Welcome to part II of this piece on Jason Stanley’s recent CHE article on the role of propaganda and ideology in connection to the higher incarceration rates for Blacks in the united states. Stanley’s article is a good example of many of the elements of bourgeois philosophy: first-world chauvinism, idealism, and uncritical engagement with liberalism. In the first part of this analysis, I focused on first-world chauvinism. Here I’m going to look at idealism and uncritical engagement with liberalism. I was hoping to get to examining how someone so caught up with the supposed critical philosophical analysis of the concepts of propaganda and ideology can display such chauvinism in connection to the topic of Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans, but this post is already a bit long so it’s better to leave that for a shorter, forthcoming third and final part. Here I will just consider how idealism and uncritical engagement with liberalism feature in Stanley’s main argument, which is this:
Premise 1: Racist (“flawed”) ideology and propaganda work in conjunction to undermine liberal ideals (including eroding “empathy”).
Premise 2: Undermining liberal ideals (at least concepts in 1-10 below) results in things like the injustice of Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans.
Conclusion: Therefore to prevent things like the injustice of Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans, it’s important to “depropagandize” the “debate about crime and punishment” (or what amounts to the same: behave in accordance to liberal ideals).
What is Idealism?
Idealism is the tendency of philosophers 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 is a different meaning than that having to do with specific doctrines that philosophers call “idealism” ―doctrines having to do with the question of the fundamental “mental” or “abstract” nature of reality, or of mental contributions to the structure of objective reality or such accounts of the ontology of human experience.
Idealism of the type I’m talking about is a prejudice of bourgeois philosophers for two reasons. First, it’s a prejudice because the purported “absolutes” that serve as the measuring stick in idealist thinking are not the types of things that can be detached from the social relations and practices that form the basis for the relative determination of thoughts. In the case of bourgeois philosophy, these “absolutes” are overwhelmingly an expression of the aspirations of bourgeois people conditioned by their class and national privilege ―far from being absolute, they’re an expression of liberal ideals and a part of liberal ideology. Second, it’s a prejudice of bourgeois philosophy because it’s applied in a biased way when framing debates. In one direction, the bias favors liberal ideology and frames debates in such a way that it compares its “absolutes” to things that people from different classes and nations (that don’t benefit from liberalism and don’t share liberal ideology) do in the world. The predictable outcome is that the things that these groups do in the world always comes up short of the perfection of the bourgeois philosophers’ “absolutes”. In the other direction, the bias favors liberal practice ―it protects what people who have a hand in imperialism do by shining a spotlight on liberal ideology, fussing loudly about reforming or analyzing imperialist superstructures, while obscuring the social relations and practices that support them.
…And Uncritical Engagement with Liberalism?
The idealism of bourgeois philosophy is closely related to another of its major characteristics, uncritical engagement with liberalism, and frequently manifests itself in that form. Uncritical engagement with liberalism is a bias of bourgeois philosophy and it basically means that bourgeois philosophers either believe or act as if liberalism is beyond all criticism. Bourgeois philosophers just take the limits that liberalism sets up for debate about itself and about anything else as given and start philosophizing. This wouldn’t be a problem if bourgeois philosophers didn’t opportunistically prey upon and influence a global audience of people who are philosophically inclined because their culture and institutions are artificially propped up by the inequities of global imperialism or if they didn’t try to pass bourgeois philosophy off as philosophy without qualification, or if liberalism wasn’t just a game only the world’s most privileged people can play, and if it didn’t exclude most of the world’s people in terms of consideration, relevance, and aspiration. But that’s not the case. So the uncritical attitude of bourgeois philosophers regarding liberalism is a problem because it censors and erases alternative views and shrinks philosophy to a point, making it a bigoted echo chamber for the world’s most privileged people.
The bias of uncritical engagement with liberalism relies on a powerful bit of liberal ideology: the supposed “reasonableness of liberalism”. This “reasonableness” is a part of liberal ideology whereby bourgeois philosophers use the philosophical methods of analysis (breaking concepts and ideas down into parts) and/or abstraction (taking common features of particular things and treating them as definitive of a general concept) in an idealist way to disingenuously claim an objective soundness for central ideas of political and economic liberalism. Forget for a second that in order for something to be “reasonable” it can’t be absolute –that is, it can’t be considered independently because reason is only reason in a context. But the context of liberalism is some nasty business having to do with the bourgeois classes doing away with the aristocracy so they can live out their capitalist fantasies, so this part usually gets left out by liberal scholars. In any case, the practical result is that liberal justification for the social relations and practices that give rise to the familiar superstructures of imperialism ―things like neo-colonialism, perpetual war, the wealth of the few and poverty of the many and environmental destruction is dressed up as nothing more than the “sound judgment” of either disinterested scholars pursuing Truth or conscientious, moral thinkers worried about The Good.
