Saturday, 28 January 2017

Is it “conservative leftism” or a much-needed redirection? A response to Chris Trotter

Chris Trotter’s piece on “conservative leftism” – a label he identifies with – is extremely important for highlighting recent splits on the Left today (see The Daily Blog, Dec 18, Conservative leftism, for Trotter, speaks to the defense of democracy, the balancing of “individual rights and collective need,” emancipation of groups on the margins of society through both legalistic means and ways of promoting the social acceptance of those groups, and the ending of Western imperialism. It distinguishes itself from the ‘liberal Left’ (or what Trotter calls the ‘radical Left’) and its obsession with the subjective, the individual, and the symbolic. To me, however, this term ‘liberal Left’ and its conflation with ‘radical Left’ is increasingly becoming unintelligible, and Trotter’s use of ‘conservative Left’ to oppose this position is only half-right. I will take this opportunity to explain why this is, and why a different framework is perhaps needed now to distinguish between positions on the Left.

I wrote a piece a few days after the US election about the ‘liberal Left’ and its very illiberal response to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. In this piece I accused the ‘liberal Left’ of failing to understand the impact of the Democrats’ loss on their political programme and the reason why Clinton failed so miserably to capture those states that had been long neglected in American politics. The essential equation I arrived at, using exit poll data, was that working-class voters of all colours abandoned her programme as it was (rightly) perceived to ignore their concerns. Clinton had cemented herself over time, from the time her husband was President until the campaign’s dying day, as a rehearsed, uncaring elitist who had little attention for the growing criticism on the Left of her ignorance of those groups (and, indeed, entire states) perceived not to matter to the Democrats this election. She was more interested in courting financiers than workers. It was no wonder the trade unions left the Democrats to wallow in their misery and accepted Trump (yes, Trump!) with open arms. There is one thing, however, that I did not stress enough in that piece. The ‘liberal Left’ and its obsession with calling out whoever it doesn’t like or agree with on ‘racism’, ‘sexism’ and ‘homophobia’ is actually very illiberal. They are not actually a ‘liberal Left’ at all. They thought their bullying tactics would swing people to their side. I have noted that many of those pundits (Sady Doyle, Amanda Marcotte, those who have blatantly used the Left as a vehicle like Melissa Harris-Perry, Tim Wise, the Twitter rabble, etc.) support neoliberal capitalism, however open they are about this. As Trotter identifies, neoliberalism is also in some way a misnomer as it represents a very real and existing threat to liberalism’s emphasis on the integrity of the democratic project. Culturalism, which has ascended to hegemony on the Left in response to neoliberalism, is also an anti-democratic force.

The ‘conservative Left’ is opposed to such politics from this fake, capitalist Left. Adolph Reed calls these pretenders the representatives of “the left-wing of neoliberalism”. As Kenan Malik says, the politics of multiculturalism as it is practiced today against the backdrop of financialised capitalism puts people into ethnic (and other) identity boxes, and distributes rights based on the cultural arbitraries linked to those boxes. The intention is for those disparate, separate groups to be ‘managed’ by the state. Rather than a politics of openness and mutual respect, and ‘cultural’ interlinkages, it is a politics of border control. This is something the “left-wing of neoliberalism” openly supports. The success of the social movements of the 60s and 70s to cement laws protecting minority groups, but their failure to sustain their social acceptance, can perhaps be explained by and through the reactionary turn on the Left since the breakdown of those movements. Those social movements looked as if they were set to be a temporary deviation away from class politics, but the Left never seriously returned to class after the discrediting of the state capitalism of the Soviet Union. Instead, the Left, through vehicles such as radical feminism, ‘anti-racist’ and postcolonial theories, and queer theory, which all were initially well-intentioned, began to separate and entrench borders between evermore distinctive identities and cultures. This is a practice that continues today, additionally with the nightmare that is ‘indigenous theory,’ which reformulates colonial stereotypes and tropes in a progressive way to distinguish between a homogeneous ‘indigenous’ community and ‘colonising’ community. In these theories, class (which is increasingly becoming apparent among these indigenous communities, with the proliferation of new elites that control emergent regimes of capital accumulation) is not present. The Left’s uncritical march towards traditionalism, cultural primordialism and this neoliberal multiculturalism has allowed to carry largely uncriticised because of the bullying tactics deployed which I have already mentioned.  

