The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx, 1852 [1977]: 300)


“the late modern liberal subject quite literally seethes with ressentiment.” (Brown, 1995: 69)

I. Where did freedom go?

In States of Injury political scientist Wendy Brown (1995) observes that in late modernity many progressives have chosen to pursue a form of freedom which is based on state-managed economic justice and private liberties, as the bleak reality of a contorted Marxism is framed against the sunshine of liberalism. Moreover:

“freedom” has shown itself to be easily appropriated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends. […] the dream of democracy – that humans might govern themselves by governing together – is difficult to discern in the proliferation of […] claims of rights, protections, regulations, and entitlements. (Brown, 1995: 5)

Brown does not dispute the importance of rights, protections, regulations, and entitlements, but rather she asks, beyond this, what is our dream of freedom? She defends the explanatory power of Marxism in seeing the question of freedom vis-à-vis social relations, which are “implicitly declared “unpolitical” – that is, naturalized – in liberal discourse” (Brown, 1995: 14). In other words, genuine freedom cannot be found in state (re)distribution. Here one needs to understand the important distinction Karl Marx makes between political emancipation and human emancipation, which can be found in his essay On “The Jewish Question” (1843 [1977]) that was part of a debate with the left Hegelian Bruno Bauer. Marx’s discussion is not per se a consideration of the Jewish condition but a critique of political emancipation in order to expose the relationship of political emancipation to human emancipation.

Marx (1843: 47) acknowledges the “great […] real, practical” progress of political emancipation, however, on its limits, he argues that whilst the capitalist state abolishes in its own way the distinctions of class, birth, profession, and education, by declaring them “to be unpolitical differences”, it allows them “to have an effect in their own manner” (Marx, 1843: 45). As such, humankind leads a twofold existence: “a heavenly one and an earthy one”; the former as communal beings in political community and the latter as private, alienated, egoistic individuals in civil society (Marx, 1843: 46). What is inherent in political emancipation, Marx spells out, is a gap between human beings as, ideally, public members of a universal state or ‘citizens’, and, materially, private, egoistic members of civil society or ‘bourgeois’. Private rights are clarified as, for example, the right to property and the right to religion, which are innately ‘bourgeois’ and the basis of the separation of human beings from one another:

Man [sic] was […] not freed from religion; he received freedom of religion. He was not freed from property; he received freedom of property. He was not freed from the egoism of trade; he received freedom to trade. (Marx, 1843: 56)

Marx deplores the debasement of theory, art, history, nature, and human relations by religion, property, commodities, and commerce; he deplores the bartering of women, “[t]he species-relationship itself”, as “an object of commerce!” (Marx, 1843: 60). This is the exile of human beings’ communal essence. Marx foresees human liberation as the eradication of the aforementioned gap, with the freedom of human beings contingent not merely on political emancipation but on human emancipation, which necessitates the abolition of capitalist social relations.

Brown (1995: 18) contends that the Right’s ability to capture a discourse of freedom for its own ends, alongside the tendency of progressive politics to abandon the socialist project on the basis of its supposed failure, has led in academia to:

developments in philosophy and in feminist, postcolonial, and cultural theory [that] have eroded freedom’s ground. For many toiling in these domains, “freedom” has been swept onto the dust-heap of anachronistic, humanistic, androcentric, subject-centred, and “Western” shibboleths.”

While Marxism desires human emancipation thus liberation from capitalism, Brown (1995: 61) asks:

to what extent do identity politics require a standard internal to existing society against which to pitch their claims, a standard that not only preserves capitalism from critique, but sustains the invisibility and inarticulatedness of class – not accidentally, but endemically? Could we have stumbled upon one reason why class is invariably named but rarely theorized or developed in the multiculturalist mantra “race, class, gender, sexuality”?

Bringing forward Brown’s work to a contemporary moment of a resurgent wave of identity politics born within/out of neoliberalism, the present popularity of privilege theory and intersectionality on university campuses, amongst student activists and some academics, is worth considering. Privilege theory pioneer Peggy McIntosh (cited in Rothman, 2014) states:

what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. […]. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. […] In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences. I think one’s own individual experience is sacred. Testifying to it is very important […].

The basic premise of privilege theory is that wherever there is an oppressive system – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and so on – there is both an oppressed group of people and a privileged group of people (who, consciously or not, benefit from that system). Interlaced with privilege theory is the notion of intersectionality: that we are all privileged by some systems of oppression and burdened by other systems of oppression, thus our privileges and our oppressions intersect. By lacking full awareness of our privileges and their intersectionality, the argument goes, we are politically divided and weak, and while we cannot be held responsible for the systems of oppression that impart privilege upon us, we do have a choice in how we respond to our privileges (for instance, to our whiteness, our maleness, our straightness, our ableness, our cis-ness, etcetera).

