The Sociology of the Damned (book review)

A REVIEW OF RACIAL TENSIONS AND NATIONAL IDENTITY by Ernest Queener Campbell (Venderbilt University Press 1972)

It is the function of knowledge not merely to apprehend reality, but to change it. Equally it is only in the process of changing reality that one arrives at true knowledge. In the area of the science such an observation would be considered common-place, trite. You arrive at the reality of the atom only by splitting it – by changing its reality that is. The process is its purpose: progress to serve man.

In the social “sciences” however, the function of knowledge has tended to become increasingly blurred and confused. Part of the reason for this tendency is the use of language and techniques which, so far from helping to apprehend (leave alone change) reality, have served only to abstract it. But the reason for such abstraction must itself be sought in the refusal of sociology to change the social reality that it studies. Hence the study itself becomes abstruse, irrelevant, sociologists has nothing to do with real life. And the sociologists only way out of that unreality –  the only way to make his irrelevance relevant- for even he is a  part of the society he studies – is to create a reality all his own, a reality of ritual, myth, shibboleth and jargon, hierarchies and high-priests, acolytes and converts.

But the question he poses for those of us whom he studies is simply: what good is his knowledge to us? Does he in his analysis of our societies tell us what we can do to change them so that we can be free of oppression and exploitation? Does his analysis contain within it the seedlings at least of a strategy for change ? Does his apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Does he convey it in a language that we can understand? If he does none of these things, should we not merely reject it, but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider him a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?

These questions motivate me to answer that the papers in this symposium are dangerous – with one exception. Inevitably so, since it was intended that -the pre-occupying issue! of the conference – this on the evidence of the convenor – would be the “effect of race structures on the capacity of a people to commit themselves psychologically, in the form of loyalty and obligation, to the nation-state in which they reside.” Quite clearly the conference was required to take the nation- state, the status quo, the power-structure as the given factor. The question then, was how one would accommodate racial groups within the “nation- state” so as to keep them from threatening the power structure itself? Implicit in the question is the fear that if “race structures’ which are of their very nature given to disobedience and disloyalty are allowed to fall into or coincide with disruptive class structures, the power structure would collapse. Hence the solution is to keep them apart, treat them to different slices of the cake, allow them occasional fingers in the pie mixed metaphors stem from a mixed economy – get them to co-exist (in what Mr. Esman calls)”mutual deterrence . “ Give them pluralism – all sorts of pluralism, cultural, social, political – but not “economic pluralism”, because then we are back to class again and that implies a threat to the power structure.

The “scholars” at this conference must have taken the injunction to heart for even when, in investigating “race structures” they come up against the economic and political structure in which the former is embedded, they somehow manage to veer away from the substantial issues.

Hoetink, for instance, in his paper on “National identity, culture and race in the Caribbean”, is at first prepared to acknowledge the ‘academic legitimacy” of an analysis which sees the conflicts common to Third World societies as stemming from “strong external economic and political influences”. (He will not come right out and say “external domination”; when he does use the phrase, he puts it within inverted commas). But since such a “universalistic approach” would tend to lump all Third World societies together and make them no more distinguishable than “Twedledum and Tweedledee “, Mr. Hoetink prefers to study them -but from an entirely different angle. What he now in the particular seeks to discover is how “those societies, which at the moment of their historical inception were characterised by socially relevant racial and cultural diversity, lend themselves to a comparison of ways in which their racial and cultural components have reacted to the external forces mentioned earlier”. He begins, that is, by conceding that what to Third World societies is a is common common economic and political domination. The next logical step would be to take the common factor (of external domination) and see how it operates in terms of “the racial and cultural components” of specific societies. What is the specific nature of this domination in every case? Where does it distort the |organic development of indigenous social structures? How does it reconstitute a society’s “racial and cultural components” in such a way to subserve the imperial ethos ? How does external domination use as these components to replicate and reinforce internal domination?

These are legitimate questions thrown up by the “universalistic” approach and the answers to them provide at least a guide to the study of specific societies. But when Mr. Hoetink comes to the concrete study of these societies, he lays aside whatever insight he might have gained from his initial approach, and begins afresh with a new set of tools acquired through years of sociological training and carried in a bag marked “models”. In the event the two processes of cognition from the general to the particular and the particular to the general – instead of working towards each other and comprehending the subject, became disjointed and uncomprehending. And Mr. Hoetink himself becomes incomprehensible. When one finally emerges from a labyrinth of horizontal, vertical and vertico-horizontal relationships, one is told that the answer to the question (which one never asked quite like this) on how social harmony and national identity could be achieved ins ocieties racially and culturally segmented at birth, is the establishment of a “social-racial continuum” by means of “an ideology of ultimate racial amalgamation”. In other words, or, better still, in the words the papers’s discussant, Anselme Remy, “by changing the racial ideology , you get rid of social conflicts” – no need to change the social structure.

