The following is the first of a four-part series on the current upsurge in antiracist activism in America as well as its intellectual roots, historical context, and implications.
Since the killing of George Floyd untold white people supposedly have all of a sudden discovered something known as “racism.”
Furthermore, this discovery has gone hand in glove with a presumed mass moral awakening to the realization that the word “racism” means something far more nuanced than they were previously aware. Racism is no longer an overt set of attitudes and conduct, but a septic miasma that penetrates into the most discrete pores of a largely white, or white-dominated, society that only a decade ago during the eight years when Barack Obama was President of the United States had been triumphantly declared by many self-described “progressive” pundits as post-racial.
Floyd’s death, combined with long dormant but wide-ranging political protest and activism and accompanied by an abrupt reconfiguration of popular political discourse as well as a groundswell in interest among educated people concerning a “anti-racism”, truly constitutes what the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls the “event” (l’événement). For Badiou, the “event” constitutes “a rupture that opens up truth.”(xii).
But what kind of “truth” has the “Floyd event” opened up? How exactly has the new syntactics of “racism” resulted in a total inversion of the irenic “post-racialist” consensus that was in full flower less than a decade ago? Has this shift, as Badiou’s theorem would require, truly disclosed hidden textures, significations, and entailments that pari passu authorize syntactical transformations as some sort of genuine “revelation” of the inner workings of phenomena while eventuating in a profound re-ordering of our social and political worlds?
Our present close proximity to the “event” in question conceals how this re-ordering might be transpiring. By the same token, the immediate vantage point gives us only a glimpse of present ideological conflict and theoretical confusion. One “truth” on which the vast majority can agree in light of the “rupture” ensuing from the Floyd event reveals is that racism runs much deeper than political, legal, social, or linguistic norms can compass.
The catch-all phrases for this immediate reconfiguration of norms are “structural racism” or “institutional racism” or “systemic racism.” However, as best-selling “anti-racist” author Ibram X. Kendi has put it, “’Institutional racism’ and ‘structural racism’ and ‘systemic racism’ are redundant. Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.”(18)
The second statement serves as an ostensible qualifier that, in point of fact, discloses the undergirding “structure” of racism as an ambient set of historical particularities. The notion of “racism” as an omnibus societal constellation of discrimination, exclusion, and repression has flourished in academic literature for well over a half century and can even in its embryonic form be traced back to certain strands of nineteenth century Marxism. Yet only quite recently has it crossed the threshold of general plausibility within mainstream conversations, even among Western intellectual elites.
The Floyd killing can be considered what literary critic Edmund Wilson several generations ago named “the shock of recognition” whereby certain unrelated happenstances trigger the rapid formation of a new paradigm for understanding a familiar, but yet untheorized range of knowledge. In that sense it is truly “evental”, so far as we can inscribe it within Badiou’s “revolutionary” nomenclature.
But the routinization of what even quite recently turned out to be ideas that had failed to gain general acceptance outside of certain established academics cenacles over many decades can only be explained by the “shock” of the brutal incident in Minneapolis. It was an event which, once viral on social media, crystallized in the public mind an intricate mesh of doubts, intimations, and suspicions about the conventional wisdom surrounding the meaning of the notion of “racism.” The footage of Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis cop could not be dismissed as just another “overreaction” by law enforcement. It was entirely different, and it became a difference that left everything altogether different.
The secret sauce for the reconstitution of what might be termed the epistemics of race itself lies in the poststructuralist matrix of thinking that has produced since the late 1960s a plethora of critical-theoretical versions of what is really implied in such garden variety semiotic markers or tokens as race, class, ethnicity, gender, and so forth.
Up until the poststructuralist revolt in France against Marxist orthodoxy, the “differend” (to borrow a technical expression from Jean-François Lyotard) used to make a distinction between “oppressor” and “oppressed” was almost exclusively lodged within the dialectic of class. Racism was perceived broadly as an epiphenomenon of what Marxism habitually termed the “class struggle.” Racism was taken extremely seriously, but was construed for the most part as a strategy on the part of the owners of capital themselves to divide and manipulate the masses of proletarians, thereby foisting a racial pseudo-identity of mastery on white laborers with the aim of blinding them to their own economic exploitation.
Such a view was prevalent initially even among the leaders of the Black Panthers, who have been associated with the legacy of African-American exceptionalism and black separatism. The Panthers broke from the Civil Movement in the late Sixties over the question of implicit white hegemony in a political effort was supposedly for the emancipation of African-Americans. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, proclaimed in a book he authored in 1970:
Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. All of us are laboring class people…in our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small minority ruling class. Working-class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative ruling class. (72)
It was in this specific context that the original notion of “systemic” racism began to develop in the literature. Racism was no longer a form of systemic social and moral depravity as well as a body of practices established in the Jim Crow era by a slippery reading of Constitutional law, but was woven almost invisibly into the economic class system.
The ultra-left Progressive Labor Party, which this author ended up conspiring with in the late 1960s and early 1970s, adopted militant “anti-racism” as its main activist narrative in order to show that “solidarity” with the black militant cause was at the forefront of what might be characterized as “situational” or “street” Marxism in responding to the upheavals and protests of that era.
So what brought about the separation of anti-racism from Marxism and its eventual assimilation into present day variants of a racialized cultural hermeneutics such as “whiteness studies” and the more recent, and increasingly tendentious, concept of “Afro-pessimism”? The answer is straightforward – the advent of poststructuralism.
