A letter to a longtime (white) friend in the labor movement about race and policing

December 2, 2014

Dear _____,

Thank you for responding so thoughtfully to the MLK speech I asked you to read. I really didn’t mean to be patronizing in assigning you “homework,” but in what follows I will suggest other things to read by way of evidence for my claims. Here we go:

1. Ferguson is about race. And class. In the United States, these categories have substituted for one another in way that perpetuates racism against what is labeled a criminal, degenerate “underclass.” Of course many, many thousands of white people are poor. Obviously most of us protesting against police use of deadly force would stand up for them as well. Many people around me now can be found both at anti-police-brutality protests and living wage for Wal-mart workers protests. The ruling class divides us on the basis of race, perpetuates a set of racist ideas to that end, and effectively shuts down class struggle as well. You know, of course, the importance of inter-racial (and inter-gender etc.) solidarity on any picket line. We have to stand up to racism both in conjunction with other struggles and separately. When it comes to the police, race is the dominant feature of differential treatment.

The Grand Jury was mishandled grievously, and we cannot take its judgement as credible. Even conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinks so.  See also this, and this.

2. There is a racism problem in policing in the United States. Every 28 hours, a black man in the United States is shot by a cop. PolitiFact has verified this claim: Here is more evidence supporting the claim that there is a profound racial disparity in extrajudicial killings by police. And more.

3. This racism problem corresponds to broader manifestations and consequences of racism. We cannot blame those consequences on failures of democratic engagement or personal responsibility because they are historical and systemic and have conditioned the possibilities of life for every Black person alive today. The gap between the top 1% of the population and the rest of us is at historic highs. But there is an enormous wealth gap that can be attributed to race. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of Blacks.

Black unemployment has always been at least 2/3 higher than that of whites. To attribute this difference to failures in personal responsibility does not begin to explain the systematic, permanent discrimination against Black people, not only poor ones, but upwardly mobile ones as well. Stories about Black executives being mistaken for “the help” abound. A recent study gave employers reviewing employment applications identical sets of resumes, but with one set featuring “Black” names like Jamal. The gap in callbacks is notable.

In addition to and because of gaps in wealth and employment, Black Americans and other minority groups suffer disproportionately from inferior schools, housing, health care, and other resources. Black men are grossly disproportionately incarcerated for the same crimes. The “war on drugs” has been a disaster for the country, but especially so for Black men.  According to the Sentencing Project, racial perceptions of crime have distorted the criminal justice system.

This radical difference cannot be attributed to higher crime rates among Blacks. Sentencing rates for the same crime show how the war on drugs disproportionately penalizes the Black and poor.

Incarceration Rate by Gender and Race

The turn to making a living via the secondary, illicit economy makes sense in this context. And you know that compared to the Fortune 500 and the bankers, any theft or “looting” undertaken by the poor pales incomparison.


4. Riots, like other forms of disruption (Boston Tea Party, anyone?), including strikes and other labor actions, have historically been effective at prompting change. While engaging in local destruction, they can focus mass public attention on social problems when more measured responses have not. Such a conversation has exploded since the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Wilson.

Moreover, most protests around this issue and others do not generally take the form of riots. When riots do occur, much of the time it is the police who instigate them, according to a University of California study. In 1968, the year after riots swept US cities in response to disenfranchisement and poverty, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act Into Law. His action was a response to the riots and to a report about them, which LBJ commissioned, by the Kerner Commission. The Kerner Commission report concluded (unhappily for LBJ) that Black and white Americans lived in two separate societies, one marked by despair and disadvantage. Its analysis of the riots concluded two things: that they were motivated by legitimate anger and despair, and that they were largely sparked by acts of police violence. This is a federal commission report, not a radical treatise.

5. Even when not correlated with positive change, riots in response to racist policing should not be understood simply as acts of destructive lawlessness. This was the point of King’s speech. I was not comparing Mike Brown to MLK. MLK was simply noting the rationality that lies behind riots as expressions of the oppressed. He understood why people would riot and did not judge riots moralistically, even though he did not advocate riots as a tactic. (He did, however, embrace unlawful civil disobedience.) He stated, ““I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Here’s a position of small business owners in Ferguson that you don’t see in the mass media: A group of them “closed for struggle” in solidarity with the rioters.

6. One need not have been an “angel” in order to deserve to go on living, or to be an example of a deadly racist practice. Activists of all races should stand in solidarity with communities oppressed in all of the ways described above. Mike Brown was no angel. But last I checked, shoplifting and shoving are not capital offenses. And his death was not the sole catalyst for anger. We have not built a movement only around Michael Brown. We have built it also around Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Larry Jackson, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, and many, many others who have died as a result of what I hope I have proven here to be a racist police practice.

In the month since Brown’s death, there have been at least 13 more such killings of unarmed Black men by police.

According to Pro-Publica, “The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

“One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185, more than one per week.”

Traffic stop data reveal a similarly profound racial disparity.

7. We have to understand riot shaming and the other arguments (for example, “he was no angel,” “he was monstrous and scary,” “other racial groups have made it successfully”) used to discredit Ferguson activists and the claims about race and policing as ideological diversions from the fundamental racism that divides US society with tragic, deadly consequences for people of color, especially young men.

See this piece that I wrote last year on the “no angel” theme: .
See this on the racism behind the “monster” characterizations.  on the racism behind the “monster” theme.
See this on the myth of the model minority.

8. We must see the patterns in policing and incarceration as systematically connected to generalized oppression. We must see that going along with the logic of racial divide and conquer, which depends on the image of Black people as criminals, is damaging to the working class as a whole.

I recommend Nicholas Kristoff’s series in the New York Times about how white people “don’t get it.” Perhaps it will make more sense to you than I, being a radical, can.

Our friendship is deeply important to me. As a loving and principled person committed to social justice, please consider my arguments and evidence on this issue, which, like the battle for labor rights and welfare, has only two sides.

Love and solidarity,

We can’t win our rights by voting. How abortion rights were won and how to get them back.

Talk Presented at meeting of

The International Socialist Organization, Austin

October 29, 2014

I’ll begin by quoting a story that appeared last Friday in the Austin Chronicle:

“On Friday, Oct. 3, the parking lot of Planned Parenthood on Ben White Boulevard overflowed; in “crisis management” mode, the relatively small staff scrambled to keep up with the unprecedented volume of vulnerable, abortion-seeking patients. Within 24 hours, the center would become the sole abortion care provider in Austin.

“Patients arrived in fear and anxiety. Many who had scheduled their procedures at previously open clinics were told they would now need to undergo a second 24-hour pre-abortion sonogram – as mandated by a 2011 state law – prolonging their procedure even further. For some women, that meant jeopardizing their safety – a woman threatened by domestic violence saw her window slowly closing; another, suffering a lethal fetal abnormality, was in dire need of immediate service.

“It was a similar scene all over Texas – when the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed U.S. Judge Lee Yeakel’s August ruling that found parts of Texas’ omnibus abortion law, House Bill 2, unconstitutional, it forced 13 clinics to close their doors, unable to meet the costly ambulatory surgical center building code requirements mandated by the final provision of HB 2. Overnight, the number of abortion clinics – already reduced from 41 in 2013 to roughly 20 due to other rules imposed by HB 2 – shrunk further, to just eight centers serving a population of 5 million reproductive-age women. [Most of these in urban centers along or east of the I-35 corridor.] Under the new rules, an estimated 1 million women would need to travel more than 150 miles (one way) for care, with low-income and rural women, those with the fewest resources, feeling the deepest impact.

On Oct. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay ordered by the 5th Circuit and reinstated the injunction by Yeakel. The decision allowed the 13 closed clinics to reopen, but the order is only temporary. The 5th Circuit has repeatedly sided with anti-choice state officials on abortion regulations, including HB 2; there is little to indicate this time will be different.”

This is a sad and scary story—and it’s a story shared by women across the United States, where access to safe, legal abortion is no longer a reality for most. But it’s not the whole story. Here’s another part of the story. In June 2013, thousands of Texas women and men crowded the state Capitol building. Inspired by state legislator Wendy Davis’s filibuster, we raised our voices in a wall of sound that drowned out attempts by conservative legislators to ram through HB2. Awareness and energy had been building to combat the misinformation and lies promoted by anti-choice politicians. Hundreds of courageous women testified into the night about their families, their situation, and their abortions. The crucial moment that legislators attempted to pass the bill, the thousands present outside the House chamber roared in protest in an unforgettable moment of power and solidarity.

Although Governor Rick Perry was able to call another special session, and the bill ultimately passed, that moment in June last year taught us something very important. When we organize and raise our voices together, we can win. Although Wendy Davis, now running for governor, was the initial spark for the protest, the mass movement surpassed her. In the weeks and months after the filibuster, women and men continued to organize in grassroots groups. But there was a countervailing tendency.

Even the night of the people’s filibuster itself, we felt the pull away from militancy. As jubilant activists assessed what we had done and thought about next steps, leaders in the Democratic Party and the mainstream wing of the pro-choice movement were directing activists away from the Capitol to a nearby rally that was not about the power of thousands but about the need to look to the Democrats and the electoral process to win abortion rights. It was, literally, a drag. That diversion spelled the end of the mass movement and the beginning of relentless exhorations to campaign, block walk, and vote for Davis and the other Democrats running for office. The election is imminent and, like many of you, I feel the pressure to vote. But I want to convince you that placing your hopes at the ballot box, with Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, is a mistaken strategy. In support of this argument, I will tell you about the history of social movements, particularly the fight for reproductive freedom, and the Democratic Party. And then I will talk about how abortion rights were won in the first place and how we can win them again as part of the struggle against the oppression of women.