Intersectionality applies a generalised cultural and economic understanding of capitalism and class, such that I question what might be lost in its implicit re-definition of class, qua classism, when thinking through the nature of oppression and exploitation, and the means of resistance; class, after all, is not primarily a structure of oppression but a relation of exploitation (see Bassi, 2010; Bassi, forthcoming). And as Marx (1843) makes plain in On “The Jewish Question”, the route to real freedom lies in social relations not rights alone. Brown’s astute point on the lack of theorising of class in the multiculturalist mantra resonates especially well in the present-day intersectionality mantra. Is it not time to name and call out once more what is, in actuality, the relinquishment of the dream of freedom as humans governing themselves by governing together? Given also that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, for example, are individually distinct forms of oppression with individually distinct relationships to capitalism, which include specific and universal features, the danger with intersectionality lies in it sliding into a conceptual collapse through its kaleidoscopic, intersecting structures of oppression, and in it nullifying universality whilst in pursuit of specificity. Emphasis on personal testimony cannot allow for universal truths. The net effect is ‘no way out’ vis-à-vis resistance.

Privilege discourse is based on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege married up with intersectionality, rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness through human history. As it operates in practice within student activist circles, my observation of privilege theory and intersectionality is that of a politics in which no one can speak for anyone else. Society is viewed as a seesaw: ‘you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down’. It is a personalised dual camp distortion of social relations, ‘me versus you’ (with various intersectional combinations), that breeds resentment and is devoid of class politics.

Freedom has become lost in the contradiction of identity politics. As Brown (1995: 65) observes:

politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.

Brown (1995: 66) develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment in this context to explain how the desired impulse of politicised identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself”. What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:

Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt). (Brown, 1995: 68)

We are left with an effort to anaesthetise and to externalise what is unendurable.


II. Privilege production of impasse: the case of the deadlock between radical feminists and trans activists

In February 2015, a letter titled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” published in The Observer, and signed by several academics and feminist activists, observes:

a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic”. Most of the people so labelled are feminists or pro-feminist men, some have experience in the sex industry, some are transgender. […] “No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold these views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety. You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying.

As background to this letter, two high-profile examples are worth noting. In 2012, the National Union of Students LGBTQ Campaign passed a motion of no platform against the radical feminist Julie Bindel for her alleged transphobia. Bindel had made comments in relation to transsexual people in a 2004 piece for The Guardian, which she later apologised for as “misplaced and insensitive” (see Bindel, 2007). The NUS motion included the sentence: “this conference believes Julie Bindel is vile”. The history of NUS’s no platform policy relates specifically to fascism, and debate on no platform has tended to centre on the question: while fascists (given the direct physical threat they pose) must be no platformed, should one no platform racists? In this context, the no platforming of Julie Bindel was extraordinary, as she joined a list that includes: Al-Muhajiroun, the British National Party, the English Defence League, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In an article titled “Seeing red” in the New Statesman in 2013, journalist and feminist Suzanne Moore argues against austerity and for those who are hardest hit by austerity, women, to be angry and to resist. Moore (2013) writes:

It’s not just the double shift of work and domestic duties that women do. There is now a third shift – we must keep ourselves sexually attractive forever. […] The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual. We are angry that men do not do enough. We are angry at work where we are underpaid and overlooked. This anger can be neatly channelled and outsourced to make someone a fat profit. Are your hormones okay? Do you need a nice bath?

A significant reaction followed this publication against Moore’s alleged transphobic reference to “a Brazilian transsexual” (an implicit reference to the model Lea T). This was a vitriolic row, much of which was played out on social media, between, in the main, radical feminists and trans activists.

Cultural theorist Sara Ahmed (2015), in retort to the aforementioned letter published in The Observer, comments, in a blog post titled “You are oppressing us!”:

politics is rarely about one good and one bad side, nor about innocence on one side and guilt on the other. But politics is also messy because power is assymetrical. […] transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at a happy diversity table. There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. […] The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. Sadly this letter is evidence that the mechanism is working. […] Racists present themselves as injured/under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. We can hear resonance without assuming analogy.

How did we get to a moment in which lesbian feminists, radical feminists, sexual abuse survivors, transgender and transsexual people, and others, are locked in a war over who has the deeper wound and the bigger pain? Here, it seems, deliberating the power differentials between various oppressed groups has become more important than questioning the bourgeois ideal of capitalist social relations. In a battle over power asymmetry, power is thus let off the hook.

