Saturday, 17 December 2016

The 'Race-Class Debate' and the Justice System

The critique by Massey University professor of law Chris Gallivan on Paul Henry’s morning television show of the insistent focus on the justice system as being 'racist' is likely to elicit many responses – some in support, some opposed, many knee-jerk reactions – but very few, I think, will critically reflect and grasp on what the justice system represents in a capitalist society and why diverting from the focus on ‘racism’ to instead consider the state and its reign in conjunction with capital is not a derailment, but is important for actually understanding the justice system’s primary aims. Gallivan has almost certainly provoked yet another iteration of the ‘race-class debate,’ which could be tiresome if viewed within its current popular premises, but it could also open the space for emancipatory politics – beyond sentimental psychobabble to actual liberation from economic and state-based injustices, which of course have roots in the same historical processes.

Aotearoa’s prisons are vastly overpopulated and the processing of offenders is discriminatory against Māori and Pasifika. This is not a 'glitch' or 'quirk' in the system but symptomal of what it represents. The bourgeois state may seem benign in that it is simply protecting its citizens from potential 'harms,' such as killing and maiming one another, but it predominantly functions to protect the class interests of rich property-owners and administrators of the capitalist means of production. Many people in Aotearoa’s prisons are poor who have been jailed for redundant and inoffensive drug possession charges. It is unquestionable that Māori are victims of relentless colonial encroachments on their ways of living, their tikanga, and economic systems. Colonial domination was advanced on the basis of not simply consolidating imperial dominion over people but over the islands’ prolific natural environment, great amounts of which can be reliably extracted for profit. In the main, Māori have presently not recovered from this assault. This is because capitalist society is not meritocratic but for the vast majority of people it entrenches them in their present social positions. That means some Māori continue to suffer in post- colonial ‘New Zealand’ more than others while some suffer very little at all; because of the limited capitalist opportunities for social mobility Māori are extraordinarily class stratified, which contradicts the usual invocations activists make about Māori or indigenous people being somehow universally subjugated positionally just for ‘being’ Māori or indigenous. The aforementioned entrenchment of social positions occurs through the differential ‘rewards’ of capital accumulation and wage-labour; the former exists in a parasitic relationship to the latter. Capitalism not only reproduces itself and its ensuing socioeconomic relations locally and globally, but aims to extend its reach over human lives through the growth imperative and intensifying forms of commoditisation.

Polynesians from other places however are not the tangata whenua of Aotearoa and yet still occupy a disproportionate amount of prison spaces. This is not because of some exacerbated effect of ‘indigeneity,’ then, nor is it because of home-grown effects of colonisation, although indeed many islands in the Pacific were colonised by a variety of different powers, including the United States, the Netherlands, France, and Japan, in addition to the often solely considered English government. Rather, Polynesians from other places are relatively easy to exploit and imprison because they also take up relatively powerless positions in the class structure. Many Polynesians who came to New Zealand from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji have family history as near-destitute migrant labourers who sought a better life only to find that such promises were misleading. They were housed, back then, in relatively the same areas as they are now, with of course movements through gentrification and other ‘urban cleansing’ processes. It is true that the Police did respond in deeply racist ways to the anti-apartheid protests and Polynesian Panthers’-instigated riots of the 1970s. What is more depressing and difficult to reconcile is that some Māori fought protesters alongside Pākehā united in the constabulary forces of the Police. But the Police can no longer respond in these explicit ways. My fellow comrades may not like to admit this, but we now have laws that threaten negative sanctions against explicitly racist cops. Whether one likes it or not, this has had some effect on reducing explicitly racist police violence and harassment by cops.

One way to understand the present plight of Māori in the criminal justice system is to argue that it is ‘racist,’ in that the differentials between the situation of Pākehā and other groups are so significant as to be the primary constituent force of the system. Some observations may invoke that the system is ‘racist’ alongside the term ‘classist’ which is the extent of the analysis Gallivan does. Gallivan goes on to say that we need to “recognise” what it means for a system to be classist, and that we should focus on improving the legal aid system which has been so vastly annihilated by the National Government.