But first, to figure out how to stop something like women’s oppression, we have to analyze where it came from in the first place. Socialist feminists, like the ones here who are members of the International Socialist Organization, have a particular and powerful way of understanding the origins of women’s oppression, how and why women are oppressed today. It is weird how conservatives say they’re against big government interfering in people’s private lives—unless the people in question are women and/or lgbtq persons. The conservative movement in the United States has always had both a classical, economically conservative wing that preaches the gospel of the free market and a socially conservative wing that preaches the gospel of, well, the gospel. These forces intersect at the doorstep of the home, as defenders of the status quo share an interest in promoting a vision of the ideal nuclear family.

The ideal of the private nuclear family is not “traditional.” In fact, it is a form of private life that really only became fully expressed under capitalism when industry and the market stripped laborers from the home and to exhausting hours of labor. The value of that labor does not return to the worker. Most of it goes to the employer in the form of profits. That’s how capitalism works. And capitalists and the government that is beholden to them have no interest in spending their profits on workplace childcare centers or material aid to struggling families.

When I had a baby 24 years ago this week, I had an abrupt wake-up call, which was part of why I decided to join the socialists. Infant care cost $600 a month. There is no help with laundry, housework, cooking, or child rearing, all necessary to raising the next generation of workers. There is hardly any (and less and less) public support for education, nutrition, affordable housing, and so on. All of this work has to be done or paid for by someone, however. And the ideology of the nuclear family tells us that that someone is us. Regardless of the hours worked and regardless of income or status, the family is the locus of private responsibility in a system that makes it harder and harder to provide for ourselves while a tiny elite grows enormously wealthy.

That arrangement seems unfair. How do businesses and the government get away with stealing the wealth that we create while leaving families on their own to sink or swim? The answer to this question is, sexism. Sexism is the rationale that says that women and men are fundamentally different, and that what makes women different is their natural desire and skill at nurturing–homemaking and motherhood. This idea did not come about with capitalism, but much earlier. Today, however, despite women’s entry in mass numbers into the paid workforce since the 1960s, society still relies on our allegedly natural calling to do housework, and scramble for the necessities of life without any help whatsoever. Socialists call this labor “social reproduction.” It is a process, dependent on women’s and men’s cooperation with the norm of the nuclear family, that makes production in the capitalist economy possible. So whenever a rich woman like Cheryl Sandberg tells you that the solution to having to work a double shift and struggle to balance home and work life is to “lean in” and do it all, tell her to go fuck herself.

Why have I spent so much time discussing the family under capitalism? Because we need to see clearly who benefits from the oppression of women and why the bullying of women is so virulent and vile. It’s not a matter of some men just being jerks; it’s not a matter of re-educating people to have egalitarian ideas. It’s not a matter of making sure everyone knows the science of reproduction and abortion, although that helps. The fact is, elites in capitalist society benefit from perpetuating sexism and holding up the family ideal. It is necessary to their ongoing power and profits. In other words, the problem of sexism is a system problem. And system problems require system solutions.

Socialists say that unless a woman has complete control over whether and when to have children, she cannot be free. But control over our bodies flies in the face of familial norms (just as lgbtq existence does—any combination of sexes and genders can head a family in the abstract. But because ideas about the role and place of women are what justify the privatization of social responsibility in the family, violations of heteronormativity are also threats to the system). Free women are threats to capitalism, not just to the privileges that men might enjoy. No wonder our rights are under attack.

You might know that a lot of the anti-abortion legislation getting passed in multiple states is spearheaded by the lobbying group ALEC. This outfit was behind HB2 in Texas. Wikipedia tells us that the American Legislative Exchange Council is an organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives for distribution among the states. According to its website, ALEC “works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” There’s nothing in there about abortion. So why is ALEC making abortion less accessible and persecuting abortion providers across the country? I think I’ve answered that question—but I’ll say it again. Free women—women in control of their reproductive lives—are threats to the capitalist system.

Damn right we are. Now, we’ve got neoliberal capitalism—more ruthless, faster, leaner, and less forgiving—ramping up exploitation around the globe, and conservative politicians eliminating our rights. The hope, the barest hope, that a candidate for governor like Wendy Davis, alongside Democrats running for other office, might slow down or stop this process, that hope is tempting. But there are three problems with putting our hopes in the ballot. First, elections have never automatically resulted in reforms against exploitation or oppression. To the contrary, to the extent that the Democratic Party can rely on progressives to vote for them, the less they actually have to do to promote justice. And when movements turn to electoral strategies, it is usally a symptom of defeat and a retreat. Second, pulling a lever every two or four years is the most limited and passive vision of political engagement possible. Third, and most important, democratic politicians are pro-capitalist politicians. They will never advocate change that undermines the privatization of social responsibility. That’s why Clinton, not Reagan, not Bush, was the President who ended welfare in America.

Specifically with regard to abortion, it was not a pro-choice presidency under Nixon (you know he was such a fan of women!) or a progressive Supreme Court that allowed for legal abortion in the United States. We know it was a fighting women’s rights movement that put reproductive justice at the center of a struggle for equality. In 1970, a Women’s Strike for Equality called tens of thousands of women to the streets of Washington DC calling for free abortion on demand, and between 1969 and 1973, hundreds of local protests called for the same.

But it was not just demonstrations. The women’s rights movement succeeded in changing the national conversation, changing the national consciousness, over matters of equal pay, domestic labor, childcare, and abortion rights.

Most of us are fully aware of the right-wing assault on abortion rights that began as soon as Roe v. Wade became the law of the land.

Many know about the 1976 Hyde Amendment that restricts federal Medicaid funding for abortion, effectively cutting poor women off from abortion care. We should also know that the Amendment has since been renewed every year, even during the many years there was a Democratic majority in Congress.

Democrat Jimmy Carter, campaigning for the presidency in 1976 and during his presidency, supported Roe to choice advocates while opposing it to conservatives. In 1977 he came out in support of Hyde Amendment restrictions on federal funding for abortion. When it was brought to his attention that poor women are the ones who suffer from such restrictions, while wealthier women could still access and afford abortion, he responded, “Life is unfair.”

The Reagan years saw a renewed ideological attack on abortion without a corresponding defense from our movement, which retreated into a defensive posture that remains largely in place today and rests on an electoral strategy.

Abortion supporters worked hard to elect Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet it is during his two terms in office that our side lost the most ground to an emboldened right wing. He stated opposition to the Hyde Amendment, but he did not vocally oppose states as they passed laws limiting access to abortion.

No national marches for abortion rights took place in Washington, DC between the election years of 1992 and 2004. Clinton’s first term witnessed the most anti-choice voting record in Congress’ history, yet Clinton’s only attention to the abortion issue in his second term was to promote sexual abstinence among teens to lower the country’s abortion rate. Politicians seeking “common ground” and “compromise” urged the movement to “reject extremism,” and the movement retreated to a defensive position where activism narrowed to electing Democrats (who continued to reapprove the Hyde Amendment restrictions on public abortion funding) and the argument narrowed to reducing abortions instead of unapologetically defending abortion.

Hillary Clinton said in 2004 that abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women…There is no reason why government cannot do more…so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.” I personally have never heard of anyone defending a right by saying it should never be exercised. And this mealy-mouthed pro-choice stance represented a retreat, not an advance, in our movement. That retreat became even more stark during the Bush presidency, where the right wing felt emboldened to challenge abortion rights in every state, in every possible way. They felt the zeitgeist was with them. And absent a fighting movement outside the voting booth, they did not hear our voices loudly enough to tell them otherwise. Pro-choice activists have continued to pursue a political “center” that has moved steadily rightward since the 1970s.

This chase has continued with Obama. Even as pro-choice activists hailed his election in 2008, we have not received in return even a modicum of the loyalty feminists have shown him.

For example, in March 2010 the President signed Executive Order 13535, which preserved restrictions on federal funding for abortion. No Democrat came out in opposition to this measure. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer observed, “I want to see the status quo preserved,” but the status quo is states restricting access to abortion bit by bit, law by law. While the right wing has mostly abandoned a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in favor of piecemeal access restrictions, Democrats are not fighting either to defend Roe or to protect access. And the restrictions continue to come, and they continue to affect poor women and women of color disproportionately.

Obviously, Wendy Davis and her Lt. Governor running mate are pro-choice. But that does not mean they can or will repeal HB2 or stop any further legislation eroding our rights. The Governor of Texas has little constitutional power and there is little to no chance that Democrats will take over the Texas legislature. Moreover, we have to look at politicians’ stances on multiple issues. On immigration, Wendy Davis is reactionary. On the death penalty, Wendy Davis is not on our side. She is unlikely to advocate for labor rights or against the excesses of big business. She won’t institute an income tax to level social support across the state.