Trotter’s turn to class, without abandoning the marginalised groups that the left-wing of neoliberalism says it supports (despite ignoring those members of the marginalised groups that arguably need the most attention, who are arguably the most excluded in society), is, for him, a ‘conservative’ position. I am not so sure about this. When I began criticising ‘liberal Left’ identity politics, I wondered aloud whether I was becoming a ‘left conservative’ in the vein Slavoj Žižek used at one point to describe himself. I disagree, now, with that thought I had. I would say that with my call for a ‘return’ to class analysis, and the need to conceptualise an inclusive democracy (not a parliamentary democracy, which is probably the one point Trotter and I substantively disagree, or the capitalist ‘democracy’ administered by elites or technocrats) is a more ‘liberal’ position than the faux-liberalism of the identity Left. Judith Butler’s call for the ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ Left to align, so that presumably class analysis of the marginalised can take place, has been ignored by the ‘cultural’ Left that wishes to remain strictly ‘cultural’ and by extension anti-democratic. Butler has herself seemingly made quite visible moves in the direction of the left-wing of neoliberalism (see again, her remarks in my piece on Hillary Clinton).

That all being said, just what is the ‘liberal Left’ and the ‘conservative Left’ now? And what of the “revolutionary extremists” (Trotter’s words) that constitute the ‘radical Left’? I think Trotter is too harsh on the ‘radicals’ (for one, he defines them too generally) which is why his position, by comparison, looks conservative. But my sympathies to Trotter come from the need to establish something, some alternative to destructive neoliberal capitalism, which works economically as well as democratically. There are not enough economic specialists on the Left, for example, in a time where we need them most. The Left also has a compromised understanding of democracy, due to its hatred for anything remotely sounding like ‘liberalism’ and the outbreak of anti-democratic ‘culturalism’ which is supported by the political ideology of neoliberals. Perhaps I, as a ‘left communist,’ opposed to market democracy, imperialism and the ascendancy of elites, am an unlikely candidate to save the Left from illiberalism, ironically enough. Trotter, I think, is closer to my position than he realises. Whatever the ‘conservative Left’ is supposed to be, it is not personified by someone like Trotter, who believes in more of the established core Left values than the left-wing of neoliberalism. I would argue the left-wing of neoliberalism, and its willingness to ‘conserve’ the existing capitalist order (making, of course, no real challenge to it) are the real conservatives.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Moana, Race, and Polynesian Exceptionalism: A Polemical Response

The discourse of cultural protectionism surrounding the movie Moana (Walt Disney Pictures, 2016) has reached bizarre proportions. There is a version of what I cannot describe as anything other than ‘Polynesian exceptionalism’ circulating as the pillar upon which this discourse is based. What I mean by this is the incipient notion that Moana was telling the stories of ‘Polynesians’ broadly construed (I assume this given the number of times I have seen the collective pronoun ‘our’ used) and so the messages of the film must be completely owned by Polynesians. Because the Disney corporation does not have the best history of representing peoples around the world, these culturalists say, they cannot be trusted. Corporate activity, capitalism, and ‘whiteness’ are locked in a signifying chain that links them all together in a magical idealist force that has the power to disperse and manipulate ‘narratives’ that threaten the non-existent cohesiveness of ‘our stories’. Such is the postcolonial paradigm the critics have used to scrutinise the movie: the West, which Disney is figured as a part of, are capitalist colonisers and the Polynesians are helpless victims of its effect. There have been some seriously questionable takes as a result of this already suspicious narrative of domination. Moana is understood as not just a film, but a vicious instance of cultural theft undertaken by Disney. This is despite the film or elements of it being translated into several languages (including Tahitian, Tokelauan, and even Hindi), the original screenplay being worked on by Taika Waititi, Opetaia Foa’i worked on music, the cast being predominantly New Zealand Māori and Polynesian actors (of the lead cast, only Nicole Scherzinger and Alan Tudyk were not), and, furthermore, many more of the main production team being not ‘white’ (including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Osnat Shurer). Tina Ngata, however, has apparently chastised Taika Waititi for working on the movie.

