Jason Stanley has recently written a bit of liberal bourgeois philosophy for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the role of euro-american propaganda and ideology in the imprisonment of over 2.3 million people in the united states. Stanley focuses on some of the reasons for higher incarceration rates for Blacks than for euro-americans, despite the Black population representing only 13% of the population of the united states and euro-americans representing 77%. To be sure, Stanley notes, Black people in the united states are the group composing the largest part of the global prison population in history.
I want to discuss Staneley’s piece because it’s a really good example of many of the elements of bourgeois philosophy in the wild. It’s not a bad piece, by liberal bourgeois standards. It’s a magnificent show of the type of work that is welcomed by euro-american people on the “left” as a way to hand-wring and speculate in a self-gratifying fashion about the ideals of their supposedly free and democratic society. As a piece of “public” philosophy it shows the narrow limits of who bourgeois philosophers consider “the public”. But the piece falls short of the type of philosophy that would make a difference to the people mostly affected by mass incarceration and is actually hurtful to the interests of Black people in the united states.
Stanley’s piece exhibits many of the characteristics of bourgeois philosophy: first-world chauvinism, idealism, and uncritical engagement with liberalism. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
First World Chauvinism
Right away the piece sets the tone as a bit of first-world-splaining and liberal ego-stroking by saying that the civil rights movement in the united states is celebrated as a triumphant achievement of “freedom, justice, reason, and equality”. He could have slapped on a couple of bald eagle and fireworks emojis at the end and no one would be the wiser. But wait! Hold on, isn’t he just using this blurb as a rhetorical device to set up the contrast between the euro-american fantasy of universal bourgeois rights and the reality of mass incarceration of Blacks? Yes, that’s right. And he uses the stark contrast between the ideal and the reality to get into the meat of his piece. A liberal minded person would just see the code words “freedom”, “civil rights”, “reason”, “justice”, “equality”, and keep on reading. And that’s the problem. People who don’t benefit from liberalism read this and it matters in a way that it doesn’t matter to the people insulated by imperialist privilege. As a set up for the rhetoric of the piece, praising the civil rights movement immediately throws up the boundaries of exclusion in the same way that good ol’ boys joking about their wives at the office sets the boundaries of gender exclusion at company meetings. Maybe the civil rights movement is celebrated in this way by Stanley and his friends or in the books and newspapers he and people like him like to read. But that’s only part of the story. The other part, the part you’d get if you listened to prisoners and people working on their behalf, is that the civil rights movement was in the main an integrationist movement opposed to the Black Nationalism of the descendants of former slaves. If you listen to these voices, you’d know that the purpose of the civil rights movement was to consolidate white power in the style of neo-colonialism. Neo-colonialism is a political system where the nationalist demands of the colonized ―things like self-determination and popular democracy, are nominally satisfied in such a way as to isolate and criminalize those very things when exercised outside of the interests of colonial economics. In this case, it’s the economic imperialism of euro-american settlers. Practically, in the united states, it means white power in liberal institutions with Black faces sprinkled here and there, even in the White House.
Anyone who spends more than few moments studying the history of Black Nationalism can tell that integrationists among the Black Nation were the minority, with Black Nationalism having a greater part of popular support. Integrationists were backed by euro-american settler institutions like the Department of Justice as well as by sectors of the euro-american nation represented by settler labor unions and social democrats with the goal of promoting the authority of the modern Black neo-colonial leadership we have today. Exploiting the lack of positive strategies for independence and nationhood on the part of the Black Nationalist leadership, euro-american settlers were able to establish the protest-based integrationism that’s a favorite among euro-americans who love telling Black people how to express their anger and disappointment with liberal institutions. Still, if you’re a non-euro-american person reading Stanely, it’s immediately evident that he’s just first-world-splaining his way to making a point by ignoring, oh, say, Malcolm X, a Black leader representing the interests of large sectors of the Black Nation who certainly didn’t celebrate the civil rights integrationist movement as anything having to do with freedom or equality or any other such things. And the history of Black Nationalism from slave rebellions, through the Garvey and Black Power movements also tell against the one-sided mythology Stanley favors regarding the achievements of the civil rights movement.
Stanley says that we must examine the concepts of ideology and propaganda if we’re to understand the mass incarceration of Blacks at the hands of euro-american settlers. I think he’s right and we’ll get to that in Part II. But it’s also right that without understanding the role of the Black Nation relative to euro-american imperialism the examination of these important concepts is just ornamental.
Just like mansplaining cashes out as male chauvinism, first-world-splaining cashes out here as first-world chauvinism ―the adoption of ideologies and practices designed to justify, reinforce, and prolong first world oppression of the rest of the world, including the internal semi-colony of Black people descended from slaves in the united states. Some of the characteristics of first-world chauvinism are narrow nationalism/anti-internationalism, first world exceptionalism, apologetics, deliberate distortion of the relative status of first world people in relation to the rest of the world in favor of first world people, deliberate ignorance of the subsidies extracted by first world people from the rest of the world, and deliberate ignorance of the fact that these subsidies are unjustly acquired at gunpoint.
“The fact is that colonization is neither a series of chance occurrences nor the statistical result of thousands of individual undertakings. It is a system.” ―Jean-Paul Sartre.
