Sunday, October 2, 2016

Claudia Rankin and Serena Williams: commodity fetishism devalues black lives and the lives and well being of each of us


      Who has value on the market and whose lives, ordinary activities and relationships do not?  This is the basic question of commodity fetishism in Marx and it is at the center of the great movement Black Lives Matter.  Here are some thoughts I sent to my students about it last Friday morning.

     Thursday, on Democracy Now, Serena Williams said she was being driven by her young nephew and they passed a police car; she was frightened and outraged at the thought of the cop pulling them over and shooting him. Just like all the others... "He is so innocent," she said.  "I had to speak out."   

      When "BLACK LIVES" do not matter, when a cop can beat Sandra Bland for asserting her rights during a traffic stop, she can be murdered in a jail and there is no consequence, when Michael Marshall can be beaten by six sheriffis in a Denver jail, die, and no one is held responsible, this means that what "the life" of any black man or woman or child is worth on the capitalist/legal market - is 0.  Only the lives of white killers matter.

***

       When Albert Olango was killed by a cop in El Cajon, California, the police immediately tried him in the media with a photo of him holding an e-cigarette.  Witnesses from further away said it was an e-cigarette. The police found no weapon.   The police refuse to release the full tape.  His sister had called the police to help medically with Albert because, distraught over the death of a close friend, he had had a mental breakdown.

***

     What is the life of a mentally ill  black man worth?

***

     it turns out that the cop who shot Olango is the sexual harasser of Catherine Greer, who works "under him."  She is married, and her wife and she have 0 interest in men.  The same cop  tried to throw himself on her and them.   She filed charges against him.  but she also violated the police's criminal code of silence.   For the exchange value of Albert's life as well as Greer and her wife's wishes are both 0. In any other job, the cop would have been fired for what he did. But the El Cajon police department kept him on, allowed him to harass her to this moment and is shielding him again in the case of his committing a murder.  His exchange-value as a killer/sexist cop on the capitalist market, even though he is Chicano, is high.

***

          What is the use or use-value of human life?  Each human life is of infinite value.  Ordinarily, Sandra Bland or Michael Marshall or Albert Olango or the love of the two women or the lives or loves of any of us would be of infinite value, both  to each of them, and to every one else in a decent community.  This would be what a human security arrangement would protect.

***

       But in their life on the commodity market, most of these human beings have no value.  Their lives and loves do not matter.  This is the difference between what Marx names the exchange-value of a commodity on the market  (its value in money, determined by the social necessary or labor-time at any given stage of production, the labor-time at an average level of skill and intensity, to produce it) and its actual or moral value to human beings.

***
   
       "SAY HER NAME!" That was the great chant of women in Black Lives Matter who disrupted political rallies, demanding politicians of Sandra Bland. And this week, there are uprisings in El Cajon and Charlotte and in Tulsa.  The lives of each of these people is being spoken for in diverse ways by these communities and in protests around the country.  And even Hillary Clinton, a candidate for President, now speaks out decently about these issues - taught by what has happened and the confrontations, in her case, very awkward, with demonstrators from Black Lives Matter.  This is the fight for what is right from below against the most horrific terms of a commoditized society, commodity fetishism.

***

      Two related ways of looking at this.  First, Claudine Rankine's marvelous and today celebrated poem Citizen: an American Lyric makes exactly this point about Black Lives.  It would not have won such recognition, though a great poem, if it were not dealing with Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others. For its exchange value, its commodity value (fetishism) on the market - the recognition socially that it  is a fine poem, the awards it has won - is produced by the democratic uprising/movement from below about these killings.  Part of the poem is about jealousy against Serena Williams  from Compton, the greatest tennis star of our era, of a tennis rival, the white white white blond blond blond Aryan Aryan Aryan Dane (high exchange/commodity value) Caroline Wozniacki.  Wozniacki made odious racist "fun" of Serena's body by stuffing towels into her top  and against her thin bottom and strutting around. Wozniacki, so to speak, makes Trump, the KKK and the Nazis jump up and down with rapture...

