A Critical Look at Social Decay and Transformation

— Cynthia Young

“Cultural Work Ain't All Arts and Leisure”(1)

SAMUEL FARBER'S SOCIAL Decay and Transformation sets itself an important task, namely to assess the impact of rising school violence, murder, drug use and other social ills on working-class political mobilization. Instead of taking such problems as central to their political theory and praxis, leftists, Farber contends, have too often ceded an analysis of social problems to the right who are only too happy to celebrate the workings of a free market that precipitates social decay, while blaming that decay on the left's penchant for moral relativism.

Arguing for a return to a “global critique of the system, indeed a `grand narrative'” that will connect social ills to their structural origins and offer tools for social transformation, Farber sets out to historically situate left responses to such social problems as incivility, alcoholism, and a decline in volunteerism. (Farber 2000, xvii)

In bolstering his argument that leftists need to recognize social decay as a counter-productive response to class exploitation, Farber analyzes the Black Panther Party's approach to the lumpen question, and the recent work of Robin D.G. Kelley and James C. Scott, whom he sees as wrongheaded in their approach to, and reading of, resistance and political transformation.

He then concludes with an examination of the Russian Revolution during the 1920s, for him an example of how cultural revolution can be effectively used to combat social decay.

Farber's project is grounded in a critique of Postmodernism, which he characterizes as subject to irrationality and extreme cultural relativism. Postmodernism, suggests Farber, has unduly influenced the left, diverting attention from the urgent problems of social decay and political transformation.

While one might agree that this description fits some elements of both the left and Postmodernism, such a sweeping assessment treats these as if they were settled, undifferentiated entities, rather than contested intellectual and political fields. After all, as David Finkel reminds us in his New Politics review, “For the broad public, `the left' means anything from Al Gore leftward.” (Finkel 2001, 186)

Though Farber's imprecision risks caricaturing Postmodernism in much the same way that the right does, I am not interested in defending Postmodernism here. Instead I'd like to focus on the left Farber imagines himself to be both criticizing and addressing, the left that in his estimation “has turned to something labeled `culture' as an area where through verbal sleights of hand they can declare a victory that has little meaning beyond intellectual reviews and academic departments and journals.” (Farber, 2000, xviii)

It is this “cultural left” who have raised Farber's ire, but not for the usual reasons. To be clear, Farber is not directly attacking identity politics and the women, gays, or people of color who too often become the “whipping boys” for former New Leftists. In fact, he unequivocally states that “it is vitally important to defend the egalitarian legacy of the `sixties' as expressed in the black, women's and gay liberation movements.” (Farber 2000, xi)

At the same time, however, he is suspicious of the turn to culture, wondering what it sacrifices in terms of critical analysis. Does the turn to cultural politics necessarily involve a descent into political romanticism, Farber asks?

Romanticizing the Enlightenment

Since it would be impossible to do justice to Farber's argument in the space remaining, I'd like to focus on two central elements.

For one, his hope for democratic progress and societal transformation is grounded in an investment in the Enlightenment, Modernism more specifically. Given that the Enlightenment bequeathed to us the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, I am wary of its utility in addressing pressing social issues, particularly those structured by race.

Secondly, I think Farber fundamentally misreads Robin D.G. Kelley's work on subaltern resistance, miscasting him as a Postmodernist and seriously underestimating his work's importance to the left's political and intellectual projects.

Because Farber only concentrates on one of Kelley's books, Race Rebels, he fails to engage with later work such as Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! that compellingly addresses the ways in which culture, social decay and the state are interrelated.

Both of these tendencies speak to a central weakness in Farber's analysis. Though he is obviously attuned to issues of race and racism, he fails to fully address the complex articulation between racial difference, capitalism and (narratives of) social dysfunction.

Consequently, Social Decay and Transformation risks lapsing back into a romantic investment in the Enlightenment and an overly dichotomous view of culture vs. politics that does not offer us enough tools to address working-class life in the 21st century.

Though Farber repeatedly references the Enlightenment and Modernity in his analysis, he does not acknowledge the extent to which narratives of “social decay” and its obverse “enlightenment” have historically depended upon the creation and juxtaposition of the “white” and the “non-white” body.

