The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton has been a master class in how to divorce economic issues from issues of race and gender by pushing the language of “intersectionality,” which enables the political class to head off threats to their power and protect the status quo. The results in the South Carolina Democratic primary are a clear example of this reality.
Clinton has suggested, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” Her supporters have been led to believe this is a reasonable perspective to hold, and so, as Roqayah Chamseddine has argued, the answer to Sanders’ “economic populism” has been relatively easy—”divert attention to other issues” and mislead the “public in terms of how anti-capitalism converges with race, gender, and class.”
This week on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast we are joined by Vivek Chibber, a sociology professor at New York University and the author of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.”
During the interview, he analyzes how neoliberals and the Democratic Party wield identity politics to push citizens to vote against their self-interests. First, he offers a basic explanation of “post-colonial theory,” and then he talks about how the New Left popularized the political or intellectual thinking prevalent today. The interview pivots to Hillary Clinton and how her campaign deploys the language of radical left-wing politics in order to manage and lower the expectations of voters, especially minorities.
In a separate episode, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola break down some of the many social issues raised by the campaigns of Clinton, Sanders, and Donald Trump. This episode includes talk about Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams confronting Clinton over her “super-predator” comment in 1996. We spend time on Washington Post Jonathan Capehart, who helped the Clinton campaign do damage control and even went so far as to defend what Clinton said about “super-predators” back in 1996. We also highlight recent developments with the closure of Guantanamo and Rasmea Odeh’s case.
Throughout March, as the election intensifies even more with primaries, we intend to post our interview and our discussion separately so we are not posting 90-minute episodes, which listeners cannot consume and appreciate in one sitting. By separating them, there will be more political discussion for our listeners to enjoy throughout the entire week.
The podcast episodes are available for download on iTunes. For a link to the episodes (and also to download them as well), go here and here. A page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.
Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Vivek Chibber.
KHALEK: What we’re going to talk about today is some of the work you’ve done around post-colonial theory and how a lot of the ideas that are really popular on the left right now relate to that and how it’s playing out in the current presidential election, particularly around Hillary Clinton. So, let’s start with—Can you give a brief explanation of what post-colonial theory means?
CHIBBER: Post-colonial theory is a rather arcane body of theory that goes back to—You can look at it’s lineage in a political and intellectual sense. Politically, it’s an expression. You could think of it as a descendant of the anti-colonial movements in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, which sought to not only, of course, extricate parts of the global south from colonial rule but to also bring to attention a lot of the intellectual work and cultural work that people from the global south had done.
In the ’60s and ’70s, when my parents were doing their Ph. Ds, it was very hard if you were in an English or literary department to read anything that was outside of what was called the canon, which was British or American literature. But if you wanted to do a Ph. D on African literature or Indian literature, you really couldn’t do it. And one of the movements inside the academy at the time was to recognize the validity of literature and cultural work coming out of the global south, the newly independent countries, and that was carried forth through this intellectual movement called post-colonial theory.
A very important work in that was Edward Said and his book, “Orientalism,” which not only made a case for the importance of work coming out of the global south but also made the argument, correctly, that perceptions of the global south were very skewed in the advanced world. They tended to exoticize and make the global south look like it had this essence to it that never changed. It was always the same. So, this was what post-colonial theory started out as, as an intellectual theory.
Later, it morphed into something much more ambitious, which was a theory of how the world works, and what really set it apart was two things. One was insisting you can’t have one theory, which explains how different parts of the world work. You need separate theories for each part of the world, and that means Asians need to have an Asian theory of Asian history. Africans need to have an African theory, not just African history but an African theory of African history. And white people need their own theory.
The enemy of this turned out to be not just the mainstream academy, but the traditional left, Marxism, because Marxism said that humanity shares a history, and the same basic categories can make sense of not only what’s happening in Europe but also what’s happening in India or what’s happening in Egypt. And this idea of a kind of common core elements of humanity came under attack from post-colonial theory, and with that, of course, what came under attack was the idea of class because class is a universal category.
So, the irony is that post-colonial theory, which started out criticizing these ideas, that the East is in some deep essential way different from the West, ended up re-asserting the same thing; only calling it some kind of radical progressive theory. That’s where we are now.
