Our Response to “Whither America?”

Floris D’Aalst has, if nothing else, written a provocative essay. He challenges us to make connections that we might not have thought of and to think differently about some very important matters. His analysis provides some very important starting points for discussion, debate and further investigation. Furthermore, it’s clear that his fundamental goal is to sketch out a scenario that anticipates where the unrelenting misery of the great majority of people’ lives and the profoundly unproductive turmoil of current political confusion, in both mainstream politics and the admittedly marginalized revolutionary left, might be resolved. His imagined resolution is one of great danger but that does not mean that it should not be directly engaged with.

Let us begin with a mention of the most valuable analyses that D’Aalst incorporates into his essay:

  • a concise but perceptive analysis of the form and content of “deindustrialization”;
  • an intriguing analysis of the formation of what we would term a “millennial sensibility” among a not insignificant group of younger people in the United States population;
  • the significance of the unexpected expansion of the middle stratum between capitalists and workers (such as independent contractors in construction or technology) for the establishment of a social base for a resurgent right-wing politics—neither fish nor fowl, these individuals are likely faithful listeners to talk radio in the middle of the afternoon;
  • the ways and means by which a powerful right-wing block was methodically developed over the last fifty years—a block consisting of foundations, think tanks, voter mobilizations, issue-driven organizations (such as pro-life ones). Republican party caucuses and evangelical churches;
  • an anatomy of Trump’s economic policies as a way of thinking about the method to his madness; the goal is to gain advantage—“America First” is really “America Over All.”

At the same time, however, D’Aalst advances other analyses that we believe are more or less flawed. Let us enumerate what we consider to be the shortcomings in his argument:

  1. a lack of clarity and precision in the meanings of terms that appear to be quite central to his thinking;
  2. a lack of convincing evidence to back up claims regarding matters such as the social composition of various right-wing currents;
  3. a confused rendering of the relationships between and among various strands of right-wing movements;
  4. a profoundly idealist explanation of class consciousness;
  5. a confused analysis of the shaping of racial consciousness;
  6. an insistence that the 9/11 attacks were part of a “deep-state” conspiracy to cow and indoctrinate the American people;
  7. an all-but-doomsday analysis of climate change which can only result in a conviction that it’s all too late and that not even a revolution can stop the worst scenarios from occurring [we do want to acknowledge that D’Aalst’s knowledge about these matters far exceeds our own—that is a reason for him to at least outline a programmatic alternative];
  8. an overly critical assessment of Marxist commitments to exhausting nature;
  9. an almost fantastic portrayal of the emergence of a new constellation of revolutionary forces.

Other contributors to this discussion have written about most of these criticisms and we’ll try not to repeat what’s already been said. We’ll focus on a few matters: the confusions about race; the idealism regarding consciousness; the over-drawn criticism of Marxist attitudes towards nature; the profound non-realism of the anticipation of revolutionary forces ready for battle.


D’Aalst argues that race is an “imaginary social relation” and a “socially constructed social-topography of arcane fears, anxieties, and sham facts and insights.” We confess that we’re not sure what he means.

Further, he argues that the one social fact supporting that imaginary social relation was an “experientially based three class model of society” (the rich above, us in the middle and them permanently below). He describes it as “a barbarous form of common sense” that was destroyed by deindustrialization. For D’Aalst, what is at issue are not material privileges but “the institutions which create a malformed identity on the basis of a socially constructed psychic topography.” Quite a mouthful! He says nothing about which institutions he has in mind, how they are constructed or how they are maintained. He does not consider that institutions have material bases.

We’ll be specific about the institutions that maintain a racial order, albeit one that is no longer as monolithic as the pre-Civil Rights segregationist era or slavery. The police, the courts, the prisons, the schools and colleges, the public housing authorities, the real estate markets within cities and metropolitan areas, and the informal labor markets are all interwoven to produce systemic disadvantage for blacks and advantage for “whites.” As a result, they provide a substantial material base for the adoption and preservation of a white identity. Admittedly, the grounds are not as absolute as they once were but they’re more than good enough in many instances—see, for example, “No More Missouri Compromises” by John Garvey, an article about the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in Insurgent Notes # 11. The workings of those institutions also continue to provide for the incorporation of those once considered “non-white” into the non-black, or “white,” social group, at the moment especially individuals from Asian backgrounds.

It is true that formal work categories and wage differentials are no longer central to the maintenance of privilege. However, the immiseration of white workers does not necessarily or automatically affect the other dimensions of lived experience. The challenge remains—how can the institutions be destroyed.

Class Consciousness

Surprisingly, D’Aalst puts forward a decidedly non-Marxist theory of consciousness. He writes as straightforwardly as possible that: “Consciousness is constitutive of class.” We suspect that, at heart, D’Aalst is more Hegelian than Marxist. Paradoxically, this idealist orientation leads him to an uncritically mechanical understanding of the effects of immiseration on consciousness. He believes, as they used to say, the worse things get the better. In that regard, he displays no awareness of the autonomous character of fascist movements—that those movements too can arise in response to immiseration and they too can be prepared to challenge the state and capital.

Marxism and Nature

Marxists have continued to celebrate nature mastery long after it passed over into resource plunder and ecological destruction, affirming that communism as a free human community rested solidly on the foundations of the “material achievements” of capitalism.