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva gives a nice account of a similar phenomenon regarding how liberalism treats problems and issues having to do with race: what he calls “abstract liberalism” in his Racism Without Racists. With abstract liberalism, liberal principles (things that fall under the “absolutes” I mentioned above and what Stanley calls “liberal ideals” in his CHE piece) are treated abstractly so as to appear, detached and reasonable, but in practice stand stubbornly against any approach that undermines white-power. The difference between abstract liberalism and the “reasonableness” of liberal ideology that I talk about here is only generality. Abstract liberalism is about giving racism an air of detachment, of separating it from any individual racist beliefs and thus “removing” racists from the nuts-and-bolts goings on of white power. The “reasonableness” of liberal ideology is the same mechanism but more widely applied to cover not just racism in connection to the neo-colonial domination of Black people and other groups, but also the social relations and practices that give rise to the well-known superstructures of global, and specifically, euro-american imperialism. This means that the “reasonableness” of liberalism can be deployed by bourgeois philosophers in a variety of cases, stretching beyond racial matters to philosophize on behalf of the status quo on questions having to do with patriarchal, as well as class and national oppression and exploitation.
Agreement on Some Facts about the Imperialist Superstructure
In spite of being a quick read, Stanley’s article in the CHE packs in a lot of idealism and uncritical engagement with liberalism of the type just described. Before I get to that let’s take a look at some of the stuff he gets right.
What he gets right are some of the facts regarding features of neo-colonial reality ―features of the imperialist superstructure― that people from neo-colonial populations experience every day and have had first-hand knowledge of for a very long time because that’s just what it’s like to be colonized. Specifically, he gets it right that euro-american “experts” use science and their expertise manipulatively to justify neo-colonialism in ways that come down to racist ideology pure and simple. The example he gives is the racist sociological theory of young Black “super predators” that was popular among euro-americans and their “tough-on-crime” grandstanding and neo-colonial politics in the 1990’s. The claim made by mainstream euro-american social scientists at the time was that the euro-american neo-colonial incarceration system was not racist but that incarceration rates merely reflected the preponderance of young Black super-predators within the Black internal semi-colony. First and foremost of the social consequences of having euro-american settler politicians playing to the crowd of euro-americans with this type of “science” is the destruction of Black lives because many people serving life without possibility of parole are Black people who were locked up in their youth due to oppressive policies targeting Black youth. Another social consequence is the widespread contemporary belief among euro-americans that young Black people are more blameworthy across the board ―hence the perpetual state of young Black people of being-about-to-be-murdered-by-police and of being-about-to-be-arrested, and of always being-a-suspect no matter what they’re doing or what the circumstances are.
Stanley also correctly points out the everyday dehumanization of Blacks by euro-american police. The example he gives is the LAPD’s “No-Humans-Involved” designation for their routine disregard of the bourgeois rights of Blacks ― dehumanization and “othering” on the level of the dehumanization of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the genocide before WWI. A more recent example that’s been on social media is the case of an officer of euro-america’s Tulsa county Sheriff’s Office who killed an unarmed Black man. The man, Eric Harris, upon realizing he had been shot, sought help saying, “I’m losing my breath”, to which officers at the scene replied “Fuck your breath!” Officers then proceeded to handcuff the dying man, telling him to “Shut the fuck up!”
The horror of euro-american neo-colonialism and the trauma that Black people are subjected to under it doesn’t end with the criminalization of their very existence as a group, but intensifies once they become wards of the euro-american prison system. Stanley properly points out that torture in the form of long-term solitary confinement and rape are daily occurrences for tens of thousands of people in euro-america’s prisons. All of these things are basic realities of euro-american neo-colonialism and Stanley recognizes this in his own, sanitized-for-sensitive-liberal-ears, sort of way.
Liberal Ideals or Bourgeois Idealism?