Even if Wendy Davis or any other Dem had the best possible positions on every issue, it still would be misguided to place our hopes in elections. I’m not going to tell you what to do in the privacy of your own ballot box, but let me say this: If you vote, do so without illusions, and do not let any election be the end of your political activism. Neither business party will ever seek to overthrow the system that actually requires the policing of women’s reproduction; they are part of that system.

What is the alternative? Well, you’re here. From the photos that opened our meeting this evening you may have noticed parallels between abortion rights activism in the 1970s and our struggle today. Abortion rights were won in the streets and we will take them back and defend them in the streets.

(Much of the following historical narrative comes from this article.) Roe v. Wade marked a tremendous victory for women’s ability to control their own bodies. It literally saved an untold number of lives–of women who were no longer forced to seek out unregulated providers or attempt dangerous methods of self-inducing, such as coat hangers or douching with bleach.

The death toll from unsafe abortions before Roe is unknown, but some estimates put it as high as 10,000 each year. A University of Colorado study done in the late 1950s reported that 350,000 U.S. women experienced postoperative complications from illegal abortions every year.

Many of the victims of unsafe abortion were disproportionately poor women and women of color, who lacked the resources of their wealthy and better connected counterparts.

The women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s was an outgrowth of an overall radicalization in society, kicked off by the civil rights movement. The popular slogan of this era, “Free abortion on demand,” reflected a recognition that legalization alone wasn’t enough if poor women couldn’t afford to get access to abortions. Freedom of choice also meant being able to have children if one desired, which meant demanding access to free child care. The movement embraced demands against the ugly history of forced sterilization of women of color.

BY THE early 1970s, momentum was growing in favor of women’s liberation, and abortion rights in particular. In 1970, a national Women’s Strike for Equality brought out more than 50,000 women across the country–among the rallying points was free abortion on demand.

One important element of the movement was making visible the experiences of women who had abortions. The first abortion “speak-out” was held by the New York feminist group Redstockings in 1969, where women spoke publicly about their illegal abortions. Similar speak-outs soon took place in cities across the country. It was a scene that resembled when hundreds of Texas women took to the floor of the Texas legislature to tell their stories last year.

As the historian Leslie Reagan wrote:

Most important for changing the course of the debate and politics, feminists designated women as the experts on abortion…The speak-outs made clear that abortion was not a personal problem, but a problem for all women arising from the double standard. As women shared their stories, they created new knowledge and educated politicians, the medical profession, the judiciary and the general public about why women needed abortions and the problems of abortion, both legal and illegal.

Activists targeted the government and other institutions to pressure them to take a stand in favor of abortion rights. The Restockings speak-out, for instance, was called as a “counter-hearing” to the nearly all-male hearing in the legislature that Friedan had criticized. As the Michigan legislature debated abortion reform, activists in Detroit held a “funeral march” to protest the deaths of women killed in back-alley abortions.

Members of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) and the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) disrupted the annual convention of the American Medical Association (AMA), demanding that it support repeal of abortion laws. When the AMA failed to do so, the WITCHes “hexed” the AMA. According to a CWLU report “the feeling of exhilaration and sisterhood was so rewarding that the WITCHes decided to hex the business establishment on a regular basis.”

By 1971, pressure had grown so great that President Richard Nixon felt compelled to come out with a statement affirming his opposition to abortion. To this statement, the New York Women’s Strike Coalition responded, “We will grant Mr. Nixon the freedom to take care of his uterus if he will let us take care of ours.”

This backdrop is crucial for understanding how Roe v. Wade (and its companion case Doe v. Bolton) came to be decided. While the number of people directly participating in the women’s liberation movement was relatively small, their actions had a tremendous impact on popular consciousness. By 1976, a Harris survey reported that 63 percent of American women supported “efforts to strengthen and change women’s status in society.”

All this had a direct impact on the Roe decision a year later, according to Stearns: “Blackmun’s description of the physical and emotional harm to women of an unwanted pregnancy, the stigma of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the problems with bearing an unwanted child bears a striking resemblance to the language used by the Connecticut court.”

The past 40 years, during which our rights have been steadily eroded, shows that we have to confront politicians and the courts with our truths and our demands to control our bodies and destinies once again.

Last summer, we saw that the Democrats will fight heroically when we are watching. Wendy Davis’s filibuster was not just a matter of principle, but a product of thousands of women and allies descending on the Capitol during the first special session. And the filibuster alone didn’t cut it. SB5 was killed, however, briefly, by the fighting women of Texas and our allies.

History has shown that having the “right people” in office is never enough. And it isn’t even about politicians’ stated support, but about what they actually do in office that counts. We need to make it politically untenable for WHOEVER is in office to do anything but work for us. For that we need popular pressure.

For that pressure to be in place when we need it, we must look past the elections and organize to keep our demands in the public eye between elections and shift the public narrative. We need to be ready to apply public pressure once the elections are over.

Our movement should stop chasing the center and stand instead on an unapologetic defense of women’s right to choose. The days of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” must give way to a fight for it to be “free, on demand, and without apology.”

So don’t just wait for Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte to save the day. You’ll be waiting a long time if you do. Do get involved in making change from below. We in the International Socialist Organization want to keep building the feminist army, what Perry and his cronies called the unruly mob, that shook the Capitol this summer. We want to put the politicians of both parties on notice. And we are building a socialist movement that can challenge the capitalist system and its rulers, who benefit from the oppression of women, the privatization of social responsibility, and the policing of reproduction.

I urge you to join us in these struggles.

Chart for Marxism and Postmodernism

Marxism and Postmodernism   Socialism 2011   Dana Cloud

  1. Postmodernism defined: “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is skeptical of truth, unity, and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity” (Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 13). Postmodernism sees the “world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of skepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities” (Eagleton, Illusions of Postmodernism, vii).

François Lyotard: “incredulity toward metanarratives”

Baudrillard: simulacra, hyper-reality

  1. Origins (understood in materialist terms): post-WWII capitalism, history of Stalinism, 1968, history of defeats
  1. The “big 5” (minus deconstruction)
Camp Thinker Key concepts Implications
Poststructuralism Foucault Discourse, governmentality, biopower, biopolitics Anti-humanism



No explanatory theory

Micropolitics Deleuze Difference, lines of flight, deterritorialization, capitalism as set of “axioms” Freedom is matter of thinking differently. Resignation to status quo
Post-Marxism Laclau and Mouffe Hegemony, populism No fundamental class interests; relativism
Autonomism Negri Empire, Multitude, cognitive capitalism, immaterial labor Celebration of disorganization, refusal of grounded militancy
Queer theory Butler Performativity of gender, abjection Rejection of rights language and organizing around identities
  1. Marxist critique
    1. Idealism: Revolt against the rule of thoughts will not make reality collapse.
    2. Utopianism: One cannot conjure up a new society. Postmodernism as neoliberal utopia
    3. Anti-organization
    4. Relativism and resignation: “Lie back and think of Nike” (Wood)
    5. A world to win or Deleuze (thanks to Katie Feyh)

Socialism and Postmodernism–talk to Socialism Conference 2011

Marxism and Postmodernism

Socialism 2011

Dana L. Cloud

see chart

  1. Why discussion is important: It seems incredible at present, but postmodern thought, which since the 1960s has emphasized the irrelevance if not impossibility of organized working class struggle against austerity and imperialism, is, for some, still a compelling explanation of social crisis and social movements on the Left. It is, however, a profoundly anti-Marxist one that has disabled and disoriented a layer of potential activists. We must be ready to take this body of thought seriously to make a good case against its idealism, utopianism, and relativism and to make a contrasting case for socialist politics and organization.
  1. What it is: Marxist literary scholar Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism very succinctly as “the contemporary movement of though which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.” These ideas have held sway across the humanities from sociology, literary studies, communication, anthropology, and so on, beginning in the 1970s. Francois Lyotard wrote that the defining feature of postmodernism is its incredulity toward metanarratives. In other words, postmodernists agree with Marxism about some things—the story of great men and great ideas spreading great civilization all across the globe is oppressive—but so therefore is ANY systematic attempt to explain how society works, to narrate its history in order to discover causes of oppression and exploitation, and to develop systematic plans to overcome them (for example: The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle).

Marxism on this view becomes just another form of domination because it “imposes” a systematic view of the world on the world’s people. The solution, for postmodernism, in the famous words of David Byrne, is to stop making sense. Keep that in mind when I begin to share actual quotations from postmodern scholars with you.

  1. Where did it come from? Theorists disagree somewhat on when postmodernism began, some saying that it began with the critical impulses of high modernism—abstract art, Brechtian theater, and so on—in which case postmodern simply means following along in the tracks of modernist critique. Marxism has been part of the critical edge of modernism, seeking to use the productive ideals of the Enlightenment—including humanism, rationality, and contradiction—all of which postmodernists loathe—against the system itself. Most of the time, however, postmodernism means “anti-modernism.” Marxist scholar Perry Anderson dates the idealist and culturalist impulse that we now call postmodernism (and he calls “Western Marxism”) to the end of the Second World War and long economic boom in the West that followed. The discovery on the Left of the atrocities of Stalinism, betrayals of the French Communist Party, the rise of a more identity-oriented New Left, plus the confidence of capitalists after the war in the permanence and stability of their system, created a climate for the flourishing of theories breaking entirely with Marxism in theory (giving up materialism) and practice (giving up Leninism). Thus postmodernism’s trajectory matches that of neoliberalism and capitalist triumphalism. The economic crisis of the 1970s gutted the promises of capitalism but ushered in a regime of austerity and privatization. Hence, Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson calls postmodernism the cultural logic of late capitalism.