Marx’s writings contain numerous analyses of the human-nature relationship that reflect a deep appreciation of its importance. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx had written:

Man lives from nature, i.e., nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature.

But Marx had a complex understanding of nature:

With the exception of the extractive industries, such as mining, hunting, fishing (and agriculture, but only in so far as it starts by breaking up virgin soil), where the material for labour is provided directly by nature, all branches of industry deal with raw material, i.e., an object of labour which has already been filtered through labour, which is itself already a product of labour. An example is seed in agriculture. Animals and plants which are accustomed to consider as products of nature, may be, in their present form, not only products of, say, last year’s labour but the result of a gradual transformation continued through many generations under human control, and through the agency of human labour (Volume I, 287–288).

Thus, while society is in nature, nature is also in society.

Finally, Marx was, among other things, genuinely attentive to the need to preserve what had been passed down:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household] (Volume III, 911).

We are acutely aware of the fact those aspects of Marx’s views were not commonly held by what might be considered traditional Marxism. The simple fact, however, is that most of Marx’s views were also not held by traditional Marxism. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Fantasy about Revolutionary Coalescence

D’Aalst provides an almost magical incantation of the coalescence of an emancipatory revolutionary block in three paragraphs of a twenty seven-page essay. Again, he has an over-confidence in the potential of material deprivation creating grounds for a new breakthrough. He has an exaggerated sense of how millenials will progressively develop adequate understandings of immigration, murder and policing:

The view put forth here is that, among proletarians struggling with the issue of power, an awareness that is non-racialized, and whose sensibilities embrace tolerance and equality will be far more disposed toward a just and equitable treatment of immigrants, and will, moreover, be capable of addressing the really thorny irredentist and revanchist questions that, dating to 1846, may still linger in popular awareness; such proletarians will also far more likely be ecologically sensitive; and, prior even to the assumption of power, in the conflicts to come replete with cop brutality, such awareness, notwithstanding bourgeois democratic and electoral illusions, will come to recognize (if only intuitively) the role and function of cops as the front line of ruling class power on the ground. “

As we wrote above, we think that D’Aalst is on to something important about the millenials—they share a conviction that racial discrimination is wrong, that respect is for others is essential, that people should not be subject to unnecessary hardship, and that social benefits should be made universal (for example, Medicare for All). As a result, they form a powerful constituency for “social democracy”—as perhaps evidenced by the extent of support for the Sanders campaign in 2016, the explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the current remarkable popularity of Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez. But how can we turn that social democratic sensibility into a different one? It will not happen by itself. It will require sustained engagement with the ideas popular in those circles—not to trash them but to challenge them respectfully. See, by way of example, “What is Socialism” by John Garvey in Insurgent Notes # 18.

D’Aalst doesn’t address the matter of the self-consciousness of the other components of his imaginary revolutionary block; he assumes that they will be there—ready for civil war: “The same unfolding events will push in the direction of consolidation of a counter-posed class bloc, youth with its proletarianized, precarious core, large layers of Spanish speaking labor, thin layers of other ethnic-national workers and a thick multi-class stratum of blacks.” We believe that this is a problematic assumption based on little to no empirical evidence. The individuals in those groups are self-thinking and self-acting and we should not assume very much at all of what they might do. They may act well or they may act badly. If we assume only the prior and don’t anticipate the possibility of the latter, we will suffer terribly.

For D’Aalst, all that is needed beforehand is a “withering critique of profitablility.” Profitability is a curious word choice. It’s one that the social democrats that D’Alast is justifiably critical of would not object to. Why not a withering critique of the “profit system” or “wage labor” or “surplus value” or the subordination of human life time to “dead labor”? Or any of the many other classic formulations of the profound life and death struggle between those who work and capital?

What might have helped D’Aalst’s arguments would have been an expression of tentativeness about the certainty with which he advanced them. To be fair, D’Aalst was the one who suggested that Insurgent Notes sponsor a discussion and it may well be that in itself reveals that he is open to reconsidering and reformulating his ideas. We shall see.

In closing, we’d offer just a few thoughts on the building of a revolutionary block. We agree with what we think is D’Aalst’s assumption—that there is little of great promise available at the moment. We have the traditional sects; some new sects; some new journals with more or less distinctive points of view—including Insurgent Notes’ own initial emphasis on program. We do also have the resurgence of DSA. All in all, not much to build on!

Nonetheless, we would argue that it’s necessary to make the effort. Not surprisingly, we’d advocate a new appropriation of revolutionary Marxism. We have a few touchstones for how such an appropriation might occur—Marx’s own writings (un-mangled by Leninist-Stalinist-post-modernist distortions); the organization and activities of the First International, and Rosa Luxemburg’s embrace of the mass strike as the decisive proletarian revolutionary action. We’d also look to the history of abolitionism, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The lessons include: the powerful model of insistent politics provided by the abolitionists; the heroic defiance of John Brown in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry; the exemplary solidarity of the English textile workers who refused to work with Southern cotton; the outstanding role played by the International Workingmen’s Association in rallying support for the cause of emancipation of the slaves; the general strike of the slaves which turned the Civil War into a revolutionary war and led to the Northern victory; and the establishment of the Reconstruction governments across the defeated Confederacy—governments that were so unlike other governments that W.E.B. DuBois considered the Reconstruction government of South Carolina to be an instance of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

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