The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse. On the one hand, we have a camp of people insisting that those born into biologically male bodies carry privilege regardless of their identification as a women – privilege over women who have an entire lived experience of being women and of its related oppression. On the other hand, we have a camp of people arguing that there are those who are cisgendered (whose gender aligns with their sex at birth) and who carry cis power and privilege – privilege over those who have a lived experience of being transgendered (whose gender doesn’t align with their sex at birth) and of its related oppression.

Privilege theory activist Mia McKenzie (2014) prescribes four ways to push back against one’s privilege: one, relinquish power; two, don’t go (she uses as an example women-only events that exclude trans women); three, shut up; and four, be careful what identities you claim (“consider”, she says, “how your privilege […] gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience does not support it”). There is an irony here that McKenzie advocates a ‘no turning up’ protest against the radical feminist exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces, while failing to notice that radical feminists are employing their own argument against claiming identities when lived experience (seemingly) does not correspond. But perhaps most importantly, McKenzie’s prescription encapsulates how a political project to allow a plethora of voices to be heard carries the potential for the opposite, that is, silencing: ‘I speak, you shut up’. The impasse between radical feminists and trans activists is just this, a silencing, either of trans activists or of radical feminists.


III. Finding our way back to freedom

Often, identity politics becomes far more of a problem outside than inside academia. In mainstream gay, lesbian, and trans communities in the United States, battles rage about what group occupies the more transgressive or aggrieved position, and only rarely are such debates framed in terms of larger discussions about capitalism, class, or economics. In this context then, “transgressive exceptionalism” refers to the practice of taking the moral high ground by claiming to be more oppressed and more extraordinary than others. The rehearsal of identity-bound debates outside the academy speaks not simply to a lack of sophistication in such debates, but suggests that academics have failed to take their ideas beyond the university and have not made necessary interventions in public intellectual venues. (Halberstam, 2005: 20-21)

In relation to the case discussed in section II, the key question, for me, is: how do we support the struggle for political emancipation by and for trans activist movements while demanding an open space to debate the construction of gender and forge an alliance for future human emancipation? In an effort to bring peace to the so-called ‘border wars’ between butch lesbians and female-to-male transsexuals, the queer theorist Judith Halberstam (1998: 148), also known as Jack Halberstam, notes that “many subjects, not only transsexual subjects, do not feel at home in their bodies”; moreover:

Because body flexibility has become both a commodity (in the case of cosmetic surgeries for example) and a form of commodification, it is not enough in this “age of flexibility” to celebrate gender flexibility as simply another sign of progress and liberation. (Halbertam, 2005: 18)

For Halberstam (2005: 19), transgressive exceptionalism is “a by-product of local translations of neo-liberalism” in urban queer communities. This notion of transgressive exceptionalism chimes with the work of Brown on wound culture as a contemporary form of Nietzschean ressentiment, in which, as Cadman (2006: 140) puts it, “current forms of ‘identity politics’ become ‘attached’ to destructive modes of their own subjection”. What meaningful role might academics of the Left play in shifting us forward? We should recognise that whilst “[s]ocial injury such as that conveyed through derogatory speech becomes that which is “unacceptable” and “individually culpable””, it actually “symptomizes deep political distress in a culture” (Brown, 1995: 27) which requires our urgent intervention. We also need to make a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – “with its defensive closure on identity, its insistence on the fixity of position, its equation of social with moral positioning” – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75). If this fails to happen we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction”, thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (Brown, 1995: 71).



I am incredibly grateful to Louisa Cadman for introducing me to Wendy Brown’s States of Injury.


Ahmed, Sara (2015) “You are oppressing us!”, Feminist Killjoys, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Bassi, Camila (forthcoming) “What’s radical about reality TV? An unexpected tale from Shanghai of a Chinese lesbian antihero”, Gender, Place and Culture.

Bassi, Camila (2010) “‘It’s new but not that new’: On the continued use of old Marx”, Feminist Legal Studies 18, 69-76.

Bindel, Julie (2007) “My trans mission”. The Guardian, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Brown, Wendy (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton University Press, Princeton).

Cadman, Louisa (2006) A genealogy of biopolitical contestation during the reform of the Mental Health Act (1983) (DPhil, University of Sheffield).

Halberstam, Judith (2005) In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York University Press, New York).

Halberstam, Judith (1998) Female Masculinity (Duke University Press, Durham).