At this point one might ask whether there is really something called “late” capitalism. I for one wish capitalism were dead or dying (as in, “The late capitalist system, may it rest in peace), but a lot of postmodern theory is based on wrong idea that there has been a significant break in how capitalism has organized itself starting after the Second World War, in which workers cease to be the driving force of the system or of organizing for change. Of course capitalism is a dynamic system, and the way production is organized and distributed around the globe is continually changing. But even in the burgeoning “service sector,” the place where workers have the most power is in the workplace. Manufacturing still produces all of the real goods in the world.

Along with Lyotard, Baudrillard is among the first thinkers who described the postmodern condition. In Simulacra and Simulation and in The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard argues that disrupting the process of making meaning is the path to liberation. It is important on his view to recognize how everything we take for granted as real is, in fact, a simulation with no original that should be continually called into question. To some extent, we would agree, as Walter Benjamin did about the hollowness of capitalist artwork. But for Baudrillard, postmodernity is the era of the hyper-real, meaning that the advertising and culture industries are producing truths and realities at such a pace that access to what really is or what really happened might as well be impossible (is “virtually” impossible 😉 In one of his essays on the first Persian Gulf War, Baudrillard went so far as to argue that the war didn’t actually happen. And in his work Mirror of Production, he argues that Marxism is inadequate because it poses just another simulation; He writes, “Marxism assists the ruse of capital by positing the centrality of labor power; a better way out of alienation is the realization that one need not be the labor power. One can unalienate oneself, as it were.” So he questions the centrality of production to the capitalist system as the site of workers’ power. . Disrupting the processes of signification, breaking down meaning, is where liberation is to be found. Baudrillard’s thought resonates with that of the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, about whom I can say very little. Perhaps others can take his ideas up during the discussion.

  1. Major thinkers and camps in addition to Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Derrida—the big 5: poststructuralism, micropolitics, postmarxism, autonomism, and queer theory
  1. a) poststructuralism: One of the most profound influences on critical thought in the last 30 years is the work of Michel Foucault, famous for arguing that power is everywhere, has no center, and is reproduced in discourse rather than in any material reality. Influenced strongly by the structuralist anti-humanism of Althusser and the relativism of Nietzsche, his insights can be very useful in pointing out how many “truths” that we take for granted are constructs—for example the invention of some illnesses by the pharmaceutical industry (erectile dysfunction? stress?)—that end up disciplining us in the name of truth—telling us that men that they should be ready for sex at any time and all of us that the problems of capitalism are in our heads. Foucault calls these truth regimes “biopower” and resistance to them “biopolitics” But for Foucault there is not a set of truths that is not a form of discipline. There is no escape from truth regimes. Hence, Marxist critique that contrasts the ideologies of capitalism with the realities of working class experience would have no purchase with a Foucaultian. Any claim to the truth should be greeted with suspicion as an instance of moral oppression or the will to power.

From a Marxist perspective, this political relativism—the belief (har) that every way of thinking about society is as false or as true as any other—is extremely paralyzing and irresponsible.

Subsequent thinkers scrambled to find some capacity to resist in the tiny cracks of the symbolic world.

  1. b) Micropolitics of difference: Giles Deleuze with co-author Felix Guattari has put forward the argument that all identity is constructed through difference and that continual disruption of the production of identity is the only way to freedom. In other words, Deleuze prescribes a micropolitics of difference—a resignation to tiny raids on language. Difference is the process of positive and disruptive function “namely that of resisting the privilege attached to forms of unity and totality” (Patton 39).

Deleuze and Guattari have pointed out that their work is not meant as a political program. But their theory is an explicit rejection of a) recognizing the fundamental realities of oppression and interests, b) realizing that women, gays and lesbians, minorities need to organize on the basis of their specific oppression, c) the idea of political intervention of willful political agents to organize collectivities in struggle. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari develop a more political vocabulary about a micropolitics of desire against a regulating social machine; such micropolitics are randomly generated; “lines of flight” and “deterritorialization” are consistently described as modes of thinking outside of the axioms of capitalism.

A Marxist friend of mine recently wondered what we are supposed to do with the idea of deterritorialization and flight for Palestinians or the homeless, as if the very thought of freedom would make it so.

  1. c) So now I turn to a third major category, that of post-Marxism, whose most prominent theorists are Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. While they reject the micropolitics of Deleuze and the political paralysis of poststructuralism, they truck in the relativism of the postmodern, and their reworking of Marxist ideas stems from a rejection of basic Marxist principles.

In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe undertake “a critique of what they call “the various discursive surfaces

of classical Marxism” in order to “outline a new politics of the Left based upon the project of a radical democracy.” (3) According to them, Marxist orthodoxy consists of essentializing class relations and making scientific claims about the development of capitalism and the class struggle. (How terrible.) They repudiate what they call “economism.” They argue that “class” is not a real category or relationship but is rather a constructed identity only. With these starting points, they appropriate Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to describe political struggle as the construction of antagonistic forces not necessarily tied to class. Immediately, a problem should be evident–right wing populism is an example of such a construct, but on this analysis, we can’t say that working class organizations—like a union or socialist activist–are better representatives than Michele Bachman–of the interests of ordinary people.

Sharon Smith and Sherry Wolf have written extensively about the end result of this theory, which is a reform-oriented identity politics without reference to working class interests. As Wolf explains, Laclau and Mouffe basically theorize out of existence the human force Marx places at the center of struggles for change—workers.

There is a version of postmodern thought that has its origins in but that has departed wildly from workers’ struggle, that of autonomism.

  1. d) Autonomism is a set of left-wing political and social movements and theories that first emerged in Italy in the 1960s from workerist (operaismo) communism, which did not believe it was necessary to carry out a revolutionary break with society. Continuous strikes and demonstrations on this view would lead to socialism. The influence of anarchism and the failure of Italian far-left movements in the 1970s produced an extreme version of autonomism popularized by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.

Their book Empire was published in 2000 and immediately became a bestseller, as have its sequels, “Multitude” and “Commonwealth.” In general, the books argue that capitalism has entered a stage that features a new form of globalized sovereignty—Empire, not imperialism. Never mind US adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya: The sovereignty of nation-states is declining in a postmodern global economy. The authority of the state is replaced with the biopolitical production of social life. We cannot resist empire; we should reorganize and redirect it on its own terrain (xv). The U.S. is not the center of Empire: “The primary factors of production and exchange—money, technology, people, and goods—move with increasing ease across national boundaries; hence the nation-state has less and less power to regulate these flows and impose its authority over the economy. The multitude can autonomously construct a counter-Empire, “an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges” (xv). This work is influenced by Deleuze and Foucault.

Multitude is a concept opposed to that of the working class, one that sees that the essential is the reproduction of life, and this is more important than the traditional production of goods: genetics, images, information technology, education.” instead of an exploitation of actual labor, we have a cognitive capitalism that feeds on what they actually call immaterial production. Thus, Hardt and Negri celebrate a “militant who best expresses the life of the multitude: the agent of biopolitical production and resistance against Empire […]We are thinking of nothing like [a socialist revolutionary] and of no one who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends his or her actions are deduced from an ideal plan […] Today the militant cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited. Militants resist imperial command in a creative way. In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of co-operative apparatuses of production and community.[…] In postmodernity we find ourselves posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control – because biopower and communism, co-operation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist” [xvii].

A number of Left critics have noted the resonance of these views with the revisionism of Kautsky, who put forward the idea of supernationalism. Hardt and Bernstein’s argument for evolutionary socialism in response to allegedly “new” trends in capitalism. Luxemburg’s denunciation of Bernstein applies equally well: It is, in Luxemburg’s words, “reconciliation with the existing social order and the transfer of the hopes of the proletariat to the limbo of ethical simulacra” (1900).

These problems have led Slavoj Zizek, a defender of a version of Marxism, to state, “This is radical theory in the idiom of Monty Python. The painful quandaries of politics are wiped away, and all that remains is feelgood blather dressed up as neo-Marxian analysis.”

What happens when we retheorize social change in this way? First, the status quo appears as adequate or at least inevitable; second, a materialist critical project is sidelined; third, the systematic observation of history, learning its lessons, and planning for the future give way to description and celebration of already-existing resistance without a future. For example, an autonomist assessment of the revolutionary movements across the Middle East and the upsurge of workers’ resistance in Wisconsin would have us accept those uprisings as adequate in themselves, disabling our ability to critique its limits and to argue for moving the struggle forward.

  1. d) The same is true of the final category of postmodern thought I want to consider very briefly, queer theory as it is represented by Judith Butler. In Gender Trouble and much of her other work, Judith Butler has pioneered the argument that heteronormative and unstable gender and sex categories discipline subjects who are always enacting performances of gender to which there is no outside. Because her theory posits categories of thought about gender as the source of gender discipline, she promotes “the politicization of abjection,” and asserts that the political aspects of abjection (state of impoverishment and exclusion) could assist in “a radical resignification of the symbolic domain, deviating the citational chain toward a more possible future to expand the very meaning of what counts as a valued and valuable body in the world.” She refers to abjection as “an enabling disruption” that could offer “the occasion for a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter at all.”

