Wednesday, July 9, 2008

'Stuff White People Like' is Reactionary Trash

If you're an even moderately internet savvy American these days, you will doubtless have been told by some friend of the hilarious new site "Stuff White People Like"(SWPL). A collection of short encyclopedia style entries on various things adored by the white man, ranging from sweaters to organic food to religions their parents don't belong to, the site is basically a big send up of urban liberal multiculturalism (a lifestyle which doubtless deserves some critique).

White people love this site. I've been notified of it by at least 6 or 7 different white friends. It seems that being able to take a joke about themselves is something white folks also love. I'll be the first to admit that the satire on the site is quite funny.

However, if one actually spends any time going through the list, what jumps out time and time again are little kernels of reaction. Take, for example, entry number 62: Knowing What's Best for Poor People. It goes through how white people spend a good portion of their day worrying about poor people and how they shop at Wal-Mart instead of Whole Foods. It ends with a classically reactionary bit of filth scraped off of Rush Limbaugh's microphone:

"But it is ESSENTIAL that you reassert that poor people do not make decisions based on free will. That news could crush white people and their hope for the future."
As it is in Limbaugh-land, poor folks are poor for the choices they make, not because food prices are skyrocketing, there are no new jobs, and decent health insurance is little more than a mirage.

Entry number 94: Free Healthcare, strikes a tone similarly reminiscent of a certain obese pill-popping waste of our planet's resources. Boldly going where no Republican has gone before, the author argues that European health care isn't as good as Americans think, and then takes some potshots at Michael Moore. He concludes:
"Though their passion for national health care runs deep, it is important to remember that white people are most in favor of it when they are healthy. They love the idea of everyone have equal access to the resources that will keep them alive, that is until they have to wait in line for an MRI."
Perhaps Mr. Lander would like to talk to these white folks about national health care. They had good old American style health insurance (you know, the kind where you don't have to wait in line) when their daughter was diagnosed with a stomach disorder that would require her to have a feeding tube the rest of her life. A treatment available in Massachusets was shown to remove the need for a tube, but their insurer, United Health Care, would have nothing of it. Fortunately, a campaign by activists around the country forced UHC to reverse their decision. While arsewipes like Lander disparage Moore, without his movie it's unlikely that the Griggs' case would have received the attention it did.

I could go on listing examples of how reactionary this site is, but I think it's more valuable to pursue a discussion of what actually is wrong with liberal multiculturalism as practiced by Lander's targets.

To begin with, let's clarify the terms. By liberal multiculturalism, I refer to that ideology which is officially against racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, etc. Often encapsulated in the phrase "social justice," this ideology has become the official one of the American academy in the last decade. Every major university today has an Office of Multicultural Initiatives of its equivalent. Though the institutionalization of multiculturalism is undoubtedly a fruit of the victories of the sixties and seventies, the degree of its incorporation into the primary capitalist institutions for the production of knowledge and reproduction of the labor force hints at the limits to its emancipatory potential.

These limits are evident in the specific characteristics of liberal multiculturalism which distinguish it from other counter-hegemonic ideologies such as nationalism or Marxism. The most important of these, in my opinion, is the tremendous degree to which liberal multiculturalism is marked by commodity fetishism. Marx argues that under capitalism, the commodities produced by workers "reflect the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things." (Capital Vol 1 165). Trade becomes not a relationship between people exchanging things, but a relationship between commodities. Social relationships between people become relationships between things. This pervasive thingification (a word common to both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Georg Lukacs, primary theorist of commodity fetishism) even covers workers themselves, whose position in capitalist society is determined above all by their sale of the only commodity they possess: their labor power, or ability to work. Even though workers are exploited as a collective class by the capitalist class, their very class position imposes an atomization. As "creative agency becomes a 'thing' to be bought and sold like other things" (Mieville 22), people's relations with each other reflect the relationships of commodities to one another: a relationship of discrete objects existing in formal equality. (To be sure, commodity fetishism is not the only atomizing force in capitalist society. It will, however, be my focus here.)

The fetishism I've just described is evident everywhere in liberal multiculturalism. As in SWPL's satire of white people loving to shop at Whole Foods, commodities become the bearers of social relationships. My place in society is determined not by my relationship to other people, but to the commodities I consume. A working class person is reactionary for shopping at Wal-Mart, while a police chief is progressive for shopping at a Co-op. One becomes multicultural by consuming commodities marked by Otherness (sushi anyone?). Actual positions in social relations don't matter.

Such an ideology is intensely surface level, rejecting any attempt at grasping the social totality in favor of a brief glance at someone's shopping list. Additionally, this consumptionist framework happily takes on many of the bourgeois myths about our society, such as everyone having the social power to "vote with their dollars."

Commodity fetishism also marks liberal multiculturalism's approach to race. Take one influential example, Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (available on a college syllabus near you). McIntosh effectively reduces questions of racial oppression to their most atomized level. She describes how she has had to learn to think of herself "as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture." Leaving aside the tremendous conflation of categories involved in this clause, let's examine for a moment the claim that Prof. McIntosh is indeed an oppressor. While I know little about the woman personally, I find it implausible that she has the social power to determine whether America's Black gulag continues (indeed, if she had such power, she would undoubtedly exercise it). While she does mention structural aspects to oppression (housing, the police, etc), by systematically conflating these with claims that white people must realize their dominance McIntosh effectively reduces such structural factors to the product of individual white folks' actions.

For good measure, McIntosh also throws in commodity consumption as a measure of social power: "I can cho[o]se blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin." To be sure, on one level commodity consumption surely is an indicator of social power; the rich, after all, can consume many more commodities than the poor. And the lack of bandaids for people of color is a reflection of racism in our society. However, white people's ability to buy bandaids that match their skin color is hardly indicative of their social power. Bill Clinton and the kid who delivers my pizza might buy the same bandages, but that hardly means they hold equivalent social positions. Though commodity consumption is a marker of social power, to truly understand its dynamics ("the riddle," as Marx says) one must dig deeper into the social relationships which constitute a commodity producing society.

Though the account here is far from complete, I think it's on surer footing than some other Left critiques of multiculturalism I've seen, specifically Slavoj Zizek's. It's certainly on better footing than the reactionary garbage on SWPL (though not as funny, I'll admit). Agree? Disagree? Holler back in the comments.


Marx, Capital, Vol 1. (Penguin edition).

China Mieville "The Conspiracy of Architecture: Notes on a Modern Anxiety." Historical Materialism Vol. 2 No. 1 1998.