I have called this ‘classist’ approach elsewhere a liberal copout. 1 Class has been reduced, by almost anyone contributing to the over-inflated pop sociology that stands so magisterially today, to the status of individual identity rather than a material-economic relation. This has resulted in the diverting of attention away from the primary exploitative mechanism of capital (some are owners and some are labourers; labourers are always paid less in recompense for their labour than the value produced in the working day, the primacy of the labour relation is thus wilful exploitation). Instead of this obvious realisation which would have people question the very terms of the capitalist economy if they were to react against it en masse, any discussion of class has become steeped in mystifying identity-talk. The fundamental class antagonisms of capital (and indeed any preceding historical epoch) that Karl Marx identified in the mid-1800s have been subsumed into the prevailing theoretical obsessions with subjectivity and effects of abstract ‘power relations’ on individuals, inherited from a neo-Foucauldian or quasi-Foucauldian tradition of social theory (which arguably does a disservice to Foucault). Note today that many sociologists and social scientists no longer even speak of ‘capitalism’ and its differential valuations of labour. ‘Neoliberalism’ is the buzzword of choice, which ironically refers to a generalised political ideology and not an economic structure. This comes packaged with a diseconomised, almost magical understanding of the state and bourgeois economic power.

The ‘classism’ discourse influenced by the social liberalism of privilege theory and invoked by Gallivan has shifted political activity from calling the very legitimacy of the state which presides over and manages the social affairs of its citizenry into question (and as such the preservation of class antagonism and its sublimation), to a deeply narcissistic space within the execrable dregs of ‘call-out culture’ where obnoxious chastising of elitism and snobbery is the primary target. Others yet who take some sort of warped liberal-capitalist approach probably common in corporate boardrooms of demeaning respectability simply want to have a ‘conversation’ about class which invariably means pathetic platitudes recognising and understanding what it means to be an exploited worker, without of course questioning (and often this is a wilful misdirection) the very economic system which fully requires exploitation. It is no wonder we have a widespread attitude of politically catatonic fatalism among the liberal social justice activists when they concentrate on inconsequential ‘microaggressions’ instead of how to conceptualise and programmise the take-down of the oppressive relations that universally shape the structures of influence for human action, or when the only radical act that seems available to them is repetitive, fetishistic re-victimisation in a scrap for social capital in the self-constructed ‘inverted’ hierarchies common in left-activist spaces. By focusing on social class as some kind of genetic accident that needs to be ‘controlled for’ administratively rather than a socially conditioned medium for the further accumulation of surplus value that must be abolished, capitalism becomes naturalised and inevitable.

In that above sense, then, class is vastly different from ‘race’ and its common conflations with ethnic and national identity. To be clear, because many activists and scholars continue to get this woefully wrong, race is something that does not exist materially in the world; it is brought to a ‘pseudo-being’ only through the utterance or the thought. Race is simply an ideological substrate that manifests itself in crude differences of skin colour that have been repeatedly invoked during the early days of empire which were homogenised in the twentieth century by the various peddlers of race science common in pre-Holocaust Europe and, later, the United States. Psychology facilitated the biologisation of race or subjection of the concept to the misapplications of Darwinian evolutionary theory in the Fordist industrial era, to form racial just-so stories. Since ‘racism’ is unthinkable without ‘race,’ the former concept does not materially exist either. It is irreconcilable with my argument to further speak of ‘racism’ because the admission that ‘races’ do not exist means that discrimination between those ‘races’ also vanishes. It is not that discrimination or brutality or genocide does not exist, rather the referents for that discrimination are illusory without being unnecessarily reified. This is why Harry Chang and other Marxist theorists of race have called for the abolition of racial categories along with the abolition of capital. Adolph Reed has rightly dismissed the activities of the ‘racialists’ as “nothing more than narrow upper-class prejudices parading about as science,” although he does recognise the enormous implications such dubious activities had like the development of sterilisation programmes and apartheid regimes entered into by various states. 2 Without race, there are only necessarily ties to ‘cultural’ customs (‘ethnicity’ and/or kinship) and distinct territories (nationality), which inform each other in a seemingly reciprocal relationship of national-local. Such relationships to community are also fractious, in part imaginary, and today, more than ever, inseparable from the unit operations of capital.