So if the problem isn’t the facts, then what? No big surprises here. It’s bourgeois idealism and uncritical engagement with liberalism. In Stanley’s piece, idealism manifests itself as an uncritical engagement with some of the absolutes of bourgeois liberalism: “equality”, “tolerance”, “liberal democratic society”, “public discourse” and others. These are parts of the liberal ideology that Stanley and other bourgeois liberals like him openly uphold as ideals of the settler society based on imperialism that they envision as the norm for themselves and others. Here’s each instance where Stanley invokes liberal ideals. I’ve highlighted the relevant concepts and terms in each case.
- “To view someone as a political equal is an act of respect and empathy. The decades-long growth in black incarceration rates represents a failure of empathy.”
- “How could rational people committed to liberal ideals allow such an obvious violation of those ideals to persist? How can such manifest social contradictions be so easily tolerated?”
- “Super-predator” […] “wilding,” “crack epidemic,” “thug,” and “gang.” These words reduce or eliminate our capacity to think of those to whom they are applied as equals, deserving of empathy.
- “When they are used by authority figures in a democracy, they undermine the very ideals that grant those figures their authority.”
- “The misuse of ideals to conceal an agenda that is inconsistent with the correct application of those ideals has been a hallmark of political discourse during the age of mass incarceration.”
- “The arguments in favor of school drug zones employ valued ideals — the protection of children, for example — and appear to be the hallmark of fair, race-neutral legal policies.”
- “Propaganda allows politicians to signal their allegiance to problematic ideologies, such as racism, that cannot be explicitly endorsed in a liberal democratic society that holds tolerance as an ideal.”
- “Vesla Weaver explains how Goldwater led an eventually successful attempt to change the national narrative from one about the violation of ideals of social justice to the violation of ideals of law and order.”
- “Those ideals were then employed to justify a criminal-justice system that, given social conditions, runs counter to race-neutral, fair ideals of law and order. But absent an account of how the misapplication of these ideals was overlooked, the story is only partial.”
- “The lack of empathy toward those caught in the grip of the prison system is not consistent with the ideals of liberal democracy.”
General Comments about 1-10
In 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 10 Stanley is calling out the apparent inconsistency between cherished liberal ideals and how some people presumably misuse them to push an agenda that’s “inconsistent” with them. This inconsistency is important as it’s supposed to reveal the undermining of liberal ideals that features in the second premise of his argument. Instance 5 stands out here, though, because “political discourse” is an important liberal absolute that features in the conclusion to Stanley’s argument ―it’s “political discourse” that Stanley claims must be “depropagandized” if euro-americans are ever going to stop locking up Black people disproportionately and justifying it with their racism. “Political discourse” is a cherished liberal absolute that is closely connected to another important liberal absolute, “democracy”. The story that you get from bourgeois liberal philosophy 101 is that “democratic governments” (see comments below on instance 4 for more on “democracy”) need “political discourse” if they’re going function at all. This is a strange connection because practically all historical instances of “democracy” have been carried out in stratified class societies where participation in institutions of government, economics and political discourse has been managed and administered by a ruling class. Maybe the people teaching bourgeois political philosophy 101 mean something else by “function” other than function in the world where people do political stuff? Who knows? But that’s the story told to undergraduates. And what is more, “political discourse” is presented as some kind of idealized “civilized debate” among “rational agents” seeking Truth who express different opinions and have “reasonable disagreements”. This too is kind of strange because inclusion in “the civilized” and “the rational” has basically been a way, historically, for euro-american liberal people to justify the exclusion of most of the world’s people from participation in liberal institutions but for neo-colonialism. We’ve seen this first hand with Stanley’s own omission of Black history and Black national identity. It almost makes it seem as if you’re not on board with the liberal absolutes, then your disagreements aren’t “reasonable”. But then maybe you’re not “civilized” or “rational” either and none of this is for you.
In 6, and 8, Stanley is just rehearsing dogma. In the case of 6, it’s wishful thinking about “fair, race-neutral legal policies” ―something that to my knowledge has never been the case in the euro-american nation state and can’t really come about in contexts of national oppression. Nevertheless, it’s is a big part of liberal mythology about how euro-americans relate to non-euro-americans. In 8 we have the same thing, but there’s an additional white-washing through language. What Stanley means when he talks about the “national narrative” is “the way euro-americans like to think of themselves in relation to other people” but in the typical fashion of people who “don’t see race” in racist contexts, and in line with his exclusion of non-liberal Black identities, he casually skips over non-euro-american views and makes it seem like non-euro-americans are just massively on board with what euro-americans have to say about the euro-american nation state. This white-washing is a neat example of the connection between bourgeois liberalism and euro-american chauvinism.
