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Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities.

Race, Nation, Class is a collection of thematically and conceptually related essays by two of the most significant living Marxist theorists. These essays are stimulating, insightful, and -- unlike a great deal of what passes for political theory today -- genuinely relevant to real political struggles. Both writers analyze racism with a degree of rigor that should sharpen the thinking of any reader and help him or her to understand racism -- not as an isolated psychological aberration, but as an integral part of a national capitalist world system.

However, the volume does have one significant flaw. In his preface, Balibar aptly characterizes the essays as "elements of a dialogue" (1). The "dialogism" of the volume perhaps gives the writing some of its urgency and vitality. However, it also makes the volume somewhat diffuse. The main conclusions of the two thinkers are never isolated and organized into a coherent summary essay -- something that could have been accomplished quite easily in a co-authored conclusion, for example. In the following pages, then, rather than seeking to summarize and critique the volume essay by essay, I will try to draw together the main strands of the dialogue.

Ideological critique typically involves concerns of validity, function, and origin. In the case of racism, one might ask whether or not certain claims about race are valid, how those claims function in society (for instance, what sorts of practices they support or oppose), and what their origin might be. A good deal of commentary on both racism and sexism has tended to focus particularly on origin. For example, following Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, a number of commentators have been concerned to understand the genesis of patriarchy in relation to the genesis of the division of labor. Balibar and Wallerstein are part of this tradition insofar as they see racism and sexism as intimately bound up with the division of labor. However, for the most part they turn away from the traditional focus on origins and concentrate instead on the more crucial issue of the continuing or recurrent function of racism (and, to a lesser extent, sexism).

More exactly, Balibar and Wallerstein argue that racism operates within a larger economic and political structure that relies on closely related national and international divisions of labor. Wallerstein in particular emphasizes the international structure of production, ownership, and distribution. There is, he argues, an "uneven distribution of the bourgeoisie and proletariat in different states, core states containing a higher percentage nationally of bourgeois than peripheral states" (123). Indeed, Wallerstein maintains that over the past four centuries there has been "an absolute polarization of classes" (128), just as Marx predicted, for "the large . . . majority of the populations of the world-economy works harder and longer today for less reward than 400 years ago" (129).

This international division of labor is racialized, according to Balibar and Wallerstein, by the necessary correlation between fictions of nation and race. As Balibar points out, nationality is organized around a "fictive ethnicity" (49), a "myth of origins and national continuity" (87), which always presupposes racial division. "How can ethnicity be produced?" he asks. "History shows us that there are two great competing routes to this: language and race. Most often the two operate together" (96).

Perhaps the most theoretically interesting division, however, is not that between "us" and the barbarians without, but that between "us" and the barbarians within. Here too, nation and race are intimately linked. Balibar points to the connection between anti-Semitism and European nationalism, the genocide of Native Americans and early U.S. nationalism, communalism and nationalism in India, the Arab/Berber conflict and Algerian nationalism, etc. (52-53). Wallerstein too stresses that this is a universal phenomenon. What is called "tribalism" in Africa, though widely conceived of as a unique, primitive phenomenon, is in fact an ordinary instance of nationalist racism (see 191-93).

Here, two issues arise. One is partially a question of origins: why do we have nationalism at all? The other is purely a question of function: what work does racism do beyond supporting nationalism? The first is a problem because capitalism should tend toward global bourgeois domination without national division. As Balibar puts it, "One of the most pertinent questions . . . is that of why the world-economy was unable to transform itself . . . into a politically unified world-empire, why, in the world-economy, the political institution has taken the form of an 'interstate system'" (5). The second is a problem because it is unclear why racial divisions should not simply coincide with national divisions. In other words, it is unclear what the point is in having a barbarian within as well as without.