The race-class debate still continues because of the lingering sentiment that this ideological device called ‘race’ is relevant to the contemporary situation and should have something meaningful to do with politics (indeed, the meaning of race is produced through the reifications of all kinds of actors) and is an ‘alternative’ to the critique of structural capitalism. That historical materialist critique, which when applied to race demystifies its origins, has been caricatured by pretty much all of the ‘critical race theorists’ as ‘Marxist class reductionism,’ including by professional antiracist Tim Wise, Steve Martinot, and Zeus Leonardo, who instead choose to invent more neologisms and exaggerated specificities to further mystify and psychologise the ideology of racialisation. Many of the critical race theorists, including the much- touted Kimberlé Crenshaw in the US and David Gillborn in England, conveniently neglect to discuss class in any great detail as even just a contributing factor to social relations, let alone constitutive of the political-economic system. (Critical race theory, or CRT, is currently shipping its way across the planet, despite retaining all of its definitively American contextual roots, which just demonstrates the unbridled arrogance and uncritical genuflection involved with this bandwagon.) Supposed within CRT’s terms is a liberal framework of tolerance that accepts the premises of the term ‘race’ (see the work of David Theo Goldberg for the most prominent example of how confused this can get). And the lot which insist on ‘the nuanced perspectives of intersectionality’ would have us throw race in with a whole bunch of other ascriptive categories, each with their own necessary understandings required to be formulated, when none of them actually have bothered to understand how race works yet. Race is simply treated as some self- evident inevitability which is constantly reified; in the words of Marx, it takes on a “phantom-like objectivity.” 3 These ‘nuanced perspectives’ often just result in social diagnoses of interlocking categories at best (or individualist “identity narratives” or moralistic self-disclosure at worst) that are simply mystifying and contribute nothing to what should be the central political goal of any sensible person: improved material conditions. Other scholars yet have completely squandered the idea of ‘class’ in a Third Worldism which homogenises the class relations of the ‘developed’ countries into one giant, imposing, and above all magical power-force. Even more, like J. Sakai, have taken it upon themselves to delegitimise ‘white’ workers and their fight for emancipation against capitalists by riffing on the so-called “myth of the white proletariat” in America.

This “myth of the white proletariat” narrative is one among many of the ‘whiteness studies’ tradition that views light-skinned people as the conspiratorial enemy and valorises, even protagonises, ‘people of colour’ as automatically revolutionary subjects presumably based on quotidian experience without even beginning to consider the situations where that narrative simply does not apply. Harry Chang perceptively argues that this “myth” is itself a mythological formation, based on the “petty-bourgeois conception of the working- class”. 4 It is an attribution of power to a vague, transhistorical ‘whiteness’ where in fact some ‘white’ people are immensely disadvantaged due to their limited labour-utility and purchasing power. This ‘whiteness’ or ‘light-skin privilege’ argument has taken on many despairing forms lately, with one of the main fetishes being the revival of ‘purity’ theses, but among those considered racially oppressed, and the tension between systems of hypo- and hyperdescent. Much of this posturing in the United States (as this is where all contemporary fetishes about race seem to originate) has taken place with regard to (let’s face it!) inconsequential issues in popular culture such as the faux-scandal over the casting of supposedly ‘light skin’ African-American actresses in roles that we are led to believe should be reserved for ‘purer’ African- blooded women. The colourist furore has brought into its orbit Zoe Saldana, notable young actresses KeKe Palmer and Zendaya, among others (Zendaya has also been scrutinised for being chosen to play Mary Jane in the most recent Spiderman movie, which just shows the banality and flexibility of the claims being made). Away from liberal and dubious identity politics, the only correspondence of labour-utility classes to ‘race’ is that Māori and Pasifika in Aotearoa are more common among those considered to be of ‘little societal use.’ The terrain of the race-class debate is limited to the question of whether this consideration, whether a person is of ‘little societal use,’ or not worthy of being human, is based on systematised ‘racial’ prejudice or their disempowered status in an all-encompassing class hierarchy. The answer? Neither is wholly appropriate on its own, but in service of not wanting to look either too ‘communist’ or too ‘problematic’ the latter option has been largely eschewed to make way for the former, which is unfortunately prone to far more explanatory issues on its most abstract level. The statement “capitalism requires racism” continues to diminish in appropriateness as the neoliberal cordon sanitaire of politics sets about ‘diversifying’ the managerial stratum without redistributing income to the most needy.