***

     Wozniacki is appealing to a stereotype of black women on the market, marketing/flaunting her  Aryanness.  See page 36 and the photo next to it, and read the whole section, pp. 23-36, on blackness in white spaces, against white canvasses, which translates precisely into devalued "commoditiness. " Rankin says this in speaking of Hennessy Youngman on p. 23.  It is the exchange value of idiocy which makes what Wozniacki did "funny" to racists.  And Rankin's poem immortalizes Wozniacki.  In 100 years, people interested in literature or American history will read Citizen and the worst thing Wozniacki has ever done will live on and on and on.  It is dangerous to be a racist fool...

***

    As Rankin also traces, Williams in 2004 served five aces against Jennifer Capriati, every one of which was called out by Maria Alves, the line judge.  But everyone else could see that her serves were in.  Williams protested, and Jimmy Connors and others commented.  A new replay machine was introduced to prevent a big black body from getting in the way of the blindness/whiteness, Rankin suggests, of this benighted umpire.

***  

    And throughout her career, Serena has been viciously attacked for standing up to racism, or alternately, praised for keeping her mouth shut and taking it.  The latter praise is racist.  Serena has long triumphed on the tennis court.  But it is time- as our era of unending murders of unarmed people by shoot-to-kill police underlines -  to strike racism from American life, including the entourage of and commentary on sports.

***
     
       Second, slavery and Jim Crow for prisoners are nothing but the commodification/reduction by force of the infinitely valuable lives and dignity of each person captured, sold,  worked to death young (a "low commodity value") or murdered by it. The last is, of course,: 0 commodity value.

***  

      And John Brown in Kansas and Harper's Ferry and Nat Turner, and every person who marched to smash bondage in the Revolution (see Black Patriots and Loyalists) and the American Civil War and fought for Reconstruction stood for the value of human life and every single life of a black person affected by these things.  And likewise, the civil rights movement that at slow last put an end to legalized Jim Crow (with the sad exception of today's prison system, what Michelle Alexander describes in The New Jim Crow).

***

       A central difference between Karl Marx and Max Weber on racism, status and democracy can be put this way.  As William Barber, the powerful and brilliant minister and head of the NAACP in North Carolina puts it, poor whites also get the shaft there when a man picking up his son in a car, a man with brain damage, a man whose wife is there informing and trying to negotiate with the police, is murdered by the police.  The racism that devalues Keith Lamont Scott's life also diminishes - though less fiercely - their lives.  Only a democratic movement from below, can defeat this kind of devaluation in favor of the rich.

***

      Barber recognizes the need for a wider anti-racist movement.   That is Marx (Capital, ch 10, last two pages - "labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded."  Having only labor-power to sell for wages means, if you are white, having little value.  At that time in England, children were worked for 16 hours in the textile mills.   But out of the death of slavery a new life arises, Marx argues,, a movement for an 8 hour day of work for workers, and a ban on child labor until children reach middle teenage.  These human accomplishments were won  by movements of people of all descriptions, but led by those who had been enslaved and become abolitionists.  They enforce a more human "commodity" value for the newly freed and the free, but low paid and overworked people who must sell the value of their commodity - labor-power - on the market.

***

     As for Weber, he understands finally that racism is socially created - moves away from eugenics -and admires and works with the great W.E.B. Dubois.  But he looks down on poor blacks in the South.  He devalues them as well as poor whites through prejudice.  He also thinks that their status differences must override any movement between them, lead to whites being engaged totally by the interests of  their racist masters.  But in the Civil War, Kentucky and Tennessee fought on the side of the North; many poor white farmers from those states warred against the Confederacy...  Similarly poor whites played a role in Reconstruction before it was smashed by the KKK.  White workers as well as black  fought for shorter hours.  White folks joined  the huge, multiracial Southern Tenants Alliance and early Populist movement of the late 19th century (the Populists were initially  anti-racist, before the movement was perverted by the selling-out of Tom Watson to the Southern elite.   All these cases illustrate that Marx and Barber (and King's vision of a Poor People's Movement) are right, and Weber is wrong.  Weber takes the racist and class stereotypes which go into exchange or market value and reifies them, as Georg Lukacs, his student, would argue, in his theory of status. Marx and Barber challenge these stereotypes to their root...Marx and Barber celebrate the infinite value of each human life... 

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