The Real of the Social

April 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

There’s a crucial abyss one encounters in arguments about race, class, culture or religion when one side evokes “hard” scientific certainties to counter (generally leftist) statements or assertions about inequality or oppression.

Most leftist arguments rely heavily upon a premise which cannot be proven or reproduced in the laboratory, a premise I believe did not originate with Marx (I’m currently reading Capital, a long, wondrous trudging indeed) but was most perfectly codified by him.

It can be re-stated as such: What is Social is Real.  Or, less simply: What is created by social interactions functions as real, independent of intrinsic materialistic laws or proofs.

Consider Marx’s argument from Capital concerning Value.  Value is the summation of socially-constructed desires (both the usability of an item, as well as the exchangeability–i.e., whether that item can be exchanged for a different item, and at what quantity).   An item/commodity itself has no -inherent- value, insofar as value does not derive from the material properties of any item.  Gold is a metal, it does not of its own declare its Value to the beholder.  Only the social existence of the holder of a bar of gold gives Value to that gold.  If I have gold and can exchange it for something else, or if I have gold and want to make jewelry with it, I construct around that item worth, or Value (this is the beginnings of commodity fetishism).

In fact, Value and Worth have no scientific meanings, and yet both are omnipresent ideas that function as really-existing properties of items.We work to obtain a (socially-constructed) money commodity which (socially) is worth something, which (socially) can be exchanged for items of socially-decided value.

 I recently read a rather fantastic (and yet tragic) attempt  to present a defense of Critical Race Theory against Arizona’s academic pogrom.  Briefly put, Critical Race Theory is a field of (mostly) social science which examines the origin, functions, and implications of Race Theory.  If you’re unfamiliar with looking at Race and Racism as a theory, this may be strange, but it’s also rather enlightening.  Critical Race Theory asserts that Race is a social construct, an overlay of ideas atop the material world which makes distinctions between people based upon the theory that there are significant differences between groups of people based on skin color or ethnicity.  That is, race is not an inherently self-evident division, but a socially-created one.

What’s more interesting about this essay is the comments, the extreme (and very familiar) reactions which basically state: “but there are racial differences, and these are important, and no amount of multiculturalist post-modern (read: leftist) social bullshit can cloud the real, scientifically-verifiable (i.e. my pre-conceived notion) truth of the matter.

Though the readership of the NYtimes is a bit more educated than most, it isn’t surprising to find the same tired backlash there.  What’s more worrisome, though, is how most people a leftist persuasion get backed into re-addressing the “scientific consensus” (that is, the general agreement of most scientists which is, itself, another social construct) in order to counter these arguments across the abyss.  While most scientists don’t assert a genetic (that is, materially intrinsic) distinction between “races,” some do (and proudly wear the same blood-stained cloak of renegade truth-speakers as that one racist family member we all seem to have).

Race is a socially- (and historically-) constructed division of peoples, just as class is.  But this isn’t to say it doesn’t exist: in fact, race is a powerful and destructive thing, and it is precisely its origin as a social-construct which makes it that much harder to argue against.  Before the 1800’s, race had no scientific trappings or pretensions, being rooted as it was (at least in western culture) as a derivative of the biblical story of Noah’s three sons being the progenitors of all the peoples in the world.  Even up to the early 1980’s, you could still buy encyclopedias and dictionaries bearing a language chart which divided all languages into three branches: Semitic, Hametic, and Indo-European (Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth).

In the 1800’s (well past the introduction of African slaves into North America), the notion of Race as a scientifically quantifiable division arose, spurred on by the work of biologists such as Darwin (but, importantly, not specifically by Darwin).  Turning newly codified scientific reasoning onto the natural world to develop grand theories of relations is far from evil; but turning assumptions about the inferiority of certain peoples into scientific fact  through measurement of cranial size, comparisons to simians, and social relations–well, is it scientific?  Depending on who you’re reading or speaking to, it just might be.

Recourse to science, though, doesn’t matter in the realm of the social, which is the only realm upon which we actually operate with each other.  As long as race exists as an inherent/intrinsic division amongst people, it will function as truth.  Blacks will exist as a separate sort of human from whites, or hispanics or asians and will appear to really be different, just as money really appears to have value, no matter how hard you remind yourself that it’s only a social construct.

The answer, then, probably lies in attacking the Social itself.  Multiculturalism shifts the argument away from race in the hopes that the notion withers away.  Critical Race Theory also attacks this same re-inforcement at the core, addressing race as a socially-constructed real, but as is apparent in the reactions in Arizona (and to that essay), the social-consensus doesn’t intend to give up without a fight.

But there’s another really important question here.  Why is it so important to the dominant order that race exist?  There’s an easy answer here.  Race theory arose almost simultaneous to another theory, this one more liberationist.  Class and Race both vied for the consciousness of the multitudes during the same period, and while the Marxist and anarchist notions of class-struggle threatened to obliterate the right-to-wealth of the upper classes, race fit rather well with the order.  It serves capitalism quite nicely for whites to be justified in their wealth (because they are hard-working,  and value family and independance, or because they have higher IQ’s, or whatever metric is en vogue).  The true danger of class-struggle was/is that it threatens to unite all the poor (and they are legion, and they are not all white) together against a minority of (mostly white) capitalists and their attendant prophets and priests (their political, media, and other fawning protegees).

Class, just like race, is a social construct, and a dangerous construct at that, at least if you’re rich.  It is little wonder that race continues to be a matter of debate in the (capitalist-controlled) social sphere, while class is considered a fringe absurdity.  Racism continues to cause misery and suffering to vast parts of society, which class struggle attempts to obliterate the notion of race altogether, pitting 99.9% of the world against an absurdly powerful handful of greedy people who rely on race to divide us.

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