not correspond to differences in skin color.[3]

The historical record quite clearly demonstrates that white supremacy and thus the white race are formed within the American transition to capitalism, specifically because of the centrality of racial slavery. But we must resist the temptation, imposed on us by racial ideology, to explain slavery through race. Slavery is not always racial…it is a form of forced labor characterized by the market exchange of the laborer. There are various forms of forced labor, and the first form in Virginia was indentured labor, in which a laborer is forced to work for a limited period of time to work off a debt, often with some incentive like land ownership after the end of the term. The first Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619 were put to work as indentured servants, within the same legal category as European indentured servants. In fact, until 1660 all African-American laborers, like their European-American counterparts, were indentured servants with limited terms of servitude. There was no legal differentiation based on racial ideology: free African-Americans owned property, land, and sometimes indentured servants of their own. There were examples of inter-marriage between Africans and Europeans. It was only in the late-seventeenth century that the labor force of the American colonies shifted decisively to African slaves who did not have limits on their terms of servitude.[4]

The Euro-American ruling class had to advance an ideology of the inferiority of Africans in order to rationalize forced labor, and they had to incorporate European populations into the category of the white race, despite the fact that many of these populations had previously been considered inferior.[5]

[1] Haider, Asad. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. Verso Books, London, 2018: 45.

[2][2]Ibid, 46.

[3]Ibid, 51.

[4]Ibid, 53.

[5]Ibid, 56.

A fly in the marketplace

I have become a fly in the marketplace. I buzz and irritate my fellow men and women with newfound toxicity. Capitalism has done this to me — entrapped me in the public domain, away from my cloistered work room and much-valued solitude. Now I fly and buzz with the others, content with my lack of desire and inspiration, poised only to interact in the marketplace, consume, and procreate. I now spread the disease of mediocrity and uniformity as an instrument of the capitalist machine.

From Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:

Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you defeated with the noise of the great men and pricked by the strings of the little men.

Forest and rock know well how to be silent with you. Be like the tree again, the wide-branching tree that you love — silently and attentively it hangs out over the sea.

Where solitude ends, there the marketplace begins; and where the marketplace begins, there begins also the noise of the great actors and the buzzing of poisonous flies.

Even the best things in the world are worthless without those who first present them. People call these presenters great men.

The people have little comprehension of greatness, that is to say: creativeness. But they have a taste for all presenters and actors of great things.

The world revolves around the inventors of new values; invisibly it revolves. But around the actors revolve the people and fame; so the world goes.

The actor has spirit but little conscience of the spirit. He always believes in that with which he most powerfully produces belief — produces belief in himself!

Churchill on landlords

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Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains — all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labor and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet, by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived…The unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.

— Winston Churchill, 1909

Montaigne on introspection

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If no one reads me,

have I wasted my time, entertaining myself for so many idle hours with such useful and agreeable thoughts? … I have no more made my book than my book has made me — a book consubstantial with its author …

Have I wasted my time by taking stock of myself so continually, so carefully? For those who go over themselves only in their minds and occasionally in speech do not penetrate to essentials in their examination as does a man who makes that his study, his work, and his trade, who binds himself to keep an enduring account, with all his faith, with all his strength.

Indeed, the most delightful pleasures are digested inwardly, avoid leaving any traces, and avoid the sight not only of the public but of any other person.

— Michel de Montaigne

Notes from Streeck

“Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.”[1]

“The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.”[2]

“In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways…The fact that capitalism has until now managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; […] we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its security may fail to show up.”[3]

“Why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When Communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph.”[4]

“My answer is that having no opposition may be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”[5]

“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint…We are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself.”[6]

On oligarchic redistribution and the outcome of the economic crisis of 2008: “The possibility as provided by a global capital market of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.”[7]

“German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere, and at all times; not only was it NOT distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based NOT on a desire to get rich on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling, and to a rational organization of life…Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an “industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where the revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption.”[8]

“The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.”[9]

“The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption, and international anarchy. What is to be expected, based on capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay, intensifying frictions, fragility and uncertainty, and a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.”[10]

§

[1] Streeck, Wolfgang: How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System. Verso Books, London, 2016: 1.

[2] 2

[3] 4

[4] 59

[5] 60

[6] 65

[7] 69

[8] 70

[9] 71

[10] 72

Notes from Jan-Werner Müller

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From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

*

Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.[1]

Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.[2]

A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.[3]

Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.[4]

Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.[5]

While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.[6]

It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.[7]

Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.[8]


[1] 20

[2] 19-20

[3] 21

[4] 31-32

[5] 35

[6] 42

[7] 91

[8] 103

from Critchley

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Notes from Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance:

“The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. Philosophical activity, by which I mean the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by militant resistance to nihilism. That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our values are meaningless and require a Nietzschean ‘trans-valuation.’”[1]

“The human being has a reflective attitude towards its experiences and towards itself. This is why human beings are eccentric, because they live beyond limits set for them by nature by taking up a distance from their immediate experience. In living outside itself in its reflective activity, the human being achieves a break with nature.”[2]

“Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is guided by one imperative: conscience-less free trade; a life of open, unashamed, direct, and brutal exploitation.”[3]

“Some wrote in the 1970s that capitalism was over. On the contrary, capitalism under the guise of globalization is spreading its tentacles to every corner of the earth. If someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and distribution rights.”[4]

“Politics is not rare or seldom, and to adopt such a position is defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, but they also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, an invitation for our ethical commitment and political resistance.”[5]

“No revolution will be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do is what we must do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning. No ontology or eschatological philosophy is going to do it for us.”[6]

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, London, 2012.

[1] 2

[2] 86

[3] 96

[4] 98

[5] 131

[6] 132