The Role of Bonded Labour in Capitalist Development


(NB: The following is a short essay I wrote for the completion of one of my modules in my Masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London this past year, more of which I’ll be posting for comment as I get back into blogging. This one addresses the nature of bonded labour in capitalist development from a Marxist theoretical and historical perspective in light of the ILO’s campaign for decent work. I’m grateful for discussions with my tutor Frido Wenten and my comrade John Buttell which helped bring the following scattered thoughts to fruition.)

The Role of Bonded Labour in Capitalist Development


Within the past decade, civil society institutions in the west have devoted an increasing amount of attention to the problem of unfree labour in its various incarnations: child labour, debt bondage, slavery and indentured servitude. Their continued existence long after the legal extinction of slavery and other forms of bonded labour in most of the world, it is thought, makes combatting them today an especially pressing issue. Bales (2004), a prominent figure in the contemporary anti-slavery movement, estimated that there are 27 million people in the world today working under slavery, which he defines as a relationship in which the subject is controlled by violence, paid nothing, and economically exploited. The concern with ending these conditions demonstrated by NGOs and civil society actors has been matched by the International Labour Organization which announced a ‘global alliance against forced labour,’ (ILO 2005) and campaigns for the elimination of forced labour as two out of four of its core labour standards.

Campaigns to end bonded labour in the developing world have been subjected to a withering critique by the left for their single-minded focus on the worst conditions and the general belief that slavery, bonded labour, and other forms of work by coercion are somehow exceptional in the course of capitalist development, from its origins to the present day. The question therefore arises of whether forms of bonded labour are integral to capitalism, are optional to it, or are outside its sphere entirely.

This essay will attempt to answer that question from within a Marxist framework. While there are different approaches within Marxism to the question of free labour, tied to various discussions including the relationship between extra-economic coercion and pre-capitalist modes of development, uneven capitalist development, and the articulation of different modes of production within capitalism, little attempt will be made to address these here, except as they impact directly on the main argument. After defining Marx’s conception of free labour and the role of bonded labour in primitive accumulation, the critique will move on to a discussion of Banaji’s (2011) article on the “fictions of free labour,” in order to critically elaborate on contemporary Marxist theorizations. Finally, a case study will be attempted of the American South to illustrate concretely the existence of bonded labour within capitalist production. By this it should be shown that although Marx’s notion that ‘doubly free’ labour is constitutive of capitalism at a fundamental level, this functions as one end of a continuum with forms that are less ‘free’ and play a role in capitalism while not being integral to it in the same way.

Free and Unfree Labour in Marx

Marx most explicitly deals with the division between free and unfree labour in the discussion of primitive accumulation in volume one of Capital. His most lucid statement on the relation between free labour and capitalism is as follows:

The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production,’ i.e., it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. It is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production… (Marx 1992, p. 899)

Under primitive accumulation, then, the rising bourgeoisie needed the state to enforce conditions necessary to accumulation through violence. But compulsion which was not needed after these conditions were finally secured. Whereas Marx in this passage recognizes a role for both economic and extra-economic coercion under capitalism, he describes a broad qualitative separation between “direct extra-economic force” and “the silent compulsion of economic relations” which find their division expressed temporally in the divide between the period of initial accumulation and the subsequent history of capitalist development, when direct extra-economic coercion of the working population becomes the exception rather than the rule.

In the pages following the above passage, Marx develops a justly famous history of the period of primitive accumulation, centred on the coercive measures that were used to establish the preconditions for capitalist production in early modern England. The enclosure of common land and the expropriation of the free peasantry, the enforcement of brutal laws on begging and vagrancy, the establishment of hellish poorhouses and work-houses, and the purposeful driving down of wages follow each other in this history. What was meant by this process, according to Marx, is the creation of a class of wage workers that was “doubly free”—free to sell their labour-power to anyone they choose, and freed from any ownership over the means of production.

Marx evidently meant the formula of “double freedom” to be understood in an ironic sense. “Freedom” from ownership over the means of production is a negative freedom brought on by some of the most brutal methods in history, while it leads directly to the freedom of the wage-labourer to sell their labour-power. It would be best to understand Marx as using his caustic wit to express a real paradox that is central to capitalist social relations.1 This is implied in another formula in Capital: “the wage-labourer… is compelled to sell himself of his own free will” (Marx 1992, p. 932). Here, Marx again expresses the dialectical contradiction between the freedom to sell one’s labour that is brought into being by the “silent compulsion” of capitalist relations in the labour market. It would be a misreading of Marx, however, to imagine that because this freedom is the product of coercion, it is devoid of any real content.

Marx’s concern with the conditions of free labour, and that he thought much of the struggle to emancipate bonded labour, are evident throughout his entire career. To take just one example, his writings on the US Civil War (1861-1865) display his concern that the Union, representative of the system of free labour under capitalism, should be victorious over the slave-capitalist society of the South (Marx and Engels 1961).2 Here, Marx’s concern was that not only the condition of free labour was superior to that of plantation-slavery, but that only the extinction of this system, which he regarded as brutal and exceptional within the course of capitalist development, could lead to a united American labour movement—that white workers could never emancipate themselves while black workers were bound in slavery (Marx 1992).

Banaji’s ‘Fictions’ of Free Labour

Banaji’s (2003) article “The Fictions of Free Labour” represents an engagement with the contemporary debate on bonded labour, particularly the writings of Ramachandran (1990) on Indian agriculture and Brass’ (1999) broader theorization of unfree labour. It also represents a belated intervention in the “modes of production” debate in Indian agriculture, carried on during the 1970s in Economic and Political Weekly, in which Banaji made several key contributions.3 The article elaborates on a point made in an earlier article (Banaji 2011a): that the epoch of capitalist relations featured a wide variety of different modes of surplus extraction. Capital could extract a surplus through forms incidental to wage-labour such as slavery or debt bondage. In this earlier work, Banaji stresses the need to determine the underlying relations of production both by reference to the “laws of motion” analysed as particular to a mode of production, and by empirical study of each individual case.4

His later article shifts from this to regard the laws of motion—what Banaji calls the level of “social capital”—almost exclusively. Marx, in Banaji’s reading, developed an understanding of the labour-contract as a mystification and/or mediation of the worker’s subjection to the capitalist, and he quotes from Capital in support of his view that the nature of wage-labour cannot rely on the ‘free’ contract between capitalist and worker, which Banaji regards as merely an ideological legitimation of this subjection (Marx 1992). Rather than being non-capitalist, debt is actually a way by which the wage-labour typical to capitalism can be recruited. Both Brass and Ramachandran, by emphasizing the consensual wage-bargain between capital and labour as integral to capitalism, buy into a form of Marxism that is tainted by liberal mystification.

The upshot is that forms of ‘unfree’ labour such as sharecropping, labour tenancy, and debt-bondage “may just be ways in which paid labour is recruited, exploited and controlled by employers” (Banaji 2003, p. 83). Capitalism, in other words, can and has used a multiplicity of such forms of exploitation that are based on wage labour, and indeed more extreme ones—Banaji here cites sharecropping in the American South, the forced recruitment of labourers in French West Africa, and the use of slave labour in German-occupied Poland during the World Wars.

There is much to be said in criticism of Banaji’s essay. All the historical cases he mentions might well be recognized within the Marxist framework as exceptional circumstances—which Marx regards as aberrations from the norm. Furthermore, whereas Banaji says early on that it is impossible to draw a clear line between free and coerced labour, it is clear that Marx regarded these as distinct categories, even if they were not completely separable. As Bernstein (2013) notes, in Banaji’s account borders between primitive accumulation and industrial capitalism, along with those between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies tend to dissolve, eliding the historical specificity of capitalist economic coercion.

Rather than this absolutism of Banaji, it is more correct to view the distinction between free and unfree labour as a continuum, as Lerche (2007) discusses, in which forms of labour can be identified as free or unfree relative to each other. Or more precisely,

it has become clear that pure ‘free wage labour’ in the double Marxian sense is an ideal type, the conceptual nucleus of far more complicated historical realities. Pure free wage labour… forms a kind of analytical core surrounded by numerous rings of labour relations that we would like to call intermediary (Amin and van der Linden 1999, p. 7).

Banaji, therefore, starts out with a distinction that is useful—that all forms of labour under capitalism are subject to some form of coercion—but by focusing entirely on the level of social capital, his thesis becomes useless analytically. As Lerche (2007) notes, what Brass and Banaji, as well as and Rao (1999) all have in common is that their critiques operate at an abstract, a-historical level—which they share with mainstream conceptions of unfree labour, including ‘anti-slavery’ campaigners such as Bales and the ILO. As Banaji’s article in many ways shows us the dangers of abstraction, the essay will conclude with the illustration of one historical case study of unfree labour which he mentions—sharecropping in the American South.

Sharecropping in the Southern U.S.

Banaji deals with sharecropping in the southern U.S., relying solely on Angelo’s (1995) article, alongside similar labour systems in colonial India and the Byzantine Empire. This inevitably involves a series of major (and unwarranted) historical and theoretical abstractions. The remainder of the essay will take up the case of sharecropping in the American South to concretely demonstrate the nature of this form of “bonded” labour.

Sharecropping was a system stamped by profound class struggles in the postbellum South. As Post (2011) notes, the defeated planter class initially imposed a series of laws known as the Black Codes which would reduce the former slaves to wage-labour on the plantations. The freedmen, however, having successfully thrown off slavery in a general strike with the support of the federal army, were not inclined to return to cotton-picking in conditions which they recognized as being similar to slavery. The class of freedmen, holding local political office and buoyed by the federal occupation of the South, were powerful enough to bury the Black Codes and substitute sharecropping, a system which allowed them considerably more autonomy. As Foner writes,

Planters strongly resented the sense of “quasi-proprietorship” blacks derived from the arrangement—the notion that sharecropping made the tenant“part owner of the crop” and therefore entitled to determine his own family’s pace of work… While sharecropping did not fulfil blacks’ desire for full economic autonomy, the end of the planters’ coercive authority over the day-to-day lives of their tenants represented a fundamental shift in the balance of power in rural society, and afforded blacks a degree of control over their time, labour and family arrangements inconceivable under slavery. (Foner 1988, p. 405-6)

Rather than providing abundant supplies of cheap labour as it is often seen, sharecropping instead tended to drive up labour costs across the board and blacks, being able to survive on their share in addition to traditional subsistence plots, had no desire to work longer hours (Post 2011). The planters increasingly turned to violence to reassert their power. Simultaneously, merchant capital entered the rural South offering loans to the freedmen against a portion of the crop, which was ruthlessly exploited to extract exorbitant levels of interest—providing the solvent that unglued black sharecroppers’ economic autonomy.

Even despite the great amount of autonomy the sharecropping system afforded the former slaves, even at its height it could never have been regarded as truly existing in their interest. The slogan “forty acres and a mule,” translatable as a demand for the federal government to empower ex-slaves as a class of petty farmers, had never received a hearing outside of the most utopian of the Radical Republican circles. Freedmen were in the end unable to resist reincorporation into the system of cotton production for the world market, a prospect they had vigorously rejected ever since Emancipation. They remained dependent on the planter and merchant to provide the seed and equipment, and bound to give up part of the crop they worked under a relationship of contractual obligation. In the last instance, the freedmen were much closer to the position of wage-labourers than that of their aspiration, petty proprietorship—a distinction which must be treated with some care.5

Even at its empowering height, Southern sharecropping was at best a bitter compromise that left both of the main classes deeply dissatisfied. It would best be regarded not as an iteration of “democracy against capitalism” and hence a non-capitalist labour system, as Post (2011) argues,6 but rather as a relationship of surplus extraction in which market relations were increasingly mediated through the personal relationship of the freedman to the merchant and planter. By the end of the Reconstruction period, sharecropping was no longer a system allowing blacks some amount of economic and political autonomy, but one that forced free blacks into dependence on their former masters in a barely disguised wage-relation.


This essay has demonstrated that forms of bonded labour have a contradictory nature under capitalism. As it has been seen, Marx (1992) recognized a role for generalized forced labour during primitive accumulation, regarding at as an exception afterwards. While Banaji (2003) dissolves the category of free labour in a fit of over-abstraction, the most defensible Marxist theory of the distinction between free and bonded labour would rest on a continuum, in which a number of mediated labour forms lie between the ideal type of doubly-free labour and absolute coercion. The case study of sharecropping in the American South allowed us a glimpse of the concrete dynamic in which one of these mediated forms was brought into being and reshaped through the class struggle between planters and freedmen. It shows that forms of bonded labour do not exist outside of the capitalist economy, and just like free labour may be shaped and negotiated by the struggle over terms and conditions of employment.

The existence of a defensible concept of capitalist bonded labour should encourage a return to the origins of the contemporary debate outside of Marxism, where debt-bondage, child labour and slavery are still thought of as exceptional in the course of capitalist development. A Marxist intervention into these debates would not only maintain the idea these “worst forms of exploitation” are just as capitalist as “free labour,” but would extend its inquiry into the forms of agency of employers and bound labourers. Examining the ways in which these intermediary labour relationships are constantly open to resistance and contestation would mark the beginnings of a project vital to the understanding of a global struggle seeking to emancipate labour from all forms of coercion, exceptional violence and normal economic laws alike.


1 This much is evident about much of Marx’s writing. Miéville (2006), for example, notes that his famous quip about the class struggle under capitalism—“between equal rights, force decides”—does not necessarily imply the insignificance of “equal rights.”

2 Chapter 3 of Anderson (2010) provides a useful summary of his writings and of his and Engels’ pro-Union activism within the British labour movement.

3 Most of the debate from the 1970s is collected in Patnaik (1990), including two of Banaji’s articles.

4 Banaji (2011b), an earlier version of which is collected in Patnaik (1990) is one such empirical study.

5 Amin and van der Linden’s (1999) model, referenced above, conceives of a triangular circuit of ideal free labour at the core with absolute bondage and self-employment as the two legs, which strikes me as useful here.

6 Whatever the merits of Woods (1995) analysis elsewhere, Post’s application of it to the postbellum South does not quite convince.

Works Cited

Amin, S. and van der Linden, M. (1999) Introduction. In: International Review of Social History. [Online] 41 (Supplement 4). p. 1-7. Available from: [Accessed: 2 December 2013]

Anderson, K. (2010) Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Angelo, L. (1995) Wage Labour Deferred: The Recreation of Unfree Labour in the US South. In: Journal of Peasant Studies. [Online] 22 (4). p. 581-644. Available from: [Accessed: 5 December 2013]

Banaji, J. (2003) The Fictions of Free Labour: Contract, Coercion and So-Called Unfree Labour. In: Historical Materialism. [Online] 11 (3). p. 69-95. Available from: [Accessed: 1 December 2013]

Banaji, J. (2011a). Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History. In: Banaji, J., Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. p.45-101. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Banaji, J. (2011b). Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century. In: Banaji, Theory as History. p.277-332. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Bernstein, H. (2013) Historical Materialism and Agarian History. In: Journal of Agrarian Change. [Online] 13 (2). p. 310-329. Available from: [Accessed: 28 November 2013]

Brass, T. (1999) Towards a Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates. London: Frank Cass.