Following Richard Gilman, Farber defines social decay as “a backward movement or sterile arrest, the mulling over and taking to the self materials and actions that have been surpassed or left behind by society.” He continues, “In particular, I am concerned with a regress from the democratic, egalitarian and humanist elements of modernism.” (Farber 2000, xv)

On the face of it, it is impossible to disagree with Farber's point; of course, democracy and egalitarianism are values worth championing. However, Farber's linkage of these traits to the Enlightenment is extremely problematic.

For one, the very fabric of Modernity was built upon ideologies of racial inferiority grounded in ideas about the body, the senses and the psyche of the Other.

There is no divorcing Enlightenment's theory from its praxis, particularly since the theory has been used throughout the last 500+ years to dehumanize, objectify, enslave and otherwise exploit non-Western peoples. To put it mildly, the term is neither ideologically innocent nor value-neutral.

Whether he intends it to or not, Farber's suggestion that social decay bespeaks a return to premodernity also presents some difficulties. As recent scholarship shows, regimes of European imperialism, colonialism and enslavement produced and depended upon the scientifically rational disciplines of philosophy, history and anthropology (among others) to invent the “non-white” as “premodern” and “primitive” juxtaposed, of course, to the “modern” white subject.(2)

Race was literally defined in visual and spatio-temporal terms, an embodied entity that could be plotted on a map and charted on a timeline. As Howard Winant writes in his new book, The World is a Ghetto, “Modernity itself was among other things a worldwide racial project, an evolving and flexible process of racial formation, of structuration and signification of race” (Winant, 2001, 30).

This fact makes we, people of color, wary of terms like “civilization,” “rationality” and “social decay” precisely because they have depended upon the present, non-white Other for their legitimation. Enlightenment discourse has been so thoroughly contaminated by racial taxonomies that it is difficult to use the term in any non-racialized way.

The Modernity of the Oppressed

By raising these objections, I do not mean to suggest that racialized peoples have rejected wholesale all of the ideals associated with Modernity. C.L.R. James' brilliant account of the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins demonstrates exactly the opposite, namely that enslaved and colonized peoples can successfully wield the Master's tools against him.

As the Haitian Revolution unfolded, French Republicans felt their cries of “liberté, fraternité and equalité” boomerang back at them as events in San Domingo revealed the hypocrisy of Republicans championing democratic values, while endorsing slavery and colonialism.

When Toussaint L'Ouverture demanded that democratic rights be extended to non-white slaves, he stretched Enlightenment ideals beyond their original intent, creating an alternative origin point for Modernity, one that radically shifted the ground upon which Europeans had founded it. (James 1989)

Perhaps this is what Farber means when he argues that critics have taken Modernity “for granted as [if] it were completely established and consolidated.” (Farber 2000, xv) If so, then we might begin to look for alternate Modernities in places where we have previously overlooked them, rather than uncritically reviving Enlightenment discourse.

A “Nihilist” Threat?

Farber's discussion of social decay also resonates with some of the last decade's vicious sparring between leftists and liberals on questions of Black working-class behavior and values. The heated debates between William Julius Wilson and Adolph Reed Jr. over Wilson's “culture of poverty” thesis, or those between Cornell West and Stephen Steinberg over West's assertions of “black nihilism,” are only two prominent examples.

In fact, West directly echoes Farber's critique, bemoaning in Race Matters the fact that “liberal structuralists overlook the nihilistic threat [to black America].” (West 1993, 13) Despite his explicit wish to avoid doing so, Farber, like Wilson and West, risks shifting the focus from the structural causes of class and race oppression to the values, manners and morals of the oppressed.

Drunkenness, civic apathy, impoliteness once again fuel social inequity, rather than the other way around, but with a peculiar twist. If the right blames the working class and its “deficient” manners and morals for their substandard housing, education and income, Farber seems to suggest that their “deficient” manners and morals impair the working class from throwing off their own shackles.

In other words, “social decay” hinders class solidarity and mobilization. By this logic, the working class is at fault for its inability to pull itself up by its revolutionary bootstraps.

