In 1861 U.S. President Abraham Lincoln launched a war of conquest against the South, and legend claims it was all for the abolition of slavery, officially declared by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Yet exactly 101 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the forcefully reinstated Union, signed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting “discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.” As Martin Luther King, Jr., had put it the preceding year, “Americans one hundred years after, must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free,” and that equality was still a word unable to hide “segregation and racial injustice.”
I would like to suggest there is more than meets the eye in a claim that, taken at face value, may look reasonable, if not simply humane. As everyone knows, ideas have consequences—some immediate, others slowly unraveling as the idea gradually takes root in the public mind. The latter is precisely what happened with the idea that initiated the civil-rights movement.
In democratic societies, citizens are supposed to enjoy equal opportunity to achieve their happiness, whatever this may mean for each one. Which is what Thomas Jefferson said, declaring it self-evident that men, having been created equal, are endowed with unalienable rights, notably the right to the free pursuit of each one’s happiness. Which, in turn, entitled Martin Luther King, Jr., to see the Declaration of Independence as a “promissory note” to all Americans, handing each and every one a check to cash (to use his somewhat inelegant, but telling, wording) and making it patent injustice that blacks be refused free access to various public spaces from buses to theaters and universities, or submitted to discriminating limitations on voting.
With black soldiers having shed their blood for America’s sake during World War II, President Truman had already, in 1948, prohibited discrimination in the Armed Forces. Then the issue became a cause célèbre for the liberal WASPs, gently prodded by Comintern propagandists, and eager to show that, despite their money, they also had a democratic conscience: In the 60’s they turned into new crusaders faithful to MLK’s memory and his policy of nonviolent civil disobedience. But, by and by, there were none among them to venture beyond the demand “to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children”: What was unjust was to deprive “the Negro living on the lonely island of poverty” of the right to live up to the American dream, or to access “the vast ocean of material prosperity” through the same channels white people used—notably, education. For the most liberal, the injustice resided in the fact that the black man was refused the means to enter and sustain competition with the white, so that there could never be a black John D. Rockefeller. Hence LBJ’s new Act, whose only originality was to set up agencies to enforce nondiscrimination at the gates of the racetracks.
But this was just the beginning. Almost 50 years after President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the evidence remains, not easy to dismiss, that despite all positive discrimination, resentment abides among the black population. As any election easily shows, black voters manifest a distinct tendency to vote en bloc, a bloc courted by Republicans and Democrats alike, as if it reflected a distinct body of citizens. Mr. Obama did not display any reluctance to be considered not only a messiah or savior, but a black one—though maybe not exclusively black, since there are now other minorities vying with blacks for public attention.
But I think it is also time to face reality. Very few are indeed willing to acknowledge that black resentment stems from the very fabric of our Western society, in general, and of American society, in particular. And by this I do not allude to the simplistic liberal opinion that a majority of white people are selfish racists and exploiters, which is simply stupid.
These societies, indeed, have two manifest gods: freedom and equality. Which is why they are democratic and free-market societies: A democracy is assumed to comprise utterly free and equal citizens, and a market a place for exchanges between individuals on a free and equal footing. In the political sphere no man is assumed to be a born leader, and every man deemed equally capable of dealing with public affairs; in the economic realm all are considered able to measure up to the American dream. And the common opinion prevails that there can be no freedom where there is no uniform equality, and no equality where there is no uniform freedom. These concepts are taken to be two sides of the same coin: This is common-sense democracy. But therein lies the rub, because democracy distorts these concepts in such a way as to make them collide.
If democracy means the sovereignty of the people, it means each citizen is a sovereign in his own right and is therefore endowed with a right to do as he pleases without taking leave of anyone but himself. Now, why should an individual endowed with such freedom be respectful of others? Of course, he may fear retaliation, or he may reckon it more rational in the long run not to behave toward others as he would not like them to behave toward him. But there is no inner restraint to his freedom, which makes it essentially an ability to serve his interest, without regard for others: The sovereignty of the people, or of individuals, means there can be no moral principle superior to the individual’s sovereign will. But then the sovereign freedom of each citizen makes him unresponsive to the call of equality. The more radical freedom there is, the less equality.
And the same may be said of the freedom of an individual in a free market: Obviously nobody in his right mind works for nothing, meaning, as Adam Smith famously said, that we must be thankful to an invisible hand that it is to the best advantage of all that each acts to promote his own. In a free economy the standard rule is every man for himself. In other words, it appears obvious, at least to me, that no modern would define true freedom as an ability to obey an eternal law preexisting the human will and independent of it. For a modern, freedom is exactly what the ancients deemed servitude to be: to do as seems most congenial to the individual—i.e., to obey one’s private passions and impulses. But then freedom thus defined becomes the archenemy of equality.
Which is why one must be extremely careful about the real meaning—the democratic one—of the slogan equality of opportunity. Its prima facie meaning seems to be that individuals should not be prevented from developing and using their talents to pursue their happiness by external circumstances, and specifically by inequality of social station. That obviously suggests that initial radical equality is possible, but it does not imply that there will be equality at the other end. As in any competition, there will not be winners and losers. Now, this is no democracy, inasmuch as democracy implies equality: The true democratic meaning of the slogan must then be different.
Here is how it comes about.
