The unbearable weight of white lies

Dr John David Jordan, Liverpool Hope University

This is the sort of time when you write and re-write a blog post. Everything seems like the wrong thing to say, but for different reasons; not least that things are moving so fast that a new event could happen at any moment and make a blog post obsolete before it is even published. I wanted to start, then, with one such event, but to try and tie it into something permanent.

I have lost track of days so I don’t even know what date it was when President Trump tear-gassed peaceful protestors for a photo op. I remember watching these immense events, aghast, into the wee hours, and then looking in the mirror and thinking Wow, I desperately need a haircut!

The psycho-social experience of existing in momentous times whilst simultaneously retreating into an enforced micro-focus on the minutiae of day-to-day living is, I guess, something like being a crew member on a nuclear submarine, but without the sense of immense personal purpose. Which is the other thing. So much is going on and it’s not clear what I should be doing to be a part of it. Or rather, am I doing enough? I know what the immense personal purpose is: It’s to fight the power! As always. But am I doing enough? I mean, not just as a person, but with my mind, as an academic. And not just as an academic, but as a person, with my actual body, in a pandemic.

And which thing do I get most focussed on? Racist police murderers? The racists in power? The conspiracy theorists? The hypocrisy? Prince Andrew? Elite fascists and the potential purge of the Left that they are now salivating over? The masked thug on Twitter threatening to storm universities and kill socialist lecturers? The colossal mishandling of the covid-19 crisis in the UK that has seen thousands of unnecessary deaths? Or, within that, the callous disregard for the elderly and adults with learning difficulties? Or the higher numbers of ethnic minority deaths? And what about the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria – seemingly forgotten?

Those are the thoughts I was mulling round as I sat down to write this. But then, there are also a whole bunch of other things about social theory in a more abstract sense that are rolling round in the mull too. Like, is it a global northern privilege to think that the speed at which negative events are happening is accelerating?

I guess yes, but there is also something significant going on in the global infrastructure – or at least, in its hegemonic leadership structures – that people right at the heart of current struggles are also highlighting. Times may be a’changing, but they may also be regressing, and we don’t know yet which way it will go.

Last year my colleague Dr Julia Lux and I published research in which we warned of the ‘mainstremeists’ who promote far-right theories – conspiracy and otherwise – not from the social extremities, but from the central institutions of state and cultural power. We also warned that this is not just an event, but an ongoing political and economic project with aims and momentum. A trajectory even. One aspect of this, which we continue to consider, is that this is also an ontological project; not just a ‘culture war’ (whatever that actually means) but a class struggle over reality itself. This isn’t only a matter of conspiracy theories, but of words more generally being cynically deployed in grotesque lies, logic-mangling bombast, and pseudo-scientific neo-eugenic theories on race, gender, sexuality and class that use rhetorical tricks to twist reality into its opposite.  

There are, for me, two breath-taking exemplars of such elite rhetorical grifting. Firstly, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings’ absurd claim that he had to break the Covid-19 lockdown rules – rules that he himself helped to set – in order to ‘test his eyesight’ by taking his wife and young child on thirty-minute drive to a beauty spot on his wife’s birthday to see if they crashed or not. Secondly, Donald Trump’s sickening claims that a 75-year-old peaceful protestor, brutally pushed to the ground by armed American police, was some sort of secret Antifa super-agent on a high-tech mission to jam police communications. Both were mouth-garbage of the first order.

In the mainstream centres of power, there are many such characters who seek to use conspiracy theories and convoluted, malicious bloviation (invented words, even, in Trump’s ‘covfefe’ case), to weave an entirely false view of reality, which they then pitch, with utter contempt, to an audience who mostly know full well that they are lying. This is the culmination of a decades, if not centuries, old white-supremacist, bourgeois project to seize and control the institutional means of reality.

The mouth-spew of that project is for one audience – a white, privileged one – while simultaneously, a baton is doing most of the talking to the oppressed.

For the oppressed black community of America, direct experience of reality has been practical theory for a long time; powerfully transformed into multiple formats, such as protest, the academic analyses of black scholars, journalists and activists, the cultural output of black artists, and the immensely moving eloquence of speakers such as Ben Crump and the Reverend Al Sharpton. This is a decades, if not centuries, old project of experienced truth, turned into action, built into a movement and then relayed to a wider social audience who are increasingly exhausted by the unbearable weight of white lies.

The point I am wrestling with here is where theories of the global – often produced by white theorists – beyond direct action, sit within this story. And this is a story of both the global, and of action. Tearing down the statue of a slaver and sending it to the bottom of the water is (global) theory, praxis, rebellion and ritual, all rolled into one – and then rolled into the river! Where it richly deserves to be. But where next? Particularly as the unbearable weight of white lies is pressed determinedly against the history and practice of social theory.

The answer is in part for me to know that I don’t know; I don’t have the experience to inform the theory. What I would like to do, though, is remember here the work of black American Marxist Oliver Cromwell Cox, whose monumental theoretical analysis taught us so much about the role of racism in underpinning capital accumulation – particularly through the relative and intersectional exploitation of subordinated classes, castes and ethnic groups. Cox struggled personally and professionally against white supremacist social theory, which in turn has done its best to erase him. But it can’t erase the truth. It can’t use words, lies, conspiracies and rhetorical tricks to erase lived experience. It can only truncheon, teargas, imprison and kill. And even then, only for so long.

I have no grand theoretical point here. I just see a poignant opposition between the rhetorical malfeasance of the white supremacist project, whose ivory-castle conspiracy entrepreneurs spew out twisted rhetoric like they are getting paid to do so, and the solid base of experience of the oppressed, and how that, in itself, becomes theory-in-practice through protest, rebellion and activist speech.

Cox exemplified experience-led theory, and this seems to me important to remember at this point of change, where scholars are reassessing their own role/s in the struggle. Cox taught us (at least) five significant meta-lessons that scholars of the global should, in my view, take seriously today. Firstly, that there is a social and historical reality of the global, and that this can be empirically analysed and plausibly theoretically critiqued. Secondly, that underpinning this critique with direct experience can challenge the Right’s near hegemony over the institutional means of reality. Thirdly, that there can be no plausible analysis of either national or global capitalism without Marx, and his understanding of the central axis of exploitation in the service of capital accumulation. Fourthly, that there can be no legitimate analysis of the global system that ignores its profoundly racially structured nature. And fifthly, that to challenge white supremacist social theory we must upturn its fundamental ontology, including the partisan and overwhelming dominance of white (and, we might add, male, straight) people in running, controlling, hiring and reviewing the processes and means of knowledge. We must knock this edifice off its plinth and roll it into the river. The sooner we do that, the better. Theory as praxis. No justice, no peace.

Credit photo: BC for Studio Incendo

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