Foner, E. (1988) Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row.

Lerche, J. (2007) A Global Alliance against Forced Labour? Unfree Labour, Neo-Liberal Globalization and the International Labour Organization. In: Journal of Agrarian Change. [Online] 7 (4). p. 425-452. Available from: [Accessed: 1 December 2013]

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marx, K. (1992) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1960) The Civil War in the United States. New York: International Publishers.

Patnaik, U., ed. (1990), Agrarian Relations and Accumulation: The ‘Mode of Production’ Debate in India. p. 119-131. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Post, C. (2011) The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1660-1877. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Rao, J.M. (1999) Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham: The Debate over Unfree Labour. In: Journal of Peasant Studies. [Online] 27 (1). p. 97-127. Available from: [Accessed: 2 December 2013]

Ramachandran, V.K. (1990) Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wood, E.M. (1995) Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pope Francis and Catholic Politics Today

The following, in an edited form was published as a letter in  Socialist Worker as a belated response to the Pope’s ‘liberal turn’ on the question of homosexuality. Admittedly, the content is somewhat superficial insofar as it attempts to be too comprehensive:

On July 29th, Pope Francis shocked the Western media by striking a conciliatory tone toward homosexuality. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” the Pope asked, speaking in Italian but using the English word ‘gay.’

His words were immediately seized on as a sign of new liberality within the Catholic Church. The New York Times praised the Pope for his “compassionate tone,” while other liberal outlets in the West have seized on his remarks as a sign of the “revitalization of the Church.” The Huffington Post stood out with its headline proclaiming “Pope OK with gays.”

The Pope’s new teaching certainly marks a departure from the tone of his predecessor Benedict XVI. However, some progressively-minded people may rightly wonder if this is a departure from Benedict in anything but tone.

The context for the Pope’s remarks was an ongoing debate in the Church about whether to allow gay priests. In this sense, Francis was remarking that the Church as a body has no problem with priests who are gay.

Progress? Of a sort, but not any kind that marks a real change in Church teaching. The Church has never explicitly disallowed gay men taking holy orders – though Benedict XVI certainly did strike an uncomfortable tone with his statement that “men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not become priests.” In Catholic teaching, however, orientation of homosexuals is not a sin– it is homosexual acts that are condemned, a fact that traditionalists in the Vatican and Catholic establishment worldwide were quick to seize on.

In other words, while the Church allows men who are attracted to other men to take the cloth, it forbids them, as well as any lay faithful who feel similarly, to act on their completely natural urges. (It also, for the record, continues to teach that heterosexual sex that takes place outside of marriage is a sin.)

Francis’ remarks on homosexuality, as well as on the participation of women in the Church– where he still maintains women have no right to the priesthood– do strike a more conciliatory tone than that of Benedict, somewhat reminiscent of his predecessor, John Paul II. John Paul (who is expected to be recognized as a saint by the end of the year) like Francis, struck a more liberal posture in dealing with the Church’s ongoing problems with women, the LGBT community, and other religious groups, than did Benedict, who spoke of homosexuality as “a strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and said of Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In other words, both John Paul and Francis represent a more liberal, tolerant face of what is otherwise an incredibly conservative and unchanging Church doctrine, while Benedict’s teaching represented a more extreme and intolerant version of the same doctrine that seems incredibly out of place in a world in which women, LGBT people, Muslims and other faith groups are making more progress toward acceptance in the world and in the Church’s traditional heartlands. But it is essentially the same message.

Jorge Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis earlier this year is an example of this pattern. Up until the Pole Karol Wojtyła was elected as John Paul II, Italians had had the papacy for centuries. While Joseph Ratzinger or Benedict XVI was a German, Francis is the first Pope to come from outside Europe since the early centuries of the Church, when a few popes are said to have come from north Africa.

Understandably, many Latin Americans in an overwhelmingly Catholic region were excited to have a Pope come from their part of the world. Nevertheless, Bergoglio, a second-generation Italian immigrant from Argentina, is as white as could be, and many progressive Latin Americans sympathetic to liberation theology may have been more than a bit perturbed by his past cooperation with the Argentine junta during the “dirty” war in which thousands of left-wingers and opponents to the regime, including some clerics of Bergoglio’s own Jesuit order, suffered torture or death at the hands of the military. His background does not suggest a break with the demographics or the inclination toward defending the interests of the powerful of Church higher-ups that many faithful may have hoped for.

To understand what exactly is new in Pope Francis and his teaching requires an understanding of the Roman Catholic Church as a deeply conservative institution, that only changes when it feels it absolutely must, and even then very slowly.

The idea of the Church as a body with essentially unchanging dogmas, promoted both by Catholic traditionalists and some anti-Catholic bigots, has long been recognized as a fiction. While the Church considers abortion a mortal sin these days, termination of a pregnancy did not receive so much as a mention in the canon law until the late 18th century, around the start of the Industrial Revolution. At about the same time, the Church held for some years that the consumption of caffeine, considered to have demonic properties, was a sin.

In fact, Catholic Church, perhaps the world’s strongest and most populous religious institution, has never been quite so monolithic as it tried to present itself. While a centralized bureaucracy in Rome has dominated the official workings of the Church for centuries, at its outskirts Roman Catholicism fractures into a number of separate “Churches.” While some maintain loyalty to Rome and absolute traditionalism (the infamous Opus Dei in Spain, and the Knights of Columbus in the U.S.) some of the faithful are dedicated to an idea of the Church as tolerant, accepting and serving the poor– such as the liberation theology tradition of Latin America.

The Italian revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci expressed this contradiction at the heart of Catholicism in his Prison Notebooks: “there is one Catholicism for the peasants, one for the petits-bourgeois and town-workers, one for women, and one for intellectuals which is itself variegated and disconnected.” Catholicism has always had to struggle to make itself relevant to the many different groups of the faithful, and this process not infrequently escapes the boundaries set by the hierarchy centered in Rome.

In the contemporary Church, it is hard to overstate how much relies on the Papacy in terms of setting the tone. The role of a Pope is to present a doctrine which sounds coherent but is just ambiguous enough for very different groups of Catholics to find something acceptable in.

At the same time, the role of the Vatican bureaucracy– byzantine, incredibly wealthy, and extremely intolerant of anything threatening its position– severely threatens the Church’s relevance in the modern world. It is this institution that has horrified many of the faithful with its cynical failed cover-up of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Europe and North America.

The resignation of Benedict XVI, which grabbed worldwide headlines as only the second willing Papal resignation in the 2000-year history of the Church, in fact had a more sinister context than merely that of an old man who no longer felt capable of guiding the One True Faith. Shortly after his resignation, the Vatican quietly announced that Keith Cardinal O’Brien, head of the Church in Scotland and a Church politician of immense stature, would not be attending the conclave to determine Benedict’s successor. Some weeks later, Cardinal O’Brien stepped down as the archbishop of Glasgow, as a result of several reports of his long record of sexually abusing seminarians who were under his jurisdiction.

The Church, especially in the developed West, now faces many deep crises which it so far has been unable to resolve. On the one hand, the longstanding problems with sexual abuse by clerics continues to develop with ever more horrifying revelations. At the same time, in the West the Church struggles to survive even in its former bastions, such as Ireland, Spain and the United States. Archaic dogmas on women and homosexuality compound these tensions.

In the U.S., for example, the Church in the early 20th century held sway ideologically over millions-strong communities of Irish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans.So much has changed that now, the Church has to import priests from Asia, Africa and Latin America to serve rapidly dwindling numbers of the faithful.

In this country, the Church is a shadow of its former self. It faces a rank-and-file rebellion of nuns, who were recently threatened with takeover by the American bishops’ hierarchy for deviating from Church teaching on same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and other social issues. Recently there has also been an uprising of the faithful regarding the right of women to receive holy orders. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who served for forty years as a priest, social worker, and activist was defrocked and excommunicated for participating in the ordination of women in 2008. Bourgeois said in his statement of defense to the hierarchy that “Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against women, in the end, it is not the way of God, but of men who want to hold on to their power.” Hundreds of priests signed a letter supporting Bourgeois against the hierarchy, and the National Catholic Reporter carried an editorial declaring, “Barring women from ordination to the priesthood is an injustice that cannot be allowed to stand.”

Progressives and socialists, especially those without any religious belief, may question the relevance of those like Roy Bourgeois, the American nuns, and others who struggle to change the Church. It would seem reasonable to ridicule the idea that the Roman Catholic Church could ever be changed to reflect more progressive ideas– or indeed, given its historical character as a defender of the powerful, that anyone should try this.

To do this would be to ignore the millions of Catholic faithful with progressive ideas who nevertheless revere people like John Paul II and Francis. Marxism has always recognized religion as an alienated expression of human consciousness which can, under certain circumstances, point toward the emancipation of the oppressed.

In this regard it remains important to recognize the courage and sacrifice of those left-wing faithful who struggle to change the Church. The more tolerant tone the pope takes toward gays is a reflection of the changing reality both outside and inside the Church, and we should hope to strengthen those who point it toward the future rather than the past.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Politics

The Crisis Upside Down: Review of ‘Down the Up Escalator’ by Barbara Garson

This review was published in the summer 2013 issue of New Politics:

Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession
By: Barbara Garson
New York: Doubleday, 2013, 276 pp., $26.95

Reviewed by Bill Crane

The financial crisis that began in 2008 has accelerated many economic trends already at work in the neoliberal period of capitalist development. Wages continue to decline, the class struggle bursts out in contradictory fits and starts at the same time as the societal value of work, and therefore the people who do it, continues to depreciate.

At the same time, the global crisis of capitalism has found a corresponding crisis of ruling-class ideology. More than ever before, people need something explained to them — most fundamentally, why we are in this predicament. This has led to a renaissance of financially oriented books that seek to explain the economic crisis in the most basic terms. While journalists seek inroads into the rough waters of finance, renowned economists seek a more popular medium as means to acquire a mass audience their profession denies them.


Fundamentally, the role of these books is an expression of the deep mystification of economics. As it is taken for granted that the science of economics is too “complicated” and therefore closed off to the understanding of the public, the burgeoning library of financial journalism offers to patiently explain what’s wrong and how it should be fixed.

Most of this outpouring of literature is of course nonsense. One does not have to really know anything about economics to publish a book on the financial crisis.

One example of this trend is a man by the name of Michael Lewis. His most recent book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World took on the crisis as it expanded from the housing bubble in the United States to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and “boomeranged” back to the austerity and misery during the first three years of the recession. From Lewis’ point of view, the enigma of the crisis has a simple answer: Western society is spending more than it can reasonably afford. The culprits for this are numerous, and they include states, civil society organizations such as the church, and finally the working class, particularly organized labor.

Typically, Lewis finds Greece to be the outstanding example of all this overspending. Though he reserves some ridicule for the politicians, he retains special ire for the Greek working class. “If there were any justice in the world,” he writes, “Greek bankers would be marching to protest the morals of the ordinary Greek citizen,” which include such offensive things as desperately trying to maintain their plummeting wages, benefits, and standard of living in a country whose basic social services are rapidly being shut down. Lewis and those like him don’t feel the need to interview the European or American workers they blame for the crisis. That would be demeaning when they could instead learn all they need to know on a glamorous morning run with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the final pages of his book he announces what really stands in the way of resolving the crisis in the United States: public-sector unions.

Now, however, into the field steps Barbara Garson, a journalist and playwright with a long past in social movements from the 1960s onward. Her book comes as a welcome contribution to the muddled and anti-working class, not to mention anti-democratic, mood of the vast majority of economic and financial journalism. It deserves to be widely read and publicized.

The title is Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession. In itself, this suggests many themes taken up in the book. Written in the aftermath of the Occupy movement, Garson takes its slogan of “the 99%” as a starting point, documenting the cases of all those screwed over by the recession: the homeless, warehouse workers, urban professionals, and failed bankers and entrepreneurs alike.

The phrase “we are the 99 percent” from the Occupy movement of 2011-12 was, and still is, deeply relevant. It is, however, incredibly contradictory. On the one hand, it expresses the very basic class-based sense of injustice that has always been a part of working-class consciousness. At the same time, the “them” in the conflict was never really meant to include the whole capitalist class, but the small minority of financial profiteers who ran the economy into the ground. The capitalist owners of really productive enterprises were never really included in the formula.

In some ways “we are the 99 percent” is a perfect slogan for the unique politics of the United States, which due to various historical reasons has never had social class as a significant part of the political discourse to the same extent it is in most other countries. To a certain extent Marxists find it contrived to talk about “the working class” in the United States when there is not, except in exceptional circumstances, a stable body that sees itself this way. “The 99 percent” seems to fit better the confused but radical consciousness of many American workers. As I mentioned, one of the compelling reasons for a book like Garson’s is that in a society whose basic economic functions remain mysterious to those who are affected by them, we can often better understand and relate to personal stories and anecdotes that show the underlying economic processes better than we can to statistics.

The panorama of those she interviews is an impressive cross-section of American society. In her book, we find the stories of a black mother who has struggled all her life to hold onto her family and home, only to face losing both, an upwardly mobile Filipino immigrant family that suddenly finds itself “riding the down escalator,” a group of suddenly unemployed New York City professionals, a laid-off hedge fund consultant, and everyone above and below them.

The book thus lends itself well to a division based on the struggles to maintain that are central to the lives of the contemporary American worker: sections on “our jobs,” “our homes,” and “our savings” follow each other in an incredibly detailed treatment that does not lose sight of the totality of American economic life.

The assault on the working class underway is multifaceted and can be seen across these three areas. Therefore no one struggle among these is more important than the others; unfortunately, I can’t hope to address each section as it deserves in the space of this review. The section on jobs elicits my interest the most because it tends to show most directly the trends Garson seeks to explain.