Letter (2015) “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals”. The Observer, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Marx, Karl [1852] (1977) “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Ed) David McLellan (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 300-325.

Marx Karl [1843] (1977) “On ‘The Jewish Question’”, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Ed) David McLellan (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 39-62.

McKenzie, Mia (2014) “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege”, BGD, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Moore, Suzanne (2013) “Seeing red”. New Statesman, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Rothman, Joshua (2014) “The Origins of ‘Privilege’: an interview with Peggy McIntosh”, New Yorker, last accessed 18 October 2015.

Rethinking gender politics

It’s not just the double shift of work and domestic duties that women do. There is now a third shift – we must keep ourselves sexually attractive forever. […] The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual. We are angry that men do not do enough. We are angry at work where we are underpaid and overlooked. This anger can be neatly channelled and outsourced to make someone a fat profit. Are your hormones okay? Do you need a nice bath? Some sex tips and an internet date? What if, contrary to Sex and the City, new shoes do not fill the hole in your soul? What if you aspire to another model of womanhood than the mute but beautifully groomed Kate Middleton? What if your anguish is not illogical but actually bloody spot on?” (Suzanne Moore, Seeing red: the power of female anger)

This is a recording of the session I did at the Workers’ Liberty Summer Camp on August 22nd 2015, in which I explore the impasse on the gender question between transgender activists and radical feminists, the problem with privilege theory, and what socialist feminism might learn from the work of Foucault on sexuality… Enjoy!

Privilege theory: a political impasse?

On the 1st May 2014 (International Workers’ Day) I attended a session titled “Intersectionality” at the launch event of the Free University of Sheffield. The strap line to the session – “checking our own privilege” – was a more accurate descriptor, since the session itself advanced privilege theory rather than explored intersectionality. Ideas on intersectionality seem to me to offer a potentially creative political exchange, whereas the current popularity of privilege theory, bound up with intersectionality discussion, appears to lead activist milieus into a political impasse (see also my post On privilege theory and intersectionality). The (black) woman leading the session problematized an image used by the (white) organisers of the Free University of Sheffield to advertise the event, an image which she described as black African children holding a free education poster (the actual image is below). She deemed this as an ignorant appropriation.

photo(1)I spoke up: while we must be sensitive to the temporal and spatial specificities of such images (social, cultural, economic, and political), there is something universal here. She replied: what could I possibility think I had in common with the people in the image? I suggested: the universal struggle for free education, for starters, also, the universal struggle for free health care, the universal struggle for independent trade unions…

Nothing concrete in terms of political activity came out of this session, unless the well-meaning musing and ultimate entanglement on the part of the predominantly white audience count. Some looked pretty concerned by their accidental but privileged appropriation of an image of the unprivileged. I, by the way, was one of two non-white participants, the other, of course, was the session leader. I sensed that my outspokenness might have been less tolerated had I been white, in which case I might have been expected to look pretty concerned too.

Moving from an encounter of privilege theory in practice to the theory itself, in Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she states:

“Through work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials, which amount to taboos, surround the subject of advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended. Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege, which was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage. […] the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as a privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.”

Privilege theory views society as a seesaw: you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down. It is a personalised dual camp – us versus them, me versus you – perspective on social relations that is devoid of independent class politics, and is prone (dare I say it?) to unproductive anger.

seesawMia McKenzie, writing about ways to push back against privilege, declares: “The truth is that acknowledging your privilege means a whole lot of nothing much if you don’t do anything to actively push back against it.” Speaking from the vantage point of a black woman, her advice to the privileged is:

1. Relinquish power – “If you are in a position of power and you are able to recognize and acknowledge that at least part of the reason you are there is your (white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, class, etc.) privilege, then pushing back against that privilege means sharing that power with, or sometimes relinquishing it to, the folks around you who have less privilege and therefore less power.”

2. Just don’t go – “If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it. […] Pushing back against your privilege often requires sacrifice.”

3. Shut up – “This one is so, so important. If you are a person with a lot of privilege (i.e. a white, straight, able-bodied, class-privileged, cisgender male or any combination of two or more of those) and you call yourself being against oppression, then it should be part of your regular routine to sit the hell down and shut the eff up.”

4. Be careful what identities you claim – “If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. […] Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience.”

As a blueprint for political action, it is the gist here that troubles me. For instance, in terms of anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, it is harmful to naturalise the idea of ‘race’ (see my post Racism 101: what is it?) and with that invert the seesaw of privilege theory. There is a passivity and political impasse to privilege theory that Mia McKenzie ironically demonstrates. She says, it is not enough to be aware of your privilege, you must push back; yet her four points for pushing back entail little to nothing that is actively or proactively political. Given that we are all, in one way or another, according to this theory, privileged and unprivileged, advantaged and disadvantaged, we are all left naval gazing.

