/ 16 September 2011

Capitalism’s not a white thing

In the opening panel discussion at the Mail & Guardian Johannesburg Literary Festival recently, Andile Mngxitama described the current whiteness debate in the M&G as ultimately serving to safeguard precisely what it pretends to be examining — the hegemony of whiteness in South Africa.

I think he is dead wrong. It’s worth recalling that the academic sub-field called “critical whiteness studies”, as it emerged in the United States in the 1990s, and which is implicitly being taken up in the M&G debate, is about deconstructing, not consolidating, whiteness as a hegemonic project.

The point of critical whiteness studies (taken up in South Africa by Melissa Steyn of the University of Cape Town and, following her, myself and others) is to expose whiteness as something that masquerades as the norm, pretending to be the transparent mode of the “normal” or common sense social centre rather than “others” who stand out or deviate from this conveniently invisible but powerful norm.

On this, I agree with Mngxitama — whiteness does need to be isolated and identified in its guise as an economic and cultural concentration of power in this country. Whiteness’s overwhelming grip on economic power needs to be destabilised if we are to have any chance of decent survival in South Africa.

In global terms, however, the category of whiteness as a dominant economic bloc has become increasingly problematic. Early works in the then-radical field of critical whiteness studies in the US, such as David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991, and followed by Roediger’s Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, 1994), showed how, in the US of the 19th century, the Anglo-Saxon protestant core of whiteness co-opted various European “others”, such as the Irish, Jews, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Slavs, into a political and economic “club”.

This club was essentially a growing capitalist hegemony that was also consolidating its political grip on the US. So, by identifying themselves as white, the swarthy Irish, Jews, Slavs and others were making a political choice to affiliate with “whiteness”, which gave them an economic reward.

But, in the early 21st century, what began as a “liberal” capitalist project in a neo-colonial global order of whiteness has been appropriated and transformed into a world order of consumer capitalism, the inner core of which can hardly still be identified as “white”.

The Chinese capitalist revolution is the most obvious deviation from the neo-liberal white bloc. Bric nations such as Brazil, India and China and many other powerful “emerging” economies outside the historical core of whiteness (not to mention the oil-rich Arab polities) show that capitalist accumulation and greed can no longer be attributed to whiteness so simply or to a white neo-liberal capitalist project alone.

This is not to minimise the fact that enormous wealth continues to be marshalled from within the ranks of whiteness in South Africa and elsewhere. But the binary of whiteness as a consolidated bloc versus the poor others has become less stark and is now increasingly inaccurate.

I would argue that, even in South Africa, the rapid “colouration” of this hegemony, this unequal accumulation in the midst of want and poverty, is such that its whiteness must necessarily now come into question as a useful conceptual category. How do we describe the Motsepes, the Ramaphosas, the Sexwales and others, the “black diamonds” in all their growing diversity and relative class differentiation — and not forgetting the Zuma economic elite? Do we see them, as Mngxitama does, simply as sellouts to the project of whiteness or is the picture a little more complex?

The race binary to which the new black-consciousness commentators would shackle us, insisting that everything does indeed still happen economically (where it matters most) in stark shades of black and white, is increasingly being undone by the sheer diversity of capitalist greed — not only at home but across the world.

At the M&G panel, “Not in Black and White”, Mngxitama could not convince his black co-panellist, Sandile Memela, that the world was, in fact, at the most important level of analysis, still black and white.

Articulate, clearly middle class and comfortably ensconced on sofas on the stage of the Market Theatre, Memela and Mngxitama haggled over Steve Biko’s definition of blackness — was it pigmentation, or was it political, economic and cultural affiliation? Their very argument, deeply circular, proved the point — which is: It is an inconclusive and pointless debate, serving only to entrench already held positions. It is not one or the other. It is “both and” — both pigmentation and affiliation, and still more, in a scene of increasing social complexity.

In the midst of such complexity, it is inaccurate, and therefore retrograde, to insist that in the decisive and final analysis South Africa is predominantly drawn in black and white, in white capital versus black revolutionary poverty.

Why is this retrograde? Surely white power is primarily economic in nature? Surely black experience is overwhelmingly one of economic deprivation?

It is retrograde because by holding unswervingly to this binary we deny both complexity and change. Even more damagingly, we deny the real diversity of economic status and ideological subject positions, within both blackness and whiteness.

In other words, in the new BC argument, we cannot be individual subjects with highly variable ideological, cultural and political inclinations, and with vastly varying levels of wealth. No. We are either “black” — economically dispossessed and revolutionarily ascendant — or white (including the “coconuts”) and unfairly privileged.

In this argument, the black upper-middle classes, the black lower-middle classes, the emergent / professional black migrant classes and the ascendant black capitalist classes are denied independent identities or political legitimation – they have sold out to the economic project of whiteness, along with Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema. (Don’t even ask what happens to other shades of SA pigmentation, which are clearly not quite black enough.)

Equally, in this argument, whiteness (for “real” whites, not “coconuts”) remains a blank homogeneity without internal diversity. This view returns us to the apartheid poverty of mind that says only a blank “whiteness” will be conceptually tolerated — “Net Blankes” or “Blanks Only”.

Well, I know different. I know Troyeville Portuguese whites, Jeffrey’s Bay surfer-boy whites, Muizenberg hippy whites, Cape Town moffie whites, Hout Bay vegan whites, Jo’burg coke-sniffing whites, Pretoria poor whites, dumb-ass whites, smart whites, capitalist-pig whites, writer whites, colonialist whites, ANC whites, South African Communist Party whites and great white sharks.

The game is by no means a fair one, but to drag us all back, kicking and screaming into the apartheid binary of a homogeneous whiteness and a uniform blackness is to reimpose a very old form of tyranny upon our lovely, variously shaded skins.

Leon de Kock is head of the English department at the University of Stellenbosch
Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions on our special report.