Garson describes four scenes in the life of a single man whom she “met forty years ago and caught up with him on three more occasions.” The life of this American worker, whom she rechristens Duane, “should have been enough for me to predict the Great Recession.” She first encountered Duane as a GI back from Vietnam awaiting his discharge. When she caught up with him again several years later, he had moved home — to Ohio — and found a job in an auto factory, was married and expecting a child. Years later, she encounters Duane again. He has left the auto industry because of layoffs and has become an expert machinist. By the time she looks up Duane again, however, he has already passed away. Constantly staying ahead somehow, Duane got into the software industry and had moved to Arizona before he died, leaving behind a large and loving family and, unfortunately, an even larger mortgage. Duane’s life encapsulates many of the socioeconomic trends Garson describes in her book. In one man’s life story we get the tale of deindustrialization which causes Duane’s several career changes, the financialization of the American economy which affords working-class America a standard of living through credit even as its wages decline, leading finally — in 2007 — to the housing bubble which popped and the extended recession that has followed.

Garson situates her analysis firmly within Marxist economics, which allow us an understanding of what has happened in the lives of Duane and other working-class Americans at the same time their stories contribute to our deeper understanding of what can seem quite abstract at times.

The general process Garson tries to come to terms with is in the title: “down the up escalator.” As she writes, during the century and a half from the early years of the republic until the end of the 1960s, American wages rose every single decade. This is probably unique to the history of this country, and it ended during the 1970s.

Since the seventies, American wages have been stagnant or have declined. This is due to many factors that the readers of this journal will no doubt be somewhat familiar with. The point is that at the same time wages fell, productivity continued to increase at the same pace or faster. Duane was one of the lucky few of the American working class who managed to “keep ahead” of the trends of layoffs, offshoring, and deskilling, right up till his death.

Therefore, the American working class has in general been “traveling down the up escalator.” Where formerly American workers could expect a higher standard of living than their parents, and their children could expect theirs to be even higher, this is no longer the case, and has not been for four decades now. The impact of this contrast between expectations and reality is almost impossible to overstate.

The impact has, of course, been highly contradictory across the American working class. One example Garson gives is in the second chapter, “Down by the Banks of the Ohio,” where she tells a story of class resilience across a generation.

Chuck and Michael Kenny (not their real names) are a study in contrasts as a father and son. Where Chuck has a strong work ethic and loyalty, devotion to God and solidly middle-class Republican politics, his son Michael is a liberal agnostic with dreadlocks, and has gone out of the workforce after short-term jobs as a manager at a staffing agency and an XM Radio salesman. He now designs and sells Grateful Dead T-shirts for a living. Chuck has never been out of work since he was twelve, but at the end of what should be a long and productive career with a peaceful retirement ahead, he finds himself as lower management in a warehouse working over twelve hours a day. Despite this, his superiors are maneuvering to push him out before he can really collect well on his retirement plan and give his job to a younger employee who will merit less in pay and benefits.

One of the great strengths of Garson’s journalism is that she allows a man like Chuck, whose life expresses many of the defeats dealt out to American workers in his unrewarded work ethic and right-wing politics, to give voice to the challenges affecting millions of people in his generation. When he says something like “we have not been living paycheck to paycheck since we decided to give God back a tenth of what he has given us” (on the subject of his decision to tithe to his church), we understand just to what extent his faith has given him the strength to endure the many roadblocks he has faced.

Unsurprisingly, Chuck doesn’t understand many of the decisions his son Michael has made, either in his lifestyle or his career. To Chuck, someone like Michael would be well advised to take even the most miserable of the career paths available. “You go to work in McDonald’s, you apply yourself, you can get into their management program,” he says. “[My company] hired several fast-food managers as supervisors because they have experience where it’s fast-paced, quick, and very regimented.” But his son, who unlike Chuck has grown up accustomed to riding down the up escalator, has chosen not to play. One can hardly fault his choice: his father has worked all his life only to find he has to work longer and longer hours for the same paycheck, and stuck with a disloyal employer who will replace him at the soonest opportunity with someone cheaper.

There is probably a very interesting problem for economic analysis, especially the kind of analysis that seeks to change the world rather than just understanding it, in the different choices made by Chuck and Michael. In a situation in which thousands of working-class men and women like Michael are giving up on a stable occupation to scrape by in the world of temping and self-employment or dependence on family resources, what is the likely impact on class consciousness and class struggle? How do we understand and mobilize a class that is increasingly atomized and whose expectations are going steadily down rather than up?

Some have referred to this process as the “disarticulation” of the working class. The term seeks to describe a situation in which organized labor seems unable to effectively mount the most basic existential defensive struggles (in Wisconsin and Michigan), and the most radical arenas of struggle lack a coherent class base other than that of “the 99 percent.” There is no doubt much to be studied here, and it is to Garson’s credit that she manages to illustrate it in a work of limited journalistic scope.

Though a clear articulation of the ways forward for struggle are beyond the scope of Garson’s book, the wide array of concerns, struggles, and hopes of the people she interviews are something to take into account for those of us who want to change things. Might not struggles over housing or savings become just as or more important than the arena of overt workplace struggle in constructing a radical left pole of attraction?

The stories of Michael, Chuck, Duane, as well as the others who populate her book all illustrate her central point: “how the 99 percent survives the recession.” We find that this happens in many different unique ways. Some like Chuck return from work to find comfort in their families and the Church. Some struggle to maintain the little that they have; among those who are successful are Susana, a black matriarch who manages to maintain her home in Brooklyn after the death of her son and lengthy foreclosure proceedings.

Whatever ways these people find to survive are sources of ongoing nourishment and hope against an increasingly hostile world. Small victories that maintain us or set us back a little bit less than before even are something to be grateful for.

Garson has done an excellent job showing how the 99 percent survives during the Great Recession. The question we are left with at the end of her book is how we will do better than survive.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

Positive Developments

(This review of season four of Arrested Development, which became available for screening on Netflix on May 26, was originally published in Red Wedge Magazine.)
I’m going to go ahead and say what few diehard Arrested Development fans have dared to: the new season is pretty damn good.

Of course, there are some problems. Now that they’re adults, the show’s writers seem at a loss for what to do with George Michael and Maeby. Before George Michael’s straightlaced behavior contrasted brilliantly with Maeby’s attention-seeking antics; now, they don’t have much to separate them from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The first episodes definitely did not take a running start, and even midway through the fifteenth episode, things had only somewhat begun to cohere. I’m sure one could find many lists of these and other faults of the fourth season online in fan communities, so I won’t bother to write another one here.

Nevertheless, for having been off the air seven years, the show had a remarkably strong return. Of course any group of fans which can be counted on to appreciate the intricate amount of detail that goes into Arrested Development-style humor might have some trouble looking at the big picture, but should nevertheless try.

After all, we could have passed another seven years, or the rest of our lives, without another scrap of Bluth wit, wisdom and folly. This isn’t an argument that anything at all is better than nothing – but anyone with half a brain in their head could surely see the fourth season of Arrested Development is much better than nothing at all.

I have only watched it once so far, obviously the first of many times, but the play on words, multi-level puns, self-referential treatment, inside jokes, etc were all there in spades. The new season is practically a love letter from the show’s creators to the fans who waited so long for its return.

The show, as all of us who travelled with it through its abrupt termination and then seven years in the wilderness no doubt recall, never gained a huge following. At its very highest it had a few million watching some episodes, even during the relative “golden age” of the second season. If as it’s been said that ten people locked in a room could convince themselves of anything, surely the thousands of AD fans could convince themselves the whole world watched our favorite show. This was sadly never the case.

Though we may be flippant about the return of a TV show in an era which has given us the return of both brilliant and awful shows post-cancellation on network TV, it says something that a show like Arrested Development could be revived. In a modern capitalist economy where TV (yes, even Netflix) goes for the highest profits, what makes AD-style humor relevant?

Still Relevant

I’ve tried to briefly analyze Arrested Development before in terms of the truly epic levels of governmental and ruling-class hypocrisy that characterized the early Bush years. This makes sense for a show that ran from 2003 to 2006. But what makes it seem like a realistic prospect in the age of Obama?

My earlier comments certainly require some broadening out. It wasn’t the case, for instance, that the crisis of the Bluth company merely responded to the Enron and WorldCom scandals of the early zero years, although this was one context.

It surely did not miss the show’s writers this time around, as it could not have then either, that the Bluths are housing developers as opposed to any other number of businesses they could run. Though the collapse of the housing market occurred a full year and a half after the show’s initial cancellation in early 2006, this gave the show an eerie prescience in retrospect, which could have only strengthened its prescience in the collective unconscious.

GOB Bluth, the tragicomical magician, stripper and sometime (P)resident of the Bluth Company, had in the second season urged his brother Michael to build fake houses with “nothing on the inside” (tapping his own skull as he did so) as a show of confidence to investors, but this itself took on tragicomic proportions when the housing market went underwater in 2007. Nationwide, houses and the housing business itself truly had “nothing on the inside.”

A few of the Bluths at pawnshop/restaurant/Marxist-Leninist commune Swappigans.

In the new season, we see George Michael as a latter-day Mark Zuckerberg. Though his software “Fakeblock” starts out as one of several woodblock apps for smartphones, it goes through a mistaken Michael’s belief that it is designed to protect online privacy (based on the observation that poor George Michael’s Facebook page “doesn’t have a single friend on it”) and becomes “the anti-social network” after George Michael sees the opportunity to impress his cousin Maeby, still the object of his incestuous desire. Just like that, young George Michael has become an online entrepreneur.

Of course, we can’t expect a one-to-one correspondence with reality. The Facebook IPO went down with a whimper last year, and does not seem poised to spark another round of financial crisis.

But we have something here that points to the absurd level of financialization in the late developed capitalist economy, where every absurd scheme by the ruling class to generate a windfall of profits (of which there are many) threaten to shipwreck the economy just as Lucille Bluth shipwrecked the Queen Mary. This has changed none since 2006, and it is one thing making the return of Arrested Development plausible in 2013.

Correspondingly, we have the horror show that is contemporary American politics. Lindsay, after a brief affair with a lifestyle anarchist with whom she squats in her mother’s apartment (echoes of Occupy) is inadvertently pimped by her daughter to Herman (Cain) Love. Love, who seems to care little for actual politics, charges George Sr. just as much for adopting a positive stance on a border wall with Mexico as he does later when George Sr. asks him to retract his support. “It’s 50 [thousand] for the flip, and another 50 for the flop,” he says.

The principled opponent of Love’s over-the-top rightism and corruption? None other than “Lucille 2” Austero, who makes her campaign promise to usher in an era of — you guessed it — “Austerity.” This could not have happened before the multiple rounds of bipartisan budget cuts under this name — a term that did not actually enter into popular discourse before 2010.

This marks one significant change in the show’s political discourse: whereas the first three seasons played well to a liberal audience fed off of hatred for Bush and claims that a Democrat would do better, Arrested Development in 2013 has to deal with the actuality of Democratic Party rule, and acquits itself rather well.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the absolutely horrifying prosecution of the war on terror. In the show’s first three seasons, we saw George Bluth being prosecuted for (“light”) treason, in an hilarious extension of the American political class’ hobnobbing with Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern autocrats before they outlived their usefulness, when the houses he built in Iraq became the focus of a government desperate to find the elusive WMDs by any means necessary.

The war on terror has undergone some great changes since Fox cancelled Arrested Development. No longer do we launch full-scale invasions; our enemies, who include American citizens as well as Waziri peasants, are surgically eliminated through the merciful use of flying death robots. We now have a president who talks about the dangers of creating an endless war mentality and the merits of other cultures instead of about “axes of evil” and how “you’re either with us or you’re against us.”

Style versus substance, of course. While the focus of the fourth season is rather more domestic than that of the first three, we see Buster returning to Army devastated after the imprisonment of Lucille. His loss of a hand rendering him useless for physical combat, he becomes a drone pilot, believing himself to be playing a video game.

His partner, confused and somewhat horrified at Buster’s enthusiasm as he takes out children and even a wedding party from the sky, remarks that he should watch out after he nearly misses a museum in Madrid. “You could have hurt some innocent people there,” he says. “You mean I’ve been hurting guilty people?!” answers a shocked Buster, who promptly becomes the first on-the-job casualty in the history of drone warfare.

A Communist Utopia?

Arrested Development excels at displaying the ignorance, perversity, greed and barbarity of the American ruling class; in the era of Obama it has shown it can do this better than ever, and better than all other contenders.

We don’t get much about a different kind of society in Arrested Development, though there are hints in Lindsay’s affair with Marky, an obnoxious meth-addicted lifestylist and ostrich farmer, especially in their visit to “Swappigans,” a restaurant that in the words of a waitress “combines a pawnshop with a restaurant with a Marxist-Leninist commune.”

It’s probably fortunate that Arrested Development mainly limits itself to vicious criticism of our ruling class rather than trying to portray resistance; one could think of many examples of TV shows whose attempts to show anti-establishment activism (such as the usually brilliant Joss Whedon’s attempt in Dollhouse) which fell more than flat.

In this light we should well consider the recent piece by Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Queck, two editors of the leftist magazine Jacobin, for the blog of the Washington Post with the title “Arrested Development was a communist utopia, and season four ruined it.”

The column in some respects makes me wonder whether Sunkara and Queck are those type of diehard fans who would never be pleased by the fourth season – I admit to having some tendencies in that direction. But if they think that “the spirit of Arrested Development is the latest casualty of the recession,” then, as I have outlined, we must have been watching different shows, or at least had remarkably different expectations.

The first three seasons, they say, followed ensemble sitcoms in being “inherently communist in form… When this logic is at play in society at large, you have the Marxist ideal put to life: The free development of each is the condition of the free development of all; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

In shows like Seinfeld and Friends, they say, “the comedy is generated from a cast of equals… characters have the freedom to be truly different and exist fully in their own right, following their own path rather than laboring to merely advance the story of a main character.”

It’s a somewhat common misconception on the Marxist left that a collective of main characters versus an individual protagonist can be assigned respective positive and negative social content. Even Victor Serge, the great anarcho-Bolshevik polemicist and novelist, discoursed at length about his hatred for the pronoun “I,” making his novels ensemble projects for the sake of revolutionary politics.

Yes, of course, the single individual subject is in the final instance a creation of bourgeois society- however, transcending these forms is just not as simple as proposing a collective protagonist. Even in the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union this was demonstrably not the case. This is why Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, for all its technical brilliance, comes off as cold and clinical compared to Pudovkin’s The Mother, a more simple story of a mother caught between her loyalty to her husband in the Black Hundreds and her love for her revolutionary son amidst a worker’s uprising at a factory.

In the second place, I dispute the idea that so very much has changed in the format of Arrested Development. Whereas before we got intersecting lines in the course of a single episode that come together, the Netflix episodes have extended this dynamic to a whole season. The fourth season might almost be a single mega-episode. This method of plot construction meant a lot of lag in the early episodes, it’s true, but the ending of the season left me in tears of laughter- and as always with AD, desperately craving more.

