Thursday, December 17, 2015

culture, language, racism, and capitalist relations of production

I know I need to learn more about critical race theory, and I know the reason I have not done so is that I’m afraid to confront my own racism. (I take it for granted that there is racism embedded in my consciousness and experience.)

I posted something on Facebook about the only real issue in the Presidential campaign being the class warfare of the capitalists on all the rest of us, and one comment I received was that this isn’t true — there’s rampant racist violence, and attacks on the reproductive and health care rights of women, to name two others. My response was that the only real issue in the campaign was the economic one because the base builds the superstructure. This is a standard Marxist line, taken to explain that culture is produced and reproduced in capitalist society by capitalist social relations of production, so that every cultural phenomenon is a phenomenon of class division, commodification, alienation of labor, and the mystifications and contradictions of capitalism. I think that’s true, but not a complete story. What I want to explain here is why it's a true story.

Culture is produced and reproduced by capitalist production in capitalist society—which by now means the entire global society. Some implications of this follow.

(1) What does it mean to say that culture is produced and reproduced by capitalist social relations of production? It means that there is a class of workers whose only commodity for sale, their labor, becomes the variable capital consumed in the production of cultural artifacts. Those cultural artifacts include books, newspapers, television programs, food, language, art objects, ideas, etc. (Right now, I’m contributing surplus labor by producing the ideas that I’m writing. These words are products of capitalist relations of production because I am not the owner of the means of production, even though I nominally own the labor that I exert. Once they leave my hands, it is not clear that I am any longer the “owner” of the ideas or words, for a variety of reasons, among them that I’m using MS Word that I acquired through the university.)

Language and ideas are produced under capitalist relations of production. They are commodities with potential for becoming capital in the production of something further—more language and ideas, or a new-fangled toothbrush, or whatever. For instance, a person once wrote in an email “;-)” in order to indicate sarcasm. That has become a cultural icon, and has been capitalized upon in the production of the cultural artifacts called emojis, and emojis are now commodities that are sold to users of various social media by way of the advertising revenue generated by users. Emojis, and “;-)” are now parts of culture, parts of language, that in our ordinary dealing with the world do not appear as products of capitalist social relations of production, or as commodities. They have become “naturalized” parts of the language.

(2) In order to understand what emojis are, we have to understand not only how to apply them in social media messages (i.e., how to consume them), but how they are produced. If we follow Marx still further, that understanding is not the point, the point is to change the world, that is, to change the social relations of production that are to be found by analysis of emojis. Every analysis of culture should go in the direction of a ruthless criticism of capitalist relations of production.

(3) In as much as language and (presumably) racism existed prior to capitalism, Marxist analysis can’t explain the origin of these phenomena. That does not mean Marxist analysis is not relevant. Whatever language was prior to capitalism, it’s not the same thing now, because language is a cultural phenomenon that is produced and reproduced by current relations of production.

While it is apparently clear that those from whom we begin to acquire language are close-by cohabitors who aren’t commodifying language by speaking in the household, it does not follow that spoken language is not a consumer object. There are obvious examples of consumer object language in everyday household talk, like cultural buzzwords that derive from media consumption. But further, all language is reproduced in capitalist society by capitalist production.

Like language, so too racism. While those from whom we learn racism are also our close-by cohabitors who do not intend to commodify racism, racism is still a consumer object. There are obvious media messages that reproduce racism through stereotypes, racist images, and so on. Racism is a cultural phenomenon, and in capitalist society, all cultural phenomena are produced and reproduced through capitalist relations of production.

(4) Why does anyone produce racist images in consumer media messages? The answer to that is simple: they’re paid to do so. Now, the workers who create racist messages might or might not “believe in” the messages, but from the standpoint of capitalist production, their belief is not relevant. Only the valorization of capital advanced by the capitalist in the form of profit is relevant. From the standpoint of the capitalist, the content of the message is irrelevant as long as it is saleable and profitable. Those messages that generate more profit will be reproduced again and again as long as they are profitable. Whether this produces or reproduces a culture that suffers violence, hatred, fear, and dysfunction is also not relevant to the capitalist, except in so far as those sufferings can be treated as needs for which consumer objects can be produced for a profit.

It is important to emphasize that this does not explain the origin of racism (or of language). But I’m not sure discovering the origin of racism is important for dealing with racism. I am sure that dealing with racism will require dealing with profiteering from it.

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