Racism 101: what is it?

DSCF0103“the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.


II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.


III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)


“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)


IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.


Recommended reading: Marxism, racism and the construction of ‘race’ as a social and political relation: an interview with Professor Robert Miles

Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx


(Wikimedia Commons)

“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)

I. Introduction

Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.

Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.

Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:

“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)

This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:

“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)


II. The Near East, the Arab world, and Islam

“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma.” (Said, 59)

There is nothing, in and of itself, problematic about the above statement; its intended meaning is understandable even outside its related paragraph, chapter, and book, and yet Said’s Orientalism has given birth to a climate on the Left for such statements to be all-too-swiftly labelled as ‘Islamophobic’ and racist (see In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty). The depiction of the Near East, the Arab world, and Islam by the contemporary Orientalist lens is regarded by Said as especially bad, for four reasons:

  1. the weight of history in respect to anti-Islamic and anti-Arab prejudice;
  2. the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or rather “the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews as well as upon both the liberal culture and the population at large”;
  3. a cultural vacuum that makes it impossible to discuss Islam or the Arabs in a way that identifies with either or is composed;
  4. “because the Middle East is now so identified with Great power politics, oil economics, and the simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs, the chances of anything like a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East are depressingly small.” (Said, 26-27)

The historical relationship of Orientalism to Islam is explained as follows:

“To the West, […] Islam was militant hostility to European Christianity. To overcome […] the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races, and cultures in order to posit them – beyond the modern Oriental’s ken – as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient.” (Said, 91-92)

In the contemporary hegemonic Western (specifically, American) popular culture of film and television, Said states:

“the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. […] Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.” (Said, 286-287)

The possibility of an independent vantage point and independent class politics is simply ruled out, since:

“[…] when Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say (in order not to risk a Disneyism) that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. […] History, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, and please take all your ideas about a left and a right wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland.” (Said, 107)

But what of independent working class agency and self-government in the Marxist tradition – what does Said have to say of this? This leads us back to the quote at the start of Orientalism and to the subsequent substance of Said’s rebuke of Marx and Marxism.


III. Said on Marx, and back to basics: what Marx actually said

Three sources of Marx are directly referenced in Orientalism as the basis for Said’s critique of Marxism as part-and-parcel of Orientalism: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The British Rule in India, and The Further Results of British Rule in India.

One sentence is plucked (twice) from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – which appears at both the start of Said’s book and in its Introduction chapter:

“The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job, for the West, and faute de mieux, for the poor Orient. “Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten warden,” as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” (Said, 21)

I will go on to show, through necessary lengthy extraction from Marx’s original text, just how much Said departs from, and subsequently exploits and distorts, the original meaning of this sentence.

Quoting briefly from Marx’s The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, Said goes on to problematize what he describes as the puzzlement of Marx’s paradoxical position vis-à-vis colonialism and the Orient. A puzzle, that is, until Said expounds that the Marxist discourse is inseparable from the Orientalist discourse:

“Karl Marx identified the notion of an Asiatic economic system in this 1853 analysis of British rule in India, and then put beside that immediately the human depredation introduced into this system by English colonial interference, rapacity, and outright cruelty. In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution. Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations. […] Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out […] The idea of regenerating a fundamentally lifeless Asia is a piece of pure Romantic Orientalism, of course, but coming from the same writer who could not easily forget the human suffering involved, the statement is puzzling. […] It is as if the individual mind (Marx’s, in this case) could find a precollective, preofficial individuality in Asia – find and give in to its pressures upon his emotions, feelings, senses – only to give it up when he confronted a more formidable censor in the very vocabulary he found himself forced to employ.” (Said, 153-155)

Rather than accept Said’s verdict that Marx incoherently and inconsistently abhors British imperial rule in India but ultimately welcomes it as a progressive force for necessary regeneration due to his heart being beaten by his head, which is inescapably arrested by the discourse of Orientalism, I will demonstrate that Marx’s analysis is guided by a dialectical materialist methodology and that his conclusions are not problematic.


i. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

index2-1“If ever an event has, well in advance of its coming, cast its shadow before, it was Bonaparte’s coup d’état.” (Marx, 309)

Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852 [1977]) is a brilliant polemic written in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution when Louis Napoleon seized power in France in December 1851, with reference back to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d-état of 1799. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is essentially an exploration of the relationship between class politics and the state. As Marx later reflected, this pamphlet reveals “how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part” (cited in McLellan, 1977, 300).