If as Rosa Luxemburg said that the highest revolutionary act is to boldly say what is happening, then Arrested Development is a truly revolutionary TV show. Sunkara and Queck would do well to watch the new season again with this in mind. Come to that, we would all do well to watch it again, and again and again, until we finally (maeby?) get the movie.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Politics

On Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies


Debating Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital

Only two months ago, Verso brought out the much-anticipated (by me, if no one else) book by NYU Marxian sociologist Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. Appropriately enough, the debate has commenced with Chibber’s interventions at the Historical Materialism Conferences in Delhi and New York – at the latter of which he debated Partha Chatterjee, a leader of the Subaltern Studies school which is his main target.

Chibber, previously known for his erudite intervention on the Nehruvian developmental model of the postcolonial Indian state[1], had earlier announced his intention of dismantling the dominance of postcolonial theory in his essay “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies.”

This aim was nothing if not calculated to be highly provocative toward people working in South Asian studies, the study of the postcolonial world (Asia, Oceania, Africa, Latin America) in general, and the numerous social science and humanities disciplines which have felt the impact of the work of people like Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.

It should be seen as doubly fortunate therefore that Chibber’s book has drawn interest from across the spectrum of the academic left, and specifically Marxists working both inside and outside academia. His book offers us an opportunity to broaden and internationalize our theory at the same time it gives us a chance to deepen our oft-maligned analysis of the varying development of the “East” vis-a-vis the “West,” a preoccupation of Marxist thought that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and others have shared.

There are also, however, some dangers that should not be ignored. The arguments so far show far more abstraction than is appropriate. This was on display at HM, where Chatterjee’s response to Chibber’s charge of Orientalism was that Chibber wasn’t really a Marxist. I think these are the terms the debate is being drawn into, far and away from the concrete realities of South Asia in which postcolonial theory first arose.[2]

I will attempt to draw out some of the most relevant terms of debate in the following way. First, I will describe the socopolitical context of Subaltern Studies and its associated scholars as it emerged in the late 1970s. Secondly, I will describe the debate over the term “dominance without hegemony,” crucial to the Subalternist project, and put forth an alternative view from those of both Subaltern Studies and Chibber. Before concluding with some remarks about a proper Marxist foundation for the debate, I will try to describe what is most significant about the argument of particularism versus universalism.

The Historical Context

I feel the need to restate that it is easy to misunderstand Subaltern Studies if one does not have the background on the historical context they operate in. This is what is missing in much of the debate so far. A debate on abstracted values independent of context turns far too easily into another boring event of Marxists tilting at postmodernist (or postcolonial) windmills.

The journal Subaltern Studies began as a project by several left-wing Indian historians in the late 1970s. At this point, as Chibber underscores, its members (Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyanendra Pandey, Gautam Bhadra and others) all considered themselves Marxists, influenced in particular by readings of Antonio Gramsci that had become popular in European academics.

The Subalternists’ project cannot be understood, as some have suggested, as merely a desire to transplant European “history from below” (particularly that of E.P. Thompson) into India. They were responding to specifically Indian events and Indian history. We can’t understand their project without therefore knowing a bit about postcolonial India.

In particular, the events that perplexed the Subalternists began in the late 1960s. After a two-decade period of relatively peaceful state-led development, things began to unravel. Poverty became a problem demanding the attention of the highest levels of government, and rural unrest exploded at a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal in in 1967, followed by a brief and violent period of Maoist (“Naxalite”) insurgency.

In 1974, Communist-led railway workers launched a national strike which paralyzed the country but went down to bitter defeat. Finally, PM Indira Gandhi (daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister) used constitutional measures to impose her rule on every Indian state, inaugurating a bloody personal dictatorship, in 1975. The period is called “the Emergency,” and forms the background of Rohinton Mistry’s well-known novel A Fine Balance.

Though a mass movement overthrew Gandhi’s dictatorship in 1977, she returned to power democratically just two years later. She was assassinated in 1985 after using brutal measures to suppress the Sikh nationalist Khalistan movement in the Punjab.

Concomitantly, Hindu communalism, sidelined since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse, returned to prominence as a fascistic mass movement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke the Indian National Congress’ single-party rule in [3]

This history suggested several things to the founders of Subaltern Studies:

First, they agreed that the Indian bourgeoisie, which was the force behind the independence movement and the post-independence Congress Party rule, was in a fundamentally different position than the Western bourgeoisie. Unlike their predecessors in Europe, they had not achieved hegemony over Indian society. This was made clear enough by the outbursts of resentment from below, including the peasant wars, worker insurgency, etc that characterized the crisis of Congress Party rule.

This posed larger questions about an Indian modernity as distinct from an English or Western modernity. Unlike in Europe, it seemed that the Indian bourgeoisie was forced to rule with sheer force rather than consent. Ranajit Guha, the editor of the early issues of Subaltern Studies, called this “dominance without hegemony.” Forces below the ruling class still chafed at its grip. Crucially, India’s independence, unlike the bourgeois revolutions in Europe, had failed to banish religion as a force of societal reaction – as shown by the rise of the BJP.

In its first decade at least, Subaltern Studies produced some startlingly original and prescient Marxist analysis of Indian colonial history. I would in particular direct readers to Pandey’s article “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhjopuri Region, 1888-1917” which remains an excellent and thoroughly documented class analysis of the origins of Hindu and Muslim communalism. Another article, Bhadra’s “Four Rebels of 1857” on the Mutiny wears its Marxist colors so proudly that the author chooses an epigraph from The Holy Family.[4]

Eventually, most of the Subalternists did by and large move away from Marxism and toward cultural interpretations of history which Chibber is correct to criticize. Their final conclusion was that the lower classes of India, peasant and worker alike, did not share in the “bourgeois consciousness” of their Western cousins. They were not dominated by an Enlightenment worldview, and resisted their ruling class in violent outbursts even as the traditional ties of religion and caste held sway. Chibber emphasizes this and makes it the main target of his criticisms.

I will take it up substantially later. For now I am more interested in the development of the school, especially their trajectories after determining the problem of “dominance without hegemony” on the subcontinent. I think without an understanding of this debate we fail entirely to understand the development of Subaltern Studies as a project, not to mention any of its quite substantial influence outside South Asian studies.

Dominance without Hegemony: A Third View

For Guha, the key to understanding the postcolonial Indian nation was that the Indian bourgeoisie had not achieved “hegemony.” What did he mean by this? 

Most basically: Guha relied on a certain view, very orthodox Marxist at the time, of the bourgeois revolutions in Europe. The revolutions in Holland, England and France had brought the bourgeoisie to power at the head of broad democratic coalitions including workers and peasants. To secure their leadership, the bourgeoisie had enacted land reforms and guaranteed democratic liberties to the subaltern classes. Their support in hand, they proceeded to conquer political power and destroyed the feudal order, founding the democratic republic with the consent of the governed subaltern classes.

In India, Guha saw a contrast to this “classic” model of the bourgeois revolution. The Indian bourgeoisie, he noted, should have replicated this pattern during their own revolution, the independence movement of 1921-1947. Instead, they compromised with the feudal landlord (zamindar) class, earning the distrust of the Indian peasantry. Thereafter they ruled without popular support – from the uprising of Naxalbari, to the rail strike and Emergency, the events with which Subaltern Studies was directly concerned.

The argument requires some detailed unpacking. As it revolves around a certain understanding of the idea of bourgeois revolution, I don’t think it is inappropriate to outline some of the more recent debates on this concept within Marxist theory.

First, we must understand the concept of hegemony in its original and distorted contexts (the latter being Guha’s understanding.) “Hegemony” during the seventies was widely equated in Marxist discourse with “consent of the governed,” and understood to originate in the thought of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Gramsci, it was thought, had differentiated two strategies for the working class conquest of political power in the following way. In the “East,” such as  Russia, the state was undeveloped and relied on coercion as opposed to consent. In such a situation, the proletariat could conquer power through an all-out assault (war of manoeuvre). Whereas in the developed West, where the ruling class ruled through consent, the proletariat was required to slog through the trenches of civil society that surrounded state power and thus acquire “hegemony” before the conquest of power.[5]

I’ll return to hegemony in a bit. I think it should be clear first that in his understanding, Guha was a fairly orthodox. In the Indian case, the idea that the bourgeois revolution was not complete related to the conceptions of the Stalinist CPI and later CPI(M) of the independence movement. The idea that the political landscape of India failed to match that of the developed West equated to the Stalinist notion of the bourgeois revolution being somehow “unfinished.”

In particular, incomplete land reform, the persistence of caste and “feudal” relations in the countryside meant the revolution was still to be completed. The fact that labor in the cities was not completely free and political parties were sometimes subject to restrictions on their liberty, as during the Emergency, meant that the democratic revolution, rather than the socialist one, was on the agenda.

The idea of a bourgeois revolution being “incomplete” based on some Platonic ideal (usually the Great French Revolution of 1789) can be said to have played a role in the Marxist thought of many countries outside India. Where East German historians sought to explain National Socialism as a partial product of the “unfinished” bourgeois revolution of the 1870s, English leftists in the 1960s sought to connect the decline of British world hegemony vis-a-vis America with the supposed failure of the English bourgeoisie to displace the aristocracy. Even most of the American left understood Jim Crow as a failure of the US bourgeois revolution, from which it was concluded that the bourgeois revolution was “incomplete.”[6]

The debate has advanced far enough these days as to make such conceptions seem a bit silly. As I see it, there are two main camps that one falls into on the question. 

Chibber aligns with the “political Marxist” school of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, accusing Guha of having a “liberal” or “Whig” theory of the bourgeois revolution, in which it is (falsely) claimed that the bourgeoisie granted political liberty and land reform to the subalterns. In fact, he argues, the English Civil War and French Revolution (neither of them, it is claimed, are “bourgeois revolutions” in the traditional sense) established “bourgeois oligarchies.” Political liberty is due to the constant struggles of the subaltern classes themselves. Therefore, in contrast to Guha who faults the Indian working class for not having a “bourgeois consciousness,” Chibber says that in the developed West, the working class played a key role in the development of the “bourgeois,” or liberal, political sphere.[7]

Chibber’s approach has the merits of drawing our attention to the role of the subaltern classes themselves in fighting for the achievement of democracy. This enables him to draw the, in my view, substantially correct conclusion that “what Guha sees as pathological,” i.e., the Indian bourgeoisie’s failure to confront the landed classes and resort to coercive methods of rule, “should instead be seen as normal in the construction of bourgeois political orders.”[8]

Chibber is able to develop this into an argument that takes on the idea key to the later Subalternist project that capital has “failed to universalize” in the global South, and the idea that Marxist categories such as abstract labor do not capture the diversity of capitalist and non-capitalist labor processes in India.

His arguments find support from the most sophisticated Marxist analyses of India and the rest of the world. In particular, we might turn to the work of Jairus Banaji, whose essay “Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the late 19th Century” relies on Marx’s distinction between labor’s “real” subsumption to capital, and its “formal” subsumption in which capital has annexed the means of production as well as the formerly independent producer, but has not yet moved to “really revolutionize” the labor process.[9] This type of analysis perceives the capitalist essence of the productive relations, in the spirit of Marx, rather than expecting Indian society to match the highly abstracted picture provided in volume one of Capital.

The upshot, in so many words, is that capitalism does not need to do anything that the Subalternists were expecting it to do in India. As I pointed out, this is a confusion that comes directly out of Indian Stalinism. Capital can be perfectly happy with old forms of production and social relations. As Chibber points out, old divisions of laborers along the lines of religion, caste and language might be incredibly helpful to capital’s need to divide and control the working class.

I do not, however, share the Brenner/Wood conception of capitalism that Chibber deploys. I would in particular argue that the “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution, which Neil Davidson has been doing so much to develop, would explain the problems of India’s bourgeois revolution much better than the Brenner thesis. I have tried to develop this at length elsewhere.

Davidson’s view that the anticolonial and independence movements that follow the Second World War can best be thought of as bourgeois revolutions is particularly relevant. Deploying the analysis used in Alex Callinicos’ seminal article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,”[10] he argues correctly that what unites the earlier revolutions in England and France with 20th-century independence movements is their “consequence” of creating an independent center for capitalist accumulation, whether this is carried out from above or below.

Davidson’s book is also key for bringing back into the debate the Gramscian notion of a “passive revolution,” itself connected to Gramsci’s development of the earlier Marxist concept of hegemony, which the Subalternists relied on a distorted version of.[11]

In my view Gramsci’s real views on hegemony are very helpful for conceptualizing India’s state-building project. Gramsci in fact argued that both consent and coercion were necessary in creating the hegemony of any ruling class: coercion used toward the antagonistic classes, and consent solicited from the allied classes. In his words:

the ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical regime of the parliamentary régime is characterized by a combination of force and consent, which counterbalance each other, without force predominating exclusively over consent; rather, it appears to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed through the so-called organs of public opinion. 

Consent and coercion, therefore, form a dialectical unity in the operation of the state. As Peter Thomas writes, “in parliamentary regimes, coercion is the ultimate guarantee for consent, which in turn legitimates what could be described as a type of ‘coercion by consent.”[12]

To understand the economic and political development of the India after independence, we need to properly conceptualize how the independence movement produced a democratic state while ensuring state-capitalist development at the same time. In my view, Chibber’s reliance on the agency of subaltern classes alone in ensuring democratic liberty under capitalism in both Europe and India is not particularly convincing. Leaving aside the nonsensical conception of England and France’s revolutions as alternatively “non-bourgeois” or “non-capitalist,” he does not sufficiently address why India failed to develop into a “bourgeois oligarchy” like them.

This relates to something in his text which worries me. Though Chibber does not explicitly state it, I feel as though by drawing parallels so sharply between Indian history and the history of Western nations, he comes very close to endorsing a unilinear model of societal development, which is antithetical to the Marxist tradition.[13]

Gramsci’s original Marxist conception of the passive revolution as part of the broader revision of the concept of bourgeois revolution gives us the best tools to understand this process. We can use it to understand how Indian capital has incorporated middle-class elites as well as significant parts of the subaltern classes into a democratic developmentalist regime, without ever sacrificing its ability to use coercive methods, as in the Emergency, and today in Kashmir, the Northeast and in Operation Green Hunt. 

The Views and Influence of Subaltern Studies Today

What in particular of the culturalist assumptions of Subaltern studies? In the debate, Chatterjee attempted to deny he was a culturalist, but “outed” himself at the end of the debate by referring to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India as a phenomenon of specifically Indian culture.

