24 May 2013

Marxism & Identity Politics

Identity politics sidelines the common interest of those exploited and oppressed by capitalism.

It is a myth to believe that there ever existed in Britain or elsewhere a fully homogeneous working class. The class has always been divided by ethnicity, religion, geographical identity – and, of course, by sex.

The issue at stake, though, is whether you accentuate the diversity (the so-called identity politics) and then base your politics on building a would-be progressive coalition (women, blacks, Muslims, etc), or whether you emphasise the common interest of those exploited and oppressed by capitalism. I believe the latter to be correct.

Two overarching points resulting from Marxism are so obvious and well known to the intellectual left that they are apt to be forgotten! I shall restate them here: (1) capitalism – in the West at least - has led to such an expansion of the productive forces that it is possible for everyone to live free of poverty and economic anguish, but the capitalist system of ownership and income distribution prevents that, and (2) the fruits of wealth, deployed and enjoyed by capital, are the product of the exploitation of working people.

If ordinary people irrespective of ethnicity knew and internalised those points, then capitalism would be over by lunchtime on Tuesday.


9 May 2013

Sense data: the source of personal knowledge

Sense data allow us to experience objects in the world.

Sense data are the pieces of information which enter the mind when we experience objects in the world. The mind receives the information through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Let us imagine that there is a stone in front of us. The stone itself can never enter the human mind as an object of knowledge. The mind can only sense those properties of the stone, which can be conveyed by the five senses. For example, we can sense the visible attributes of the stone: its shape, colour, etc. or we can feel the texture of the stone. In short, we can experience the properties of the stone, but never have any direct experience of the stone itself.

The stone exists irrespective of whether there is a human mind to experience it or not (although there are some philosophers who question that!). The existence of sense data, however, is dependent on the coexistence of both the stone and the human mind. Dreams and hallucinations aside, we cannot experience a particular stone in a time and place unless the stone is actually there. But it is also true that the sense data which the mind works with (e.g. recognising the stone as a stone, separating it from other things, etc) are dependent on the the existence of a human mind.

Sense data thus has two inseparable sources: (i) the raw material provided by the stone and (ii) the pre-existing concepts of the mind which identify, and organise that raw material into something sensible.

Knowledge resulting from sense data - i.e. from our own personal experience - is known as knowledge by acquaintance or primary knowledge. All the other knowledge that we have - for instance the fact that Hitler is dead - is known as secondary knowledge and is conveyed to us indirectly.


2 May 2013

Islamophobia is not a modern day Anti-Semitism

More than once I have heard it said, “Islamophobia is the new Anti-Semitism” It is not: the two phenomena are characterised to a far greater extent by their differences than by their similarities.

What is meant by the two terms? Islamophobia can be defined as political disapproval of Islam; and anti-Semitism as political disapproval of Jews. In political discourse both terms are used pejoratively, i.e. as negative labels to apply to attitudes or behaviour, but for the purpose of this piece of writing, I will use them simply as descriptive concepts.

Disapproval of Islam is opposition to a religion. A religion is a set of alleged facts about how the world is and a system of beliefs about how it ought to be. Opposing Islam is not of itself racist as Muslims may be of any racial background. People labelled as Islamophobic are from both the left and right.

The left criticise Islam because many of it adherents make demands for changes in the rules that govern society. These demands typically entail the subordination of women and imposing restrictions on the freedom of expression. The political right, on the other hand, attack Islam for entirely different reasons: they dislike a separate unintergrated group living in "their" society.

The left and the right differ on another point. The left criticises Islam, not because it is Islam per se, but because its supporters seek to diminish political and social freedom. The left levels the same opposition against against similar illiberal and intolerant social demands by other religions, particularly fundamental Christianity. The right however endorses the demands made on society by the Christian religion, but reject those of Islam.

Anti-Semitism, a movement of Europe's political right, is hostility to Jews on account their ethnic origin. The attack on Jews in the 1930s in Western Europe was not based on the contents of Judaism or any demands that Judaism made on society (the majority of Jews were atheistic, non-observant or had converted to Christianity), but on the "threat" of an "alien" element that had “infiltrated” into society and was “polluting” it from within. Anti-Semitism was a rejection of assimilation by Jews into gentile society.

In other words, the attack by the right on Jews was for successful assimilation into society, while the attack on Islam is for separateness. The common thread in right-wing thinking is dislike of sharing living space with ethnic groups other than their own, whether those groups be assimilated or not.

In conclusion, we can say that apart from notions of hatred, disapproval and/or criticism, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism have nothing in common. To conflate the two is simply wrong.