Cases 1 and 4 are unique in this set because they’re the only places in the entire piece where Stanley explicitly links his liberal ideology to actual concepts from bourgeois political and moral philosophy 101. In 1 he invokes an unspecified, but presumably necessary, connection between the liberal absolute of “equality before the law” and “empathy”. The latter has proven a difficult thing for bourgeois philosophers to pin down, but descriptions always include a component about the complex human ability to consider one’s self as akin to another. This is supposed to form the basis of the concept of “equality before the law”. This is tricky, though, because whatever empathy is, it must be an exercise in the ability to consider others in regards to their particular conditions. By stripping away political identity as one would, say, if one want’s to insist that “political equality before the law” should be “race-neutral”, there’s nothing left to form the content of empathy, which is important if it’s going to do any work at all in the real world. In context, 1 really belongs with 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 10 because, in a roundabout way via the role of empathy in bourgeois liberal philosophy, Stanley is pointing out an inconsistency between the ideal of political equality before the law and Black mass incarceration.
In 4, Stanley connects “authority” to the liberal ideals that are supposedly transferred to “the sovereign” according to traditional bourgeois liberal philosophy. Again, in context, 4 belongs with 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 10 because he’s pointing out an alleged inconsistency between the use of racist code words by euro-american politicians and pundits and the treasured liberal transfer of authority to the sovereign in a “democracy”. But there’s also a nice bit of dogma rehearsal here and Stanley is not beyond the use of code words himself, like “democracy”.
These are the liberal ideals that feature in Stanley’s argument and they’re also the absolutes in reference to which bourgeois idealism reveals itself in his philosophy.
Framing the Discussion in terms of Absolute Truth and Absolute Value
To frame a discussion in terms of an absolute truth and an absolute value is to detach it from particular aims in a context. It doesn’t mean that one can’t recognize an aim or a context, but that the measure of value and/or standard of correctness is an abstract idea and that the idea is relatively independent of context. Like a disembodied thought in a cartoon frame, the absolute floats above the action. Liberal absolutes function in just this way in Stanley’s article.
Forget altogether the backwards tone of the whole piece that makes it seem as if the reason euro-americans shouldn’t unjustly mass imprison Black people and justify it using their racist views is that they shouldn’t want to violate some ideal and consider instead a particular example: the liberal absolute of “political equality before the law”. It’s a big deal in Stanley’s article because of the connection it has to empathy, which is one of the things that, according to Stanley, is eroded by some types of propaganda (Premise 1 of his argument), and then all hell breaks loose (Premise 2). But it’s really just the absolute that features prominently in Stanley’s reasoning, not anything that might be recognized as a practical implementation of political equality before the law by people doing things in the world. In fact, given what was noted when decoding the meaning of the term “democracy” above, it’s difficult to see how equality before the law (or of any other kind really) can be practically approached in the type of society that actually characterizes the euro-american nation state. The point is that Stanley’s argument is about absolutes floating above the reality of Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans through and through: from his failure to disclose how the idea of liberal democracy measures up to what passes as liberal democracy in the euro-american nation state, to his failure to relate how political equality before the law can come about in that political and economic system, the meat of the discussion and his argument are completely divorced from the context.
It’s also clear that the idealist component in Stanley’s thinking about these issues is due to his uncritical engagement with liberalism: it doesn’t take much to get a down and dirty understanding of the state of political equality and democracy in first world countries in the first quarter of the 21st century. The limit of Stanley’s engagement is noting that certain practices fail to instantiate liberal absolutes. But that’s hardly a “critical” thought. It’s more like just looking out the window and not saying anything about liberal absolutes. To be sure, relevant criticism isn’t even about the abstract truth or falsehood of the absolutes when considered propositionally ―that’s an academic exercise. Making relevant criticism begins with being open to recognizing the outright incorrectness of liberal absolutes in a historical context independent of failed application or abstract truth value; being open to the idea that failing to instantiate liberal ideals goes hand in hand with the type of society that makes a big deal about them, cherishes them, elevates and separates them from context as a matter of course so that their weakness in the practical struggle for things like democracy, economic self-determination, and institutional representation of large groups of people is difficult to evaluate by the people who don’t benefit from liberal institutions and is completely ignored by those that do. We don’t get anywhere near something like this with Stanley’s philosophy. But we do get a lot of pom-pom waving for his beloved liberal ideals.