As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (in her brilliant and masterful work on race that at this stage seems to have been in vain) forcefully contends, ‘Whiteness’ is the inaugurating signifier of race that implicates every single raced subject in its system of difference (everyone is raced – brown, black, white, yellow, red, etc. – imperialist terms that should be dispensed with but are coming back in vogue with the identitarians). 5 This signifier, like all Lacanian “Master-Signifiers,” is patently meaningless and ahistorical yet systematises or indexes racial typologies and grounds the ideology of race in a biologised foundation away from the sweeping contingency of its historicity. People of all hues are continuing to identify with their ‘racial’ grouping for suspect political reasons (the most common form of which being the ‘white’-‘people of colour’ binary opposition) despite the fact an immensely robust scientific consensus now concludes that there is no evidence for any kind of intelligible identification in this vein. ‘Race,’ without the scientific legitimacy it once enjoyed in the Nazi era, has been reduced to, as I said before, a nebulous ideological matrix of supposedly self-evident, ascriptive distinctions. The ‘racism without races’ is what Etienne Balibar refers to as the “neo-racism,” a kind of ethnopluralism that presupposes ineradicable cultural differences that require a mutual distancing. 6 The simple status of race as ideological substrate does not stop capitalists, liberals and conservatives alike in their unholy trinity from re-reifying and fetishizing the terms of race anew. Harry Chang argues that race is analogous to what Marx called the “fetish-character” of money. 7 Race becomes an object through its roots in the capitalist division of labour just as money became an object through the reification of value; racial ideology and race-thinking is thus reified as function-object. The critical race theorists have arrested the potentials of human interaction through their relentless insistence that race is inevitable and we can do nothing other than ‘engage’ our supposedly self- evident racial positions. This comes at a time where liberals mock the phrenological and atavistic claims of old regarding race but seem to be OK with the same kinds of claims from incredibly specious and reactionary corners of race-science revivalism in the vein of Lamarckian biology or epigenetics. If race is truly a ‘social construct,’ the infamous hook of the pop sociologists, the fact that it is simply ideological assumes a marginal or non-existent position in people’s actual political practice.