Butler’s ideas are prominent in struggles for sexual and gender equality. Rather than fight as women, gays, lesbians, etc. for things like marriage rights, we should call the existence of women and rights in the first place and shun marriage as an oppressive idea. This proposition suffers from all of the shortcomings from a Marxist perspective that I have observed about the others: Rather than organizing women, gays, and lesbians for actual reforms like marriage equality that would benefit them, and rather than asking how to actually end abjection beyond the symbolic domain, we are left with a project of “resignification,” which basically means playing with words.

Though different from one another, they share some features in common that are rejections of Marxist principle and practice. All of these theories are idealist, relativist, and utopian in ways that are reminiscent of previous detractors of revolutionary socialism.

In the Preface to The German Ideology, Marx described the idealism of the young Hegelians:

“Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

“These innocent and childlike fancies are announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness.

“Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.”

[nb Sokal Affair

. If nothing else, postmodernism is the ultimate “revolt against the rule of thoughts,” “announced with solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness.”

Likewise, we might apply Engels’ critique of the Utopian Socialists to the work I am considering here. Engels wrote, “The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain.” Engels concluded that socialism, if it were to be workable, needed to be put on a real basis. What this means is that one cannot conjure up a new society, but rather must work within and against the one that exists in the service of a future socialist society. Today the economic conditions of capitalism are no longer hidden. We know that the wrong of society are products of economic conditions, and these conditions cannot be undone in fantasies, either modern or postmodern.

And let’s be clear about whose utopia postmodernism is. It is the cultural logic of neoliberalism. David Harvey argues that neoliberalism “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and. . .Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision have been all too common. . . . Neoliberalism entails “creative destruction, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers . . . but also divisions of labour, solcial relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart.” 2-3

Thus, neoliberalism is a utopian project with political effect of re-establishing capital accumulation and power of economic elites (19). As in the present assault on public workers, planning and control are defined as “an attack on freedom” (37). This stance against state intervention and reform is disabling to the anti-capitalist left. Whereas liberalism depended on integration into existing institutions as a mode of control, neoliberalism flourishes through difference, especially difference expressed in the symbolic domain. Contrary to a project that seeks justice, neoliberalism stands for anarchic freedom of the marketplace.

Thus, postmodernism stands in analogous relationship with neoliberalism in its resignation to the commodification of everything (165) Eagleton thinks that the various antifoundationalisms that have obsessed theory are the products not of radical alternatives but of capitalism itself, which is ‘in love with transgression and


  1. There are a number of more or less Marxist critics of the postmodern turn, including Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Jurgen Habermas, and Fredric Jameson, who call attention to its anti-materialist, ahistorical, anti-organization, and anti-dialectical character. If there is nothing beyond discourse and no reality in contrast to the chimeras in our heads, all that is left to us is resignation from the struggle.
  1. The state of the world today demands theory that both describes and explains the current crisis in ways that enable resistance. When a family loses its home to the mortgage bankers, it is not a problem of discourse. We do not celebrate their new deterritorialization. When the history teacher is fired because of state budget cuts, we don’t expect her to be relieved not to have to teach the grand metanarratives of world history. When my partner needs health insurance to manage a chronic illness, we don’t dispute the illness’ reality or tell her that it would be conservative to win the right to marry. When 200,000 people rise up in Wisconsion, or millions rise up in Tahrir Square, we do not ignore the hard work of organized activists in helping to make these uprisings happen. We do not celebrate the spontaneous multitude as the struggle is sold short, when we need forces to carry the struggle forward. When we look around at the obscene looting of the economy by the wealthy, we do not feel joy and love. Our demands are not vague. We are not revolting against the rule of thoughts. We are revolting against a ruling class that realizes its own class interests and is hell bent on crushing the possibility of our organizing in ours. We will not cooperate with that process.

If postmodernism is the cultural logic of neoliberalism, as I have suggested, it may be that the crisis of neoliberalism, which has stripped bare the basic relationship of expropriation that defines the system of capitalism and opened the way for the expression of specifically working class anger, will result in the waning of postmodernism. So far, these ideas still have some hold on the radical imagination of young activists. So we have to be very clear why the socialist alternative makes better sense of the world: because it is in and of the world. Some postmodernists may take inspiration from the seemingly spontaneous struggles of the last spring, but we must develop the conceptual tools and historical lessons to orient ourselves to the necessary battles ahead.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Mental Illness (delivered as talk to Socialism 2014)

Capitalism, Socialism, and Mental Health

Dana L. Cloud

Socialism 2014

In the days after Eliot Rodger murdered six students of the University of California, Santa Barbara, commentators rushed to attribute the violence to “angry, resentful, mentally ill individuals” (Time) or “deep and puzzling psychological problems” (NYT). The problem could not lie in the ominpresence of misogynistic messages and attitudes that teach young men that they are entitled to the bodies of women, by force if necessary.

Another example: The New York Times ran a series called “Mothers’ Mind,” about the common experience of post-partum depression and even psychosis among new mothers. The series calls for greater attention to the mental health effects of changing hormones—but not for greater attention to women’s oppression in the family as a potential contributor to anxiety and desperation. One of the mothers interviewed in the series, however, makes the point clear. She wanted to have an abortion. But delays prevented her seeking that option. She comments, “When Benjamin was born, six weeks premature, Ms. Guillermo recalled thinking, “You’re not supposed to be mine. You were not supposed to be made.” After experiencing thoughts of harming her child, she was offered a solution: new medication.

There are many other examples that I could give where our society frames the results of social problems as individual illness. In this talk, I argue that capitalism creates and uses psychiatric problems in other ways as well. In addition to denying social causes to suffering and violence, capitalism’s pressures create the conditions—exploitation, oppression, and alienation—that lead to symptoms of mental illness. Then capitalism attempts to sell individualized cures to social problems in the form of dangerous pharmaceuticals, limited therapy, and rationed urgent care. In the broader political society, the ideas of psychotherapy—that suffering is a matter of individual biology or experience, of private life rather than produced socially—suffuse discourse from self-help books to advertising to political speeches.

I should say at the outset that I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, and so will not attempt to address diagnosis and treatments specific to particular disorders. I am talking about serious mental illness generall, including disorders from Axes 1(major mood disorders, psychosis) and 2 (personality disorders) from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V. However, Axis 4, Environmental and Social Probems (including natural environment, social obstacles, and occupation), is misleadingly separated from the mood disorders and psychoses of Axis 1. The upshot of Axis 4 is, “It’s capitalism, stupid!”

Marxist psychologists tie the experience of illness and popular discourses about it to historical and social contexts. From such a perpsective, as Peter Sedgwick argues, mental should be understood as a kind of social failure, by which he means failure to adjust to society as it exists or failure to function ideally on its terms. Mental illness only has meaning in contrast to the dominant forms of social life. Perversly, capitalism drives workers so hard that they break down and become maladjusted. It is by meeting the imperatives of the existing society that continuing to conform is impossible. Thus R.D. Laing famously observed that what we label as mental illnesses are often adaptive or necessary responses to paradoxical social situations. The most obvious example here would be the suffering of PTSD by military veterans. Behavior that was adaptive in one setting is disordered in another.

Psychiatry and other treatments are sometimes instances of discipline or social control, but those of us living under the diagnosis of one or more mood disorders, personality disorders, psychosis, or other mental illnesses have to survive here and now, and no one should fault others for seeking out and using whatever resources there are available to make it through this day and the day after. Mental illness is real even if it has systemic origins and conservative uses. We have to live to fight for a better world in which caretaking is a social process and shared responsibility, where rest and solitude are not pathologized, where anyone can afford to be taken care of in an unalienated way.

As I continue, I will first sketch a historical overview of cultural approaches to madness. Then, I will describe contemporary depictions of and treatments for mental illness. The experience of patients varies profoundly by class, race, and gender, and the ruling class cultivates racial and gendered “sick” identities for patients. On the whole, the picture is bleak in neoliberal capitalism for people with mental illnesses today due to deinstitutionalization and lack of access to insurance and medications. I will turn at the end of my talk to a discussion of the kind of world socialists seek to implement and the standards for humane, useful, and collective remedies.

Madness in the Enlightenment

First, historical evidence shows that mental illness—its existence, definitions, explanations, and treatments—are historically and culturally specific in ways that are dialectically related to the economic system. Illnesses that are rampant today did not even exist as such before the 20th century, and many appeared during the Industrial Revolution. Madness emerged as an explanation in Enlightenment society for uncontrollable actions and desires in contrast to prior explanations focusing on demonic possession. As social historian and theorist Michel Foucault argues, the conception of madness as unreason originates in the period of the Renaissance and comes into fullness during the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was itself the product of a revolutionary shift in how the necessities of life were produced and distributed, the transition from feudalism to mercantile capitalism. Peter Sedgwick notes that the category of “neurosis” was not invented until this time period, in the middle of the 18th century. Enlightenment ideals constituted the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie. The dominant philosophy of the period was a distinct improvement on what came before, with its emphasis on human reason, progress, and freedom. Yet Descartes’ famous proclamation of the superiority of reason born of the mind over and above anything having to do with the body (labor, and, not incidentally, women) served to deny those deemed to be unreasonable the benefits of full citizenship.

