The German Ideology is full of snark and drama, a glimpse into debates occurring in the 19th Century among followers of Hegel. It is prime evidence for “call out culture” being more than an Internet 2.0 phenomenon. While it helps to have some familiarity with the players, or at least the debate between anarchism and communism, a reader lacking such background would still appreciate the great joy evidenced by Marx and Engel’s lambaste. Or maybe I am projecting too much, and thereby revealing my own desire to be a derisive trickster.
I can only wish I could name names in the following. Not from a want to cause harm. Nor is my reticence from fear of retaliation. Rather, my indirection is an attempt to foreclose upon mechanistic reactions, dismissive platitudes masquerading as counter-argument, and defensive posturing. I hope that being vague results in casting a wider net than an interpersonal debate can usually encompass. In other words, instead of trying to make individual writers or thinkers or readers feel attacked, I would rather make many people feel uncomfortable in hopes of inspiring them to change their relationships to the people around them.
There is one piece of background to The German Ideology that must be understood. At root, the work is an attack on idealism, and an argument for materialism. Idealism and materialism are words that have specific meanings here, meanings beyond their colloquial senses. In popular use, both terms have become somewhat derogatory. Idealism has come to imply the opposite of realism, or at least a lack of practicality; at best the word has come to represent lofty morals or aspirations to what is—at least for the time being—unattainable. Materialism has come to imply a preoccupation with material possessions, usually to the detriment of spiritual or moral values; it has come to imply shallowness. Neither of these definitions helps us understand what Marx and Engels are complaining about. Worse, neither of these definitions helps us to understand how what they were complaining about is related to what I am complaining about: “mindfulness,” colorblind racism, and respectability politics.
In philosophy, idealism holds that mind, spirit, and/or ideas are the most fundamental connections to reality. Idealists think that how we think about the world basically determines our experience of the world. Materialism, on the other hand, holds that matter is the most fundamental substance in nature, and that all other phenomena—including consciousness, thought, spirit, and values—are the results of our material minds and bodies interacting with other matter in the world. When defined this way, the distance between idealism and materialism may not seem too great. However, Marx and Engels include social relations to the material basis of language, culture, and thought. This means our labor and, by extension, how we as people express our lives to ourselves, our people, other people, and onto reality itself materially shapes our lives.
The difference between idealism and materialism becomes starkly realized once we recognize the directionality of each argument. Idealists believe that they can think their way to a better reality, while materialists believe that reality can only be changed through physical, tangible labor. When looked at this way, it is surprising that more social and fiscal conservatives aren’t on board with Marx and Engels; philosophical materialism seems like a pretty good stance against publicly funded higher education, after all, and certainly plays out in their arguments against the humanities and their support for STEM fields. Every cranky parent and grandparent who has asked me, “Anthropology? What are you going to do with that?” was voicing philosophical materialism (and, more honestly and directly, colloquial materialism).
Marx and Engels ridicule the anarchist Max Stirner, who argued that we can change society by changing our ideas about society. Stirner thought that oppression and alienation were created and sustained by dogmatic ideas, and that freedom, therefore, could only come from the creation of new, non-oppressive ideas. Marx and Engels point out that a call to change consciousness is little more than a call to interpret reality in another way. A change of consciousness means nothing, if there is no fundamental change of material relations to reality. In fact, without material change, a shift in ideals can only serve to perpetuate the very oppression that Stirner supposedly wanted to free us all from. In other words, Stirner argued that ending oppression was mostly a matter of personal growth and expansion of consciousness, while Marx and Engels remind us that the material conditions of reality—including oppression, racism, and other limitations—will still surround everyone no matter how liberated, or above-it-all, they believe themselves to be in their own minds.
Here, I hope, the resonance between a 19th Century snark-fest and present-day discourses of “mindfulness,” color-blind racism, and respectability politics becomes clear.
“Mindfulness” has become a personal therapeutic technique, and is intended to move people towards a mental state of awareness free from judgment. The goal is to achieve conscious acceptance of one’s own emotions, thoughts, and sensations without worry that those emotions, thoughts, or sensations might be “bad” or “wrong,” or even “good” or “right.” The mere existence of these feelings is testament to their validity, so evaluation of these feelings becomes unnecessary. In fact, “mindful” consciousness of the totality of sensations involved in whatever the present activity may be purportedly imbues every moment and activity with “purpose.” “Mindfulness” allows that experiences may be pleasant or unpleasant, but through “equanimity” (“stillness and balance of mind”) there is no emotional reaction to either the pleasantness or unpleasantness of any experience. Thus, “mindfulness” is mostly—and perhaps exclusively—a coping mechanism.
It is not hard to recognize an element of denial going on in “mindfulness.” This is admitted to, even celebrated, by “mindfulness” practitioners as inherently liberatory. “Attachment leads to suffering” encapsulates the attitude behind such denial. The focus on present moments tells us that this denial includes a temporal dimension as well: The past is unchangeable, the future is also out of our control, thus neither should be allowed to bother us in our “mindful” moments.