And despite these realities, the dissenting narratives have not changed; Morgan Godfery says Moana is emblematic of “white projections” of Polynesian peoples and places. Vicente M. Diaz argues that Moana “originates not from Pacific Islander efforts to tell their own stories, but in white male writers actively seeking out raw cultural resources for the Disney machine… Underpinning and continuing to inform this entire project is an enduring modern and colonial desire for romanticized primitivism and a colonial nostalgia for lost innocence.” This is, frankly, meaningless speculation on the motives of people who work for Disney in a dislocated and rhetorical fashion. It is also contradictory in its assertions. Disney is apparently trying to secure the Pacific native in the marginal identity constructed by imperialism of innocence, primordial wholeness and naturism by not letting Māori and Pacific Islanders tell their own stories. Yet this is the only consequence of a politics with such fiercely policed cultural boundaries, and in fact that marginal identity is exactly what the prominent advocates of “indigenous perspectives” have narrated about themselves. In an analysis of Māori stereotypes in the media from 1997, geographer Melanie Wall (of Māori and Pākehā ancestry) identifies one particular example of a ‘self-made’ stereotype, that of the “quintessential Māori” identity. It is the production and advocacy of an idea of Māori as a marginal and subordinate rural people who are deeply spiritual and organise themselves around a pre-modern tribal form of kinship bonds.

Academic writers such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Hirini Matunga, Mason Durie, and even sometimes Albert Wendt (among many others) have contributed to the building of these stereotypes to challenge “colonial discourses,” which ironically only ends up mimicking them. The sophistry of Hawaiian scholar Maile Arvin demonstrates the operation of this discourse. Indigeneity is, in her essay “Analytics of Indigeneity,” an analytic that is said to go beyond personal identity but actually does not extend beyond it. One scholar is cited to make a claim about ‘deconstruction’ of one’s identity and another in the next paragraph will insist on the fixed nature of tribes and their national consciousness. A friend of mine aptly described this kind of academic work to me as “attempting, and ultimately failing, to go beyond the level of the subjectivist fetish.” This new academic discourse signified by these scholars cleanses and freezes the past, merges it into and thus decontextualizes the present, understanding it in a crude revisionist form, and politicises Māori and Pacific Islanders on the basis of racial, often tribal identity, excluding the increasingly apparent class differences. Class is not relevant to this discourse as that is implied to be a specific problem facing the arbiters of capitalist economics, understood as ‘Westerners’. Now, the oppressive features of modernity have been rightly challenged in both progressive (e.g. the radical Enlightenment) and reactionary (e.g. neotraditionalist, nationalist) ways. But new mechanisms of oppression have surfaced that incorporate and nullify the effects of oppositional identity politics. These mechanisms extend from both a deregulated financialised capitalism and an ideologically mandated consumerist identity that propels across the globe. Economic globalisation and the neoliberal proliferation of new elites who come from historically marginalised backgrounds has been commonplace in what is optimistically called ‘late capitalism’. Indigenous members of these new elites have begun to cover over their class position by either asserting their marginalised identity as indigenous, an identity which is understood to be non-capitalist despite being increasingly implicated in new emergent modes of accumulation, or justifying it on the basis of neotraditionalist ideology.    

Although the main characters of Moana, the titular heroine and the demigod Maui, broadly reflect the size and stature of their respective actors (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho respectively), they are seen to reflect colonial gender stereotypes of exoticised women and hypermasculine men, as blogger IronLion56 understands it. These are also staple features of ‘oriental discourse,’ the definition of which is commonly attributed to the early anti-humanist work of literary critic Edward Said. Said would later renounce this discourse theory in one of his last books, Culture and Imperialism. And Jenny Salesa, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, opened the floodgates when she criticised Maui’s look as glorifying obesity. This sentiment was backed by rugby player Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu and Will Illolohia, who said it was “typical American stereotyping,” among others. Leah Damm, in an excellent post for New Zealand online magazine The Spinoff, rightly criticised Salesa for herself reinforcing negative stereotypes about Pacific Islanders (she posted a meme on her Facebook that described Maui’s depiction as “half pig, half hippo”), which was obviously not Salesa’s intention. Damm links these stereotypes portrayed by the Maui-is-obese group of critics to actual instances of the bullying of Polynesian children. Even positive views of the movie, such as that of Richard Wolfgramm’s, also located the strength of Auli’i Cravalho’s acting in a racial identity. Wolfgramm writes, “It’s apparent in [Cravalho’s] media appearances that she is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture and identity, which is why she can articulate about (sic) cultural things in a manner that is beyond her age, and be able to translate a white man’s script into something that is tangible, real and recognizable on the screen and not a simplistic, reductive caricature.” To top it off, Wolfgramm argues that Cravalho should be paid more than her co-workers – which for me invalidates the lip service paid to the analysis of capitalism, described as inescapable and ‘inevitable’. I find this conclusion completely unsurprising. A politics that melts a longing for a past that never existed into an endless, futureless present is always going to end up being fatalist and self-defeating.