Since, first, circumstances exterior to the individual are assumed actually to determine the result of his effort, and, second, all men are assumed to be equally equal, “not to be handicapped by external circumstances” ends up meaning any inequality between men must be attributed to some inequality of social environment. If a foot soldier does not earn a general’s stars, it is not that these stars are not in his pack for him to don, but that some still uncorrected social inequality has prevented him from being allowed to wear them. If the only difference between equals lies in their social surroundings, it becomes indisputable that, given enough equality at the start, anybody can hope for anything. When MLK speaks of the “promissory note of democracy,” this is exactly what occurs.
In other words, the ultimate implication is that whenever a man is in a condition of social inferiority, this cannot be what he wanted; it must be because he has somehow been forced into it. This is indeed the crucial conviction of our times: It is no happenstance that the same Jean-Jacques Rousseau who declared each man to be “a perfect and solitary whole” also wrote his famous essay about the “Origin of Inequality Among Men”—in which he ascribed inequality and oppression to an unfortunate accident, to the claim to private ownership laid by some impostor trying to make stealing legitimate, i.e., to the depraved doings of a depraved man, turning his freedom into a weapon. Any misfortune that falls upon a man must then be ascribed to evil others: He becomes the victim of thieves, pure and simple. Hence the obvious conclusion: The thieves ought to give back what they have stolen; they are indebted to their victims, who are entitled to cash their check.
One will have easily recognized the blueprint of socialism, and particularly Marxism, which then appears somehow to be the natural perverse outcome of modern Western free-market democracies.
Such a scheme obviously inspired, wittingly or not, MLK’s famous speech. But equally obviously it had to be adapted to fit the particular problem of racial inequality. For evil capitalists as a rule do not care about the color of their victims’ skin—evidence amply documented by the fact that socialism was born in countries virtually devoid of a colored population of any description. Of course, black people may join the ranks of the originally white proletariat, but socialism is poorly equipped to discriminate between blacks and whites among the exploited workers. But for MLK it is “the Negro who lives in the desolate valley of segregation”—and not the white man. The reason for the Negro misery is not his station in society (as a nonowner of the means of production), but the fact that he is black. Hence two modifications to the standard socialist doctrine. First, the particular evildoer is not the bourgeois, the capitalist, but the white man; and second, the particular means of exploitation is not private appropriation of the means of collective production, but private appropriation by the white man of the means to climb the social ladder. The means of oppression, the barrier between the black population and its happiness is not primarily private property but a culture made by and for whites. There is nothing new in this rhetoric: Toward the end of the 18th century, there was Babeuf, who claimed there would be nothing worthy about cleverness, if it were not for the high opinion of its worth that the cleverer have managed to impose. Then Marx himself deemed culture to be a product—the superstructure—of the economic distribution of power. And after Marx came Gramsci, who identified the real means of oppression as cultural. We are faced with a classic case of an old idea put to a new use.
But in this particular instance the idea has a strikingly different implication. The enfranchisement of the proletariat, according to the orthodox dogma of socialism, required the abolition of private ownership, which was supposed to induce the abolition of the bourgeoisie as well. Even though a cultural revolution may have been considered necessary to achieve the abolition of the bourgeois spirit, the new culture was supposed to be universally valid, since there were no classes any more. The enfranchisement of the black population requires something altogether different—and drastically so: The whites being oppressors, not as a class of owners, but as a race of white men, the requirement is the abolition of the white world.
I think such a conclusion is inescapable as long as the issue is formulated in democratic terms.
So much becomes clear to whoever tries to summarize the options left to both blacks and whites.
We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptation, to economize, to acquire a new skill. . . . [T]his country demands that every race measure itself by the American standard. . . . This is a passport to all that is best in life, and the Negro must possess it or be debarred. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.
Thus spoke Booker T. Washington. Does such realistic advice have any future in the minds of the masses? Here is MLK’s reply: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”—in other words, not to rely on procrastination, but to proceed with an immediacy of results. And not only that. What BTW actually asked of blacks was indeed that they forfeit their negritude (to use Aimé Césaire’s parlance), and literally become white, which is not only humiliating but amounts to reneging the soul they claim as peculiar to them. What Stokely Carmichael or the Black Panthers came to demand was, logically enough, not to become Americans, not the freedom to enroll in white universities, not even to broaden a black bourgeoisie, but to impose a black culture, a black society, a black government: black power.
Which spells the doom of all policies aimed at simply enforcing equality by a kind of systematic assistance (quotas or any sort of positive discrimination) whose only goal cannot be but the one white liberals were after, the assimilation of blacks. On top of being condescending, and therefore insulting again, can it reasonably achieve anything other than to habituate the black population to welfare?
I really wonder if there is any logical solution to the issue in our present Western democracies, short of a total upheaval of the current situation. Socialist freedom and equality required the abolition of private ownership, which was demonstrably stupid but somehow feasible. Socialism does not work for blacks as soon as they think they are exploited as blacks. The freedom and equality Martin Luther King, Jr., demands “for the Negro community” requires that either the whites become blacks or the blacks become whites—the abolition of skin color. This amounts very much, to quote King again, to “every valley be exalted and every hill be made low.” Before this happens, Malcolm X more realistically—and again quite logically—demanded power not for the proletariat, but for blacks.
Democracy is responsible for the way the racial issue becomes this insoluble dilemma: Short of both blacks and whites accepting hybridization, the choice is between eradication or oppression of one race by the other. For, as I have said many times, democracy is a society in which every citizen considers himself a god or a king, so that it is doomed to be a society whose fabric is the war of all against all. And when a certain number of those citizens happen to acquire, because of the color of their skin, a spontaneous class consciousness, then it is doomed to become a society whose fabric is a struggle to death, not only of classes anymore, but of races.