The transition to industrial capitalism required and produced a philosophy of self-determination and the free exchange of goods and ideas; of course, this free exchange depended on the hidden labor of slaves, indentured servants, and women who, when rebellious, were defined as “mad” and disciplined accordingly. Rather than eliminating social control, as its founders claimed, the Enlightenment and the Bourgeois revolutions in France and elsewhere that produced it instituted new forms of control, one in which exclusion from society is justified by madness, newly defined as “unreason.”

The Enlightenment did bring with it some desire to humanize the treatment of the mad. It was Philippe Pinel who, along with the lesser-known Jean-Baptiste Pussin, abolished the brual repression of the deranged at the French hospitals Biecetre and Salpetriere in order to replace the system with a humanitarian medical approach. However, new modes of treatment operated as a different form of control. At this historical moment, places of confinement were created in which the mad were locked up with the poor and the unemployed, prostitutes, and other deviants on the basis that they had all chosen unreason. However, madness was also becoming the subject of scientific study and medical intervention in the lives of persons whose “selves” were incoherent.

Conservatism of Mental Illness Approaches Under Capitalism

Industrial capitalism made explicit what its forbears did not: The definition of an “incoherent” self is one who cannot labor. In the United States in the 1920s, organizational consultants led by psychologist Elton Mayo, aiming for maxium productivity among the industrial workforce, interviewed workers at the Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant. The idea was to provide workers a sense of compunity and participation and to meet workers’ needs in a time of rapid social change. Most workers complained of fatigue, boredom, and “feeling low.”

The solution proposed by the consultants? Better lighting. Interviewers seemed deliberately blind to the source of workers’ suffering in the fast-paced, Taylorized labor they were made to perform. One wrote of a worker who had compalined that his pay was too low and htat his supervisor treated him badly. The interviewer concludes that the worker was having “hard luck at home,” and “feeling dumpy many a day.” The interviewer offered encouraging words and working overtime as a solution—quite the opposite of what the worker really needed. For these psychologists, he problem could not be industry itself; nor did the company bear any responsibility for the alienation and injury of the workforce.

During this same time period, depression emerged as an experience, but more importantly, as a clearly defined illness. According to Michael Denning and Emily Martin, mood-tracking charts began appearing in the 1920s, whereby doctors and patients could peform the empirical and tedious labor of marking down every symptom, defining oneself as “ill” every step of the way. Depression itself was defined as an illness in 1921. Its major diagnostic criterion was the inability to get up and go to work. It is also not surprising that major therapeutic interventions occur in reaction to major labor strikes. As I have argued in previous work, therapeutic discourse as always positioned itself as an alternative to class-consciousness, prescribing medication and self-help over and above a critique of exploitation, oppression, and awareness of common cause.

Although the ideas surrounding of mental illness are socially constructed, it is the case that capitalism makes us literally sick with diseases caused by environmental toxins, the stress of overwork, difficulties in supporting a family, hunger and malnutrition, substance abuse, and so on. Capitalism also makes us sick of it, leading to protest and rebellion. A hallmark of militant social movements is to turn around the definitions of mental illness and describe the system itself as irrational and harmful.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of racism. The Protest Psychosis by Jonathan Metzl. details the incarceration of angry Black men at an asylum outside of Detroit under the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It was no coincidence that these efforts way corrolated to the eruption of anti-racist urban rebellions and prison prostests among Black inmates.

The establishment was none too slow in response to label Black men, especially angry Black men, as schizophrenics. In the 1960s and 1970s, schizophrenia basically became a Black disease. The FBI diagnosed Malcolm X with pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia by virtue of his membership in radical organizations. They diagnosed Robert Williams, head of a North Carolina chapter of the NAACP as schizophrenic because he fled from false kidnapping charges. In his influential book Negroes with Guns, Williams turned the diagnosis around and defined racism itself as a “mass psychosis.” However, labeling angry Black men as schizophrenic justified the confinement and drugging of those who refused to adjust. The DSM-II identified masculinized hostitliy, violence, and agression as key components of the illness, along with the tendency to blame others for one’s illness. Advertisements for anti-psychotic drugs like Haldol and Thorazine featured images of raging Black men out of control.

However, theorists like Frantz Fanon and WEB Dubois had long been identifying the psyche as a battleground for equality, noting the deep psychological scarring of colonization, slavery, poverty, prejudice, and segregation. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and other militants turned the rhetortic around to label the oppressive, racist system itself as sick. Jonathan Metzl writes, “In this context, the language of paranois, psychosis, and schizoprhenia became a means of pathologizing white society while justifying aggressive self-defense.”

The same mode of psychological discipline has long been applied to women, defined in terms of their bodies as “hysterical” from the get-go. I do not have time to review the entire history of the psychiatric persecution of women. I am not an expert on Freud, although I know that he attributed the discontent of women to their infatuation with their fathers and envy of the penis. However, I would recall what I said earlier about the Enlightenment imposing a new set of dualisms on society; prime among them is the mind-body split. Reason and the mind were the province of men; women became only bodies and by definition, unreasonable. And so it was that white women in the Victorian era whose complaint was their confinement in the domestic sphere, were prescribed futher confinement as a treatment (hence my reference to Perkins-Gilman, above). Today poor women are disproportionately represented in mental hospitals, and are the majority of people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, whose main symptom is difficulty in appropriately regulating one’s emotions.

Mezl documents contemporary efforts to discipline women with diagnoses of depression. Arguing for continuity in the misogynistic assumptions of psychoanalysis and pharmacological psychiatry, he calls attention to how criteria for wellness are shaped by culture and used by the powerful to designate a particular group as a “problem” for society. He writes, “Psychotropic medications are imbued with expectation, desire, gender, race, sexuality, power, time, reputation, contertransference, metaphor, and a host of important factors”—that the idea of psychiatry as a medical science obscures.

Mezl examines American print culture over the latter half of the 20th Century to show how the implementation of psychiatric medication reinscribes sexist and heterosexist Freudian beliefs. New tranquilizers were advertised as “mother’s little helpers” and advertisements depicted mad feminists being “tamed” by Valium. He links efforts at gender discipline to material and ideological challenges to the idea of the nuclear family and a fragile paternal order. This edition of the manual defined menstruation and pregnancy, features simply of being female, as disorders. In the 1980s and 1990s century, Prozac came to be associated with liberation for women—defined as unmitigated happiness. Among the fascinating observations Mezl makes about the transition to pharmapsychology is that it minimizes human contact and community responsibility for wellness. This element is characteristic of more than psychiatry. It is the modus operandi for neoliberalism.

Psychiatry and Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is the intensification of privatization and austerity around the world in a system governed to a significant extent by corporations and their unelected organizations like the World Trade Organization. Naomi Klein has called the neoliberal approach to crisis the “shock doctrine,” that is, to replace all that is slow, broken, inefficient, and less than optimally profitable with corporate control. In the United States, neoliberalism has meant the disappearance of full-time skilled jobs as fewer workers are made to do the tasks that many had done and the erosion of what meager social safety nets we have. Neoliberalism is what has left the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry in charge of health care.

If capitalism makes us sick, we would expect neoliberal capitalism to intensify that suffering and capitalize on it more effectively. And indeed, this is what we find. Neoliberalism breaks people down. According to the World Health Organization, there are at least 450 million people with diagnosed mental health issues. In the United States, the numbers of those disabled by mental disorders as indicated in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (sSDI) increased two and a half times between 1987 and 2007, from one in 184 in Americans to one in 76. The United States’ rate of mental illness is higher than that of any other country, at nearly 30 percent. (Just after the US is Ukraine.) Historical statistics are difficult to come by, since most studies count only hospital admissions, excluding many millions who do not become hospitalized. Another statistical complication is that neoliberal capitalism works puts increasingly brutal pressure on the working class and the poor and has radically decreased the numbers of hospitalized mental ill patients.

James Petras notes that neoliberalism in crisis is even more prone to adversely affect the personality and the person, amplifying “the socio-psychological damage inflicted on salaried and waged workers, . . . including unemployment, job insecurity, and degrading work; high rates of chronic depression, family breakup, suicide, family violence child abuse, anti-social behavior particularly where the unemployed are isolated an unable to exteriorize their hostility and anger via collective social action.” Neoliberalism has reduced living standards and income, forcing wokers to seek lower paying jobs or fall below the poverty line. The unemployed face, along with the inability to pay bills, “deep and perpetual anxiety and a loss of self-respect.”

James Petras notes that neoliberalism in crisis is even more prone to adversely affect the personality and the person, amplifying “the socio-psychological damage inflicted on salaried and waged workers, . . . including unemployment, job insecurity, and degrading work; high rates of chronic depression, family breakup, suicide, family violence child abuse, anti-social behavior particularly where the unemployed are isolated an unable to exteriorize their hostility and anger via collective social action.” Neoliberalism has reduced living standards and income, forcing wokers to seek lower paying jobs or fall below the poverty line. The unemployed face, along with the inability to pay bills, “deep and perpetual anxiety and a loss of self-respect.”