This repetitive and unchanging discourse about ‘culture,’ which as I (thanks in large part to Kenan Malik) have pointed out numerous times, has become a new byword for ‘race’ deployed by the left wing of neoliberalism. I hold that as a film, Moana is certainly not racist or nostalgic of colonialism or representative of the power of whiteness or whatever else. This idealist patter, I suspect, would have been hauled out no matter what the movie looked like in the end. Instead, I actually saw Moana itself as a deeply layered story with which I found personal resonance: Moana’s longing to know the world outside the boundaries of her tribe against the wishes of the voices of authority and destiny, her dealing with the pain of loss of her grandmother who supported her endeavours (the loss of my own is still somewhat raw), a harsh portrayal of the dangers the Pacific Islands face if human-made ecological decay is not quickly and astutely responded to, the mixture of child-accessible versions of the mythology and the well-honed science of navigation Polynesians developed. My criticism of this discourse, and the fact I liked Moana, does not bring about some happy ending where I reveal all worries about the movie to be fabricated, and this is because of Disney’s status as a capitalist corporation. I understand Disney not as a malevolent, dream-producing entity indictable of cultural manipulation (read Jean Baudrillard’s America if you wish for such a critique) but structurally as generative of the features characterising ‘creative capitalism.’ Disney’s existence as a mass-audience studio of mechanised cultural production is merely a symptom of the capitalist economy’s drive for profit, which is returned in the ever-expanding economies of scale and means of production businesses and elites control as well as the development of new creative technologies and the increasing regulation of the productive forces. Marxist criticism of the totality of capitalism is the hidden third option sitting behind the false opposition the prevailing anti-Moana discourse sets up. This opposition is: either criticise Moana as some kind of masterful cultural theft, or, as Anne Keala Kelly says, you “don’t recognise an insult or culture theft when [you] see it”, in which case she will consider you as a traitor or a happy-go-lucky consumerist.

As Jonathan Friedman says in Cultural Identity and Global Process, the ‘identity spaces’ of traditionalism and primitivism converge on a weakened modernity and attempt to proliferate local understandings of culture, which are, as it happens, the very understandings that emerged as a product of Western colonialism and race science. Kenan Malik aptly puts it in this way: “Ironically, the greatest Western cultural export is not Disney or Starbucks or Tom Cruise. It is the very idea of local culture.” The abandonment of class politics for the politics of identity has enabled this melancholic discourse that capitalism is an inevitable Western imposition to emerge, which has only contributed to further entrenching an ascendant Polynesian elite (having accepted and brokered opportunities for new business interests to emerge or new regimes of accumulation) and diminishing much of the chance for the groups it affects the most (which includes, by the way, working-class whites) to be able to transcend its violence. This is because in the decolonial conception of it advanced by the Moana critics and their respective academic influences, there is no conception of how capitalism actually works in a structural sense and how some among the groups they intend to speak for actually represent its interests as members of newly created elites. The best answer to this problem, Marxism, was abandoned some time ago by this group as a ‘white’ theory. Others do not even realise it exists for their benefit. Structural analyses have been replaced by recourses to magical entities of power, called on when convenient, personified or signified by meaningless go-to phrases such as ‘the white men’ or ‘cultural appropriation’.

Kenan Malik, in his book Strange Fruit, says that “although the right has adopted the language of diversity, [the left has] adopted the idiom of racial identity”. This idiom is the centre of the contradictory nature of much postcolonial theory and indeed the very thing that has caused it to stagnate. Race, now elided into ‘culture,’ is seen as the thing that will emancipate those who were racialised as opposed to what it was actually used for – stereotypes, catalogued and imposed as ‘scientific,’ for the purposes of marginalising and trapping them. ‘Culture,’ no matter what form it takes, is marketable. The drama about Moana has perhaps taught us this if nothing else. The sociological subculture theorists of the 1960s in Britain, led by Stuart Hall, have appeared to learn that the hard way. Cultural studies will realise soon enough that its ascendant idealism is unsustainable. No one has taken heed of my call, which echoes that of Marxist writer Harry Chang, to forgo the category of race (as well as the new obsession with ‘culture’) and replace it with a structural analysis of capitalism and a political programme of recognising the situation capitalism leaves us in, invigorating class consciousness and promoting an international movement of solidarity against elite tyranny and for the dissolution of class altogether. It is about time we left the race discourses behind and worked towards dismantling the last of those institutions that continue to produce the international class differences inside the homogeneous “Polynesian” bloc we have become so accustomed to hearing about, and work towards, to appropriately paraphrase the lyrics of Bob Marley, “emancipation from material slavery.”