Acknowledgement of the Enlightenment's perverse legacy might also lead us to think differently about cultural identities; it might cause us to see them as absolutely central to political mobilization and empowerment precisely because the Enlightenment thoroughly denigrated non-Western ways of being and knowing.

This does not mean that we should assume that there is absolutely no difference between cultural politics and other forms of politics (e.g. electoral or grassroots). Nor does it mean that we ought to privilege cultural politics as the best or only form of politics available to us -- an assumption Farber seems to attribute to cultural historians on the left.

It does, however, mean that undoing the history of race and racism depends upon understanding the relationship between identity, culture and politics in ways that go far beyond the analysis given to us by Farber.

Misreading Robin Kelley

I have thus far argued that Farber's dependence upon the Enlightenment and notions of “social decay” as the ground for his critique disables the production of a generative theoretical and political space in which new forms of organizing can flourish.

Similarly, it hampers his reading of cultural politics, particularly as it is explored in the work of Robin D.G. Kelley. By considering only Race Rebels, Farber ignores the fact that Kelley's other work, particularly Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!, provides multiple entryways into a discussion of Black resistance and local empowerment.

Faulting what he sees as “political romanticism,” Farber accuses Kelley of claiming equivalence between such activities as CIO meetings and dances in an attempt to demonstrate the ways in which the personal is also the political.

Central to Farber's critique is his dismissal of Kelley's assertion that sex work, under some circumstances, has provided Black women a measure of autonomy and agency absent from other labor realms such as that of domestic work. Kelley, says Farber, “idealiz[es] behavior which is in fact far more dehumanizing than anything that could remotely be considered resistance.” (Farber 2000, 119)

Instead, Farber argues, an action can only qualify as a resistant political act if it possesses certain features. In the realm of ideology, these include a clear set of goals, analysis of the sources and causes of oppression and possible solutions, and a structural analysis that links one's immediate oppressor to a larger chain of oppressors.

In the organizational realm, these include self-organization, clear goals, and the ability to distinguish between short-term and long-term strategies and tactics. (Farber 2000, 116)

Again, Farber's criteria seem as good a place as any to start, but determining which of these is present and whether in sufficient number to qualify an act as resistant seems an impossible task. What yardstick should we use? Would the poisoning of one's slave master or the drowning of one's enslaved infant count, even if not motivated by a deep structural critique and unrelated to a larger slave revolt?

These are not easy questions to answer, nor am I convinced that such hairsplitting is necessary. In fact, one of the most useful elements of Kelley's work is his consistent foregrounding of the contradictory elements within alternative and oppositional practices.

Farber's assessment misreads the utility of Kelley's perspective altogether. Worse still, he underestimates the way racism and misogyny critically impact the modes of resistance that are possible in any given situation from enslavement to de facto segregation.

It is not that Kelley makes no distinction between attending a union meeting, dancing at the Savoy, or turning a trick; rather his work highlights the ways in which white supremacy forces Black men and women (not to mention other people of color) to craft and inhabit alternative and sometimes oppositional spaces made to suit their circumstances.

Survival as Resistance

As John Clarke, Stuart Hall and others write, “The subordinate class brings to [the] `theater of struggle' a repertoire of strategies and responses [that mobilize] certain real material and social elements: it constructs these into the support for the different ways the class lives and resists its continuing subordination.” (Clarke 1976, 44)

Survival is a form of resistance in a structural context hostile to one's very existence. Recognizing this does not mean equating survival with class warfare; rather, it means understanding that working-class “coping” strategies may mark or even open up other spaces for resistance.

More importantly, as the authors remind us:

“We must also recognize that a developed and organized revolutionary working-class consciousness is only one [one is italicized in original text] among many such possible responses, and a very special ruptural one at that. It has been misleading to try to measure the whole spectrum of strategies in the class in terms of this one ascribed form of consciousness, and to define everything else as a token of incorporation. This is to impose an abstract scheme on to a concrete historical reality.” (Clarke 1976, 45)

As intellectuals and organizers, we need to admit that oppositional politics in the here and now may not look as it has in the past. Otherwise, as Clarke and Hall warn, we are simply forcing a historically specific working class into an abstract theoretical schema.

To acknowledge that resistance exists in marginal places and compromised ways is not to settle for whatever may come; rather it is a way of acknowledging that even alternative practices provide us with important tools for our oppositional politics.