The first theme to arise from Marx’s discussion is a general one, that of the connection between the force of human agency and the force of human history:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” (Marx, 300)

“[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, 300)

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx, 300)

Marx issues a warning that revolutionary upheaval may dangerously and manipulatively dredge up the past, which the energy of a genuinely social revolution must resist. In this respect, he distinguishes between bourgeois revolutions and the critical praxis of proletarian revolutions:

“And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.” (Marx, 300)

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” (Marx, 302)

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men [sic] and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he [sic] may recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is Rhodes, jump here!] (Marx, 303)

The second of Marx’s themes is specific to the events proceeding the 1848 revolution, up to and including Louis Napoleon’s coup d-état of 1851, and the consequent banishment of the former gains of the revolution, such as “liberté, égalite, fraternité”:

“all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a magician. Universal suffrage seems to have survived only for a moment, in order that with its own hand it may make its last will and testament before the eyes of all the world and declare in the name of the people itself: All that exists deserves to perish.” (Marx, 304)

“It remains to be explained how a nation of thirty-six millions can be surprised and delivered unresisting into captivity by three swindlers…” (Marx, 304)

“On the threshold of the February Revolution, the social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost. The democratic republic announces its arrival. On 13 June 1849, it is dissipated together with its petty bourgeois, who have taken to their heels, but in its flight it blows its own trumpet with redoubled boastfulness. The parliamentary republic, together with the bourgeoisie, takes possession of the entire stage; it enjoys its existence to the full, but 2 December 1851 buries it to the accompaniment of the anguished cry of the royalists in coalition: ‘Long live the Republic!’” (Marx, 314)

“France, therefore, seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only to fall back beneath the despotism of an individual, and, what is more, beneath the authority of an individual without authority.” (Marx, 315)

The third theme is where Said’s quote by Marx – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – is located, and it concerns both the nature of Louis Napoleon’s state and the interrelated nature of its demographic base, the small-holding peasants:

“Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine has consolidated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the Society of 10 December suffices for its head, an adventurer blown in from abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has bought with liquor and sausages, and which he must continuously ply with sausage anew. Hence the downcast despair, the feeling of most dreadful humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her catch her breath. She feels dishonoured. And yet the state power is not suspended in mid air. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small-holding peasants.” (Marx, 317)

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by Frances’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. […] In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.” (Bold: my emphasis; Marx, 317-318)

“By its very nature, small-holding property forms a suitable basis for an all-powerful and innumerable bureaucracy.” (Marx, 320)

Marx’s analysis of the French peasantry goes on to divulge its full nuance:

“But, it may be objected, what about the peasant risings in half of France, the raids on the peasants by the army, the mass incarceration and transportation of peasants? […] let there be no misunderstanding. The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant that strikes out beyond the condition of his [sic] social existence, the small holding, but rather the peasant who wants to consolidate this holding, not the country folk who, linked up with the towns, want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in stupefied seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favoured by the ghost of the empire. It represents not the enlightenment, but the superstition of the peasant; not his [sic] judgement, but his prejudice; not his future, but his past; not his modern Cevennes, but his modern Vendée.” (Marx, 318)

Marx’s conclusion to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte makes especially clear his assessment of the state from the perspective of independent class politics; and what’s more, it underlines the inappropriateness of Said’s plunder to support his allegation of Marxism-as-Orientalism:

“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another. […] He would like to steal the whole of France in order to be able to make a present of her to France or, rather, in order to be able to buy France anew with French money, for as the chief of the Society of 10 December he must needs buy what ought to belong to him.” (Marx, 323)

“Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation and being at the same time, like a conjurer, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze fixed on himself, as Napoleon’s substitute, by springing constant surprises, that is to say, under the necessity of executing a coup d’état en miniature every day, Bonaparte throws the entire bourgeois economy into confusion, violates everything that seemed inviolable to the Revolution of 1848, makes some tolerant of revolution, others desirous of revolution, and produces actual anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping its halo from the entire state machine, profanes it, and makes it at once loathsome and ridiculous. The cult of the Holy Tunic of Treves he duplicates at Paris in the cult of the Napoleonic imperial mantle. But when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will crash from the top of the Vendôme Column.” (Marx, 324)

In sum, when Marx wrote the line – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – it directly refers to an analysis of the isolated nature of the social base of Louis Napoleon’s anti-democratic, bureaucratic state (the small-holding peasants); a state that Marx critiqued as a violation and a ruination of the relative gains of the 1848 French Revolution. When Marx’s quote is used by Said in Orientalism (twice), it reads as an unambivalent reference to an Orientalist dual camp position that: the poor and downtrodden working classes cannot represent themselves, thus ‘us’ Marxists must do this job for ‘them’.


ii. The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India

Prior to turning to Marx’s articles The British Rule in India (1853) and The Further Results of British Rule in India (1853 [1977]), it is first necessary to point out the inherent characteristics of Marx’s general methodology and critique of capitalism.