It can sometimes be hard to understand, particularly to those outside of the academy, the unique power of the cultural turn, that is to say the idea that non-Western subaltern classes act politically based on primordial notions of communal over individual needs, in particular those of locale, caste and religion. Chibber subjects this concept to a fair and searching critique focusing on Chatterjee’s essays on peasant resistance in colonial Bengal and Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working-Class History, a seminal Subalternist work disputing the Marxist notion of class consciousness among early-20th century millworkers in Calcutta.

Chatterjee, for instance, argues that we need a specifically “Indian” conception of peasant resistance over concepts inherited from the West. What is needed, he says, is “an Indian history of peasant struggles” that recognizes Indian peasants’ “consciousness [which] has its own paradigmatic form… in fact the very other” of Western “bourgeois consciousness.” When peasants engage in collective political action, therefore, they do so as a primordial community, in which solidarity is guaranteed through conceptions of “the necessary duty of groups bound together through kinship.”[14]

Remarkably, Chatterjee extends this thesis as far as the claim that Indian peasants are incapable of transcending these primordial solidarities even when it harms their struggles. As he describes the divergence of interests between poor peasants and kulaks (jotedars), he advances the idea that “the peasant-communal ideology” was inadequate in providing a “perceptual guide for the identification of friends and enemies.” Peasants, he writes, would only be capable of identifying exploiters internal to their communities if they had an “alternative ideological system,” namely that of “bourgeois consciousness.”

As I said, it’s hard to grasp the prevalence of this notion. It is likely the one thing (in America, at least) that undergraduates will take away from a class on postcolonial literature or theory. It seems elementary to many in academics that we cannot simply assume the subalterns of Asia, Oceania, Latin America and Africa have the “same interests” as Westerners. Community, religion, language, ethnicity/race and caste are everywhere said to dominate over the Western interests of the individual or socioeconomic class.

This follows from the logic of the “dominance without hegemony” thesis. The bourgeoisie in India has failed to achieve hegemony therefore Indian subalterns remain tied to traditional worldviews that are untouched by “bourgeois consciousness.”

It is an interesting argument, and one well worth our time to explore. As Chibber indicates, primordial worldviews influenced by religion, caste and other communities are not antithetical to capitalist development. But instead of drawing on the large amount of work done by Marxists on this point, he chooses to lay out a  mechanical apparatus of “interests” (class-based and personal) as distinct from “culture” (which he dismisses as a significant factor). This led into some perplexing detours on the subject of individual as opposed to collective interests, which led into further detours on the subject of universalism vs. particularism. I fail to see these as significant referents for any real debate.

I’m not sure I’m competent to debate this to a satisfying conclusion, but I think some basic orientations can be provided by the dialectical method. I think, personally, that our method can evade entirely the dilemmas of individual vs. collective interests, as well as universalism vs. particularism. Dialectics signifies that abstraction across the global political economy means nothing and falls apart without descending now and then into the concrete realities of one or another place- say, South Asia. And this is a region in which many traditional assumptions of Marxism have, to put it mildly, been thrown out of whack.[15]

What about the claim of Orientalism? In one of his sharpest formulations, Chibber writes

Chatterjee seems unaware that he is reviving a well-established Orientalist notion of the East as a culture in which actors are essentially other-oriented, lacking any notion of individuality, unmoved by their material interests. The West is the site of the bounded individual, while the East is the repository of Community. Chatterjee explicitly warns against assimilating an analysis of Indian peasants into a general theory of peasant action – Indians require their own theory, he asserts, because they do not think like other agents, especially those in the West. They need a theory of their own, sensitive to their particular psychology. All this has a drearily familiar ring to it, even if dressed in radical language, for it harks back directly to nineteenth-century colonial ideology, not to mention contemporary reifications of the unchanging East.[16]

This is an interesting statement, and I sympathize with what he is saying even if I don’t agree with it entirely. In particular, Chibber seems to elide a significant distinction between Orientalism, an ideology constructed as a justification for imperialism, and Subaltern studies, a project with decidedly radical origins and which saw itself as trying to advance a Marxist critique from below. 

Subaltern Studies certainly would not have attracted the attention it has if all it were doing was rehashing Orientalism. Its turn away from Marxism has been taken by many in the field as a license to revive racist and imperialist tropes. But in my view this has more to do with the in some ways neocolonial power dynamics in global academics.

In a world in which power structures inherently favor the global North as opposed to the South, it is likely that this dominance will be reflected either starkly, as in the discipline of economics, or softly, as in other humanities disciplines where postcolonial theory has taken off the most. Though Chibber correctly points out many Orientalists in the Northern academy took the chance provided by the cultural turn to transform themselves into “postcolonialists,” this should enable us to draw a critique of academics in Europe and America rather than India.[17]

Certainly, the Subalternists deserve blame for not distancing themselves from this process. But we fundamentally need to see their critique as “from below,” which is not the same thing as Orientalist “from above” work, even if some of their assumptions overlap. 

Chibber is certainly correct to criticize what has become a commonsense view: that the subalterns of the global South respond to communal ties of religion, caste (where applicable) and other primordial notions. We might say a couple things about this.

First, that not all those associated with Subaltern Studies believe this and it’s a strawman to paint them as if they do.

Second, that on the face of it, it’s blindingly obvious that traditional ties continue to have some hold over the minds of Southern subalterns. It’s a worthy path of investigation to question why this is so.

Third, the idea that motivation to political action by traditional ties is inconsistent with motivation by the more “modern” ties of class, nation and so on is baseless. Aside from Chatterjee and Chakrabarty at their most radical, none of the Subalternists has claimed that it is. Marxism tells us that modern struggles  (to use the most obvious example, struggles by the working class over pay, conditions, and even power) can be mediated through older notions of community involving religion, language, race, etc. There is a wealth of Marxist scholarship on this. Chibber does not seem to acknowledge it, referring only to how communal divisions can hurt class struggle by dividing workers, although it would seem to be a logical corollary.

Fourth (and I’ll expand on this in the next section), it is dangerous to counterpose precapitalist consciousness to capitalist consciousness for the reason that, quite simply, capitalist notions like the individual or the nation are just as irrational as the ones that preceded them. Marx and Engels’ entire critique of the Enlightenment from The Communist Manifesto onwards pivoted on the idea that the bourgeoisie had constructed a society as unjust, riven by conflict, and yes, as irrational as what came before.

In sum, then, we should be able to see a way out of the argument over whether the workers and peasants of the global South have “bourgeois consciousness” or not to an investigation of whether subalterns anywhere (or anyone anywhere) has “bourgeois consciousness” as it is typically understood. The persistence of racism in both the US and Europe would seem to make this case for us. On their own, the categories of individual and class community are insufficient for saying anything substantive about the mentality of the working classes anywhere, not just in the South.

What Kind of Enlightenment? And What Kind of Marxism?

I want to conclude with some brief notes on what I believe are the weaknesses of Chibber’s approach to Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory. While his book has opened the salvo against culturalist approaches to the global South, we can hope that it will be the first of many which will broaden and deepen the lines of critique he has laid out.

Chibber’s Marxism as he shows it in the book can be interesting because it is a curious mélange of many different academic currents, from the “political Marxism” of Brenner and Wood, to the type of analytical Marxism endorsed by Erik Olin Wright. I don’t have much time for either conception, which in my view distorts Marxism and tends to gut its dialectical core in favor of being somehow more “rigorous.” But that is a debate for another time.

What concerns me more about Chibber’s approach than his analytical tendencies are certain approaches he seems to import tout court whenever it suits his analysis. In particular, Chibber adheres (“proudly,” in his words) to Rawlsian social-contract theory.[18] He also praises the modernization theorist Amartya Sen as an “eloquent and consistent defender of some core values”and comes in my view dangerously close to endorsing Guha’s deployment of rational-choice theory in his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in India.[19]

In the book, Chibber is often at pains to say that he is not offering any specific Marxist alternative view of some subjects (or Enlightenment view, for that matter), that his criticisms are meant to show that these “rational categories of European thought” can be used to explain the politics and economics of the Global South, and that therefore they maintain their value. Presumably Chibber therefore deploys these concepts to make the most solid case possible that the Enlightenment tradition, as well as specifically the Marxist tradition, remains valuable as against the anti-rationalism of much of postcolonial theory. But is this a really worthwhile project?

Chibber is a bit coy about his own affiliations within Marxism.[20] But no matter. My concern is more that not all Enlightenment thought can or should be used in analysis. This is especially true of rational-choice theory, an apparatus which was imported fully-formed from Hayekian neoliberal economics into political science and sociology.

Leaving that aside, there is the problem of “rationality” in the debate. Chibber seems to regard the worst effect of postcolonial theory as that it has abjured the responsibility to be “rational.” 

Much of what we could say about this has already been covered in endless anti-postmodernist tracts. I don’t regard anti-rationality as a serious problem. It may be popular in some sectors of the academy, but, not to put to fine a point on it, reason works, and you can’t go many places without it. I just want to point out one thing – that Marxism does not have an unproblematic relationship with Enlightenment rationality, as Chibber comes close to suggesting at times.

It has often been ignored that Marx may have been the first to present a “subalternist” critique of enlightenment thought. His metaphor of commodity fetishism is a case in point. By connecting the bourgeois’ greed for gold with the African worship of “fetish” objects, he attacked the very bourgeois rationality he is so often employed in defending. What was more rational, Marx was asking, to worship something you can see and touch, or to worship the exchange value in gold, which is hidden and inaccessible to the senses? This does not just equate two forms of fetishism – Marx deliberately and provocatively argued that fetish worship was more rational than commodity worship, without for a moment romanticizing African society.[21]

To Chibber, an analytical Marxist, the argument of commodity fetishism may not hold much weight. But it remains part of the Romantic, even anti-Enlightenment, component of Marxism that has very often been ignored. 

As one perceptive critic has pointed out,[22] Marxism seeks to, in Hegelian terms, “sublate” the categories of Enlightenment thought: to identify their liberatory core and push them to their most radical conclusions, which means overcoming Enlightenment thought in the process. The proletarian worldview of Marxism is in fact the Enlightenment’s “very Other.”[23]

Whether eliding this distinction makes Chibber “not sufficiently Marxist” doesn’t really concern me. But I have to sympathize with claims that he is uncritically deploying the categories of Enlightenment thought which most deserve a thorough critique instead of rehabilitation.

After all, the promise of liberty made by the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment was negated by the reality of capitalism, which meant exploitation and oppression of the world’s vast majority (most prominently the people of the Global South, who we are concerned with here) for the individual liberty and freedom to accumulate of a few. Critique of these conditions does not involve a revival of notions of individual freedom and choice, but an enlargement of the category into the concrete freedom and needs of all society.

Conclusion: Assessing the Debate Thus Far

If the debate between Marxists and subalternists/postcolonialists (as well as those who consider themselves to be both) is to go far, it has to provide the most concrete foundations possible for discussion.

This has not been the case thus far. The debate between Chibber and Chatterjee showed this, where each became for a moment the exponent of the abstract values of “universalism” and “particularism,” independent of the South Asian context in which they were arguing. Neither of them did themselves any favors in this exchange, which came off rather as a dialogue between the mutually deaf.

In particular: many from Chibber’s camp misunderstand the context of these debates. It isn’t Chibber’s fault; he tries as best he can to give the historical context of Subaltern Studies. But two chapters isn’t nearly enough. It also isn’t his supporters’ fault that they misunderstand the context of debates in South Asian history, it is rather a reflection of the miserable ultra-specialization academia enforces on us all. But we need to place the argument on a concrete footing if it is to go anywhere.

Observation largely confirms Chibber’s view that many of the assumptions inherent in postcolonial studies may be seen as a revival of Orientalism. But the cultural essentialism of Subaltern Studies even at its most extreme does not equate to Orientalism. Chibber and his followers can be faulted for failing to draw the distinction between the intentions of Subaltern Studies and its influence. Of course, Chatterjee and others involved in the project are themselves rapidly trying to distance themselves from it, particularly their own radical origins.

Chibber’s critique, therefore, comes dangerously close to letting Subaltern Studies off the hook when it is most in need of critique. Debates about individual or communal interests, or between provincialism and universalism have just this effect. In my view these are mainly false dichotomies.

Overall, I think this debate will be most beneficial if we can relate it back to the concrete realities in which Subaltern Studies arose, and even contrast it significantly with research about the United States, Europe, and other areas. First, however, we need to have a little humility towards South Asia studies. In that spirit, I hope what I have written can be appreciated as tentative rather than final in any sense.


1. Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006).

2. The debate off Facebook has produced the following interesting pieces: Chibber’s interview with Jonah Birch in Jacobin, Chris Taylor’s review for his blog “Of CLR James,” and Paul Heideman’s response to Taylor on Verso’s blog.

3. Chibber provides a balanced historiography in Chapters 2 and 3 of his book.

4. Gyan Pandey, “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129 and Gautum Bhadra, “Four Rebels of 1857,” in Guha and Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary (London/New York: Oxford UP), 129-178. Chibber could not possibly be unaware of this quite substantial body of innovative Marxist historical work that characterized the early issues of the journal. His critique, unfortunately, only focuses on Guha’s editorial statements from the first several issues, after which he turns to Chatterjee and Chakrabarty’s work (published outside the journal) from the 1990s, after both had found academic appointments in the United States. This is unfortunate as it skips over practically the entire course of the school’s development.

5. Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 160.

6. See Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), and E.P. Thompson, “The Peculiarities of the English.”

7. See Chapter 3, “Dominance without Hegemony: The Argument Assessed.” Though Chibber presents the Brenner thesis as the only legitimate Marxist conception of the capitalist transition, it most emphatically is not. Readers would do well to consult Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), chapter 18, “Capitalist Social Property Relations” on “political Marxism” and how it differs from the classical Marxist tradition.

8. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 90.

9. Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 277-332.

10. Alex Callinicos, “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43 (Summer 1989), 113-171.

11. Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? particularly Chapters 14, “Classical Marxism (3),” 19, “Consequentialism,” and 22, “Patterns of Consummation.”

12. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 160-63.I don’t invoke Gramsci here to accuse the Subalternists of being insufficiently Marxist, but because I feel that Gramsci’s real notions cleansed of distortion are very helpful in conceptualizing the history of the independence movement and postcolonial Indian state.

13. Chibber’s discussion of the post-feudal “bourgeois oligarchies” in Western nations begs the question whether the Emergency might have been just India following the same path as the developed West. We need the sharpest break with any such idea. This is one place where Chatterjee’s critique is on point: “Europe and America, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery.” The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993), 5.

14. Chatterjee, “The Nation and its Peasants,” in ibid, 158-172.

15. I hope I’m not taken as saying that Chibber’s work is worthless because he rejects the dialectic. I rather want to point out some ways in which the classical Hegelian-Marxist view of society as a differentiated but mediated totality can be helpful in giving us the tools to avoid some of the less worthwhile arguments.

16. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 161.

17. Chibber, “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies,” 376-78.

18. Chibber, Chatterjee and Weinstein, “Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies.”

19. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 205 and 163 fn. Sen is guilty of the same essentialism about Indian culture that Chibber has set about trying to correct. See The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Picador, 2006), which attempts to draw connections between the historical tolerance and liberality of the Mauraya and Mughal Empires to the maintence of India as a modern liberal democracy, as against the BJP’s religious fundamentalism.

20. Though he said in the debate with Chatterjee that he “didn’t care” if his conceptions of capitalism differed from Marx’s or those of the Marxist mainstream, he writes in the book that “[Subalternists’] Marxism is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized by most contemporary Marxists” (Postcolonial Theory, 10). He can’t have it both ways.

21. David McNally draws this out at length in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 126-132.

22. Chris Taylor, “Not Even Marxist” (ref. above, note 2.)

23. At the current conjuncture it seems to me that we would do well to emphasize the anti-Enlightenment trend in Marxism. As we have seen, unproblematic paeans to Enlightenment thought can lead to some strange conclusions. The Platypus Affiliated Society, for instance, is in the process of tearing itself apart over the (thoroughly unsurprising) revelation that its leaders believe that racism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has a rational core.”

Works Cited

Banaji, Jairus (2010). Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket.

Bhadra, Gautum (1988), “Four Rebels of 1857,” in R. Guha and G. Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary. London/New York: Oxford UP, 129-178.

Callinicos, Alex (1989), “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43, 113-171.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993). The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chibber, Vivek (2006), “On the Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies” in Critical Asian Studies 38.4, 357-387.

Chibber, Vivek (2013a). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London/New York: Verso.

Chibber, Vivek, Partha Chatterjee, and Barbara Weinstein (2013b), “Debate: Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies. Historical Materialism Conference, New York.

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

McNally, David (2012). Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket.

Pandey, Gyanendra (1983), “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129.

Sen, Amartya (2006). The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Picador.

Thomas, Peter (2010). The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket.


Filed under Culture, History, Politics

David Peace, Roberto Bolaño and International Crime Fiction

International Crime Fiction: David Peace’s Red Riding and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

There are books you like, books you love, books you need, and books that have such a powerful effect on you that they become permanent fixtures in your life, their words sunk into the roadmap of your mental landscape. For me in the past years, few books have as enduring an effect as do Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and David Peace’s Red Riding quartet.

I came across 2666 around four years ago on a recommendation from a friend. I found a copy at my college library, opened the cover, and then proceeded to forget entirely about my somewhat precarious grades, this in the end-of-year final exams period. Over the time since, I’ve read it five or more times, I’ve pressed copies on my friends and family, and even once had my picture taken outside a Chicago restaurant merely because it had the same name as one in the novel.

Red Riding I discovered more recently, around a year ago. After watching raptly through BBC Channel Four’s three-part movie series, I ordered all the books and proceeded to read through them three times over the next months. They still have a strong mental hold on me, to the point where I find myself running over extended sections in my head while doing nothing related to any type of literature.

I don’t typically read crime fiction, and happened upon both works at least in part because they tend to be divorced from this genre in the literary world.[1] Least of all do I find serial killers (a subject which both take up) to be anything other than banal in most circumstances. But what strikes me about both 2666 and Red Riding is the way that the most horrific crimes – and neither author hesitates to use the word evil – are connected, indeed embedded, in a society that produces, normalizes, and rationalizes such behavior.

What follows is a series of not entirely complimentary or even coherent observations about the character of both works. As I believe this is not entirely self-indulgent, but may actually show something about contemporary crime fiction, I pray the reader at least will indulge me in this exercise.

Time and Place

For both Peace and Bolaño, crime is something that is done by specific people, to others, in a certain time and place. Precision is the beginning of their craft.[2] This observation might appear somewhat odd, as certainly all crime is specific. But what sets great crime writers apart from pulp is this idea – that certain societal circumstances produce crime. It is not a metaphysical phenomenon or embedded in human nature throughout history.

Red Riding takes place within a very tightly defined setting. The books take place in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the years 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983, from which the titles of each book come. There is a lot to be said even about these dates. The years of 1977 to 1980, of course, were those of the reign of terror by Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” whose case preoccupies the books that take place in these years.

Peace gives intricate details of the Ripper’s murders, to the point where each chapter of Nineteen Eighty begins with a section from Sutcliffe’s testimony to the police:

… e dropped my hammer she said e hope that was not a knife e said no it was my wallet just strip and she had almost finished that was when e hit her on the head with the hammer and e hit her on the head with the hammer again and she lay on the grass with her hand to her head all covered in blood lay on the grass and e just stood and watched her looking at her hand the hand all covered in blood the snowflakes dancing and then e masturbated and then e threw the tissues at her and put a fiver in her bloody hand and said please do not call the police or e will come and kill you…[3]

The thread running throughout Red Riding, however, is not the Ripper murders but a series of child abductions that form the cornerstones for the investigations in Nineteen Seventy-Four and Nineteen Eighty-Three. Though the Ripper case lends a sinister aura to the proceedings, the books are more about the kind of society that can produce people like Peter Sutcliffe. And Peace makes it clear that this is a society riven by class conflict.

These years are also are framed by the decline of the Labour-led welfare state and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Nineteen Seventy-Four has interspersed oblique references to the successful miner’s strike the year earlier which toppled Edward Heath’s Tory government, and Nineteen Eighty-Three contains numerous premonitions of the great miner’s strike of the following year which went down to bitter defeat.[4]

The child abductions are a story only revealed in bits and pieces throughout the course of the novels. The first abductee, Clare Kemplay, is a nine year-old girl who is found dead on a construction site. She was tortured, raped, strangled, and finally deposited with the word “4LUV” carved into her chest and swan wings stitched to her back.[5]

This was only the latest act by a cabal of respectable men of West Yorkshire society – among them businessmen, artists, and even a priest – who commit their crimes in an abandoned mineshaft. An oblique prophecy referenced several times in the course of Nineteen Seventy-Four refers to this: “Tell them about the others… the others… all the others underneath those beautiful new carpets… under the grass that grows between the cracks and stones… please, tell them where they are.”[6]

The horrific crimes take place “underneath the beautiful new carpets” – behind, in other words, the façade that society erects to obscure them. The fact that “underneath the carpets” turns out to be a mineshaft in fact refers directly to the war against the working class that has led to the dereliction of public life.

The crimes of 2666 also have a direct frame of reference. In this case it is the infamous femicides in and around Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico, which Bolaño thinly disguises as the city of Santa Teresa. All five parts of 2666 have something to do with the femicides, but they are foregrounded in the epic fourth section, “The Part About the Crimes.”

The first documented cases of women being raped, strangled and killed around Ciudad Juárez occurred in 1993, and are still ongoing to this day. At first ignored, by the time Bolaño took up his pen they were becoming an international human rights case, with UN investigations being made and a movie starring Jennifer López being filmed. No resolution thus far has been made.

Bolaño’s voice in “The Part About the Crimes” is often one of the cold, clinical police report, which he worked consciously to imitate:

In the middle of November [1993], Andrea Pacheco Martínez, thirteen, was kidnapped on her way out of Vocational School 16… The city police and the judicial police took charge of the case. When she was found two days later, her body showed unmistakable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced her feet had also been tied.[7]

The murders of women from the beginning of 1993 to the end of 1997 are the main subject of “The Part About the Crimes,” interlaced with the stories of the detectives who try to solve the case and the accused who try to free themselves. Hundreds of murders of women by, at most, a few killers suggests a great malignancy in Mexican society.

In fact, the malignancy is one characterized by one-sided class warfare, the same as in Red Riding. Ciudad Juárez, the model for Santa Teresa, is the epicenter of the growth of the maquiladoras – sweatshops which sprang up along the US-Mexico border during the nineties after the signing of NAFTA. An easily exploited, transient and feminized workforce is the object of these horrific murders – not, in fact, the prostitutes of northern Mexico, as Bolaño is at pains to point out. Stories of women who set off to work and never returned, women who were dismissed for attempting to form unions, and women who happened to be at the wrong place and the wrong time in the city’s run down working-class neighborhoods dot the pages of the novel.

To sum up: for both Peace and Bolaño, even the most horrific crimes have at root a social rather than a psychological illness. They take place at a specific time and place, and importantly for both northern England of the late 70s and early 80s, and northern Mexico of the 1990s, these settings are characterized by fierce class struggles. As Derek Box, the construction magnate of Nineteen Seventy-Four says:

This country’s at war, Mr Dunford. The government and the unions, the Left and the Right, the rich and the poor. Then you got your Paddies, your wogs, your niggers, your puffs and your perverts, they’re all out for what they can get… to the victor, the spoils.

Men who Hate Women

A major theme of both Peace’s and Bolaño’s crime stories is the victimization of women. In both the West Riding of Yorkshire and neoliberal Sonora, society considers women to be, at the end, expendable. This is revealed more often than not by the police who are tasked with stopping the murders of women. In one telling episode of 2666, the omniscient narrator describes a get-together by policemen at the end of their shifts:

For example, one cop would say: what’s the perfect woman? Pues she’s two feet tall, big ears, flat head, no teeth and hideously ugly. Why? Pues two feet tall so she comes right up to your waist, big ears so you can steer her, a flat head so you have a place to set your beer, no teeth so she can’t bite your dick, and hideously ugly so no bastard tries to steal her away. Some laughed. Others kept eating their eggs and drinking their coffee. And the teller of the first joke continued. He asked: why don’t women know how to ski? Silence. Pues because it never snows in the kitchen… all right, friends, what’s the definition of a woman? Pues a vagina surrounded by a more or less organized bunch of cells… And if someone complained to González about all the chauvinist jokes, González replied that God was the chauvinist, because he made men superior.[8]

Of course, it does not particularly matter whether a policeman laughs at the joke or keeps eating his eggs or drinking his coffee: the lack of respect for women, the fact that seeing women as something subhuman is more or less accepted goes a long way toward explaining why hundreds of women have been raped and killed with little intervention by the law into their cases.

Another equally telling section of “The Part About the Crimes” tells an episode in the life of the journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who is investigating the femicides:

One night, after making love with a whore, as they lay smoking in bed, he asked her what she thought of all the kidnappings and all of the bodies of women found in the desert… and as he was talking the whore yawned, which irritated Sergio and made him say, in exasperation, that in Santa Teresa they were killing whores, so why not show a little professional solidarity, to which the whore replied that he was wrong, that the women who were dying were factory workers, not whores. Workers, workers, she said. And then Sergio apologized, and, as if a lightbulb had gone on in his head, he glimpsed an aspect of the situation that until now he’d overlooked.[9]

Does the occupations of hundreds of women who are killed by the same serial killer particularly matter? In a society that finds women expendable, the answer is both yes and no. The insinuation that the victims are all prostitutes relegates them to the edges of the normal at the same time it tells us what society thinks of women in general. Women are for the use of men, therefore, their position in general is equivalent with that of a prostitute. The jokes made by the policeman above are symptomatic of a greater societal malaise.

“The Part About the Crimes” renders no answers to the mystery of the femicides. In fact, Bolaño complicates matters even further by including the murders of women who were not killed by the elusive narco or other serial killers with a sleek black car. The murders of women by jealous men, their boyfriends, lovers, friends or husbands, form an important counterpoint to the women whose bones are found in the desert: they are part of the same continuum of institutionalized violence against women.[10] 

In Red Riding, a similar disdain is shown by the police, the press, and all of polite society toward women, both the prostitutes who are the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims and the less marginal women who nevertheless become victims of powerful men. The disregard of women is so ingrained that many characters, Eddie Dunford for example, refer to women as “cows”: “poor cow,” etc.[11]

Of course, the fact that it is primarily women who bear the brunt of violence in the Quartet, whether at the hands of the Ripper or the cabal of the Dragon, the Swan, and the Wolf shows us something important about the society in which all these criminals operate. A society in which the police as well as these criminals are complicit in the objectification, prostitution, and murders of women is one bound to produce someone like Peter Sutcliffe, sooner or later.

Guilt and Innocence

Both Peace and Bolaño’s narratives contain men who are featured prominently as scapegoats for the crimes the novels revolve around. The scapegoats of both are found in stories that are, in fact, completely true.

The abduction and brutal murder of ten year-old Clare Kemplay in Nineteen Seventy-Four receives its apparent resolution when Michael Myshkin, a developmentally handicapped second-generation Polish immigrant is taken in by the police and confesses not only to Kemplay’s murder, but those of pubescent Jeanette Garland and Susan Ridyard years earlier. 

But it is as the journalist Eddie Dunford says of Myshkin in Nineteen Seventy-Four, however cynically: “He looks the part.” Society has decided to find Myshkin guilty of the murders, and he is just marginal enough to fit the bill. Appropriate stories of his mental and physical disorders and his past behavior among females are filled in by the police until he does look the part.[12]

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a major influence on Red Riding, easily discernable by the titles of the books as well as constant references we find in the text: while Eddie’s last chapter in Nineteen Seventy-Four is entitled “We Are the Dead,” and John Piggott in Nineteen Eighty-Three dreams of DCS Jobson telling him “we’ll meet again… in the place where there is no darkness.”

A major question posed in Orwell’s novel is the malleability of truth, especially the truth of guilt and innocence. Just as Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia if the Party believes this to be true, so then does it really matter if the victims of repeated party purges are guilty or not, as long as society believes they are?

This is the same question posed by the case of Michael Myshkin in Red Riding. Society has made him to be guilty, and those who try to find the truth are guilty of conspiring against society. DCS Jobson’s superior, the Chief of the Amalgamated West Yorkshire Police, tells him: “He did those things, killed them girls… you know it, in your heart.”[13]

The case of Klaus Haas in Bolaño’s 2666 makes a similar point. Haas, a German-American small businessman and immigrant to Mexico, is just eccentric enough so that the police can find him guilty and put him behind bars. When the killings of women continue unabated by Haas’ imprisonment, the police conclude that he must have contracted out the new killings to remove the shadow of guilt from himself. He has a history of strange behavior, including some assault charges and deviant sexual practices, so that he can be safely locked away for crimes he is certainly innocent of, whatever his individual peculiarities and history of sex crime.[14]

Scapegoating in both 2666 and Red Riding has two levels: while it gives a sense of closure to respectable society which can now breathe easy, it also doubly indicts that same society. The scapegoating of innocents is piled on top of the brutal murder of other innocents. It is as Jobson says to Piggott at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Three: “We’re all guilty.”

