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Tribalism as False Consciousness

Race, Religion and the Denial of Class

by NORMAN POLLACK

Tribalism, strong in-group loyalty (Webster), as in today’s manifestation, the response of the black and Jewish communities respectively to events in Ferguson and the Gaza Strip, reveals the solipsistic, myopic self-regarded mindset, beyond these communities to America and its policymakers as well, in the face of repression, destruction of lives and aspirations, not least, militarism and the glorification of power. The response has been deliberately rendered inadequate, first, by the historical development of institutions, largely capitalist in origins and formation, to ensure the pacification of dissent, and second, within these communities (and indeed any other distinctive communities in America) an internalization of boundaries as the condition of membership in the society. America in the name of freedom and democracy negates both whenever political consciousness threatens to awaken or drift out of line. Its societal mechanisms to that end need not involve or be explained by conspiracy theory. In this case, the wheels of patriotism grind smoothly, patriotism a function of the ongoing consolidation of class-rule. Wealth-concentration, the economic hegemony of corporations and banking over the political state, a bred-in-the-bone system of education (broadly construed, to include the mass dissemination of acceptable themes via the media) inculcating values of individualism, pointedly abstracted from the societal welfare and its promotion, and group solidarity, equally abstracted from a generalized identity of class as the transcendent reality beyond the more limited identity, made to feel more compelling and heartfelt, of race and religion, all are instrumental and culturally-ideologically reinforced in engendering submission to authority and the devotion to the status quo (the resultant structural arrangement and political-economic distribution of power).

Behemoth is not a Kafkaesque figment of anyone’s imagination. It is America as it functions in real time. It is a society which must necessarily discourage critical awareness in its people as a proposition over the long term, lest it expose the lies, distortions, betrayals of public trust required for its stabilization and its mal-distribution of wealth and power to succeed largely unchallenged. Why the difficulty, or rather the effort to make the contradiction between professions of democracy and actual gross inequalities work? The answer lies in the question; there is no contradiction, “democracy” in America, pace Tocqueville, is predicated on its negation, repudiation, demolishment—never let on, of course, and swaddled in clothes of military triumph, patriotism, the Panglossian doctrine of capitalism as the best of all possible worlds, with rewards to all, provided they are deserving, presumably work hard, and keep their mouths shut. For help on the last-mentioned, a growing ratifying condition for “democracy” to operate, USG provides for unprecedented massive surveillance as the perfect complement to what presently enlists consensus and the abrogation of class feeling: war, intervention, major confrontations, for purposes of unilateral global dominance, and not to be ruled out, effective distractions from domestic problems partly created by outsized military appropriations.

There is no Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, or A. Philip Randolph among today’s black leadership, neither is there Dr. King to mount the essential two-pronged attack on the American structure of class rulership and widespread poverty, directed against war and militarism, and, at his death, embarked on the Poor People’s Campaign at home, both fraught with meaning for the liberation of class consciousness beyond the confines of race. Ferguson. Militarization of the police (at least a good start, yet not questioning the comprehensive militarization of the total society), opposition to discrimination and police brutality, met by demonstrators encountering life-threatening force, but ripe for manipulation and the suffocation of dissent as AG Holder comes on the scene and Obama expresses tepid indignation from the White House. Sadly, what is termed “racial solidarity” will ultimately prevail, a black POTUS and Attorney General who, by reasons of race, therefore cannot be criticized even though both, in objective terms, can and should be designated by the admittedly harsh words, “race-traitors.” Holder has like most of his predecessors used DOJ as a protective shield for the corporate and financial sectors. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, what criminal prosecutions? In the ever-increasing concentration of wealth in all key sectors of the American economy, what anti-trust prosecutions? But also germane, contemptuous disregard for the rule of law itself, as in denying habeas corpus rights to detainees (let alone, not calling for the closing of Guantanamo), prosecuting cases against whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, sitting on his hands through the many drone assassinations, and allowing to stand opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel (whether in DOJ or the Executive, still a legal expression for the legitimation of acts of torture and violations of international law), Holder, like his boss, the archetypal servant of power, wealth, the wealthy, all in the line of duty, as blacks meanwhile are urged to be docile and confined within their racial consciousness. Obama merely is Holder on a wider stage, capable of inflicting more harm on the world and, as willing symbol, silencing blacks from breaking out to question the sources of brutality, discrimination, unemployment.

The Jewish community is still more ideologically impoverished. One does not have to surrender one’s religious identity as Jewish to deplore the systematic murder and destruction conducted by Israel in Gaza, just as one does not have to surrender one’s racial identity as black to deplore the war, militarism, and capitalism, in particular, the latter, to account for obvious social deprivations disproportionately affecting blacks as members of the community of the poor. Breaking out of one political-ideological reference frame to see arrogance, pillage, domination, executed in the name of religious identity, or in the other, a reference frame historically assaulted from slavery to the present to engender acquiescence in subordinate rights of citizenship, to see accommodation to crumbs from the table of wealth urged by its own leaders in the name of racial identity, necessitates overcoming a tyrannous false consciousness intended in both cases to prevent the fuller identity with social humanity. For if that were to happen, authoritarian systems of every description would be shaken at their foundations.

Specifically, racial solidarity (here excusing Obama’s despisement of working people, objectively seen in his policy-favoritism toward corporate wealth) contributes to racial identity, in turn, racial consciousness as self-imposed obfuscation in the rectification of fundamental abuse; similarly, religious solidarity (here excusing Netanyahu’s despisement of Palestinians, no, the whole Arab-Moslem world, objectively seen in his demonization of any leaders not compliant with Israel’s wishes and conduct) contributes to the same psychological dynamics, religious solidarity to religious identity, in turn, religious consciousness as obfuscation of the genocidal behavior toward others. The self-proclaimed Jewish State militates against all criticism, the Jewish outsider demeaned and designated as the self-hating Jew, so familiar now in the current political discourse as though to stampede the entire Jewish community into obedience—if not already disposed in that way. Solution? I have none. I can only point out the magnificent camaraderie between black and Jewish radicals/activists in the first two-thirds of the preceding century, fighting together each other’s battles, moving toward a biracial definition of class to surmount the oppression of the common enemy, capitalism, dependent for its continued enrichment on keeping real and potential allies-in-struggle separable and apart (as now in microcosm Israel keeps the PA and Hamas apart).

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.