Dialectical materialism is a means to understanding societal change, for history is not linear but thrusts forward in a tense and fitful manner – reminiscent, for example, of Marx’s discussion of revolutions in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. As Friedrich Engels reminds us about dialectical philosophy in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886):

“nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away […]”

Communist-ManifestoWith this in mind, Marx and Engels, in the opening chapter of The Communist Manifesto (1848), describe the globalisation of capitalism as pregnant with contradictory possibilities and constraints, which give birth to:

  • creative destruction – “[al]ll that is solid melts into air”;
  • social evolution – “all that is holy is profaned”;
  • social intercourse – “[i]n place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction”;
  • working class agency – capitalism “produces, above all, […] its own grave-diggers”.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. […] The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man [sic] to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. […] All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves.”

Here Marx and Engels are assessing capitalism’s dialectical nature: the closures in its innate, mindless exploitation and inequality, and the openings in its destruction of past reactionary forms of existence and the creative potential of universal internationalism and interconnectedness between human beings. In Grundrisse, Marx (1857-1861 [1973]: 161–162) deems “ridiculous” any utopian yearning for an earlier, pre-capitalist moment, on the basis that “a merely local connection resting on blood ties, or on primeval, natural or master-servant relations” is not preferable to present-day social bonds; capital thrusts contradictory tidings that destroy and revolutionise “traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life”, and “tear down all barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs”. Above all, Marx and Engels conclude the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto by recognising the working class – a product of capitalism – as central to overthrowing capitalism:

“The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

karl-marx-on-indiaTurning now to The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, it is perfectly consistent that Marx should analyse the specific entry and operation of British capital in India (note, for example, his references to the cotton industry and the railway network) as also general to global capital:

“There cannot […] remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before. […] England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his [sic] old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindostan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“The devastating effects of English industry, when contemplated with regard to India, a country as vast as Europe, and containing 150 millions of acres, are palpable and confounding. But we must not forget that they are only the organic results of the whole system of production as it is now constituted. That production rests on the supreme rule of capital.” (Marx, 336, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

“The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. They intend now drawing a net of railroads over India. And they will do it. The results must be inappreciable.” (Marx, 333, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

It is the following two quotes (in bold only), from The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India respectively, that actually appear in Orientalism, from which Said (154) concludes that Marx is clearly “Romantic and even messianic” since “as human material the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemptive project”:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man [sic] to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow. England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind [sic] fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution. Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe: “Sollte these Qual uns quälen 
Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt,
 Hat nicht myriaden Seelen
 Timur’s Herrschaft aufgezehrt?” [“Should this torture then torment us
 Since it brings us greater pleasure?
 Were not through the rule of Timur
 Souls devoured without measure?”]
 [From Goethe’s “An Suleika”, Westöstlicher Diwan](Marx)

“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” (Marx, 332)

There are three aspects to these two aforementioned extracts which Said bypasses:

  1. the juxtaposition of an “Oriental despotism” to a dialectical, thus contradictory, social evolution through the globalisation of capital;
  2. past, constraining, reactionarism giving way – through creative destruction – to present and future possibilities of social intercourse and interconnectedness;
  3. no credit to be given to the extremely unpleasant and unintelligent English bourgeoisie who are nonetheless bound up with this revolutionary change.

This final quote, from The Further Results of British Rule in India, elucidates Marx’s conclusion that the kind of revolution needed, and which he advocates, is one in which either the British working class overthrow the British ruling class or the Indian peoples overthrow the British colonial empire of India:

“Modern industry, resulting from the railway-system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power. All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” (Marx, 335)

None of this corresponds with Said’s thesis of a Romantic and messianic Orientalism ultimately determining Marx’s thought.


