Towards A Radical Critique of Cultural Appropriation

by Tin Hinson

20 December 2016

We live in morbid times, when all that is solid melts into air; an interregnum where the old is dying and the new cannot be born; a unique and frightening moment where everything is to play for. In these times there is but one political fact upon which consensus is crystallising: liberals are annoying.

I say this not as a personal insult, but as a pertinent observation regarding the left’s political strategy. The evidence of the annoying factor has become impossible to deny. Despite social attitudes on race, disability, gender and sexuality having made progressive advances, despite increasingly favourable demographics; liberals are losing decisive elections everywhere.  From Brexit, to Trump, to possibly Marine Le Pen, liberalism’s politically correct veneer of decency  cannot compete with the boorish pseudo-honest ‘straight’ talking heresy of the alt-right.

As radical anarcho-communist types, we know part of the reason for this is the failure of liberals to offer a convincing economic narrative. Against this void, populist demagoguery has offered basically its usual bullshit explanations, and actually managed to gain some traction. With the story thus framed, it’s easy to see the rise of a racist, bigoted politics is merely a function of economic scapegoating.

The above is crucial and underreported. But, what if there is another, even more buried part of the story?

What if the liberal critique of racism was flawed? Not because it was unrealistically radical, as ‘Blue Labour’ or any other number of cynical patsies, may argue. But because it was not radical enough?

There is a fallacy of centrist politics that moderate, tempered proposals are more likely to appeal to people on the other end of the political spectrum than more uncompromising ideas. While this idea makes intuitive sense, in reality, liberal hand-wringing that identifies only the worst excesses of neoliberal capitalism – for example, capping benefits at £36k a year – becomes the worst of all worlds. Without a coherent critique of the idea that landlords should be able to make unlimited profit from their property rights over our means of shelter, ethically-minded liberals are left propping up the idea that caring for ordinary people requires unlimited state largess. A much stronger position is to say that capitalism is incredibly inefficient, and despite us spending £27bn of public money, and £6tn of everyone’s money on it, we still have shit, cold homes in this country, and more than 100,000 of us have no home at all.

We can see from the example above where the cliché of liberal hand-wringers comes from. To care, without providing an adequate systemic critique, ultimately ties one up in knots. This brings us to the liberal version of acting against cultural appropriation, which I argue is simply another version of the limited solution posed by ethical consumerism, as it shares all the pathologies of that tactic.

In effect it says that by not consuming certain products, one can have an ethical relationship with capitalism. Concerned liberals point out that when Victoria’s Secret dress their models in Native American head dress, they are taking cultural knowledge from that community, extracting it out of context and capturing the profit. Quite rightly, liberals identify this as deeply offensive. However, we can take the conversation further. Capitalism fundamentally operates by extracting and privatising common resources. Marx’s concept of the ‘general intellect’ explains how ultimately all production rests upon knowledge that is collectively generated.

Obviously people occupy more or less privileged positions within society and within capitalism. In Racecraft Karen and Barbara Fields offer analysis of how this oppression not only functions on race based lines, but also how intimately the development of capitalism is bound up with the very creation of these racial categories. Notwithstanding any of this, it is important that we do not postpone the battle against racism to ‘when the revolution comes’. Rather, I am suggesting that it is important not to view cultural appropriation as unusual, but rather a case study in motion of how private value is abstracted from our common cultures.

From this perspective we can put the focus back on the exploitative nature of this relationship. It calls out the faulty logic that you can fully ‘opt out’, simply by being an ethical, discerning consumer. We can transform the fight from a defensive one, policed by a series of individual faux pas, into one where we go on the offensive: we fight to stop sacred things being commodified, as the first step towards liberating the rest of our culture.

Again I want to emphasise that this does not seek to collapse anti-racism; it seeks to build upon it. The move to a communist critique of cultural appropriation frees us from the agonising process of wondering which parts of our culture it is OK to sell to capitalism for profit, and who should get the money. 

We want to open up space for common solutions. It is so much easier to win that argument when we know that value is mainly created in the commons, and only later privatised. Instead of the liberal politics of individual guilt, our anti-racism should speak to an inspiring space of solidarity; a world where we start from the presumption that we are all due a share of the fruits of 100,000 years of human language, culture and technology. 

Some readers may be put off by how utopian (and therefore unrealistic) this vision sounds. But when we participate in liberal versions of anti-racist discourses, we implicitly support a different utopian vision. One where with the right modifications capitalism could plausibly deliver racial justice. 

The future is not yet written, but in this historical moment it seems increasingly clear that if well meaning liberals want to defend their liberal values, they need to move beyond liberalism. The critique of cultural appropriation shows how the radical left can build upon the logic of statements that liberals already make to offer a more coherent analysis of how exploitation functions through capitalism. In turn, this suggests that true healing from the deep wounds of racist, colonial society cannot come principally through a settlement within capitalism, but only by strengthening the social right to participate in our cultural and material commons.

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