KHALEK: Obviously, there’s the hostility to Marxism, but it seems like to me that in itself replicates some of Marx’s earlier work, which kind of evolved over time. Right?
CHIBBER: That’s a bit of a myth. There are elements in Marx that you can find, where he kind of exoticizes the East or where he talks about them in being in some deep way different from the west, but they’re very minor. Mostly, Marx from quite early days looked at non-Western societies as also being driven by the same universal needs and aspirations and interests as Western society did. So, one of the fallouts of post-colonial theory is that Marx has been painted as some dead white male [INAUDIBLE].
When I entered grad school, you know, I came out of India, and I was from a very radical milieu. It was one of the most shocking experiences in my life to see radical people pointing to Marx as basically being another version of some European intellectual.
KHALEK: Well, yeah, that’s what Edward Said said. He calls him Euro-centric, right?
CHIBBER: Absolutely. The irony was here I was coming out of India, where Marx was considered a brown man, essentially. I come to these American universities and a bunch of white kids are saying, no, no, he didn’t understand the non-West. That’s the irony of this political culture these days.
KHALEK: These ideas were popping up around the time you had the New Left, especially on college campuses, that also had this hostility to Marxism and to class, and to looking at class in a universal way. How does the rise of that intersect with this?
CHIBBER: This is really a symptom of the decline of the New Left. If you look at the period, the New Left in a mythical way is considered—this formation that was from the early ’60s to the late ’70s. And that was a generation of socialists not just in the West but also in Mexico, in Latin America, in South Asia, that actually revived a socialist and Marxist understanding of the world and made tremendous intellectual advances. And one of the advances was that was a left that brought in gender and ethnicity and sexuality into socialism without, however, throwing socialism overboard. It was an attempt to enrich socialist politics with these things.
Post-colonial theory is nowhere to be found in those days. This was all an expression of a deepening of a socialist politics—post-colonial theory, and that’s why I said you have to think of it as a political expression, and as a theoretical movement, it comes about when the New Left either gets absorbed into the academy or wants to repent for its sins, having this brief dalliance with Marxism. That’s why there’s this frenetic, hysterical hostility to Marxism because on one hand they’re trying to exorcise the ghost.
On the other hand, they understood by the time it was the ’80s that if they were going to advance academically they had to proceed with a swift kick in the guts to both current Marxists and past Marxists, as a way of showing their basic conciliance to the mainstream culture and dominant culture. And that’s what they’ve been doing ever since.
KHALEK: What’s really striking is how all of the language that’s come out of that—It’s supposed to be radical. The ideas were supposed to be radical. Whether it’s hostile to Marx, but it’s still considered radical on the left today—in this country, at least. It seems to just really make excuses for capitalism, and also it’s being used by neoliberalism. A lot of these theories seem to divide and seem to divorce class from race.
CHIBBER: The only people in the past who said democracy is a Western idea, that brown people don’t have the same needs as white people—The only people who ever said that were either colonizers or the religious right, of the most right-wing elements within nationalist movements. Today, the most recent of devotee of post-colonial theory is the Chinese Communist Party. Because it’s now able to say that democracy is a Western concept, and the Chinese workers don’t need any kind of democracy. They have their own ideas, and their own ideas.
I don’t want to impugn more motives than I need to. I think many of the people are motivated by a kind of good-natured respect for other cultures, and that’s what draws students into it. Because it seems to be saying, look, other cultures aren’t the same as yours. You ought to respect them, and that’s all true. All cultures are not the same but underneath those varieties of cultures resides certain very basic needs and impulses that people have in common.
Palestinians want self-determination no less than Americans did, no less than black slaves did, and no less than Indians did. Now, to go around saying that these impulses somehow need to be taught to them or that the West gives it to them, that’s a kind of racism.
KHALEK: There is a lot of racist ideas underpinning a lot of this thought, but it’s considered radical and it’s considered inclusive. Also, how does this relate to what we are seeing in the election right now?
You’ve got someone like Hillary Clinton, who is running for the Democratic nomination. This is someone, who’s been involved in pushing policies that have been detrimental to poor people, particularly poor people of color. And, right now, she’s really remaking herself into a social justice warrior, who’s anti-racist and always been anti-racist. She literally used the word intersectionality. She’s using the language of white privilege.