This point is emphasized in Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! during Kelley's exploration of how Black youth translate hip hop labor into cold, hard cash. His analysis makes it abundantly clear that the ability of Black youth to profit from their cultural labor does not necessarily “undermine capitalism” even as it poses an alternative to mind-numbing, minimum wage labor.

On the other hand, some hip hop commodities do pose a significant ideological challenge to late capitalism even as its producers are forced to labor in the shadow of global capital. (Kelley 1997, 43-77)

One useful example of the multiple negotiations hip hop artists make is the case of rapper Mos Def, whose 1999 “Black on Both Sides” was easily one of the most musically challenging and politically trenchant albums of the decade. The same rapper whose songs skillfully blend anti-capitalist critique, shrewd appraisals of racism's impact and paeans to his enslaved ancestors also co-starred in MTV's “hiphopera” Carmen.

Defining Resistance

To dismiss such contradictory projects as the result of faulty analysis or short-term strategy is to miss the point entirely. Call it a Faustian bargain, but Mos Def's “mainstream” work fuels the more subversive aspects of his creative genius.

Whether we like it or not, the same rappers who are busy enjoying the spoils of late capitalism also have the power to speak to the world's disenfranchised who see their situation reflected in the rhythms and lyrics of hip hop. In other words, cultural commodities may bear the deep trace of their producers, but they also circulate and resonate in ways that exceed their local context and surpass individual and group intent.

Another essay in Yo' Mama, “Looking for the `Real Nigga': Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto,” also poses a serious challenge to Farber's analysis of social decay. There Kelley argues that social scientists studying inner city communities have constructed their object of investigation. Their work is the result of their own projections, rather than the product of objective analysis.

Isolating cultural rituals and individual behavior to prove theories of Black cultural authenticity and dysfunction, political scientists and sociologists, what Kelley calls “ghetto ethnographers,” have reduced cultural forms to “expressions of pathology, compensatory behavior, or creative `coping mechanisms' to deal with racism and poverty.” (Kelley 1997, 17)

Most disturbingly these assessments have fueled much of U.S. public policy over the last thirty years, contributing to ineffective and draconian welfare policies.

Not only do these ethnographers fail to realize that their savvy subjects are dissembling and performing specifically for them, but they miss the elements of pleasure, passion, play and aesthetic creativity that fuel Black cultural rituals.

Kelley's argument challenges the very assumption that academics have the expertise to assess and define social decay; in fact, he questions the political motivation for and necessity of doing so. Because he refuses to reduce cultural expression to a marker of the presence or absence of resistance, Kelley makes us ask harder, not easier, questions about the relation of culture and identity to social ills and political conflict.

Kelley's perspective does not rely upon a lazy us vs. them dichotomy; rather, he combines an analysis of social science research, oral interviews and a keen attention to expressive cultural forms to make his case.

In doing so, Kelley convincingly shows that it is the interplay of the context and the performance, the performer and the audience that defines “black urban culture” as [a] process, that defies concepts like . . . `nihilistic,' and `pathological.'” (Kelley 1997, 40)

Kelley's work gives leftists the tools to think in creative ways about the dialectical process of making culture and building resistance even as it complicates our ability to provide simple answers.

1920s or 1960s?

Farber's seeming unwillingness to engage the multivalent and flexible way that resistance works within marginalized communities also hampers his discussion of cultural revolution. Bypassing the '60s altogether, he takes us back to the Russian '20s where cultural revolution, in his view, meant enlightenment.

Seeing in the schools of futurism, proletkult and constructivism a counter to the “antirationalism, Romanticism and extreme relativism that [he has] criticized,” Farber praises Lenin, Trotsky and others for supporting a “cultural self-transformation oriented to the construction of a rational society built by increasingly civilized groups and individuals.” (Farber 2000, 127, 135)

Though the Russian '20s may be an important case study for thinking through the relation between cultural elites and popular taste, political transformation and cultural innovation, Farber sets it up as an ideal, excluding more recent examples that might also prove politically and intellectually useful.

