Other Travels

Initially, I was mildly incensed by this latest gem from the NYT. Gregory Clark, an economic historian, has offered a theory about the rise of the middle-class and the beginnings of the industrial revolution in England. I know little about both, but his theory boils down to this: blood will tell. In what seems to be a new, stunning account of what we used to call scientific racism, Clark argues the middle class, or more precisely middle-class values, arose primarily from de-classed upper class English. If I understand it, it goes something like this: born into an upper class family. Not enough wealth to go around. De-classed because of the lack of available inheritable wealth. From the bottom of the barrel, claws up into, and creates, in effect, the middle-class.

But the middle-class is more than just about acquiring money. It is based on specific values. “The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history,” Clark claims. While these values need not be exclusively genetic (or scientific, to contest the term scientific racism), their “sudden” appearance in “human history” (as always “white history”), as distinct forms of behavioral and ideological change aligns them closely with what we term scientific racism. Indeed, as described by NYT columnist Nicholas Wade, Clark’s work offers nothing less than a meeting between scientific theories of human development and economic change over time. Evolution meet Economics.

For those of us who work with and around scientific theories of race, the history of imperialism, colonialism and slavery, Clark’s account, at least as described by Wade, sounds remarkably familiar. Internal changes among the English, in constitution and habit, in blood and behavior, led to their rise as an industrial power. Clark’s theory of reconstituted de-classed populations sounds remarkably like the “father” of racism’s Arthur de Gobineau’s idea of “civilizing instincts,” his theory about the movement of history and development based on plunder and colonialism, assimilation and extermination.

Again, for those of us who study the history of race, what seems glaringly absent from this account of internal development (and seemingly unmitigated anglophilia) is the presence of international trade and competition (the Mughal and Ottoman empires, for example), the reality and necessity of slavery and colonialism among the English. We cannot—indeed—must not sanitize the emergence of the English middle-class by reading it as distinct from the violence that supported it. (Of course, as we know, violence against brown, black, and non-English bodies—Jamaica and Ireland, for example—is a middle-class mode of non-violence. I see no blood on my doorstep; therefore, my actions are unrelated to violence.)

Despite my distaste for this work—and its seeming ignorance of anything written by historians of empire over the past 30 years—I am more interested in several black responses (pun intended) to the lure of the middle-class. Nella Larsen and Claude McKay, for example, both critiqued and were indifferent to the middle-class (as far as both positions can be held simultaneously). Their works, and in McKay’s case his life, were exercises in queering modes of normativity associated with the middle-class (the middle-class is nothing if not the normativity machine of our times).

I cite these two to suggest that while we may critique the implicit work of race in Clark’s work, we need not, for that reason, assert a right or claim to have the same “middle-class” values he privileges. Indeed, despite their many problems, what we now term essentialist theories of blackness, one thinks of McKay’s primitivism, Senghor’s negritude, Asante’s Afrocentrism, tend to be indifferent if not outright hostile to some, if not all, the values Clark espouses.

Black meets queer in McKay and Senghor (who builds on McKay and carries queer as a latent “virus”), both providing us with an alternative value system, one that, in McKay, consists of pleasure over work, contingent and wasted labor, a refusal of middle-class discipline (associated, in his mind, with the colonial regime in Jamaica). It is this “refusal,” in so far as it is possible, that I find so compelling about the place where black histories meet queer histories, where black theories of living (as opposed to resistance) combine with queer theories of pleasure (McKay has an affair with Senghor).

While, in the past, I have been incredibly uncomfortable with how many writers privilege the working class and peasants as the repository of “national” values, I am equally uncomfortable with the sanitized image of the middle-class presented by Clark (“non-violence, literacy, long working hours”). What concerns me even more, though, might be the critique that trumps its complicity as cause for celebration: “We also share those values.”

I ramble now, rather aimlessly, though with a certain purpose.