CHIBBER: She must have hired some grad students.
KHALEK: Right. [LAUGHTER] But, on the other end, you’ve got someone like Bernie Sanders. Obviously, he’s not a hardcore Marxist or socialist, but he’s popularizing ideas about the economy, about redistribution, that haven’t been popularized on this massive of a platform in a really long time. And, it’s fascinating to me to watch the reaction to him and the way to push people away from him is to call him a “single-issue candidate” and to use this language coming from the radical academic left or, you know, whatever you want to call it. What are your thoughts on that?
CHIBBER: It’s deeply dishonest, of course. The entire reaction to Bernie has been bait-and-switch kind of ploy, and it’s not surprising. What is interesting is, as you say, that she is drawing on this current aspect of intellectual and political culture to justify this kind of dishonest move that she’s making. What she’s drawing on is, basically what has happened in the past twenty years is what it means to be left-wing or radical has been very successfully redefined by the academy, by professors, and by grad students.
And the way it’s been redefined is starting with a correct premise, which is that class, people’s economic condition, isn’t responsible for everything awful that’s happened in their lives. There’s also the purely racialized oppressions that they face and gendered oppressions they face, and that’s absolutely true. Starting with that correct premise, it leads to the deeply incorrect conclusion that, therefore, if you talk about people’s economic conditions, you are not addressing the core and most important aspects and liabilities of their lives.
Now, if you’re an African-American in this country, it’s absolutely true that you face all kinds of discrimination. It’s absolutely true that you have a much higher likelihood of being incarcerated than a white person in the same class as you. That’s absolutely true. But, how do you expect to address the real plight of African-Americans in this country around their everyday lives without a jobs program, without universal healthcare, without decent and universal public education? To think that these are matters that, by virtue of being economic, are not relevant for people of color is not just wrong. It is fantastically dishonest.
The reason that Hillary is able to get away with this is because the so-called left—and I don’t really call it the left anymore. I don’t know what to call it because it’s a diseased formation. The so-called left intelligentsia has succeeded in equating the word class with white guys. And we should look at this as an achievement because it’s never happened on the left before. It was always understood among the more savvy radical activists that, even though people’s economic conditions don’t explain all the liabilities they face, addressing the oppressions that men and women, who are poor are facing—Addressing those without addressing their economic conditions is an elite strategy to keep off the table the real concerns of poor, working class black men and women.
It was always understood. Now, it is taken to be the emblem of what it means to be radical, and that’s just a sign that the middle class and the upper classes have taken over the discourse of the left, whether they’re professors, whether they work in non-profits, or whether they’re these talking heads for think tanks. It’s the same thing, which is the middle class gets to define what it means to be radical.
KHALEK: That’s a really great point. There also seems to be this strain of hatred, looking down on the white working class and poor class, even blaming them for racism.
CHIBBER: A lot of this race talk serves as an acceptable way to express your disdain for poor people. You just can’t express it for poor black people because then it becomes racist and in polite circles that is unacceptable—and that’s a great thing. It shouldn’t be, of course. But it is acceptable to talk about poor white trash, or hillbillies, or rednecks. All these are expressions you can continue to use, and people use it with alacrity not because they have a hatred for white racists but there is a general disdain for poor white people. And they’re seen as being born into racism the way they were born into their skin. This is, again, an achievement of very backward and quite conservative intelligentsia now.
KHALEK: I don’t know if this is the wrong parallel to make, but Edward Said had this idea of the European mind being inherently incapable.
KHALEK: Exactly, so it kind of reminds me of that a little bit, where it’s project these inherent qualities on to poor white people. But, then also this is all very helpful to elites because the idea of fixing racism ends up not fixing the material concerns of poor people, working class people, whether white or of color.
CHIBBER: Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine for a second that Hillary Clinton gets into office and she has a thorough reform of the prison system so that blacks and whites are incarcerated at the same rates. That’s a great thing. Now, it will improve the lives of a lot of young black men. What’ll it do to their job prospects? What’s it going to do for the quality of the schools? What’s it going to do to the infant mortality rate in places like Washington, D.C., which rivals that of a third world country?