Deinstitutionalization is the most significant neoliberal experiment in the treatment of the mentally ill. Although efforts to move patients out of hospitals and into homes and communities becan in 1955 (as soon as medications were available to make patients “manageable”, it became clear that it was anything but humane. PBS reported that the magnitude of deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill qualifies it as one of the largest social experiments in American history. In 1955, there were 558,239 severely mentally ill patients in the nation’s public psychiatric hospitals. In 1994, this number had been reduced by 486,620 patients, to 71,619. In effect, approximately 92 percent of the people who would have been living in public psychiatric hospitals in 1955 were not living there in 1994. Most of those who were deinstitutionalized from the nation’s public psychiatric hospitals were severely mentally ill.

Thus deinstitutionalization helped to create the mental illness crisis by discharging people from public psychiatric hospitals without ensuring that they received the medication and rehabilitation services necessary for them to live successfully in the community. Deinstitutionalization further exacerbated the situation because, once the public psychiatric beds had been closed, they were not available for people who later became mentally ill, and this situation continues up to the present. In 1997, approximately 2.2 million severely mentally ill people did not receive any psychiatric treatment. That number is much greater today. Approximately 200,000 individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are homeless, constituting one-third of the estimated 600,000 homeless population. Nearly 300,000 individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or 16 percent of the total inmate population, are in jails and prisons (“More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States,” Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Assn., May 2010). The World Health Organization estimates that in the US, only 41 percent of people with mental health dorders receive treatment.

Sedgwick writes, “It is not the therapuetic spirit of Hippocrates, but the capital-accounting ethos denounced by Marx and hymned by Weber, which in different phases of capitalist development herds the multitudes inside asylum walls and expels them again when the operation becomes too costly for a fiscally overextended social order.”

Over the past two decades, governments in the industrialized West have pursued policy agendas that reflect several characteristic elements of neoliberalism including a normative privileging of the individual; a preference for private sector funding for, and provision of, services, and the integration of corporate management practices into the work of government. During the same period there has been increasing attention – within the business community, among researchers, in the media, and by governments and international organizations – to the problem of depression, particularly among adults in the paid labor force. In addition over this time, many of the social and economic policies adopted by governments in these jurisdictions have reflected neoliberal goals and orientations. This approach, as described by Canadian scholar Katherine Teghtsoonian, is one of “responsibilization,” or locating responsibility for distress with the distressed, all couched in a language of helping.

However, neoliberal capitalism has jettisoned the stated humanitarian goal of “helping.” Other scholars, for example Australian legal scholar Terry Carney, have documented the rapid shift toward pharmaceutical intervention and “community-based” care, which, although it sounds humane, means, “You are on your own.”

In Mad in America, Robert Whitaker sketches the history of treatments for mental illness from bedlam to progessivism, then through eugenics, torture, brain surgery, electroshock, and dangerous but profitable neuroleptic medications hailed as miraculous. Sedating the mentally ill became the standard treatment. The reliance on medications prescribed by physicians grew as the interests of physicians and pharmaceutical companies converged in the 1950s.

Whitaker’s second book takes on the behemoth pharmaceutical industry as the key beneficiary of the explosion of medication-based treatment. Whitaker states that US patients spent $25 billion on anti-depressants and antipsychotics in 2007. The explosion of diagnoses and disability due to mental illness since 1987 has brought millions of children into treatment for newly diagnosed disorders such as ADHD. Likewise, in The Emperor’s New Drugs, Irving Kirsch reviews dozens of clinical trials and discovered that anti-depressant medications were hardly more effective than placebos.

Whitaker questions the validity of attributing mental illness to imbalances of chemicals in the brain and raises a number of alarms about medications designed to address those imbalances. For example, in the 1980s, the National Institute for Mental Health concluded that there is no research affirming a causal relationship between low serotonin levels and depression. Likewise, the theory that schizoprenia was caused by high dopamine levels was also discredited. Many antipsychotic drugs carry the risk of permanent tardive dyskinesia and increased risk for dementia later in life. Moreover, since the introduction of psychoactive medications, there has been an increase in chronic disabling mental illness. Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Klonopin cultivate dependency to drugs that in the long term do not alleviate anxiety. Despite numerous studies indicating that neuroleptics create significant changes in the brain but do not affect the rate or incidence of recovery from major mental illness, the prescription of medications like Prozac, Lamictal, Risperdal, and Klonopin is still the front line of treatment.

I believe that Whitaker is wrong to attribute the increase in mental illness rates largely to the selling of and dependence on psychotropic medications. Many of us probably know someone whose life was improved or saved due to psychopharmacological intervention. In addition, Whitaker does not consider social and economic factors that could affect the number of people in mental and emotional distress in neoliberal capitalism. The “bipolar boom” he describes could as easily be attributable to neoliberalism’s appreciation for sped-up productivity and uncontrollable consumer spending—adaptive, as Emily Martin explains, until the patient becomes profoundly depressed. In addition, it could be, as I am suggesting, that the intensification of austerity and the decimation of working class strength around the world has created ever greater numbers of actual cases of mental illness. However, the studies Whitaker cites warrant careful attention if the majority of people benefiting from pharmapsychology are (pharmaceutical company-backed) physicians and pharmaceutical companies.

Causality is difficult to assess, as three trends originated in the early 1970s: a neoliberal capitalism that met economic crisis with ruthless austerity; a dramatic rise in the incidence of reported mental illness; and the medicalization of mental illness such that a physician can treat the symptoms of workers in distress with a quick and efficient pill. The government at this time withdrew research support for long-term psychotherapy in favor of the biological model which dominates neoliberal health care. In corporate health care, time with doctors is rationed and expensive, and psychiatry relies heavily on “medication check” appointments; fewer and fewer offer any talk therapy or even conversation. Medications can be prohibitively costly and uncovered by insurance, especially before the brand-name patents expire.

Capitalism is distressing but incapable of remedying its subjects’ distress. This contradiction stands as an analogue to Marx’s observation that capitalism creates its own gravediggers and:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Proponents of an oppressive psychiatry and of the capitalist system itself are terrified of the madness of crowds—of Black people and women and workers and the poor whose anger appears to bourgeois society to be “unreasonable.” And well they should be because there are millions of people around the world who are sickened by the neoliberal social order. But it is that order that is malignant and disordered.

Toward a Healthy Species-Being

What are we maladjusted socialists to do? We can look to the history of mental health reform for inspiration. There have been important movements, many growing out of the 1960s and 1970s, to improve the conditions and access to care of mentally ill Americans. One important example is the movement that forced the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders catalogued in the DSM in 1973. It is clear that the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, including the movement for LGBTQ liberation, were instrumental in achieving this victory.

A commemorative panel at the APA in 2013 brought together psychiatrists who played crucial roles in the fight to end the stigma attached to homosexuality both within and outside the mental health field. According to one account, Melvin Sabshin, M.D., a member of the APA Board of Trustees in the early 1970s and chair of the Scientific Program Committee at that time, credited the gay liberation movement as the impetus for change. He recalled the 1970 annual meeting in San Francisco where Gay Liberation Front activists along with political protesters in support of other social and political causes disrupted the meeting. “It was guerilla theater” at that meeting and the one held in Washington, D.C., the next year, he said.

In 1972, for the first time, the annual meeting featured exhibits and discussions spotlighting positive aspects of the lives of gay individuals.

In a key vote in December 1973, the Board of Trustees overwhelmingly endorsed psychiatrist Robert Spitzer’s recommendation to delete homosexuality from the DSM. A small group of gay psychiatrists was holding informal meetings to explore forming an organization that would heighten their visibility and that of gay patients. This organization eventually became the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP), now comprised of more than 600 members.

Building movements for social justice, including defending the lives and rights of the mentally ill, is the only way forward. Granted, can be very difficult while suffering as an individual from mental illness to participate fully in social movements and socialist organizing. Our political organization cannot take up the tasks of group therapy. However, political action can become a site of agency, a position from which to diagnose the system as irrational and to claim our own collective power.

We have to survive in order to fight, and that survival sometimes means availing ourselves of the meager and dangerous tools of coping that capitalism has afforded us. As Emily Martin explains, one can be both a patient with a diagnosis doing whatever it takes in the everyday setting—including staying on one’s meds—and an anthropologist, a critic of the hegemonic functions that psychiatry has played throughout modern times. There is no contradiction between filling your prescription for Lamictal at the pharmacy while seeking to bring big pharma down. There is nothing counter-revolutionary in surviving.

Capitalism grinds us down. In the past, it allowed for some meager remedies in the name of Enlightenment, but neoliberalism has shed even the veneer of civilization and reason. We cannot know what health looks like until we make a society built to meet our needs, one where caretaking is a social priority and where our jobs do not make us sick. We aim to create a society where misogyny is a thing of the past not a reason for violence, and where women and men are no longer disciplined to bear the burdens of society in the private family.

At the nexus of biology and culture, mental illness will persist beyond a socialist revolution. But can we not envision a world of abundance not austerity, one of social provisioning of basic needs not isolation and self-blame? There, health will be a matter of collective striving to foster a society built to achieve the well being of the human race.

Encomium on Pat Robinson

The ancient philosopher, scientist, and humanist Aristotle once said “There is honor in being a dog.” Given that Pat loved her dogs as children, this insight is important. But more importantly, Aristotle defined real friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics (named for his son and father). True friends aren’t friends because you are useful to each other, altough you may be so. True friends are about more than having fun, although fun is involved in friendship. Real friendship consists in the mutual care and cultivation of goodness in one another, and I believe that it is that quality that Pat Robinson shared with all of her deeply held friends.