Hit the brakes! Haven’t you heard? The Black people you’re talking about ARE in the first world so this “first-world-chauvinism” crap doesn’t make any sense. Dear interlocutor: The way this applies to Black people in the u.s. today has to do with three important features of the system of eruo-american colonialism in relation to the Black Nation:
- Their history of exploitation and oppression at the hands of euro-american settlers: The institution of slavery was a massive appropriation of labor that worked side by side with the genocide of the First Nations to give euro-american settlers enormous amounts of capital enabling them to become an imperialist superpower. The economic impact of slavery for the Black Nation is the stunting of the Black bourgeoisie, the Black petit bourgeoisie, and the creation of a Black labor aristocracy dependent on imperialism.
- The class divisions within the Black Nation: The reality of the Black labor aristocracy dependent on euro-american imperialism is one of the main class divisions among the Black Nation. Basically, euro-american settlers no longer extract surplus value from the Black Nation as a whole in the way that they used to; that is in the way all people in the first-world now extract surplus value from the rest of the world, through economic exploitation. This is an economic feature of global imperialism where profits from third-world exploitation subsidize and inflate imperialist wages (the minimum of which is up to ten times the average for third-world countries). Nevertheless, economic exploitation is still manifested among the Black lumpen-proletariat (the people who make up the Black prison population) and those relative few hustling on the streets earning below the imperialist minimum wage. So to this day, euro-americans continue to exploit and extract surplus value from a sector of the Black Nation living in prisons and on the streets. Just like in the “good ol’ days”.
“I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.”
- The political subjugation of Black people to euro-america: Politically, euro-american settlers still thwart the self-determination and popular democracy claims of all Black people in the u.s. Because of the stunting of the Black Bourgeois classes and the institutions of white terror (the police, the prisons, the courts, and white supremacist culture), neo-colonialism in the form the integrtationist, bourgeois-rights and big capital based “democracy” is the very essence of white power. The effect of white power ranges from the branding of Black people as “african-americans” by the euro-american mainstream, to the way the eruo-american media treat white terror in mass killings as something soft and isolated and not to be fussed about beyond a few ableist remarks about “mental issues”. Of course, the full range of white neo-colonial political power over Black people also includes the use of white supremacist ideology and its accompanying liberal propaganda as an auxiliary to its political goals.
All of this means that the relationship that euro-america has to the Black descendants of former slaves is characteristically neo-colonial: the integrationist form of political subjugation nominally satisfies self-determination and national democracy while the stunting of the Black bourgeois classes, the dependence of the Black labor aristocracy and the on-and-off exploitation of the lumpen proletariat satisfies the economic interests of the euro-american imperialists. And uncritically going on about the “triumphant” achievements of the civil rights movement in the context of the imprisonment of Black people at the hands of imperialism is a show of first-world-chauvinism because it satisfies some of its major characteristics:
- It is narrow nationalist/anti-internationalist; it’s a way of saying “I am against the political and economic sovereignty of the descendants of former slaves”
- Euro-american exceptionalism; It’s a way of saying “Other countries have internal colonies and “national minorities” and we invade them under the banner of “liberation” when it suits our interests, but OUR country is a special snowflake and doesn’t have any of that. Instead we have “CIVIL RIGHTS”
- Apologetics for white power; It’s a way of saying “Look, euro-america isn’t Black people’s white nationalist nightmare ―after all, we have the CIVIL RIGHTS movement!!”
- It’s a deliberate distortion of the status of euro-americans in relation to Black people; It’s a way of saying “Blacks aren’t politically subordinate to euro-america”
- It’s deliberate ignorance of the subsidies extracted by euro-americans from Black people; It’s a way of saying “euro-americans have not stunted the Black bourgeois classes and forced dependency to imperialism on them”.
- And lastly, it’s deliberate ignorance that these subsidies are acquired at gunpoint –Maybe bourgeois philosophers somehow missed seeing the video of NYC police murdering Eric Garner for selling individual cigarettes without a euro-american tax stamp? There’s a name for that type of thing. It’s called “using state violence to suppress the economic initiative of Black people”.
The first few paragraphs of Stanley’s Chronicle piece exhibit first-world chauvinism and set the tone of liberal exclusion of the people who feature prominently as its subject, the Black descendants of former slaves. A non-euro-american or person not insulated by first-world privilege might find it surprising that Stanley so quickly throws up a gigantic wall to limit the bounds of public discourse about the mass incarceration of this group because he makes much ado (here and in his other work on propaganda) about the role of such discourse in liberal democracy. It’s even more surprising because the word “EMPATHY” is prominently emblazoned at key points in Stanley’s piece in what is apparently an overwrought expression of faux liberal concern. He even asks the question, “What is the source of our [euro-american] lack of empathy for this group [Black people]?”, before displaying an arresting lack of empathy by ignoring Black Nationalism and euro-american neo-colonialism in favor of the liberal rhetoric of euro-american settlers.
How can a bourgeois philosopher up to his neck in the supposed critical philosophical analysis of the concepts of propaganda and ideology display such chauvinism in connection to the topics of Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans? I claim that it has to do with another major characteristic of bourgeois philosophy: idealism ― the tendency to evaluate ideas and practices, and to structure debates all in terms of a purported absolute truth and absolute value rather than relative to a particular aim in a context. This will be the focus of part II.