On the “Mythology of the White Proletariat”

Dear Friends,

I am honestly wondering if Tyler McCreary read J. Sakai’s Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat cover to cover! His review, published in your last issue, raises some interesting questions, but tackles Sakai’s argument in an almost bizarre “apples and oranges” fashion.

Settlers is a remarkably easy book to read, a down to earth economic and political history of White America that uses Marxist concepts and “movement lingo” while dodging the twin traps of academic mumbo jumbo and lefty jargon. It does not purport to be a “cultural history” (don’t we have several bookshelves too many of those already?) or a metaphysical inquiry into “agency” or the “dissonance between belief, location and action” – instead, it provides a class analysis of US history.

Relying on the materialist assumption that how people live, how they are exploited (or how they exploit), how they resist (or how they submit) are the true “points on which history turns” – and supplementing this with insights into how people are organized into communities and nations beyond the workplace (“the ‘sensuous’ reality of human society”) – Settlers retells the history of White America from the perspective of its victims.

Rather than denying “the semi-autonomous nature of ideology,” a careful reading of Settlers would indicate that this is in fact one of the subjects Sakai is examining. Especially chapters VI (“The US Industrial Proletariat”) and XIII (“Klass, Kulture & Kommunity”) deal extensively with just this theme, the former implicitly but the latter quite explicitly. It is one thing to simply assert as McCreary does, that “ideology is semi-autonomous.” It is another to actually map out what this means in the lives of real human beings – for better and for worse – and this is what Sakai manages to do.

Like some others, McCreary seems discouraged with Settlers because he finds Sakai too harsh, feeling that he is denying that any white people are exploited. I would suggest that comrades who share these sentiments re-read the book with an eye to seeing how it shows not that “there are no white workers” (a claim Sakai never makes) but rather that the particular way in which white nationhood developed in the US has left these white workers with only a wisp of working class consciousness, and left them beholden as a group to racist and non proletarian leaders and ideas. And often – as he documents page after page, chapter after chapter – complicit in their own cluelessness, eager to ally with the white middle class time after time after time.

Take a look around: this is simply a reality check. To say such a thing is not to approve of it, or to deny that people have “agency” to resist this trend, or to say that it is eternal. Indeed, Sakai notes that this tradition of class collaboration is a tragedy, and suggests that it’s not only material bribery but also that a desolate and suffocating American culture fosters such individualistic rot. Strong words, but who benefits from being mealy mouthed? Despite his Maoism, there is much in what Sakai says that is in line with anarchist and left communist thought on this question.

Another part of McCreary’s confusion seems to be in the concept of “nation,” a term he correctly notes that Sakai fails to define. McCreary assumes that “Sakai uses the term nation to describe a group of people united by race or ethnicity” (making it a synonym for “race” or “ethnic group”), and then concludes that Settlers “serves to reify a line between the white oppressor nation and the nationally oppressed underclass of people of color.” Complaining that “Sakai employs essentialist concepts,” he suggests that a “careful analysis of the interconnections between these layers of racial hierarchy demonstrates various intertwining threads.”To which one is forced to say… so what? What doesn’t have “intertwining threads” if you look close enough?

A class analysis that posits national oppression as dominant does indeed “mute” certain things in order to focus on what it regards as important. But despite what McCreary claims, Sakai does not “simply assert” the importance of the divide between colonized and colonizing nations. Instead he spends the first hundred pages of Settlers building the argument, one excruciating historical detail after another.

Likewise, McCreary suggests that Sakai incorrectly predicts that racist oppression “would result in the formation of nationally oppressed identities.” What this distorts is the fact that these “nationally oppressed identities” have already existed for centuries! Sakai does not predict that indigenous people, Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos might “someday” develop national consciousness, but starts from the observation that this consciousness exists. While it may be contested, – now waxing and now waning –and it is certainly not eternal, national consciousness is a historical fact and continues to exist even today as both a shelter and a weapon for the oppressed. (In other documents, Sakai has indicated that nationhood can be a trap too…)

If I am slightly annoyed by this review, it is not because I think Sakai’s thesis is beyond criticism or cannot be improved upon. The relationship between gender, class and nation, and the way all of this folds into capitalism and imperialism – these are highly charged and complicated questions, and depending on who you are, what cities or neighbourhoods you have lived in, how old you are and what your politics are… you may have a radically different take on things. And that’s even leaving aside one’s own gender, class and national perspective!

So what irks me is not the questioning, but rather a vocabulary and perspective which seems to downgrade theory to something like a super high dpi bitmap – what becomes important is how accurately every tiny detail and exception can be mapped and described – so that class analysis (which of necessity involves generalizations and probabilities) is replaced by meditations on nuances and the subtle interrelationships of “agency.”

One can only imagine that if Marx and Engels had started from such a perspective, they would have looked at their own non-proletarian class position, congratulated themselves on their “agency” in joining the workers’ movement, and promptly discounted class analysis out of hand!

Theory for us should be a road map, a way of understanding where we came from, how we got here, and where we might go next. By necessity, this demands that some things be put into greater focus than others, including “demarking sharp borders between categories of people” – not to preserve or reproduce these divisions, but so as to not be caught off guard by them.

Class analysis does not “mute agency,” but it does give a realistic estimate as to how many people will choose to exercise this agency, and in which way they will exercise it. Such “generalizations” are implicit in decisions to organize in certain neighbourhoods rather than others, to focus on some issues and not others, to reach out to some organizations and not others… and to the extent that these “generalizations” are noxious, they become all the more so when they remain unspoken and thus unexamined.

Finally, Settlers is a historical examination of White America, and, as such, its lessons cannot simply be assumed to apply to those of us living in Canada. We live in a different piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Yet, as the recent events at Six Nations and other struggles from coast to coast attest, questions of “nationhood” and solidarity and parasitism between different peoples are not alien to us either.

Rather than reject the national question as irrelevant or disconnected from class, I would argue that we all need to be thinking about these questions too. Whether we are talking about Québec and Confederation, immigration and citizenship, indigenous struggles or multiculturalism… or even questions like global warming or neoliberalism: the way in which “nationhood” (or “race” or “community”) intersects with class (and I would suggest gender) has always been critically important.

These concepts are pieces of a roadmap, or (perhaps more romantically) a weapon for us to use. We should question them, grapple with them, make them our own – because from New Orleans to Grassy Narrows to Tuktoyaktuk their relevance shows no sign of passing.

In solidarity,
Karl Kersplebedeb

P.S. I would encourage comrades to read Settlers for themselves; it has recently been posted on the internet and can be downloaded in PDF format from http://www.indybay.org/uploads/2005/10/28/sakaisettlersocr.pdf. Also, an interview with J. Sakai on the subject of Settlers and the ideas behind the book can be read at www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/books/raceburn.html.