Humanity and Inhumanity

I’m often reminded of Bolaño’s account of the first murder of a girl in “The Part About the Crimes,” that of a thirteen year-old named Esperanza Gómez Saldaña. Just after the dry, clinical facts of the case are recounted, a sudden slippage occurs in the style:

This happened in 1993. January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, her name heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.[15]

This easy slip between the dry, scientific facts of the case and the spooky, even Gothic, style of writing Bolaño adopts even in large sections of the much-maligned “Part About the Crimes” tell us something important: that no single register is capable of expressing the horrifying nature of the crimes. But he is also telling us something important about the never-revealed killer, who wanders alone in the middle of the night scattering the ashes of his victims. The police who vainly try to catch him, the women he preys on, and all the inhabitants of the damned city of Santa Teresa also wander alone in, to skip to the final passage of Part Four, the “streets that were almost completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.”[16]

The killer of 2666 who wanders at midnight forms an interesting comparison with the perception of the Yorkshire Ripper in the fateful third volume of Red Riding, Nineteen Eighty. George Oldman, the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire police force, gives a interview in which he states in part:

“I feel after all this time, I feel that I really know him… If we do get him, we’ll probably find he’s had too long on the left breast and not enough on the right. But I don’t regard him as evil. The voice is almost sad, a man fed up with what he’s done, fed up with himself. To me, he’s like a bad angel on a mistaken journey, and while I could never condone his methods, I can sympathize with his feelings.”[17]

There is something more to this than an expression of identity by a policeman with the criminal, a trope that has reached the status of cliché in crime fiction. The image of “a bad angel, on a mistaken journey,” and a killer scattering the ashes of his victims in the middle of the night as he wonders where he has come to, have a striking resemblance. They both contribute to the idea of a man pushed far beyond the limits of society that condemns his behavior in thought as it condones him in practice.

Just as Peace’s women are systematically dehumanized as “cows” or something worse, the perpetrators of horrifying crimes in Red Riding also come in the form of animals: the Dragon, the Swan, the Wolf, and less extreme, the Badger and the Owl.[18]

Peter Mullan as Fr. Martin Laws in Channel Four’s Red Riding.

The Dragon, the most terrifying of this gallery of rogues, is Father Martin Laws, a sinister presence behind many nefarious deeds in the entire Quartet. First introduced as a bizarre sort of confessor for the tormented journalist Jack Whitehead, Laws takes on a terrifying appearance as the most evil sort of bastard you can imagine, manipulating, torturing, killing and even trepanning those under his spell.

At the same time, outwardly Laws maintains the guise of the consummate humanitarian. An Anglican priest (although with somewhat esoteric interpretations of the scripture), he lends the books much of the religious overtone at the same time he is incredibly considerate and comforting to anyone he might have a use for. The two sides of his character, while contradictory, are not mutually exclusive. It is true that as he says, he ends suffering, even if he is the one who caused it in the first place.[19]

Are those capable of the most horrible crimes actually human? Both 2666 and Red Riding have the same answer: given a certain kind of society, the best human specimens are capable of the greatest inhumanity. To quote Jobson at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Three once again:

Lord, I do not understand my own actions.
I know that nothing good dwells within me, in my flesh.
I do not the good that I want, but I do the very things that I hate.
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
I do not the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand…’[20]

Visions and Dreams

Both 2666 and Red Riding are preoccupied with the world of dreams and visions. This is, fundamentally, an expression of the fact that nothing in the world of cold reality is capable of adequately explaining or resolving the deep impact such horrible crimes have on everyone around them.

In Nineteen Eighty, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter refers to each session of his team investigating the Ripper murders as a “séance,” in which the dead are summoned by passing around their photos and recalling the brutal circumstances of their murders. The dead themselves come into the text through the monologues mentioned above, in which the Ripper’s testimony collides with the testimony of his victims from beyond the grave, often inflected in the imagery of Dante’s Inferno, all told in single-page blocks of 6-point text in transcribed Yorkshire English. It’s somewhat affecting to say the least.

It is, after all, Mystic Mandy in Nineteen Seventy-Four who tells Eddie to “tell them about the others… underneath those beautiful new carpets, and his knocked off by the police because she possesses too much of the truth. Much of what is actually revealed about the killers, whether the Ripper or the more mundane abductors of children, come to the characters in the world of sleep and altered consciousness.

Mystic Mandy finds her Mexican counterpart in Florita Almada, the traditional medicine expert who suddenly and inconveniently becomes clairvoyant in the midst of a television interview:

She repeated what she had already said: a big desert, a big city, in the north of the state, girls killed, women killed. What city is it? she asked herself… It’s Santa Teresa! It’s Santa Teresa! I see it clearly now. Women are being killed there. They’re killing my daughters. My daughters! My daughters! she screamed… Then, in a little girl’s voice, she said: some are driven away in black cars, but they kill them anywhere. Then she said, in a normal voice: can’t they leave the virgins in peace?… Florita roared: don’t touch me, you cold-hearted wretches! Don’t worry about me! Haven’t you understood what I’ve said?[21]

The End of the World

Both authors overtly reference the theme of apocalypse. Bolaño’s title 2666 obviously references an apocalyptic future date, although one that does not appear anywhere in this book itself.[22] It is the landscape of Santa Teresa and its environs that suggests the theme of the end of the world.[23] Here again, we become aware that the social catastrophe of neoliberalism in the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juárez cannot be adequately expressed through ordinary language – it has to be expressed in the mystical and the apocalyptic.

Peace, on the other hand, instead of giving us revelations about the crimes, gives us Revelations. Jack Whitehead’s searing final soliloquy in Nineteen Seventy-Seven, for instance, reads in part:

… in 1977 suffering your terrors, in 1977 my companions are in darkness, in 1977 when young men see visions and old men dream dreams, dreams of remission and forgiveness, an end to penance, in 1977 when the two sevens clash and the cuts won’t stop bleeding, the bruises not healing, the two witnesses – their testimony finished, their bodies lying naked in the streets of the city, the sea blood, the waters wormwood, women drunken with the blood and patience and faith of the saints, and I stand at the door and knock, the keys to death and hell and the mystery of the woman, knowing this is why people die, this is why people, in 1977 this is why I see… No future.[24]

Besides the numerous Biblical references, Whitehead envisions a very modern apocalypse, one that invokes not only the Ripper’s murders but also British racial panic and the myth of the royal family. In 1977, the reggae group Culture released the album “Two Sevens Clash” which became an immediate sensation. After waves of immigration from the West Indies, reggae had become as much a signal for the revolt of the most exploited and oppressed as it was a special offense toward racist morality crusaders. The title of the album was in reference to an apocalyptic prediction made by the early black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who predicted the end of the world “when the sevens clash” on July 7, 1977.

1977, of course, was also the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Peace reverses the promise of peace and prosperity of Elizabeth’s long reign by referencing the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” in which Johnny Rotten sang “No future, no future, no future for you.”

Conclusion: Dream Journeys and Fairy Tales

Neither 2666 nor Red Riding have a satisfying conclusion to the mysteries at the center. Though it is hinted throughout “The Part About the Crimes” that it is the narcos of one gang or another who are responsible for the femicides, this is never decisively revealed. Though the ring of child abusers in Red Riding is found out and for the most part receives justice, the books end with, out of their seven protagonists, four suicides, two murders, and one driven irreparably insane.

This is in keeping with much of what has already been written about both narratives. The point is not that of pulp crime and detective fiction, to establish a definitive resolution. The gaps, pauses, dead ends and tangles in the stories resemble those of the society that produces these crimes.[25]

After the end of the narrative in which the crimes are done, the policeman chases, the killer is caught and that is that, what role does the crime story have in the world of postmodern capitalism? Both 2666 and Red Riding have something to tell us here, though what they tell us is not entirely consonant with each other.

The first is an observation that applies to them both: it seems to be the case that the more realistic forms a detective or crime story takes, the more it tends to bring out the inner, psychological journey of its protagonist. Chasing the killer is often a form of chasing oneself, whether this leads to a resolution or not.[26]

Both stories bring this inner journey out in the open. In Peace’s Quartet, the grittiness and poverty of West Yorkshire where murder, police corruption and child abuse take place simultaneously become the ground for séances, dreams and visitations of hell, and even the Apocalypse itself. Among the maquiladoras and the deserts of Santa Teresa we find the intervention of angels and demons, and the most bizarre and rhapsodic visions from those who even visit the city.

Both Peace’s and Bolaño’s work are in certain ways, therefore, expressive of what some scholars call the “return to the sacred” in postmodern literature. Crimes that one cannot communicate the horror of in secular language find their expression in the languages of the subconscious and the heavens.

Nineteen Eighty-Three, the last of the quartet, begins with the following traditional epigraph:

Oh, this is the way to the fairy wood
Where the wolf ate little Red Riding Hood;
But this is the riddle that you must tell –
How is it, if it so befell,
That he ate her up in that horrid way,
In these pretty pages she lives today?[27]

Peace has spoken in several places of crime stories filling the role that society once had for fairy stories. In our era, the mystery is as much an enticing story as it is a cautionary tale, in which the untold legions of the dead who are victims of capitalist society find their testament. We are left staring at the author, whose work asks us over and over again, “haven’t you understood what I’ve said?”


[1] While Peace remains a crime writer by most judgments, his work seems to be tolerated in the literary community. He has been given repeated mainstream awards including Granta’s “Promising Young British Novelist.” Bolaño on the other hand is seen as more strictly literary, despite his affinities to science fiction and especially mystery. He stated in one of his last interviews “I would have liked to be a detective rather than an author,” and named James Ellroy “the greatest living writer working in English.”

[2] Interestingly, both Peace and Bolaño wrote the books I am dealing with nearly half a world away from the events themselves. While Peace grew up in Yorkshire, he wrote Red Riding in Japan, with the help of archives of English newspapers. Bolaño had grown up in Mexico City but never even visited Ciudad Juárez, which he wrote about while living in Spain, with the benefit of an extensive correspondence with Mexican friends.

[3] Nineteen Eighty, 98.

[4] Peace covered the strike itself in GB84, the first novel he published after completing Red Riding.

[5] More recently, Peace has stated that he isn’t proud of this last detail, saying “the real crimes are horrifying enough.”

[6] Nineteen Seventy-Four, 126. Though Mandy’s character appears in the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Three. The movies, while they remain true to the spirit of the books, make many swaps, substitutions and character composites.

[7] 2666, 326. The details of anal and vaginal penetration and strangulation with a fracture of the hyoid bone is the M.O. for many of the killings. Bolaño adapted these passages from real police reports provided to him by Sergio González, journalist and author of Huesos en el desierto, the first real exposé on the crimes. Bolaño made him a character in “The Part About the Crimes” in return for his assistance.

[8] 2666, 552-53. I take the title for this section, of course, from Stieg Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor (translated into English as the somewhat snappier title Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Peace and Larsson’s work have been compared at times, in my opinion much to the detriment of the former.

[9] 2666, 465-66.

[10] My impression is that the serial killings break even with more mundane ones, although I’ve not made a complete count. The black Perigrino is a detail which shows up in a few of the original case files, leading to the belief that the perpetrator or perpetrators involved are narcotics traffickers or connected to the trade.

[11] Peace has remarked that one of the things he remains haunted by from his Yorkshire childhood is the term “cow” as both an endearment and a term that dehumanizes women. All of the protagonists of Red Riding, save the gay prostitute BJ Anderson, are guilty of taking deep advantage of the women in their lives, in some cases up to and including rape.

[12] Myshkin is based on Stefan Kiszko, a tax clerk of Ukrainian and Slovene parentage who was wrongly imprisoned for the murder of the eleven year-old Lesley Molseed in Rishworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, January 1975. Kiszko’s botched defense led to a decades-long imprisonment, and he died shortly after being vindicated and released. Jimmy Ashworth (conflated with Leonard Cole in the films) is also found guilty by police of the murder of Hazel Atkins in Nineteen Eighty-Three, and conveniently hangs himself before his solicitor can contest the case.

[13] Nineteen Eighty-Three, 20.

[14] Haas is based on Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, an Egyptian-American chemist resident in Ciudad Juárez. Sharif was found guilty on five counts of murder and died in prison in 2008. Like Haas, Sharif’s history of sexual assault made him a likely candidate for the crimes, at least according to the police.

[15] 2666, 353-54.

[16] 2666, 633.

[17] Nineteen Eighty-Three, 6. The voice Oldman describes was not in fact that of Sutcliffe, but of “Wearside Jack,” a hoaxer who sent several tapes and letters to the West Yorkshire police claiming to be the perpetrator, which he signed “Jack the Ripper.” Significant police resources were diverted in the attempt to apprehend a Ripper with a Sunderland accent, while the real Ripper was a Yorkshire native.

[18] The Swan is architect John Dawson, who in the movies is conflated with the construction magnate Derek  Box. The Dragon is Fr. Martin Laws (see below) and the Wolf is George Marsh, a foreman of Derek Box’s. Marsh’s deeds are attributed to Laws in the Channel Four version. The Owl is DCS Maurice Jobson, and the Badger is his partner, Bill Molloy.

[19] In my opinion, Peter Mullan’s performance as Laws in the Channel Four version was brilliant. But the three movies, especially since they leave out Nineteen Seventy-Seven, can nowhere near capture Laws’ sheer malevolence.

[20] Nineteen Eighty, 402. The reference is to Romans 7:15-21. In the films Jobson is a reluctant participant in police corruption, but in the books he is one of the central instigators. Much of the Quartet, especially the final volume, revolves around the fundamental question of whether an individual can be innocent where society stands condemned. Hence the theme of Christian redemption, even as deeply ambiguous as we find it in Peace.

[21] 2666, 436-37.

[22] The date 2666 appears in the novella Amulet, itself an extended version of a chapter in Bolaño’s one other long novel, The Savage Detectives. The narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, says “Avendia Guerrera at that time of night is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery underneath the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” Amulet, 86.

[23] The desert landscape of Santa Teresa recalls a book with the same setting, although 150 years earlier: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which also relies heavily on apocalyptic themes.

[24] Nineteen Seventy-Seven, 436-37. In order of mention: Psalms 88:18, Acts 2:17, Revelations 11:8, 8:10, 17:6, and 1:18. The context for this scene is Jack Whitehead’s trepanation by Fr. Laws, some details of which were transplanted into the final confrontation between Laws and BJ in the movie of Nineteen Eighty-Three.