IV. Conclusion

“No one can escape dealing with, if not the East / West divide, then the North / South one, the have / have not one, the imperialist / anti-imperialist one, the white / colored one. We cannot get around them all by pretending they do not exist; on the contrary, contemporary Orientalism teaches us a great deal about the intellectual dishonesty of dissembling on that score, the result of which is to intensify the divisions and make them both vicious and permanent.” (Said, 327)

With reference to Antonio Gramsci, Said makes a distinction between political coercion and non-coercion, and sees the might, resilience, and permanence of Orientalism as non-coercive hegemony. Fatefully, I conclude, in Said’s interpretation of Gramsci’s hegemony an ‘anti-dialectical inescapability’ takes hold:

“I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. […] he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.” (Said, 11)

Said later states:

“[…] every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with “other” cultures.” (Said, 204)

The absence of class politics is stark. Do we come up against the Orient solely on the basis of our nationality and colonial burden? Does that not intersect with our socio-economic position and class relation (and indeed with our gender, ethnicity, and sexuality), and with our own ‘independent’ politics? Said’s Orientalism chimes much with the contemporary popularity of privilege theory (see On privilege theory and intersectionality). Whilst Marxism recognizes human consciousness as contradictory and in constant flux, historically and dialectically shaped by conditions and forces of existence, privilege theory (like Orientalism) is predicated on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege (in this case, as a member of the Occident).

It is worth further exploring Said’s application of hegemony, in particular its echoes of Louis Althusser. Althusser is considered to progress the ideas of Marx on the basis that Marx conceives of a dream-like ideology called ‘false consciousness’, which hides and misleads workers from the exploitation of the economic base; yet such a term and concept is to be found nowhere in Marx’s writings. For Althusser (2006), in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, ‘ideology’ (contrary to false consciousness) represents an already existing “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109):

“all ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.” (Althusser, 111)

That said, ideology has a material as opposed to a spiritual existence that is manifest in an individual’s performance and interaction with others and society; it is a “material existence of ‘ideas’ or other ‘representations’” (Althusser: 112). All “ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” – a process that begins prior to birth (Althusser: 117). Althusser (118-119) claims that we are largely unaware of the ideological make-up of our reality, except when or if we come up against the state. Beyond the repressive state apparatus (the police and the army), the individual exists within realities structured by various ‘ideological state apparatuses’, i.e., non-coercive hegemony:

“what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Understanding the relationship between capitalism and hegemony through an Althusserian frame of reference (as I contend Said does) slides us into an anti-dialectical materialist trap, as McLellan (181) cautions:

“For all his playing down of Hegel’s influence on Marx, Althusser’s approach has a certain resemblance to Hegel […]: Althusser’s ‘structure’ functions as much as Hegel’s ‘idea’ – as an independent entity determining the very items from which it has arisen.”

Notably, the material for Althusser differs in meaning from the material for Marx. For the former, it refers to the ideas and representations that are bound up with practice, for “there is no practice except by and in an ideology” (Althusser, 115). For the latter, as Marx (1845-46 [1965]: 14-15) comments in The German Ideology, material reality is something that can be known (in other words, it is possible to see beyond ideology):

“we do not set out from what [humans] say, imagine, conceive, nor from [humans] as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at [humans] in the flesh. We set out from real, active [humans], and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. […] This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are [humans], not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.”

This Althusserian legacy goes someway to explaining the inescapability of Said’s hegemony-ideology-Orientalism (a departure from Gramsci) and Said’s methodology. So, on the Orientalist text, Said (21) makes plain that he is not concerned with “the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original”, but rather with “style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances”. And while he concedes the importance of finding present-day alternatives to studying the Orient – “from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective” – this is left, in his own words, “embarrassingly incomplete” (Said, 24). And yet this is hardly surprising since his inverted dual camp does not provide space for international-wide, independent working class agency. I end then with Said’s description of the present-day Orientalism of the US, in which those of the so-called Arab and Third World are merely ‘passive dupes’:

“My point is that the relationship is a one-sided one, with the United States a selective customer of a very few products (oil and cheap manpower, mainly), the Arabs highly diversified consumers of a vast range of United States products, material and ideological. This has had many consequences. There is a vast standardization of taste in the region, symbolized not only by transistors, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola but also by cultural images of the Orient supplied by American mass media and consumed unthinkingly by the mass television audience. […] Another result is that the Western market economy and its consumer orientation have produced (and are producing at an accelerating rate) a class of educated people whose intellectual formation is directed to satisfying market need. […] Its role has been prescribed and set for it as a “modernizing” one, which means that it gives legitimacy and authority to ideas about modernization, progress, and culture that it receives from the United States for the most part. Impressive evidence for this is found in the social sciences and, surprisingly enough, among radical intellectuals whose Marxism is taken wholesale from Marx’s own homogenizing view of the Third World […].” (Said, 324-325)