While “mindfulness” may be a necessary bridge towards actual work to repair or heal relationships, a coping mechanism can only be antithetical to realizing change. At best, “mindfulness” is tolerance of our own oppression, denial of the emotional fallout from our historical trauma, and a push towards mere reinterpretation of our material circumstances. Coping mostly precludes material changes in our lives, our relationships, or—as Marx and Engels would certainly remind us—our reliance on the State structures, practices, and discourses that shape our lives legally and economically. The state works diligently to define our identities (the hierarchical social distinctions of citizenship status, race, recognition of Indigeneity, “degree of Indian blood,” sex/gender, economic class, etc.), naturalize our oppressions (along the same social distinctions), and maintain our dependence on the state itself. No amount of “mindfulness” will change these material conditions.
A similar denial of material conditions exists in color-blind racism. In short, color-blind racism is “mindfulness” taken to its post-racial-logical conclusion. Assertions of “I judge on the basis of character, not color” is a laudable ideal, but to deny the racialized experiences of other people—as well as the legacy of ongoing racist institutions and practices—is a retreat from social reality on one hand, and a retreat from interpersonal empathy on the other.
Rather than the discomfort of acknowledging the materiality of racial disparities, the color-blind racist decides upon an idealist interpretation of reality that denies the historical burdens of race and racism, while simultaneously denying the possibility of those burdens continuing into the foreseeable future. A well-educated person may even point out how “race” is an unscientific social construct*, not rooted in any biological reality, but instead of calling into question the persistent social, economic, and political power of race, the post-racialist simply refuses to let it be emotionally bothersome. Color-blind racism is the transcendental meditation of racism. Not only is it a coping mechanism to be trotted out whenever racial strife manages proximity to the color-blind subject, it is a ready-made prescription to be handed out to any racialized subject who happens to be nearby. Color-blind racism thus authorizes the post-racial subject as an agent of healing, an arbiter of racially-charged situations, and the best “ally” to “help” a racialized subject come to socially-acceptable terms with racism. Under color-blind racism, the traumatic experiences of racism become mere misinterpretation; racism becomes a problem only for those who “choose” to experience it.
Post-racial acceptance often comes with a magnanimity that originates from shallow, self-centered, self-congratulatory story of personally “overcoming” race. This magnanimity reveals the persistent centrality of race to the color-blind racist. The color-blind racist outwardly accepts people no matter their race (because race literally doesn’t matter to them), but inwardly accepts people despite their race.
Respectability politics is an extension of color-blind racism, the only difference exists in how the burden of interpretation is placed. Rather than imposing a narrative of “I accept you based on my selfishly limited interpretations of you,” a person playing respectability politics upholds socially acceptable definitions of proper behavior, and then demands that everyone conform to those definitions.
Despite socially-acceptable definitions of proper behavior being obviously racialized and oppressively discriminatory (such as speaking proper English, having a gender-appropriate hair-length, or a prohibition on sagging pants), the respectability-politician has accepted the supposedly objective, instrumental, or even naturalized notions of propriety as being transcendent of race, class, gender, Indigeneity, or any other social category. Thus, the respectability-politician can enjoy an authoritarian position that seems (to them, anyway) free from oppression; instead, the respectability-politician advocates for racialized subjects to not only change their interpretations of race, but to bring their outward identities in line with the socially-acceptable definitions of appearance and behavior. Under respectability politics, the traumatic experiences of racism only happen to those who choose to express their racial identities in public.
Ironically, of the three idealist phenomena I have described here, respectability politics seems the most amenable to a materialist perspective. However, it must be said, the materiality of identity signaling across social categories is explicitly pressured towards a socially acceptable, oppressive ideal. The respectability-politicians wants all of us to fit in to their hierarchy, grateful for entry at or near the bottom, and hopeful at the promise of upward mobility so long as we maintain a professional appearance. In other words, it is an idealism only concerned with material conditions insofar as they are a problem that the oppressed can “overcome” through conformity.
Hegel, an idealist, argued that the driving force of history was pure, abstract thought, which men then sought to realize on earth. Materialists disagree, and further point out how real change can only occur by changing the material conditions of life. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels describe how societies change through history, but they identify human production as the driving force of change. “Life,” they say vehemently, “is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
Social, political, and economic practices become institutions through human action on their material environments. As that materiality changes, human understanding and categorization of that materiality changes. Thus, oppression, class struggle, and consciousness—which is where law, morality, religion, and all the mental work of identity and social categorization happens—are the products of material relations. Of course, the ruling class exists, and labors to maintain its rule through selfish manipulation and control of the material conditions of life, as well as control over idealized consciousness. “Mindfulness,” color-blind racism, and respectability politics are but three examples of how oppression is perpetuated through purportedly liberatory idealism.
Idealism can only be a temporary state on the way to social justice. As Marx and Engels said, “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Fantastic ideals, especially those arrived at through an active denial of the material conditions of oppression, will never change the world. Our only hope for removing oppression is to change our material relationships. We have to change how we actually interact with each other, and not just how we think about each other. We also have to change how we allow our institutions to interact with our fellow humans, the land, and the rest of reality itself.
* Just to note, the video I linked gives the impression that slavery in American colonies started with European indentured servitude; this is in dispute, and implies that European indentured servants were all white. Columbus engaged in slaving as soon as he could after landing in this hemisphere, first by taking sex slaves for his men and soon thereafter shipping Native slaves to Europe. Spanish explorers brought African slaves to what would become South Carolina in 1526. Saint Augustine (in now Florida) had many African slaves at its founding in 1565. Virginia settlements in 1621 included Angolan indentured servants and slaves.