But then such a conclusion is already locked within a model which ipso facto excludes any real consideration of internal class structure or external domination. “In the concept of segmented society”, comments Anselme Remy, “is a built-in bias toward the dominant group and/or colonial power. Neither the coercive power of the government in the plural society,nor the control of the dominant group in the segmented one, is questioned . We are placed before a dilemma or a fait accompli”. But then “all of Western science and historiography is so clearly interwoven with Western imperialism that the former can only describe and justify the latter. ..” (Blaut quoted in Remy).

Katznelson’s paper, to take them in the order of publication, is on “The politics of racial buffering in England, 1948-1968”. The larger version of this has since emerged in a book published by this Institute. But then the Institute of Race Relations also published Hoetink s “The two variants in Caribbean race relations” – which of course says very little for the Institute as it was then constituted. Briefly, Katznelson’s paper is historicist rather than analytical or, rather, it is not analytical precisely because it has no organic sense of history.  He is able to see that the case of voluntary migration” to Britain “is at least partly product of the colonial contact situation”, but he does not see that both colonial contact and migration were products of colonial (and neo-colonial) economics . Once the colonies were impoverished of their resources and left without capital to activate their labour power, labour had necessarily to follow capital into the metropolitan country. Migration in that sense was never voluntary, and “colonial contact situation” is a prissy way of describing the ravages of colonialism.

Again, it is ahistorical to say that the anxiety of British politicians to “depoliticise race” arose from an unfamiliarity with domestic racial issues. Such an interpretation ignores the whole matrix of imperialist culture in which British politicians were moulded. What is worse, it overlooks the much more (historically) rational explanation for the depoliticisation of race:  the capitalist strategy of dividing the working class against itself. Since Mr. Katznelson wrote his paper, the working class has been further divided (by government enactments and legislation) as between Asians and West Indians, But this again is a part of the colonial (and capitalist) pattern, and it is my contention that with a little more appreciation of history, Mr. Katznelson would have been able to foresee such an outcome. He would have also seen that there are no such things as buffering institutions, only institutions of direct social control, one of whose tactics is buffering. But as Katznelson shows it is a tactic which requires the mediation of the black middle class. And even as, in course of time, the tactic becomes outworn, so does the black bourgeoisie become discredited, revealing, in the final analysis, their loyalty to their class rather than to their colour – which of course is part of the politicisation process of the black masses.

The inference clearly is that it is futile to speak about the|politics of race without comprehending the economics of racism – in as much as it is worthless to investigate the culture of racism (as Hoetink does) without examining its economic and political dimensions . Racism, in other words, is a cultural artefact of an exploitative economic system maintained by a specific political power structure. Any serious study of the subject therefore demands a total view, holist analysis, which by its very nature will call the system into a question and provide (implicitly at least) the guidelines for action.

To put it differently the racial experience comprehends the total experience of the capitalist system, at its (economic) base and its (socio-political) superstructure, and challenges the fabric . of capitalist society. To bring me an ing to that experience- to conceptualise it – is the function of scholarship. Implicit in such scholarship would be a strategy for action . Any scholarship therefore, which takes the meaning out of that experience by engaging in a partial view or a static view or an abstracted view, works against such action and betrays if only by default the people it studies to the system that oppresses them. One is “either a part of the problem or a part of the solution”.

And so to paper no. 3: Kilson on the “Dynamics of national ism and. political militancy among Negro Americans”. The sub-heads (historical pattern, context of black militancy, sociology and style of black militancy, political structure of black militancy) indicate the tenor of his discourse and the frequent use of “dilemma’ ‘paradox” and ” irony” shows how he renders static the dynamics of “contradiction.” But what points to Mr. Kilson’s political drift is the invocation to “federal resources…to lend viability to those black militant organisations which provide ghetto services to the poor and lend political direction or coherence to Negro city youth” thereby preventing “a major set-back in the long-run political institutionalisation of the Negro sub system in American society”. Nowhere is Mr. Kilson able to the class components of the black nationalist movement in America, and how it led to the formation of militant working class organisations led by blacks (such as DRUM and FRUM and the BWRM). Nor does he appreciate the importance to the more militant sections of the women’s liberation movement of the class-caste analysis which emerged from the black struggle.

Samkange in discussing racial tensions in his country (Zimbabwe) goes off on ą Christian jag: “all men belong to one and the same species; racial differences are purely and simply local variations and manifestations of men’s ability to adapt themselves to their cultural and physical environment”. He then proceeds to describe the “local variations and manifestations and ends up by asserting the mystical belief that since slavery and colonialism came to an end, white minority rule in Zimbabwe will some day come to an end too- and what, after all, is time “when regarded in the context of the history of a continent” ? “It remains the writer’s unshakeable conviction that the sons and daughters of Zimbabwe shall overcome and shall, like their forefathers, rule in Zimbabwe”. Hear hear.

In 1910 the President of the University of Illinois pointed out to Teddy Roosevelt that it only required the creation of a Chinese intellectual elite tune with American aspirations and interests to render China a client state. “This type of operation,” he remarked, “is more useful than an army”.