Poststructuralism, which gained its beachhead in Anglophone thinking in the middle to late 1970s through the influence of such figures as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Roland Barthes, supplanted the nineteenth century materialist metaphysics of classical Marxism with what might be termed a “semiotic differentialism” that can be traced to the highly influential writings in the 1920s of the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.
Saussure almost single-handedly midwifed French cultural theory, which evolved into what we now know as “poststructuralism.” Poststructuralism substituted for the Hegelian “dialectic” of the concept the differential operation of linguistic signs. Whereas Hegelianism – and by extension Marxism – understood the dialectic as a “negation of the negation”, resulting in a qualitative transformation of substance into “consciousness”, the poststructuralist model reduced thought to language, which in turn fed the presupposition that reality is simply a map of “positive” differential relations between words. According to Catherine Belsey, poststructuralism “begins with an account of how we are able to mean, and goes on to conceive of human beings as animals distinctively possessing – and formed by – this capability. We are, that is to say, creatures of difference.”(8)
As poststructuralist thought emerged as the dominant syntactics for theoretical discourse in the Anglophone world from the late 1970s onward, it replaced the materialist metaphysics of classical Marxism with its own kind of differential logic that sought to identify subsidiary instances of “class oppression” derived from documented experiences of certain marginalized people. The “materiality” of these distinctions, in contrast with standard Marxist theory, was far more social than economic. In fact, it was in the eyes of Louis Althusser, the most influential poststructuralist Marxist philosopher of the era, purely “ideological” – i.e., structural and symbolic.
Althusser, who was a teacher and inspiration for a number of prominent post-structuralists, elaborated on these sorts of themes in his book On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, first published in French in the year 1995 five years after his death. The ideas themselves, however, had germinated as early as the mid-1960s and they left a lasting impression on many of his students.
It seems evident, as an illustration, that Foucault absorbed in a very creative manner Althusser’s notion of l’appareil or “apparatus”, which was key to the latter’s unique theory concerning how capitalism “reproduces” itself, not through a state that “coerces” its subjects but “exploits” them, both cognitively and physically, through the embedding of ruling class “ideology” embedded in what appear to be democratic institutions. The genealogy of Foucault’s well-known prototype of “biopolitics” harks back directly Althusser’s formulation, and conceals in many ways its origins in the latter’s special brand of Marxist post-structuralism.
The Frankfurt School’s critique of the “culture industry” from the 1930s through the 1950s had resonated at a sophisticated level with Althusser. Althusser redefined “domination” not as an action of the state but as the more impalpable product of a the “ideological state apparatus” (ISA), which he characterized as unified ensemble of complex channels of messaging, communication, and inculcation mirroring, while at the same time rendering invisible, the existing class structure.
Ideological mechanisms that “reproduce” capitalism are not merely Feuerbachian projections of the economic “base” in Marxist terms. Althusser writes: “it is necessary to grant the paradoxical fact that institutions do not ‘produce’ the ideologies corresponding to them. Rather, certain elements of an ideology (the State Ideology) ‘are realized in’ or ‘exist in’ the corresponding institutions and their practices.” (82)
At the same time, Althusser went out of his way to stress that his redo of classical Marxist materialism, which viewed the “superstructure” that consists in ideological systems as derivative from the generative “substructure” that Marx himself in his early writings had dubbed the “relations of production”, did not add up to a covert type of socio-linguistic idealism. What he emphasizes throughout the book On the Reproduction of Capitalism is that “institutional”, “structural”, or “systemic” relations are not merely symbolic and independent of the very material conditions that support ideological replication in the first place, but are conjugate, or intimately imbricated with them.
In short, they synergize with and reinforce each other, and it is when these replicative processes, which occur on the immanent and symbolic planes simultaneously, break down that the “contradictions of capitalism”, as Marx phrased it, give rise to revolutionary disruption and change. Overall, it was the post-structuralist (as opposed to the earlier “structuralist”) efforts to embed semiotic systems within what Gilles Deleuze would dub “the plane of immanence” that generically distinguishes the former from the latter.
Even Derrida’s famous saying il n’y a pas de hors-texte (which could be misconstrued as “structuralist” or “idealist” because it is often wrongly translated as “there is nothing outside the text”) squares with the immanentist project of the poststructuralists. The proper translation should be “there is no outside-text”, that is, no transcendental “corollary” to the text.
Althusser’s discovery that what radicals commonly call “oppression” (he preferred the word “exploitation” because it is often perceived by the exploited not as unjust but as morally correct and compelling) left an intelligible stamp on social and cultural theory, especially the work of Foucault, which indirectly seeded the recognition over time among Western and non-Western scholars that all systems of human degradation tend to be impalpable. In a word, “oppression” remains invisible because it is coded into the “common sense” of any social organization, while it is correspondingly legitimated and augmented by the communicative and educational apparatuses themselves that preserve a society’s unique “knowledge base.”
It was this Althusserian “revision” of an earlier Marxist orthodoxy that ultimately and perhaps inadvertently led, as we shall see in future articles, to the abandonment of the thesis that racial and class exploitation are joined at the hip with each other and to the paradoxical fusion down the line of key theoretical protocols for the emancipation of the exploited with the even more subtle exploitative dicta of what Nancy Fraser has called “progressive neoliberalism.”
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.