Balibar and Wallerstein devote relatively little attention to the first problem. But what they say is acute. As to origin, Balibar argues that, in the period of transition to capitalism, the nationalist fraction of the bourgeoisie became dominant

probably both because |the capitalist class~ needed to use the armed forces of the existing states externally and internally, and because they had to subject the peasantry to the new economic order and penetrate the countryside, turning it into a market where there were consumers of manufactured goods and reserves of "free" labour power. (90)

Functionally, it is a matter of the capitalists' continuing need for state intervention in the economy--well beyond the period of transition. As Wallerstein points out, "The essential contradiction of capitalism is well known. It is that between the interest of the capitalist as individual entrepreneur seeking to maximize his profits (and hence minimize his costs of production, including wages) and his interest as a member of a class which cannot make money unless its members can realize their profits, that is, sell what they produce" (130), quite often to workers, who must therefore be better paid. This and related contradictions require continual governmental mediation (see, for example, 144-45). In this way, the functioning of capitalism necessitates the continuation, even strengthening of the state system. The Marxist theory of the capitalist state is often misrepresented as claiming that the state is the mere mouthpiece of the bourgeoisie. In fact, the standard Marxist view is that the state operates -- not always successfully -- to preserve or "reproduce" relations of economic domination (hierarchies in relations of production, ownership, and distribution), and it does so to a great extent by adjudicating conflicts within the capitalist class.

The answer to the second question -- on the function of racism within the state -- is closely related to the problem of the conflicting interests of capitalists as individuals and as a class. As Wallerstein explains, "The contradictory needs of entrepreneurs as individuals and entrepreneurs as a class can best be reconciled if the institutions . . . respond flexibly to various pressures of the 'market'" (109). More exactly,

A capitalist system that is expanding (which is half the time) needs all the labour-power it can find, since this labour is producing the goods through which more capital is produced, realized and accumulated. . . . But if one wants to maximize the accumulation of capital, it is necessary simultaneously to minimize the costs of production (hence the costs of labour-power) and minimize the costs of political disruption. (33)

In other words, there are three problems facing capitalists: (1) Their needs for labor power vary. Thus they require flexibility in hiring and firing. (2) As individuals, they need to keep production costs (including wages) as low as possible, while as a group they need to maintain a body of (well-paid) potential buyers. (3) Production can be stalled or rendered more costly by worker agitation, and both fluctuation in employment and fluctuation of salaries are likely to cause worker agitation. As Balibar and Wallerstein argue, quite persuasively, the primary function of both racism and sexism in a capitalist society is to contribute to the solution of these problems.

Specifically, as Wallerstein explains, racism "allows one to expand or contract the numbers available in any particular space-time zone for the lowest paid, least rewarding economic roles, according to current needs. It gives rise to and constantly re-creates appropriate roles. . . . And it provides a non-meritocratic basis to justify inequality" (34). Racism and sexism hierarchize the working class itself. This operates both economically and ideologically. They allow capitalists the flexibility they require by providing (1) a way of minimizing the pay of one segment of the national workforce -- in the case of racism, a segment drawn from the most exploited groups in the international workforce -- and (2) a reserve labor pool, the members of which can be called on to enter or leave the workforce as required by the expansion or contraction of the economy. At the same time, racism and sexism fragment the working class ideologically, discouraging proletarian solidarity and worker agitation. As Wallerstein points out, "One of the functions of the network of status-group affiliations |affiliations by race or sex, for example~ is to conceal the realities of class differentials" (198); or, stressing the relation to nationalism, "there is no useful distinction among the presumed varieties of status groups. . . . They are all variations of a single theme: grouping people by an affinity that mythically predates the current economic and political scene and which is a claim to a solidarity overriding those defined in class or ideological terms" (193).