My own research suggests that the 20th century provided us with other examples of culture in the service of leftist political and personal transformation. In the 1960s and 1970s anticolonial movements fueled political and cultural organizing by Black, Latino/a and Asian American artists and intellectuals, a group I call U.S. Third World leftists.

The interaction between Cubans and Black Americans during the early days of the Castro regime served as an important foundation for the Black Arts and Black liberation movements that followed it. As I have argued elsewhere, the Cuban Revolution's use of culture via the Instituto Cubano de Arte y Industria Cinematográfico (ICAIC) and Casa de Las Américas was extraordinarily important for creating a new anti-racist and anti-imperialist cultural and political vocabulary.(3)

Harold Cruse, Amiri Baraka, Robert Williams as well as members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Panther Party toured the country, and were inspired by Cuba's example to link their “local” struggle to the global anticolonial one.

Their work found articulation in impassioned treatises such as Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, political conferences such as the 1972 Gary Convention, the independent cinema of Third World Newsreel, as well as Black Arts literature.

Community empowerment might not be the enlightenment Farber idealizes, but it certainly depended upon a dialogue between cultural producers and local communities. It relied upon cultural experimentation and ideological innovation, a tenuous, flexible and messy process of give and take, education and reeducation for both the masses and their cultural advocates.

It is this ability to connect the local and the global, the elite and the popular that informs my own sense of how cultural revolution most significantly speaks to the “social decay” decimating U.S. communities of color in this historical moment. It is also exactly the kind of open-ended process that Farber's investment in the Enlightenment forecloses.

Coda: While finishing this comment, I turned on NPR's “Morning Edition” and stumbled upon an interview with Shannon Reeves, president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP. He had just returned from the organization's annual convention, and at one point Bob Edwards asked him what he thought was the number one issue in the Black community.

In response, Reeves replied, “I think we have to focus on apathy in our community.” Flush with the language of bootstrap discipline and personal responsibility, he continued, “In the African American community now we have got to focus on those things that we are doing to ourselves . . . . What are some things that we can do in the Black community for ourselves without focusing on the government and without focusing on racism . . . . That's where the future of the NAACP has to go.”

Let us hope that the NAACP's leadership does not take Reeves' advice, for in these self-righteous sentiments I hear the strains of Farber's complaint. Purify ourselves so we can take advantage of revolutionary (or even reform) opportunities as they arise. Reeves' diatribe reinforces my own sense that Farber's view may resonate with some of the most conservative voices in white and Black communities.

Instead I think the time is ripe to refocus our critiques, political organizing and efforts on new ways to dismantle a state apparatus that imprisons, exploits and discriminates against many of us each and every day.

Whether academic leftists like it or not, the everyday political and cultural practices of the schoolyards and prison yards may be the beginning of “real” resistance in the 21st century. Rather than assume that we, intellectuals, have all the answers, why not build a movement that builds upon, rather than negates, the experiences and insights of those for whom we are supposedly fighting?

If we do not, we may find ourselves as irrelevant to them as the Russian '20s is to the South Bronx of 2002.


  1. For the title, I am indebted to Toni Cade Bambara's use of the phrase in her important essay entitled Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement. In Manthia Diawara, ed., Black American Cinema, New York: Routledge, 1993.
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  2. Two sources that were helpful in writing this comment are Fatimah Tobing Rony's The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996) and Paul Gilroy's chapter “Modernity and Infrahumanity” in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
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  3. Cynthia Young, “Havana Up in Harlem: LeRoi Jones, Harold Cruse and the Making of a Cultural Revolution,” Science and Society, vol. 65, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 12-38.
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Works Cited

Clarke, J., Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts (1976). “Subcultures, Cultures and Class: A Theoretical Overview.” Resistance Through Rituals. Stuart Hall et al. ed. Cambridge, The University Press: 9-75.

Farber, S. (2000). Social Decay and Transformation: A View from the Left. Lanham: Maryland, Lexington Books.

Finkel, D. (2001). “ Left for Real?” New Politics VIII(2): 182-187.

James, C.L.R. (1989). The Black Jacobins. New York, Random House.

Kelley, R. (1997). Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! Boston, Beacon Press.

West, Cornell (1993). Race Matters. Boston, Beacon Press.

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)

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