In hindsight this is no more than we ought to expect from philosophers committed to the “reasonableness of liberalism”. The way that works here is simple. One looks at how euro-american, propertied, slave-owning, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois men seeking to profit from these “natural rights” treat each other in legal matters and abstract from it, saying “Hey, that’s a fine way to treat each other, let’s apply it across the board! Nothing wrong with that! That’s reasonable, right?” Basically you strip away particulars: nation, class, gender, and you have what? The general concept of “political equality before the law”? That’s the story, at least. And it’s not a reasonable story at all. In fact, it’s whacked. The problem is that in the end you don’t have an applicable concept because there aren’t any people without nation, class, and gender in the world during the time when philosophizing about these things has been a thing. This isn’t a problem with abstraction, which is a general philosophical process that somehow has become the purview of bourgeois philosophers; the problem is with the idealist way in which abstraction is applied by those philosophers so that the concepts are useless. Here’s another story with abstraction playing a central role that’s not idealist. Same setup, look at how people have done it in the past in a setting constrained by nation, class, and gender. What can we abstract? How about that in situations where nation, class, and gender are real things, “political equality before the law” is applied selectively by different groups? Instead of dashing headlong into the pit of theoretical incoherence and define –don’t laugh– political entities without nation, class, and gender, and wishing really hard it was so, how about we instead work up an abstracted concept of “political equality before a class”, or “before a nation” or “before a gender” or before all three. Then at least we’d have to always deal with the fundamental relations at the core of politics and governance, rather than thinking that politics and governance are about pretending that things that do exist don’t or that things that don’t exist do. But here’s the rub ―a consequence of this is that then governance in general becomes a problem of the justice of fundamental constitutive relations, not a matter of administering rights and that is definitely NOT REASONABLE to people with national, class, and gender privilege. So the supposed objectivity and reasonableness of the abstracted concept “political equality before the law” shows up to be idealist dressing for the constitutive relations that give rise to the familiar superstructures of the society we live in, which is one where national, class, and gender oppression and exploitation are real and beyond the reach of the reigning political concepts and institutions.
Another one of the risks of structuring a discussion around a disembodied absolute floating above a context is the tendency to pull aims and goals also out of a context where they can be practically evaluated in terms of results. This means that what could otherwise be a concrete goal is instead cordoned off and either replaced or covered by a disembodied absolute. The conclusion to Stanely’s argument suffers from this very problem, which is especially distressing since that’s where the goal or aim of Stanley’s whole article is laid out. The conclusion exhorts euro-americans to act in accordance to liberal ideals by “depropagandizing” the supposed “debate” about crime and punishment. By “debate”, Stanley is referring the liberal absolute of “political discourse”, appearing in instance 5 and discussed above. This absolute floats above the action because it’s dubious that anything like “civilized public debate among rational agents” takes place anywhere in the contemporary euro-american nation state. But even if it did, liberal thinkers would have to establish that it’s the sort of thing that can actually make a concrete difference to Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans in a context where for profit, public and private prisons flourish, where powerful multinational corporations and financial institutions effectively manipulate the political system, and where putting an end to the neo-colonial status of the Black descendants of former slaves isn’t on the agenda of any political party. At best, it seems that Stanley is firing at a paper target. At worst, it seems like that’s the point: although liberal absolutes feature prominently in each premise of his argument and the conclusion, and they appear consistently throughout the piece (via instances 1-10 above) they do little more than serve as reminders of good conscience or triggers for agreement among the bourgeois liberal people that Stanley has invited to his discussion.