Of course, racism is not only a matter of hierarchizing workers economically; it is equally a matter of hierarchizing people--workers or not -- according to putative racial abilities. It is not only a matter of giving certain people inferior work and inferior pay; it is crucially a matter of believing those people to be inferior. And this too is best understood in terms of the systemic division of labor -- and not primarily as, say, individual psychopathology. As Balibar discusses,

Several historians of racism have laid emphasis upon the fact that the modern notion of race, in so far as it is invested in a discourse of contempt and discrimination and serves to split humanity up into a "super-humanity" and a "sub-humanity," did not initially have a national (or ethnic), but a class signification. . . . |I~t is clear that, from the very outset, racist representations of history stand in relation to the class struggle. (207-08)

Similarly, "the path which might be taken by the dominant classes when confronted with the progressive organization of the class struggle" centrally involves "divid|ing~ the 'poor' . . . then progressively displac|ing~ the markers of dangerousness and heredity from the 'labouring classes' as a whole" onto an ethnic or other sub-class (210).

On the other hand, Balibar and Wallerstein repeatedly stress that the racial and sexual ideologies of capitalism are not simple and univocal. They involve the differentialism of racism and sexism, but also anti-racist and anti-sexist universalism and egalitarianism. Specifically, both employment practices and ideologies vary with market conditions. As the market expands, women and minorities enter the workforce, immigration is encouraged, and universalism is the dominant view; as the market contracts, women and minorities are expelled from the workforce, immigration is discouraged, and differentialism becomes dominant. Indeed, in these periods differentialism is the view not only of those who are explicitly racist, but even of those who present themselves as the true anti-racists. (There are some striking examples of this with respect to women in Susan Faludi's Backlash. See in particular her discussion of the relation between current differentialist feminism and the deteriorating economic condition of women.)

In relation to this, Balibar and Wallerstein repeatedly stress what should be an obvious point, but unfortunately is not: racism and sexism are differentialist. Racism affirms deep cognitive, affective, and moral differences between whites and blacks, aryans and Jews, etc. Sexism affirms deep cognitive, affective, and moral differences between women and men. On the other hand, Balibar and Wallerstein believe that universalism is part of the capitalist economy, that it operates when the market is expanding and an increased labor force is required, and that it is tainted by this function. As Balibar puts it "We both believe that the universalism of bourgeois ideology . . . is not incompatible with the system of hierarchies and exclusions which, above all, takes the form of racism and sexism" (9). And Wallerstein insists that we must "utilize neither the ideology of universalism nor the ideology of racism-sexism" (36).

I have two disagreements here, with which I will conclude. First of all, it seems clear that the ideology that supports the influx of minorities and women into the workforce in superoppressed positions is not universalist or egalitarian in anything but name. At best, it is a form of benevolent differentialism (e. g. paternalism). Certainly, there is genuine universalist thought in all periods. And it also seems clear that this thought is more widely disseminated in periods of economic expansion. However, in all likelihood, this is because universalist thought is less vigorously suppressed during these periods. Precisely because differentialism can become "benevolent" and assume a universalist posture, genuine universalism appears less threatening--it still opposes the economic structure as a whole, but it is at least partially coherent with the current direction of change (that is, the expansion of opportunities for minorities and women). Thus it is not that universalism functions to propagate the system, but that, temporarily, the system does not need so vehemently to deny universalism. Secondly, even if genuine universalism did provide the ideological context for the temporary advances of minorities and women, this would hardly show universalism to be complicitous with the simultaneous constraint of these groups and their subsequent repression.

Balibar and Wallerstein have gone against recent trends in identifying differentialism as a major ideological problem. It is unfortunate that they do not recognize the importance of universalism in responding to that problem. On the other hand, in a capitalist economic formation, universalism will never be a view held by more than a tiny minority. For it is always subordinated to economic structure, subjected to economic change, alternatively repressed and misrecognized. Along with racism and sexism, its social operation is governed by the cyclical, contradictory imperatives of capitalism, and most particularly the capitalist division of labor. This is the most important point for our understanding of and response to the brutalizing hierarchizations that both worsen and stabilize the exploitation of the vast majority of the world's population. And it is a point that Balibar and Wallerstein have stated, elaborated, and defended brilliantly.
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Author:Hogan, Patrick Colm
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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