Feel free to read this while listening to the latest Heavy Leather Mixtape.
By the peak of the civil rights movement in America, a powerful strand of black nationalism had emerged. It argued that black Americans would never be represented adequately in white society and it was impossible to be fairly compensated for generations of barbaric exploitation. Even if they did find a form of inclusion, the total erasure of their history would mean they would be integrated on the white man’s terms, forever impostors in the land built on the backs of their ancestors.
Some of these nationalists argued that America should be partitioned, and a new black state should be founded. This would be built with liberated black labour on the principle black self determination. There were plenty of legitimate criticisms of this plan from within the civil rights movement itself. Even Malcolm X argued that it would be financially untenable. He pointed out that although black America represented a huge portion of the national wealth, that wealth was tied in too heavily to the white economy to be extracted for use in nation building. That’s leaving aside the potential for a military conflict with that section of white America unwilling to be annexed into the new nation.
Whatever criticisms the likes of Malcolm X had of this plan, it was nothing compared to the objections of the white American body politic. When black separatism began to emerge as an actual possibility, they heavily softened their stance on black representation. Martin Luther King became a national saint, partly because of his genuinely heroic struggle, and partly because he represented a way of nullifying the more radical demands of the black movement.
Although these ambitions seem ludicrous in hindsight, are they so different from the demands which gave us the Muslim state of Pakistan, or the Jewish state of Israel? Does it have a parallel with the struggle taking place right now for a free and independent Kurdistan? Maybe not so fanciful after all, but consigned to the dustbin of history none the less.
The point of all this exposition on black nationalism is to ask a broader question: Is representation a false god? Does it serve the oppressor by giving his institutions legitimacy, while giving the less courageous among the oppressed a way out of a potentially painful, but necessary confrontation?
This question has plagued subjugated people, and therefore the political left, for generations.
A similar conundrum faced socialist parties in the early 20th century. Did they militate for new forms of working class government, or did they contest seats in the parliaments of the ruling class, which had so long excluded and exploited them? Many Suffragettes argued that the first act of women upon enfranchisement should have been to withhold their votes, and refuse to legitimise a single male politician or party so heavily invested in a system which still treated woman like second class citizens.
This isn’t to say that immediate revolutionary action is always the best path for the oppressed class – many is the failed revolutionary that would have benefited from a long term strategy for reform, often realising this too late, as the latest reports of massive crop failure come in from the provinces… or as the firing squad takes aim for their forehead.
On the other hand, timidity (or even out right treachery) has often lead progressive forces to squander historically important opportunities. Many members of the British Labour Party will bitterly recount the many times they’ve finally been in a position to reform the balance of power in favour of the working class once and for all, but capitulated most decisively to the forces of capital at that very moment. Let’s not forget it took David Cameron and George Osbourne barely 6 months to undo nearly all the work of the most electorally successful social democratic government in British history.
So what’s my point? My point is that although representation of the historically unrepresented is hugely important, it is not always the cure it appears to be. In fact, those that cheer for representation the loudest are often those that have reached the limit of society’s tolerance for the misdeeds they’ve been gladly perpetrating for years. They realise that by allowing a section of the exploited up to the top table, they can save their own sorry skins and continue their nefarious activities in some new form.
Every single political choice is a calculation between what is ideologically desirable and what is strategically achievable – anyone that tells you any different is probably either a swivel eyed lunatic or a quisling bastard. However, before unthinkingly cheering on a *black* president bombing kids in the Middle East, or a *female* CEO extracting punitive rents from the families of the poor, ask yourself: is representation furthering the cause of humanity, or validating the institutions of the enemies of progress?
Too often, liberalism represents the capture of progressive demands by the forces of capital and reaction. Never allow someone with more money and power than you to try and convince you that you have more in common with them than the people you work with every day. Never allow yourself to be conned into thinking they will fight for your economic interests over their own, even if they look and sound like you.
By all means celebrate the achievements of those who have succeeded against all the odds their race, gender or economic background have thrown against them, but do not be conned that just because someone wins the lottery, you will too.
Combat liberalism. Rise with your class, not over it.
**note on the choice of image**
Despite not being a black American, I’ve decided to take a risk and illustrate this piece with the image above. The reason I’ve picked this photograph is because of the way it is used in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do The Right Thing. A slightly simple character carries this photograph around with him throughout the film, as it depicts both of his heroes smiling beatifically at each other, and gives a glimpse into the world which he desires, and his reduced mental faculties believes to be possible.
The reality, however, is that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were often bitter foes in their visions for the progress of the civil rights movement – each believing that the other’s methods would bring disaster to the black race in America. In a bitter reminder that despite these antagonisms, we often have more in common than divides us, both men ended up murdered for what they believed in – leaving those that survived to face the impossible choices they faced.