The details of Chris Gallivan’s class analysis with respect to the New Zealand justice system are entirely inaccurate in that he identifies the major group that requires this aforementioned restoration of legal aid as the middle classes, as the working classes have supposedly sufficient legal aid to obtain better outcomes, but this claim is invalidated as it does not explain for him the misrepresentation of Māori and Pasifika in the criminal justice system, primarily among the lowest strata of classed New Zealand. If he disavows explanations involving ‘racism’ for ‘classism,’ Gallivan must at least be consistent in identifying the problem as working-class or extremely deprived people being unable to access legal aid. The analysis does not make sense, and this is in large part because legal aid does not represent the full scope of what is wrong with the justice system. Māori and Pasifika are still drastically overrepresented in statistics of people in prison. But ‘institutional racism’ does not encompass the extent of the problem either. Formulating a political programme solely around ‘institutional racism’ would only, as Adolph Reed notes, lead to a liberal politics of “pursuing racial parity in victimisation.” 8 Gallivan may be onto something when he shifts the focus from ‘racial’ prejudice to material deprivation. Although there is no doubt that the Crown has a history of prejudice against Māori due to their judicial roles in and enforcement of the colonial Raupatu, it is very difficult to discern or conclude whether some sentence or trial was influenced by evident ‘institutional racism’ or not. Notwithstanding the fact that claims involving institutional racism necessitates ‘racism,’ which is based on the dissoluble ideological matrix of race, the claims would also be ideological and therefore have only disparate, comparative evidence to back them up. Indeed, the framework for assessing the depth of institutional racism is often derived from selective cases where a Pākehā individual received a light sentence and a Māori individual received a harsh sentence, which is sadly too shallow for our method of critique.

The most important assessment yet of Aotearoa’s criminal justice system has come from activist group No Pride in Prisons (NPIP). They have recently released a list of “abolitionist demands” which includes a comprehensive account of the facts – and the horrors – of the reality of life in prison. 9 In that document, Māori are said to undergo “structural racism” at “every stage of the process,” which in their case refers to Māori overrepresentation in the prison population as well as reoffending counts, raw offender counts, etc. The proportion of Māori in prison still equates to a very small number of the total Māori population (about 1%). 10 However, the claim made by NPIP that there is some kind of systemic bias in this regard – not one that can be measured by the ethnicity figures alone, but some kind – is indisputable. Yet if this system were not at all biased in this way it would not change the reality of its aims: to protect bourgeois society’s insistence on the regime of private property and generally free reign over exploitable workers (classes which Māori and Pasifika reliably populate more than any other group) and capital accumulation. The difference between NPIP and the liberal activists on criminal justice is that NPIP’s positioning of Māori and queer and transgender people at the core of their narrative on prisons is simply political centering of concerns inflected by the identities of the member activists but is part of the intersecting web of demands they make from the plan-view of abolishing prisons altogether. The argument that prisons are ‘institutionally racist’ because more Māori are jailed than other groups is a central justification, but not the only justification, for ending carceral systems in their entirety. Quite possibly their most important point to be stressed is that prisons cause irreparable social-material damages which reproduce themselves across generations, which is why Māori continue to be affected long after the retreat of open colonial warfare by the state and the violent era of Raupatu. But this intergenerational harm principle is universal to all inmates regardless of racialised status, which NPIP acknowledges. I obviously share NPIP’s commitment to the abolition of prisons in their entirety and replacement with restorative community-led principles of justice, whether aligned with some communalised version of tikanga Māori (which would necessarily be revisionist, given the historical contingency of tikanga prior to their hypostatisation for political purposes by the Waitangi Tribunal and other institutions) or simply commonly held directives that enable the establishment of harmony and non-coercive social order.

This is in contrast to the liberal arguments that focus on how much particular groups are ‘represented’ (often watering down the forcefulness of the ‘institutional racism’ accusation), with the outcome of that analysis unclear. Perhaps what the liberals demand is that neurologically disabled people, Māori and Pasifika, men and women should be ‘represented’ in prisons according to their proportional instance in the population, in a similar way this culturalist argument is exported elsewhere (for gender, this would be an outstanding shift in the ‘balance,’ as men make up about 97% of currently incarcerated people in Aotearoa). This is quite seriously the only possible intended political outcome of the analysis because many of those who undertake these kinds of liberal arguments see a need for the prison system, or consider criminality an inevitability with incarceration the only way to deal with offenders that for whatever reason cannot be rehabilitated. That can be the only conclusion of the arguments without their moralistic exposé functioning as a political non-starter. Within this category we see so-called leftist advancements from the Labour and Green parties berating the Department of Corrections for disproportionately ‘representing’ Māori in their prisons whilst maintaining at least a minimalist role for prisons in their policy programmes, leaving the justice system’s present systems of processing relatively intact (diverting the crux of the story to the National Party’s unprecedented levels of idiocy it breached when it allowed privately-owned prisons), or at worst strengthening the Police and Corrections as the Labour Right would have us do. The worst part of this parliamentary situation as far as the ‘institutional racism’ arguments are concerned is that until recently, the Labour Right’s one-issue ‘tough on crime’ arm was almost exclusively populated by Māori politicians such as Shane Jones and Kelvin Davis.

