Nothing fuzzy about complexity

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

What a wonderful surprise to read all-too-rare close engagements with one’s work. By this I mean engagements that are generous but critical, as opposed to the addiction to mud-slinging on social media platforms. I have, in these pages, now enjoyed this pleasure twice in recent times.

Several months back, Mazibuko Jara, that wonderful excuse for a Marxist, engaged me in a sustained debate about the content of liberalism and, more specifically, whether I am right to insist that liberal egalitarianism can adequately deal with our historical injustices in South Africa.

READ MORE: Black liberalism is an apology for capitalism 

I was so shocked at his generosity (because we appeared to have abandoned in our public discourse any commitment to charitable disagreement) that I did not know whether we should continue our sparring on these pages for a few more weeks. After all, not being a Marxist, who am I to, uhm, decide when a “dialectic” ends?

Last week, again, I was reminded of the joy that the Mail & Guardian gave me as an undergraduate student at Rhodes University. I would rush on Fridays to go buy my copy at the bookstore on High Street to read the opinion and analysis of Steven Friedman, John Matshikiza, Robert Kirby and other legendary writers who appeared in this fine, progressive paper.

This time last week my joy was occasioned by a complex disagreement with my last discussion about race.

Last week’s disagreement was penned by Michael Nassen Smith, who is at the Institute of African Alternatives, an independent organisation based in Cape Town. I want to summarise my position tersely, do justice to his response and then explain why, nevertheless, I am not wholly convinced by certain aspects of his position.

READ MORE: Race debate needs to enter more productive terrain

I had argued that we need to reject both race essentialism and race denialism. Some of us naturalise racial identities as if they are biologically real. They are not. Racial identities are things we have made up. They are constructions.

The other extreme is the misplaced idea that if something is a social construction, then it cannot be animated in our lives. That’s what race denialists thrive on doing in debates about race.

Well, I am afraid the fact that witches do not exist in nature is cold comfort to someone who might have had their family member killed in a community where belief in witches can result in someone being murdered because of the potency of that social belief. In other words, it is not only biological traits that shape human behaviour. Social constructions also feature powerfully in how we relate to each other. That is what it means for us to be social beings.

This false dichotomy between race essentialism and race denialism, I suggested, should be rejected because it is false. We should, instead, grapple with the complexity of life in the grey area between these reductive extremes.

READ MORE: A black liberal is not an oxymoron

Smith did a good job teasing out the main argument I had put forward. For that I am genuinely grateful, because one of the fallacies that is too common in South African debate is the straw person fallacy, that is, deliberately misconstruing what someone else had said.

But Smith is rather unhappy about my talk of “complexity”, fearing that talk of complexity simply doesn’t grasp the urgency of our material challenges in society in relation to both matters of race and class.

The irony, however, is that while he tantalisingly promises to move from my “complexity-talk” to “piercing through the clouds” to “arrive at clarity” he does no such thing. Not in a bad way. In fact, I agree with much of what he then argues after this false promissory note at the beginning of his critical engagement. The reason that I agree with much of what Smith goes on to argue is that he fleshed out the very complexity I am alluding to, thereby demonstrating my key point about the inherent limitation of seeking quick insights about irreducibly complex phenomena.

I agree, for example, with Smith that productive class analysis can help us to deal better with inequality in society. It is, in my view, correct to examine the ways in which neoliberal capitalism has, both by design and with the help of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, produced and sustained gross and mostly racialised inequalities in our societies and across many nations of the world.

That I did not say so upfront is not an omission in my position. It simply wasn’t the point of my previous essay. Smith should guard against the “what about” move, that is, assuming that a writer has nothing to say about your own pet topic. How about simply asking your interlocutor?

Jara made a similar discursive error in assuming that a liberal egalitarian cannot have anything progressive to say about capitalism’s failures.

If you want someone’s opinion on a juicy topic, don’t tell them what their opinion is when you can ask them.

My chief concern in my previous analysis on these pages was specifically to tackle people who think that all manifestations of racism can adequately be subsumed under class analysis. Smith, kindly and rightly, agrees with me that that is nonsense.

It doesn’t follow from my irritation with people who think class matters but that race doesn’t matter that I myself think class analysis cannot help us in making sense of the world. Of course class dynamics are crucial.

That is a self-standing theme worthy of full discussion on its own terms. For example, even if white people did not exist, there would be critically important structural as well as phenomenological differences between black people of different class backgrounds.

Countries such as England fascinate me for this precise reason. Anyone who has spent some time there would delight in reading the hilarious but incisive social anthropological classic Watching the English by Kate Fox. One of the many insights of this book is that it demonstrates how complex the notion of class is, including the myriad ways in which notions of class can be deployed for hegemonic ends.

White people can and do discriminate against each other, based on arbitrary class markers in European societies. We can miss this stuff if we only examine the rampant and overt racism and xenophobia in European societies.

Similarly, gather a group of black South Africans in a room and facilitate an honest discussion about class-based prejudices and you quickly realise how forms of elitism based on class constructions shape our social identities and differing ways of moving through the world.

Which brings me, finally, to an ironic vagueness in Smith’s otherwise lucid response to me. Just as my talk of “complexity” was jarring for him, so his dismissing of racialised epistemologies, subjectivities and ways of being is criminally quick — well, for me.

Smith cannot have it both ways: concede that social constructions can and do inform how we see ourselves, form communities, etcetera, and yet, rather waspishly, not even want to grapple with, for example, black radical thought — that is, racialised subjectivities.

To accept that stuff other than biological properties can inform our psychosocial realities, is precisely to accept that racialised subjectivities isn’t hogwash.

Instead of calling on us to embrace nonracialism (a notion I sincerely think needs far better specification than proponents of this rainbow term imbue it with, based mostly on habitual usage), Smith’s welcome curiosity about these important national and global debates would be enriched if he approached texts by the main thinkers and writers who are experts on concepts such as black radical thought, with a view to expanding his mind beyond the epistemologies that he might have inherited from his most influential teachers.

A good start, I suggest, which will help anyone who is serious about challenging their own settled beliefs, and to think hard about how the preferred methods of our main academic discipline can lead us astray in many ways, is to read Lewis Gordon’s Disciplinary Decadence.

You must be prepared, however, to see the world differently.


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