So, the idea that you’re not really anti-racist until you only and exclusively talk about prisons is a ploy. It is something that the Democratic Party loves to do because it’s a way to push off the table what really threatens not just the white establishment but the black establishment as well.
KHALEK: The idea of fixing racism just becomes fixing hearts and minds and getting people to use the right language, like these really superficial things. It’s good to change people’s ideas…
CHIBBER: They’re limited, but it also keeps in place—One of the things that’s not talked about is Hillary is not doing this on her own. She has a small army of black politicos and intellectuals that are working with her. Now, why are they doing this? It’s quite simple. Over the past thirty years or so, one of the side effects of the neoliberal turn has been the creation of a kind of intermediate class of brokers, real estate agents, sometimes small capitalists, and political officials, who are black. And, for them, the prospect of having a real, deep structural reform of the economy is quite threatening. Maybe not as threatening as to the larger elements of capital in this country, but it would mean they lose their position and all the patronage and largesse that comes their way. So, they work very, very hard.
Someone like John Lewis. What the hell happened to him? How does he become part, after working on the left wing of the civil rights movement, how does he become a mouthpiece for Hillary? It’s because there are a class of brokers now, which is very closely wedded to the Democratic Party and which shares with the party the basic goal of managing and maintaining the expectations. What is Hillary’s campaign right now? Lower your expectations.
The problem with Bernie is he’s asking for too much. This is supposed to be the visionary for the Democratic Party. So, the all-around attempt to lower people’s expectations, to manage them, to keep them in their place. It’s not just the white establishment that’s going about this. It’s got black lieutenants working with them.
KHALEK: Right. And that really confuses people a lot, and this is something that a friend or colleague of ours, Lee Fang, noted, which is that in the 20th Century identity politics was used to push out these racially coded ideas to get white working class and poor people to vote against their interests, to support neoliberalism. And it seems that in the 21st Century, what we’re seeing now is that identity politics is being used to put out these racially coded messages to get people of color, poor, working class, middle class, whatever, on board with neoliberalism and to vote against, in many ways, their own interests as well?
It’s not just black people, minorities overall. It’s astonishing to me, from black people to Latinos to Muslims, support Hillary Clinton by insanely high margins.
CHIBBER: I don’t like to blame the people, who are doing it, because they don’t have the resources, and they don’t have the time to sit down and actually think hard about what the two candidates are saying. And a lot of them have never heard of Bernie Sanders. So, they know very well they’re being screwed over. They know very well that the Democratic Party has done not much for them. The problem is, in a two-party system, they look at the other party and they say, well, it’s going to be a lot worse if these guys come into power.
And the Democrats know that so they play the benefits of lesser-evilism, which is if you guys, black people, working class people, Hispanics, you’ve got nowhere else to go. So, it’s going to have to be us. They know that. The people to really blame are the ones, who are paid to sit down and read all day, and who come out and instead of being honest and open—Every single person who studies poverty knows that without addressing the economic conditions of Latino and African-Americans, you’re just beating around the bushes. You’re just skirting around the edges of their condition. But because this intelligentsia always prefers to gravitate around power, to gain what they call relevance, to [be] in some way attractive to power centers, they bite their tongue and play along.
In my view, the student left, the academic left, the nonprofits, the politicos, these are the people that have to be held accountable for basically either refusing to understand or understanding and simply dissembling.
KHALEK: Do you think it presents any hope the fact that so many young people, who are students, are overwhelmingly supportive not of Hillary Clinton but of Bernie Sanders?
CHIBBER: It’s a tremendously positive development. What’s happening here, what’s happening in England with Jeremy Corbyn, it’s a fantastically important development, and I think that this is why the Democratic establishment is rattled right now. Because, despite two years of this drumbeat of inevitability around Hillary and that death mask smile that she has—In spite of that, here comes Bernie, a fringe guy, and within four months of his campaign starting, with all the media being lined up against him, all the progressives, all the feminists, all the race people coming up and pointing their fingers at him and talking about how he represents a return to the gulag, in spite of all that, he’s trouncing every other candidate. Not just Hillary, he’s trouncing everyone. And this speaks to an incredible subterranean development in this culture, which none of us were aware of. Which is that kids are a lot more savvier, both black and white, than we have given them credit for.
For the rest of the interview, listen to the interview with Chibber here.