Aristotle said, “Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; in poverty and in other misfortunes people think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions—‘two going together’—for with friends people are able both to think and to act.

Pat lived this definition of friendship. She cared for us seriously, guarded our prosperity, attempted to correct our youthful errors, tried to keep us from screwing up, and demanded that we take care of ourselves properly. She mobilized her friends to help each other. Her diverse friendship group is a crowdsource for all kinds of information–about the University, about state services, and many other things. 

Pat could be grumpy, judmental and proud. The one virtue she lacked, one that Aristotle did not consider, was the habit of tipping waitstaff well. Also, she could hardly stay in one lane of traffic when she drove, yet had everything to say about my driving. And she was wise and loyal, demanding and constant–and she was fun.

My memories of Pat consist in glimmers of sunlight that came into the back room from the big yard behind her house in South Austin, where we would barbecue chicken badly, prepare for the fireworks, weather severe storms. With dogs. Always, we would watch sports. With dogs. Selecting and setting up the Christmas tree. With dogs. The exchange of small gifts. With dogs.

She took me to women’s basketball and softball games and filled me in reverently about all of the players—not just as athletes but as people—where they were from, whether they were getting good grades. She was proud of her “good kids.”

Here’s how she cared for me. She wanted me to slow down and live in the soft suspense of softball time, which might indeed be the feeling of living in the moment of “going together,” as Aristotle said. “Dana,” Pat said, “you need to slow down. You move too fast.” And she meant this literally and figuratively. (See above re: driving.) From our times in the yard or at the softball field to her last days, she reminded me of this lesson. When she was in nursing care, she asked to be adjusted in the bed. In a flash I was at her side and asking her to roll to one side. I pulled on her to assist. She was not entirely present, but she said, “You move too fast.” That remains her lesson for me.

I believe that Pat could spot someone who needed advice from across a crowded field. Once you proved yourself worthy, she would offer it amply.

Aristotle said, “It is natural that such friendships should be infrequent, for such people are. Such friendship requires time and familiarity, as the proverb says people cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends until each has been found loveable and been trusted by each. A wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.” 

Pat took time making friends and sustaining her friendships. I don’t remember the exact occasion when we met. It was through a mutual acquaintance. Pat took me on about 17 years ago when I was going through a rough time, a divorce and a series of melodramatic relationships culminating in my marriage to my beloved Katie Feyh. But in the beginning, Katie came under Pat’s close scrutiny. Katie was among the young Pat hoped to keep from error, namely, the error of breaking my heart. Katie won Pat over, of course, and became one of the people Pat held close.

At my wedding to Katie in 2006, she arrived in classic style–crisp ivory pantsuit, burgundy blouse, dancing shoes–and a wig. Pat was battling cancer then, too. She was winning that round. And she celebrated by dancing her ass off. 

Over the years Pat was a great companion—we traveled to the beach, to Houston to see art with my daughter, and to all of the breakfast joints in Austin.

She was constant in her support. She always touched base and worried if she didn’t hear back. She knew how hard her friends’ lives could be and she was always ready to lend perspective, advice, or company. She stood by me during the roughest times of my life and reminded me that I could cope. I hope that I was as true a support to her.

What I can say is this: With Pat we were better than if we went alone. Friendship is an undiminishing state of character. Pat was a character with character. She loved us well. I loved her as did we all, and these feelings are undiminished with her passing.



“No angel”: A disturbing, dehumanizing pattern

Let these facts be entered into evidence:

1. George Zimmerman was acquitted July 14 after chasing down and murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen. Zimmerman’s assumption was that because Trayvon was Black and wearing a hoodie, he was an “f***ing punk.” He was, after all, “no angel.”

2. Marissa Alexander, a Black woman in Florida, was sentenced July 18 to 20 years in jail for firing warning shots (not even aiming at a person) in self-defense against her abusive partner. The contrast with the Zimmerman case suggests that Alexander’s race, and perhaps the race of her spouse, determined the differential treatment and sentencing.

3. Larry Jackson, a Black resident of Austin, TX, was chased and shot in the back of the neck on July 26 by a police officer named Charles Kleinert. Today it was reported that the Austin Police Department is claiming that the shooting was an “accident”–even though Kleinert had no reason to chase, much less draw a weapon on, Jackson. (It was the third such police shooting this year.) Again, reporting suggests that one rationale for Kleinert’s actions was that Jackson, loitering near the bank, acted suspiciously, and that he had a record of committing fraud in 2003. Neither approaching a bank nor fraud is a capital crime. If a white man had pulled on the bank door, would Kleinert have given chase? I believe not–even though the persons who had robbed the bank earlier in the day were white. News reports insist that Jackson was “no angel”–as if one must either be guilty of absolutely no wrongdoing ever, or face death–but only if one is Black.

4. In Louisiana, a Black, 14-year-old girl in juvenile detention reported a guard for sexual abuse. A headline reporting her claim stated that she was no “little Miss Muffin,” suggesting that despite her age and the severely constrained capacity to determine her own actions, she consented to the sexual relationship. Prison attorneys argue that she “wanted to be raped.”

5. In many death penalty cases, evidence of innocence is overlooked after the original conviction, on the grounds that the defendant–in most cases, Black or brown–should die because they were likely criminals in any case. Indeed, TX governor Anne Richards, a Democrat who oversaw 48 executions during her time in office,  commented in 1993 when refusing to grant clemency to Leonel Herrera, scheduled for execution in spite of a case for innocence: “He must be guilty of something.”

I could list dozens of other cases of police executions, death row executions, disproportionate sentencing, deafness to claims of innocence, and consistent racial profiling as warrant for the terrorizing and murder of people of color. As Michelle Alexander shows in her book The New Jim Crow, the criminalization of people of color, and especially Black men, since the civil rights movement has generated a regime of segregation and vigilantism that works through the criminal justice system. To deny someone due process–of which execution by cop (or cop-wanna-be) is the most extreme example–on the argument that because they are Black or brown renders racial minority members as less than human, as threats to an orderly society, as people guilty “of something” warranting imprisonment, violation, or death, regardless of actual innocence.

The racist backlash against those making these connections has been virulent and profound. But we must stand our ground.

I just got asked by a journalist whether Juliet, Daisy Buchanan, or Bella Swan should be regarded as “good” or “bad” role models for girls. Here is how I responded:

First, it is important to say that the matter is not as simple as “good” and “bad” role models. For mainstream feminists, entry into the world of work and politics is the hallmark of a “good” model; for some radical feminists, the capacity to nurture is what makes a character “good.” In my field, rhetorical studies, we are more likely to talk about how women in media and politics negotiate the double bind between femininity and power in complex ways and in historical context. 
We cannot take a character like Juliet or Daisy Buchanan out of their historical and political context and expect them to represent adequate models of women’s empowerment in the here and now. Every text offers a perspective on its characters. In Gatsby, for example, I believe that Fitzgerald is calling attention to the limits of Daisy’s power as sexual object; therefore the text encourages modern women to resist such a subordinate role even if the character does not model such a role. I hope that this makes sense. While the Daily Beast calls the character“infantile and impressionable, and at worst, possibly selfish to the point of pathology,” we are not meant to accept her as a role model but to do the opposite: Because she is represented as unsympathetic, women readers and viewers can misidentify. She is not intended to be a role model, and indeed the book’s critique of Gatsby might indicate that Fitzgerald was operating from something of a feminist sensibility and also one critical of the equation of money and love, and the representation of women as property. 
If Daisy is histrionic, capitalism is represented as pathologically disordered and she is a symptom of it. The book is cautions us against a too-easy acceptance of the promises of the American Dream. Daisy is a symbol of that empty mystery and a victim of the shallow role she must play in a shallow world.
When characters meet a tragic end, it is hard to say that they were supposed to be role models. (Juliet, I would argue, plays a very different role as a symbol for internecine conflict. I can’t really comment further. My point is that we can’t look to the character as a model without asking whether the author or text is encouraging us to do so.)
(I also think we cannot conflate the current film and the book, since each operates in its own historical context and has its own persuasive devices and nuance.)
I wouldn’t want to be quoted unless some mention of the complexity of this issue would be included among my remarks.
All of that being said, I find nothing redeemable in Bella Swan. TheTwilight texts have none of the thematic complexity of Shakespeare or Fitzgerald (or of the Brontes), and Bella herself is rewarded for being basically an empty vessel of melancholy attachment, even enthrallment, to forces more powerful than herself. 
A number of scholars have written about the complexity of the Victorian melodrama, and have argued that characters like Bella give girls license to explore emotion in excess of what is conventionally sanctioned. But Bella has no interiority (at least in the films; a friend told me that the novels are guided by a diary, in which she expresses actual thoughts), no self outside of the romantic role. She is literally vapid, willing to sacrifice herself to love and motherhood. I’m extremely glad that my daughter, now 22, did not linger over Twilight (favoring the Hunger Games and the intelligence and power of Katniss Everdeen).
Girls and women, however, are not dupes of popular culture. There are many resources in culture, literature, politics, and family life for cultivating a whole self.