His idealism here also manifests itself as an uncritical engagement with liberalism ―Critical thinking would first immediately catch that the “debate” Stanley goes on about is just nothing more than some kind of wish or hope, and would examine what conditions might need to obtain for it to make a difference in the way Stanley wishes it would. Then it would wonder why all the fuss among euro-american elites about liberal ideals when historically, and currently the world’s “democracies” fail to instantiate them. Now, I’m not saying that euro-american political grandstanding isn’t overflowing with racist, ideologically motivated propaganda ―that’s just a basic fact about neo-colonialism― but it does mean that there’s no ground for meaningful talk about “political discourse” in context. It also suggests that liberalism might be a poisoned chalice and that we might have to start thinking differently about the failure of liberal absolutes and not just as a matter of “political reform” ―something that has been a constant in the history of liberalism and does little to help most of the world’s people from the problems of imperialism, including war, the wealth of the few and poverty of the many, child death from starvation and preventable disease, environmental destruction, and in this case, Black mass incarceration at the hands of euro-americans. But we don’t get any critical engagement at all. Instead we’re served with what amounts to the “analysis” about these issues that one might find in a brochure at one of the many tourist attractions in Washington D.C.
This lack of critical engagement follows from the supposed “reasonableness” of the idealistically abstracted concept of “political discourse”. It goes something like this: Let’s look at how euro-american, propertied, slave-owning, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois men seeking to profit from these “natural rights” communicate with each other in the media and in their cultural practices and abstract from it, saying “Hey, that’s a fine way to communicate with each other, let’s apply it across the board! Nothing wrong with that! That’s reasonable, right?” It doesn’t matter if the people we’re examining are euro-americans or the ancient Greeks because what’s going to happen in the end is that we’re going to strip away all the particulars and end up with an empty concept of “political discourse” taking place among fictional, unrecognizable entities without nation, class, or gender, but who nevertheless are “rational” –whatever that means since it’s cut off from anything that could inform beings that have wants and desires. Maybe it’s just logic? Oh, no, but wait! Is it classical logic or paraconsistent logic? Which one and why? Answers can be given, but it doesn’t really matter either because the idealist way of abstracting goes only as far as giving the semblance of objectivity and soundness for central ideas of political and economic liberalism. If the purpose of the abstraction was to get philosophical or conceptual clarity, or generality, or even (gasp!) to develop concepts useful in ways for combatting problems of exclusion and silencing of groups of people in media and in cultural practices we wouldn’t be dealing at the level of platitudes from a tourist’s brochure. The abstracted concepts in this case would look different, and would not fail to be relevant (like “political discourse” fails to be because it’s not the type of thing that can make a difference to people who aren’t featureless “rational agents”) in spite of their generality across context. One gets the feeling sometimes reading bourgeois philosophy that bourgeois philosophers like Stanley can’t conceive of generality without an idealist form of abstraction, which is a handicap when trying to use abstraction to deal with philosophical problems arising in everyday life, and results in philosophy that either justifies the social relations and practices that give rise to imperialism under the false pretense of objective soundness or is practically useless. If this type of prejudice for liberal ideology isn’t enough for you. Don’t worry, there’s more.
Stanley’s idealism, manifested as an uncritical engagement with the absolutes of liberalism, is a prejudice because the absolutes express the social identity of the minority of the world’s people who benefit from imperialism and that that’s enough. Say what? From the outside looking one gets the feeling that Stanley’s absolutes, things like “democracy”, “political equality before the law”, and “political discourse”, are wishes or projections of some kind of the type of society founded on imperialism that he envisions for himself and others. There’s nothing special about this kind of wishing ―it’s just what anyone growing up in an imperialist society would pick up as part of their native ideology. In this piece, and in so many others like it by bourgeois liberal scholars, Stanley grapples in an abstract idealist way with the contradiction between the absolutes of bourgeois liberal ideology and the concrete problems faced by people who don’t benefit from imperialism. And just when we think we’re going to get more than just wishes: Nope. The philosophical limits of Stanley’s criticism stop at his expression of ideology. That’s all The Little Engine that Could can do and instead of some motivating analysis we’re given the slogans of the minority of people who wield political and economic power all over the world. Why? Because the absolutes of bourgeois philosophy are an expression of the social identity of people who benefit from imperialism. And the prejudice is that the expression of those absolutes is enough to mount an ideological critique of imperialism and its superstructures or that in the long run they should not just strategically complement a practical struggle for things like democracy, economic self-determination, and institutional representation by groups of people who are denied those things by euro-americans, but that any such struggle should be founded on them. Conceptually, this prejudice keeps bourgeois thinkers from considering the possibility that liberal absolutes might not be the types of things that can be detached from the social relations and practices that form the basis for the relative determination of thoughts. Consequently they completely miss the fact that if the point is to change the social relations and practices of settler imperialism and have philosophy work in the interests of most of the world’s people instead of just for the interests of the few, then it’s unlikely that liberal absolutes can have the leading role that prejudice demands.