[25] When Bolaño began researching the femicides, he was amazed that the police, not to mention foreign experts such as the FBI agent Robert Ressler, had made no significant progress in catching the killer. It took lengthy correspondence with Sergio González before he realized the vast amount of complicity between the killer(s) and the police.

[26] China Miéville speaks about this in the reader’s appendix to The City and The City, his own attempt at the genre. Other examples might include Raymond Chandler, and his postmodern disciple Haruki Murakami, on whom I’ve made some previous remarks.

[27] Besides referencing the fairy story, Red Riding draws on the traditional name for the area. Yorkshire maintained up till the 19th century its divisions into ridings (from Old Norse threiting, or “third”) in 7th-century Dane law, and the West Riding became known as the “Red” Riding because of its record as solid Labour territory. The connotations of the color red hardly deserve a mention.


Bolaño, Roberto, trans. Natasha Wimmer. 2666. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Bolaño, Roberto, trans. Chris Andrews. Amulet. New York: New Directions, 2008.

Bolaño, Roberto, ed. and trans. Sybil Pérez. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. New York: Melville House, 2009.

González Rodríguez, Sergio. Huesos en el desierto. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2006.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Accessed through parallel translation software at

Miéville, China. The City & The City. New York: Random House, 2010.

Peace, David. Nineteen Seventy-Four. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009.

Peace, David. Nineteen Seventy-Seven. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty-Three. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

“David Peace: 1974.” Interview with Letzen TV, the Netherlands.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980 and 1983. BBC Channel Four, dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker, 2009.

Marcela Valdes, “Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.” The Nation, 8 December 2008.

1 Comment

Filed under Literature

Towards a Holistic Revolutionary Critique of Art

China Miéville’s talk on “Guilty Pleasures: Art and Politics,” delivered at Socialism 2012, points socialists in some interesting directions as regards our critique of art. As there have been some interesting arguments on Facebook recently that I’ve participated in – particularly around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but also things like Homeland which I’ve written lengthy critiques of before – I thought now would be a good time to remind everyone, including myself, of the outlines of China’s critique.

China says that one axis of our appreciation of art (for which term, let’s include every cultural product regardless of medium or quality, just for the sake of utility) is the political worldview a certain piece of art has underlying it. As socialists, we are particularly sensitive to this category for obvious reasons. We know, for instance, that art is never politically value-neutral in class society. It can reinforce patterns of class, gender or racial/national domination, and in capitalist society most of the assumptions of artists as a special breed of intellectuals have this effect on their work.

At the same time, however, another piece of art can propose a politics of liberation in a broad or narrow sense. Most art doesn’t lie entirely on one side or another of this axis, but somewhere in between based on countervailing pressures of the official ideologies or Gramscian “common sense” and the equally common notions the oppressed or exploited have pointing toward their liberation.

It is common for socialists to recognize a particular piece of art embeds politics of oppression in some way or another. There are two typical responses to this.

The first is we can swear off any art that does this, condemn it and refuse to appreciate whatever relative merits it may have. Logically, this position tends to reduce itself to absurdity. I have seen some leftists write that they refuse to watch The Wire because the worldview it embeds is based on a strange breed of Fabianism which believes structures of domination such as the police department can be reformed with the right people put in charge.

As a result, I think that more often than not this reductive, agitational position is only in very rare cases completely consistent. Because all art, or nearly all art, in class society reflects the influence of systems of domination, to embrace it completely means we wouldn’t ever be able to enjoy anything that doesn’t spring fully-formed from the mind of a revolutionary socialist.

This means concretely, I think, that people who embrace this position are highly selective about where they apply it. The consequences of this can look somewhat bizarre. In the past couple months I have heard a person condemn the film Lincoln because it doesn’t include any black characters and in the next breath claim Django Unchained as an anti-racist masterpiece – despite the fact it reduces the talented tenth to the talented ten millionth in the case of the title character, while the only other options for slaves laid out were to be completely passive or to actively collaborate with the slaveowners, as in the case of Samuel Jackson’s character.

I say this without accusing anyone in particular, because my appreciation of art has been equally deterministic at times. Well after I had transitioned from scifi and fantasy geek to revolutionary socialist, I looked back on my youthful infatuation with the work of Tolkien as a particularly regrettable part of my past. The homage to feudal, courtly values paid in every page of his work kept me from seeing the reasons I’d once appreciated the professor – his wonderful devotion to world-building, rightly so influential, and his keen sense of adventure, romance and myth which has made him a hero to generations. It was only after reading pieces by China and John Molyneux that I was able to arrive at a nuanced appreciation of The Lord of the Rings, long cherished books and movies that I had rejected.

So what I’m saying in other words is that a perspective that uses the axis of “progressive/reactionary” as its main determinant is more often than not applied incredibly selectively. This works both ways, jumping from politics to quality and from quality to politics. We might assume a work is bad because we find its political worldview distasteful, as in the example I gave of my changing appraisal of Tolkien.

I have had less success thinking of an example of the reverse, since fiction with an agitational purpose is usually only interesting in how it fails. I have never been particularly fond of Upton Sinclair, the socialist author most famous for The Jungle. As someone smarter than me once said, allegorical fiction (which includes agitational fiction) is hard to take seriously, because even its own characters realize what they’re doing isn’t real. (Of course, this only really applies in fiction. Poetry, theater, music etc. I don’t think are forced to abide by the same limits.)

So if we don’t like a film or a book, this may have a conditioning effect on how we see it politically – it will probably be negative. Similarly, the reverse is true: art we do like can be discovered to have good politics on a somewhat shaky basis.

An example. I really enjoy Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I think the books are very entertaining and am glad in a general sense that a series that speaks so unabashedly for women’s liberation – even using force – has had such an effect on mass consciousness. At the same time as a revolutionary socialist (which Larsson was as well at one point in his life, being a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International) I find the absence of any notion of collective struggle rather disturbing for a work of its nature, as I do with storylines that put the main characters in the position of collaborating with “progressive” people in the Swedish state apparatus against its own security forces and the far right.

I also don’t happen to think that as art, Millenium ever really rises much above the level of pulp – a fact due in no small part to the central character, Mikael Blomqvist, who seems to me a male fantasy rendered in a very unfeminist way. Somewhat oddly, I seem to agree more with the hypersectarian World Socialist Website on this than my own organization. Even if they are a scab operation run by half-psychotic scum, broken clocks and so forth.

In a conversation I had with some comrades and other general left-leaning folks a while ago, I mentioned these things when the subject of Millennium came up. One comrade whose company I’ve always cherished had the most curious response, the gist of which was that Lisbeth Salander’s lovingly described vigilantism had a progressive purpose because in the context of the books she stood in for the working class. I found it hard to formulate a response to this.

But I digress. The other axis of our chart is quality in the most general sense. Obviously the judgment of quality is a very subjective affair, the reasons for which I’m not very interested in. We can get around this by dealing in terms of works whose quality or appeal is generally recognized, which I’ll get to in a second.

Laying emphasis on the axis of quality over the axis of politics also leads in some strange directions. The most popular one we are very familiar with. Something like this: I like x even though x is reactionary, rightwing, reinforces power relationships of class/gender/race-nation-ethnicity. Obviously this can be a legitimate response to the distorting impact of relying overly much on the political axis. But I would argue its effect is just as distorting.

To return to the example of Tolkien, I have heard people who are generally very leftwing absolutely refuse to consider the reactionary attitudes to women and non-Europeans in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was on the record about this: “they [orcs] are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (It’s less often recognized that the dwarves are in part an equally racist caricature: they represent the Jews, who in Tolkien’s mind had an irrational love for gold, spoke their own languages and never really tried to fit in with the larger society around them.)

There may be hardly any women, and orcs may represent a more than vaguely Sinophobic caricature, it’s said, but why should that detract from our appreciation of it as a text. I think to argue this is to place a barrier in between ourselves and a true appreciation of Tolkein’s universe – which surely requires us to appreciate the mind of the creator and how it was affected by the surrounding class society with all its prejudices. To say this doesn’t involve the intentional fallacy, the application of which by postmodernists has tended to turn a useful piece of advice into its opposite.

What I’m arguing for in short is a holistic revolutionary socialist approach to art and culture. This is very much in the tradition of literary revolutionaries like Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lukács, Brecht and Benjamin, who argued that the understanding of the conditions of production for any work of art was key to the understanding of the work of art itself. Neither the political critique can be allowed to trump the critique of quality, or vice versa in this form of inquiry.

I’ve been overusing it lately, but I think the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” put forward by Lukács is really the secret of the Marxist method, which includes all criticism, but specifically for us cultural criticism. So we have – the concrete analysis of concrete art.

One example I find incredibly useful, raised by China in his talk, is that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On the one hand, this is a wonderful book, in my opinion among any reasonable “top ten” of English-language literature in the modern era. On the other hand, Conrad explicitly intended his book as a plea for the “enlightened colonialism” of Britain, his adopted homeland (a point of view given voice repeatedly by Marlowe, the narrator) as against the supposedly more savage rule of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo.

Heart of Darkness is a work of such importance that using just one or the other axis of critique I have outlined will not suffice. This has not stopped the literary and political left, however, from praising it as a work of literature while pointing to the supposedly limiting conditions of its imperialist politics, a critique advanced much by Chinua Achebe and other postcolonial African writers.

What China says about Heart of Darkness is that we should consider another avenue of critique. As the novella is a product of a colonial culture, what were the things that made it compelling in a society whose common sense regarded colonialism as a positive? In other words, Heart of Darkness may be compelling precisely because of its reactionary stand on colonialism. Form and function are, after all, united in a dialectical whole – which should get us to consider that Conrad’s book is compelling for the same reasons it is politically reactionary.

The water gets even more muddied, however, if we take a closer look. At the same time that Conrad’s implied author is a proponent of colonialism, the characters and events in his own novel revolt against this view. Much has been speculated about the character of Mr. Kurtz, whose brilliance is told of from the beginning of the book, but when he appears, he barely says anything. I refer most of all to line that is as famous as it is misunderstood: “The horror… the horror!” (Part of the misunderstanding is of course based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which seems to adapt the novel only in how Coppola misinterprets every part of it in the most systematic way one could imagine.)

Now as someone who loves Heart of Darkness, what I understood Kurtz means by “the horror” is not the horror of the darkness and barbarity he has been reduced to in the “savage” Congo – it is his realization that the comfortable, sedentary bourgeois way of life he enjoyed back in Europe is based on the systematic acts of exploitation and barbarism he engaged in as a colonial official in Africa. Surely one could not ask for a better literary condemnation of the system of imperialism, even if it is only implied.

Lukács was noted for his view that literature was only progressive if it exposed the dynamics of the whole society – the capitalist system as an internally mediated totality. Based on this notion, he tended to reject all forms of literary expression outside realism as reactionary. His view has often been reduced to the point of caricature – it is never noted, for example, that in the context of the struggle against fascism, Lukács’ view was linked to an attempt to salvage Enlightenment rationalism, something that he thought for better or worse was part of the Marxist heritage. Nevertheless, his views did incline to a certain purism which was not helped by his embrace of Stalinism – see for example his incredibly unsubtle denunciations of writers of such stature as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Rabindranath Tagore.

I don’t mean to comment on the long-running debate between Lukács and Brecht – I’m not sure I fully understand it, although Brecht’s notions seem closer to my own impressions of the truth. But Lukács’ notion that we can judge art in terms of how it exposes the totality of social relations strikes me as a useful guideline or at least a reminder of what good art can accomplish. It is also a useful corrolary of Marx’s and especially Engels’ own views on art – that good political art does not accomplish its point through propagandizing, but through subtle subversion of the existing social relations. This incredibly hard goal has only been reached by a very few political authors, among whom I might mention China himself.

Another way of putting the case is the following. We would never have to think about art in a nuanced political way if there were no good fascist artists. Which is of course not the case. To restrict ourselves to literature alone, there have been some wonderful authors of the far right. Some of these, off the top of my head, are Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel D’Annunzio and Yukio Mishima.

To describe their art as an intervention in society – that is, political in a fundamental sense – should not stop us from appreciating what they do, and especially how they do it. Trotsky’s essay on Céline (some excerpts here) pointed to the contradictions inherent in the author’s worldview, as shown in his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Trotsky concluded that the disgust with the hypocrisy and barbarism of bourgeois society that drips from every page of Journey could go one of two ways. Céline would either see the light of revolution, or he would adapt himself to the night. We know it retrospect which way this played out.

The question of fascist art might be a bit of a heavy example to use. So I will end with considering a different one – that of cultural kitsch, especially in its reaction to the war on terror. I mean primarily Homeland, which I seem to keep coming back to in my writing.

From my perspective, Homeland is an enjoyable show. It is not great art, but so little TV is. TV is functional – it is meant to entertain and explain at a very basic level. This Homeland does admirably. I see it as very compelling and interesting even as I recognize what it does is to reinforce and justify the intervention of the US government into foreign countries and its repression of native Arab and Muslim communities – it’s fundamentally racist and imperialist, which I would hope would be obvious.

Unfortunately if you praise the merits of a show in this genre among socialists, in my experience, you tend to get accused of sharing some of its values or at least ignoring them. This is very different from what I’m trying to do. At a fundamental level, most cultural products of the Homeland variety share the same values. But surely we should have a bit more to say about them than “that’s racist” or “that’s imperialist”? Shouldn’t these declarations (perfectly true, mind) be followed by some sort of exploration of how racism, imperialism, etc are perpetuated?

This brings up something else, very important I think, in China’s guidelines. The idea of art as a “guilty pleasure,” he says, whether the guilt comes from bad politics or poor quality, is fundamentally dishonest. There is no real guilt in pleasure, excepting the kind that is staged and performative in the declaration of a “guilty pleasure.”

It’s related to the tendency among people – not just socialists – to take something amiss when someone else disagrees on cultural and artistic preferences. All to quickly, a civil discussion on x cultural product can turn into something along the lines of “You don’t like x? You bastard!” (or, of course, the reverse, which I have experienced). Something which, as China says all too rightly, is an expression of commodity fetishism – to prove his point, many of us hissed during his talk when he mentioned he dislikes The Wire.

One caution I have here is against sort of relativism that China’s critique implies. As an example, I think there are some really great left-wing movies out there: Reds, Matewan, Norma Rae all come to mind. Would it be a complete distraction to believe that some of their appeal comes from the very clear way in which they propose a politics of liberation? I think this would be to miss the point in a pretty major way. The reverse of this is, as China mentions, that if all your favorite books are written by fascist authors, it likely says something about your worldview.

I don’t mean all this to be systematic, much less advisory in any way. I would only offer my hope for a deeper and more systematic critique of all art on an intelligent political basis. Conclusions can be drawn as the result of further conversation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Literature, Politics