Connecting Dots (303/415)

“The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

Can anyone really imagine any American politician saying this out loud? Even as a metaphor– one of the ways James intended this statement– it’s impossible to envision the most “radical” political figures in national politics– an Ilhan Omar or a Rashida Tlaib– using such language. 

One of the secrets of American politics is that both Democrats and Republicans share a common philosophy: they are Liberal in the broadest sense of that term, which is to say they are devoted to the notion of a Free Market as the foundation of political rights, the social order, and economic prosperity. Unified by this commitment, in the absence of any substantial disagreement on the basic principle, Dems and Reps have had to find other ways to distinguish themselves from one another. The easiest, most inflammatory and engaging means of doing so is to fight Culture Wars that focus on issues of identity and morality rather than on the structural violence of the inequality that is an unavoidable outcome of the capitalist system. Though they may quibble about specific policies, on the issue of political economy, as Barack Obama affirms, the two parties are fundamentally in agreement.

Our understanding of the political, the concepts we use to reflect on social life, derive directly from the Age of Revolution and the Enlightenment. And while it is undeniable that non-European social and political philosophies are increasingly influential globally (for example the principle of ubuntu) our vocabulary remains yoked to the events that gave rise to bourgeois democracy. The terms “Left” and “Right,” for instance, come from the moment when factions of French revolutionaries congregated on either end of the room during a meeting of the National Assembly. Those on the Left wanted a republic. Those on the right maintained loyalty to a (revised) monarchy. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries Left and Right came to be identified with differing stances on capitalism. The Left were some variant of anti-capitalist: socialist, communist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, etc.) The right were capitalist. Within that broad division other distinctions arose. Historically the anti-capitalist Left has been extremely sectarian, but the Right is also ideologically variegated.

Another way to understand the Left/Right dichotomy is to identify its poles with the Equality/Hierarchy binary. The Left is for Equality. The Right supports Hierarchy. Yet even this modified opposition is easy to unpick. Capitalists might argue that the Free Market affords us equality of opportunity and that with dedication and talent we can rise socially. There is a whole cultural apparatus devoted to this proposition, one that is probably best exemplified by Horatio Alger’s Luck and Pluck Series from the mid-19th century. Yet the notion that there is an egalitarian aspect to capitalism is itself readily contradicted. Money is a form of social power. More money, more power. Even the presence of civil rights affording a kind of formal equality among members of the same nation-state does nothing to address the mind-blowing disparities in social power between the rich and the poor.

My point here is that James’s political perspective goes well beyond what passes for common sense politics among a majority of Americans. Socialized in an environment of extreme antipathy for anti-capitalism many Americans automatically associate social equality with “totalitarianism” (a term invented for precisely this purpose) and often struggle to imagine something different than the world as it is (and seems to be). Collective ownership of the means of production (i.e., socialism) appears alien or practically impossible from this perspective. Which is exactly how ideology works.

One one level, James’s history of the Haitian Revolution is really about the ongoing World Revolution that he and his comrades are actively seeking to promote. The mode that The Black Jacobins adopts to tell that story– the revolt in St. Domingue as part of a longer historical trajectory– utilizes the methods of both Romance and Historical Materialism. The latter simply argues that material conditions push historical change. It’s worth reading the linked excerpt to get a sense of how it works, but as I’ve suggested in lecture this paradigm differs significantly from widespread notions of History as what Great Men (it’s always men) do. It is also distinct to the technological determinism that Silicon Valley boosters tend to embrace, often rather breathlessly, where Great Inventions totally revolutionize everything! While it’s true that new means of communication, production, and transportation can transform everyday life (and even force that transformation; who among us could do without a cell phone at this point?) this claim is almost always harnessed to a teleological view of History as Inevitable Progress. While earlier, “scientific” versions of Marxism do tend toward a relatively uncritical notion of historical necessity (there’s some of that in James) at present most marxist historians do not accept that history is like a train rolling down tracks headed in a single direction toward the terminus of communism. It’s entirely possible that capitalism will lead to civilizational collapse or some other outcome. You could call this perspective, in Mark Bould’s phrasing, “determinism without predictability.”

The Black Jacobins is a Romance of the Haitian Revolution in the sense that it tells its tale vividly, with great sweep and often startling effects. Think of the dead child, impaled on a pike, used as a standard by one of the insurrectionists. Rigaud’s deadly treachery. The earnest and high-flown perorations of Commander-in-Chief Toussaint. The night skies lit for miles by raging fires in the cane fields. Such things actually happened– they are part of the archive– but the way they are related and their cumulative drama render James’s account something more than the mere narration of dry facts.

It is in this way, among others, that The Black Jacobins resembles the first book we read. The narrators of both texts position themselves as advocates as well as historians. Part of that partisan perspective depends on a conscious effort to explore events and actors largely regarded as marginal to the West’s conception of its own history as the irresistible march into Modernity.

We’re at the stage of the semester when we should be connecting the dots. How specifically is the story of the Crusades like that of the Haitian Revolution? How, and with what effect, do our writers create characters (i.e. simulate human beings) and storyworlds? Think about the formal elements of narrative in order to explore the narratives’ aesthetic and political projects. The effort required for this kind of work will prepare you for the Final Project.