In the Durkheimian eyes of penal populists, punishment should ‘make an example of’ the criminal, exhibiting what exactly happens when someone does wrong by society. But this wrong is individualised and privatised behind the bars of the jail cell. The bonds of solidarity Durkheim theorised are only reinforced through a kind of restoration of relationships, which cannot occur in the current situation of atomised capitalism and neoliberal penality. The current situation of Māori overrepresentation is not explained or remedied with some recourse to the self-evident and ‘intersectional’ problems of race and class (virtually anyone can make such a risk-free diagnosis) but, more appropriately, a supervenience of the bourgeois state-form on territory occupied by non-capitalist ‘others’ (as defined by the state-form itself) for the purposes of resource extraction and capital accumulation. In New Zealand history, the state is ‘brought’ by arbiters of the British Crown, and sealed by the ultimately duping function of the Treaty of Waitangi, which irreversibly bound Māori and Pākehā in the baggage of capitalism and its class antagonisms. Race ideologies and elaborate hierarchies of intrinsic difference were invented simply as imperialist means of control, facilitative as justifications for the bourgeois state’s land confiscations, or incorporated for those ends. Only the CRT fatalists subscribe to the ironic belief in the eternity of racial semiotics; they were ‘pragmatic’ capitalist innovations that preceded the global cataloguing of such differences in Nazi race science. The justice system is always an inhumane actor in accordance with the interests of the governing class; such an interest may not be explicit but is reinforced through its work locking up dissident, violent, drug-addicted, “fucked up” individuals riven with the problems of alienated life. Because of the colonial destruction of whanau and the population of many Māori among the lower class strata, Māori are therefore more likely to be alienated in such a way. This fact should not be used (as it is by the decolonialists, the so-called ‘race radicals,’ and others) to denigrate other facets of the prison population and exclude them from consideration within an emancipatory programme. Indeed, prison is in the main the refuge of the alienated who simply made ‘silly mistakes’ in the eyes of the law (like committing harmless drug offences), who have nothing else to live for, who are addled by addiction or mental health problems with no sufficient or acceptable care available to them, who are angry people that desperately need intervention before the next violent outburst. These groups are not only socially alienated but economically alienated; if not so much before, prison life will impact them eventually. And it will follow each and every inmate like a haunting spectre throughout their lives.

1 See my 2015 commentary piece: “Liberal Identity Politics or Radical Critique? Privilege Theory and Activism Under the Microscope,” where I critique the focus on ‘classism’ rather than simply the existence of social classes itself and its subsequent normalisation of economic violence.
2 Adolph Reed, “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22, 1 (2013): 49-57.
3 Karl Marx, “Chapter 1: The Commodity,” in Capital, Volume 1, Penguin Books: London, 1990 [1867].
4 Paul Liem and Eric Montague, eds. “Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry Chang,” Review of Radical Political Economics 17, 3 (1985): 45.
5 Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race, Routledge: London, 2000.
6 Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Verso: London, 1991.
7 Liem & Montague, eds. “Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry Chang.”
 8 Adolph Reed, “How Racial Disparity Does Not Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence,” retrieved from, accessed 19 September 2016. does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence
9 No Pride in Prisons, Abolitionist Demands: Toward the End of Prisons in Aotearoa, No Pride in Prisons Press: Auckland, 2016.

10 JustSpeak, Unlocking Prisons: How We Can Improve New Zealand’s Prison System, JustSpeak: Wellington, 2014.