There’s another way that Stanley’s idealism is a prejudice, and that’s its biased application when framing the discussion. It’s used in such a way that it protects what people who have a hand in imperialism do by shining a spotlight on liberal ideology, fussing loudly about analyzing and reforming imperialist superstructures, while obscuring the social relations and practices that support them. It’s prejudicial because of its “make-believe” approach. We’ve already seen how the liberal absolutes in Stanley’s piece float above the action; how the terms of his argument are completely abstract, and take spotlight in a day-dreamy sort of way as if “political equality before the law”, “democracy”, and “political discourse” are things that are either actual or practical forthcoming possibilities under global imperialism. This make-believe approach serves to protect the things that people who have a hand in imperialism actually do by giving those things a veneer of justice or that it’s just not so bad, really. Justice: if the real world is already like the ideal, there’s hardly a reason to change anything practically from the point of view of justice. It’s not so bad: If the space exists for immanent justice through liberal reforms, then there can’t be much wrong with the way things are actually done for the most part.
The problem with the make-believe approach, apart from it being complete demagoguery, is that imperialism and neo-colonialism are systems, and as systems, they can accommodate internal reforms but for their foundations. The foundations of the economic system of imperialism are the economic exploitation of people in the third-world through the corporate, financial and military institutions of the first-world. The foundations of the political system of neo-colonialism are imperialism and the suppression of national democracy for neo-colonial populations.
The closest Stanley gets to something foundational is his use of a liberal code word: “socioeconomic problems”. In general when bourgeois scholars use this term, they just mean the unpleasantness and human misery that is natural to a class society, including poverty, downward economic mobility, preventable disease, illiteracy, marginalization by mainstream institutions, violence, black markets and crime, etc. What Stanley is talking about when he uses it are all of these contradictions of class society, but aggravated as the consequences of the stunting of the Black bourgeoisie, Black petit bourgeoisie, the dependence of the Black labor aristocracy on euro-american imperialism and the instability of the Black lumpen proletariat that are the natural form of the national oppression of Black people in the united states at the hands of euro-americans. But even here he’s floating above the surface because he’s just referring to the effects of imperialist neo-colonialism, not its causes.
“Political reform” is itself a liberal absolute and a big part of the neo-colonial ideology of imperialism. Its historical function is to suggest that the social relations and practices that condition liberal ideology (including bourgeois philosophy) aren’t the main things affecting the lives of people who don’t benefit from liberalism by contributing to the “it’s better now that in than in the past”, or “It’s about to get better, you’ll see” ideology of those interested in sustainable, long-term economic and national oppression. The arguments are spurious for the claims that neo-colonialism is better than, say, slavery, or that color-blind racism is better than Jim Crow racism because the nuts and bolts questions from the point of things like self-determination and national democracy for the oppressed aren’t about the flavors of political oppression and economic exploitation but about actually not having those things as the foundation of human society –and these questions never make it past grandstanding the make-believe approach to liberal absolutes. The united states has a Black president. There will be a woman president. There will be a gay president. But what there will never be is a president who opposes euro-american imperialism and supports national self-determination for the Black descendants of former slaves. The biased, idealist form of bourgeois philosophy obscures and draws critical attention away from the social relations and practices that are foundational to imperialism and neo-colonialism. As such it constitutes a highly effective, weaponized form of the liberal absolute of “political reform”.
By shining the spotlight on liberal absolutes, fussing about the effects of the imperialist superstructure, and complementing the imperialist ideology of liberal reform, Stanley shields euro-american imperialism and obscures the social relations and practices that give rise to the structural problems he claims to be concerned about.
In Part I we saw how Stanley’s philosophy exhibits first world chauvinism. And here in Part II we’ve seen how Stanley’s philosophy is idealist, manifested as an uncritical engagement with liberal absolutes that’s prejudiced for the social identity of the minority of the world’s people who benefit from imperialism and for the social relations and practices that determine it. In the third (and hopefully final section of this analysis) I’m going to look at some of what Stanley has to say about propaganda and how that might connect, if at all, with the chauvinism and idealism he exhibits when reasoning about the mass incarceration of Black people at the hands of euro-americans. And I’ll look at what happens to Stanley’s argument when you drop both the bourgeois idealist bias and the first-world chauvinism.