Paper 5 is by John Saunders- on “Class, colour and prejudice: a Brazilian counterpoint”.Lest the juxtaposition of class and colour misleads the reader into thinking that Mr. Saunders has here embarked on a class/colour analysis, let me hasten to say that the paper is really about prejudice (awareness of, manifestations of, social distance and …) and social mobility as presented in the race relations literature on Brazil since 1950. Mr. Saunders’ own contribution to his recapitulation of other people’s works consists of 6.5 axioms. One such begins “negative stereotyping of the negro is common among white Brazilians”. There is a fact for you. Another reads “both colour and prejudice tend to slide along a continuum. Prejudice and discrimination are functions of the perception of the degree of negritude of the individual and of the situational factors in which interpersonal relations occur”. That should put the chip back where it belongs. Axiom 6: “occupational mobility is hindered by colour and the degree of hindrance is related to the degree of negritude…”

So now you know.In fairness to Mr. Saunders, however, it must he remarked that his paper is an excellent narrative bibliography of the literature on Brazilian race relations.

With Austin T. Turk’s paper on South Africa, “The limits of coercive legalism in conflict regulation”,we are back to the sociology that plays with itself. The tool this time or the model, rather, relates to legal order. Legal order, according to Mr. Turk, depends on five things : military dominance, recognised “polity boundaries”, historical “conditioning” and “cultural consensus”. South Africa has the first three attributes but lacks the other two. Ergo, it must resort to “coercive legalism”.

Naked force is probably what he me ans. But as though taking an obvious fact, obscuring it from view and then re-emerging with the aid of a canny kit was/in itself an exercise scholarly enough, Mr. Turk confounds us further by throwing in something about polity and ecology. The polity boundary problem”, he declares, “will not be solved unless the ecological problem is also solved. . .” “Is he in fact referring to the economic problem, but is too decent the term? And what is his model, anyway, except (in the words to use of the papers discussant John B, Marshall) “a formula to be followed by groups who seek to achieve class domination?”

But there is a far more fundamental question which Mr. Turk’s paper throws up – fundamental to us blacks, that is. What is it about South Africa that sends our “objective” scholars scurrying for models, mystifications, explanations , rationalisations and even justifications when confronted with the stark realities of a racist ideology? Why does the South African experience frighten them away from the conclusion that racism, any sort of racism, must finally lead to fascism? Is it because, in confronting the logic of racism, they are forced to face up to the inexorable logic of capitalist society and life as white South Africa can only be destroyed – and it is the business of scholarship to help destroy it as it should have Nazi Germany.

Milton J. Esman would have done himself a favour if he had paid more attention to Wallerstein in the previous session before delivering his own paper. As it is, the only thing remarkable about Mr. Esman’s paper is that he should have had the temerity to deliver it/all after Wallerstein’s lucid and erudite exposition of race, class and status. (Or do “scholars” not listen to each other, but expect us to listen to them?)

Wallerstein argues conclusively in his paper on “Social conflict in post-independence in Black Africa …” that “status-group tensions are the inefficacious and self-defeating expression of class frustrations”, whereas Esman reiterates that group conflict in Malaysia (“Malaysia: communal coexistence and mutual deference “) is largely due to competition for “the same values”. If by competition for values he competition for status, the basic class nature of communal conflict means |should at least be worth investigating. If, on the other hand he is referring more directly to competition for resources (he says at one point that “one resource for which both groups are competing is land …”), a class/community analysis is equally inevitable. But Mr. Esman denies the validity of class in communal politics by merely denying its existence. He states, “there are no cross- cutting occupational, economic, or ideological solidary interests or structures that are important enough to displace even seriously attenuate these or fundamental communal cleavages …”. And yet in outlining the economic structure of Malaysia, Mr Esman notes that the “modern sectors” of the economy are virtually owned and controlled by the Chinese, and that their average per capita income is two and a half times that of the Malays. How. in view of these facts, Mr. Esman could ignore the class nature of communal conflict is indicative of why bourgeois sociology is levant to the serious study of our societies.

In my own country (Sri Lanka), the communal conflict between Sinhalese and the Tamils stems basically from the reluctance of latter to give up the inordinate status and power that they had achieved from serving the colonial masters – in the role of comprador democracy. Under the guise of preserving Tamil language and culture, the politics of the Federal Party has served to heighten the exploitation of the Tamil masses while ensuring the privileges of the elite.

But then as Professor Wallerstein remarks – and I am not loth to remind him, since he has something to teach me – “one of the relations of status-group affiliations is to conceal the realities class differentials”. “…behind the ethnic “reality” lies a class conflict not very far from the surface”.

One might add that behind the sociologist’s reality lies a class interest. To bring that interest to the surface, however, is the job of the black reviewer – and black, of course, is a political colour. 

To evade this responsibility is to acquiesce to the sociology of the damned.