Monday, November 11, 2013

12 Years a Slave: in our 'post-racial' age the legacy of slavery lives on

Paul Gilroy
November 10, 2013.

The controversy around Steve McQueen's movie shows that, rather than fade away, racism has proved durable and potent

Steve McQueen's film 12 Years A Slave ‘slices through the trivialisation 
that has been integral to slavery’s popular representation’. 
(Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP)
Slavery has been written off as part of the pre-history of our world. Contemporary capitalism was shaped by its rational brutality but the banks, insurers and speculators who facilitated and expanded slavery have been able to project their activity as unsullied by a cruel and racist system that was as systematic as it was functional. Financial institutions appear instead as the very agents of freedom, emancipating the archaic world of the plantation with their dynamic, modernising energy.

Today, neoliberalism reprises and extends that tale. It decrees that racism no longer presents a significant obstacle either to individual success or to collective self-realisation. Race provides a useful way to mark out the boundary between then and now: racism is presented as anachronistic – nothing more than a flimsy impediment to the machinery of colourless, managerial meritocracy.

Any residual effects of past inequality are effectively privatised – seen only on an individual scale. If you cannot succeed in contemporary conditions, that failure can only be a result of your own shortcomings. The newly multicultural market cannot be bucked; and slavery, though not yet quite forgotten, is entirely overshadowed by the heroic story of its abolition by the morally charged forces of economic progress.

Steve McQueen's new film, 12 Years a Slave, contests this ground and returns us abruptly to the problems of race and human freedom. It revives the righteous agenda of 19th-century abolitionism and asks what might happen if we employ the recent history of racial slavery as a lens through which our contemporary predicament is considered? What understanding of freedom, of literacy, creativity and legality does a reflection on that archive now yield?

McQueen's film is a deadly serious piece of work that aspires to be properly historical even when Solomon Northup's autobiographical tale on which it is based has been condensed, filtered and adapted. Among other things, these slaves are capital incarnate. They are living debts and impersonal obligations as well as human beings fighting off the sub-humanity imposed upon them by their status as commercial objects.
 Read the rest here.
Comment: Most of you will know that Professor Paul Gilroy is the author of the much read and cited book entitled "Against Race" (2000).  A title which may catch a few unsuspecting apologists by surprise because of the anecdotal inference that it suggests dispensing with the history/articulation of race and, thereby, 'moving on' and beyond responsibility for its disastrous consequences.

I have not seen "12 Years a Slave" so cannot comment on the accuracy or value that Gilroy attributes to the movie.  

For this reason I want to limit this comment to the opening 3 paragraphs because it also raises an important dimension that is too often dismissed when we talk about slavery, race, racism and capitalism.  It is a dimension too often missed by Marxists - particularly the classic/orthodox types - who still insist on collapsing race and racism into class and class oppression.

Perhaps since the collapse of the USSR and the ascendance of neo-liberal capitalism there has been a certain timidness to point to the manner in which slavery, race, and racism has shaped neo-liberalism and capitalism.  Inherent in the function of capitalism - informed by neo-liberal values - is the assumed dysfunction of blackness (brown people are included in this political term).

This assumed dysfunction is elaborated in the manner that economies of scale measure the value of black life.  It is also how black life is reduced to the dominant function of whiteness as imperialism in every facet of life - including killing people in drone warfare so as to make the world safe for exploration and exploitation.

Instead of seeing the imperialism of whiteness as a unified historical force, neo-liberalism reduces the consequences of the resultant oppression to matters of the individual.  This reduction is in keeping with its emphasis on the individual as the center of history, society, politics and economics.  Think of the nonsense of inherent individual rights, for example, a historical articulation that assumed the individual to be white and the rest to be a quotient thereof.

What is not conveyed - and therefore ignored - is the manner in which neo-liberalism depends on collectivising and essentializing black folks to keep its imperialism dominant.  

That said, it must not be assumed that the forces that create the neo-liberal individual depends in total on one version of who is a liberal - and consequently who is white.  In other words, neo-liberalism needs a definite buy-in from the likes of Obama (dark skin liberals who espouse white values) to continue its domination.

This is not a new phenomenon and it does not necessarily speak to an anxiety about the lessening numbers of white people - remember whites are a construction and those excluded previously have over time come to be included.  Think of the Irish in the US and Jewish folks too.

The issue for first line analysis is the matter of worth and its relationship to capitalized neo-liberal values.

In South Africa we have a 'post-race' quagmire that at the official level assumes a curative essence to capitalism.  In other words, black entrance into capitalism as owners, part owners, political/economic elites creates the illusion that black oppression is being confronted and even dismantled.

Nothing can be further from the truth.  The US is a prime example where indications are that even now in the time of Obama blacks are seeing an increase in the wealth gap with whites.  See Jon Jeter's thoughtful commentary entitled "Worse than Apartheid: Blacks in Obama's America".

What is happening is that a small section of blacks - those Lenninists call comprodores - are allowed access as long as the values of neo-liberal capitalism stays in place.  And so we have a black government ordering its police force to open fire on black mine workers at Marikana - thus approximating the brutality and oppression of white rule and apartheid.

Martin Luther King Jr recognized the problem of capitalism and its ability to warp values - both at the personal and nation-state level.

The revolution against oppression is undeniably a renunciation of capitalized values.  It cannot be that any revolution can simply assume that slavery, race, and racism will be uprooted when it is aligned with capitalism.

And herein lies the problem with neo-liberalism - it is as Martin Luther King Jr said "a problem of values".


No comments: