Gary Okihiro on Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation

I loved Gary Okihiro’s book Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation, I wish I had read it as a student — but it’s not been out too long, so I can’t be too sad about that. I wanted to give it to everyone I know though, just because of the brilliant ways it pulled together so much of what I’ve been struggling with while also recalibrating my perspective on world history and important events the same way that Vijay Prahad‘s work helps me do. I would love to teach it, perhaps one day I will have the chance. A very different kind of view of a global world and struggle from Wallerstein‘s, though it finds his work useful and builds on it in interesting ways.

As always my disclaimer that there is much more detail/history/context in the book that I am not exploring here, this first post is just pulling out some of the main concepts in the first half of the book. The second post focuses more on social formation, subjectification and struggle. But just to give it context, I found this brilliant short description (and a brilliant short lecture) of what the book is trying to do:

In 1968 the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State College demanded the creation of a Third World studies program to counter the existing curricula that ignored issues of power—notably, imperialism and oppression. The administration responded by institutionalizing an ethnic studies program; Third World studies was over before it began. Detailing the field’s genesis and premature death, Gary Y. Okihiro presents an intellectual history of ethnic studies and Third World studies and shows where they converged and departed by identifying some of their core ideas, concepts, methods, and theories. In so doing, he establishes the contours of a unified field of study—Third World studies—that pursues a decolonial politics by examining the human condition broadly, especially in regard to oppression, and critically analyzing the locations and articulations of power as manifested in the social formation. Okihiro’s framing of Third World studies moves away from ethnic studies’ liberalism and its U.S.-centrism to emphasize the need for complex thinking and political action in the drive for self-determination.

Instead of racial formation Okihiro uses the term social formation, drawing on the work of Omi and Winant as well as Charles Mills to analyse the ways in which:

the formations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation as discrepant and intersecting constructions and practices conceive and cultivate the social formation. Attending to the multiplicity of these forces ceaselessly at work in the locations and exercises of power, the social formation demands a complexity in our thinking and action to engage and resist the forces that oppress us all. (2)

This is a world in which European settlers have worked to implant and to sustain white supremacy, but of course this was recognised long ago.

W.E.B. Du Bois delineated that global color line as the problem of the twentieth century, which was colonialism (material relations) and racism (discourse), the ideology that upheld white supremacy and nonwhite subservience. (5)

He stood in sharp contrast to what was being undertaken by the University of Chicago, and of course suffered for that to the great loss of Sociology. Du Bois did his amazing  academic work in Philadelphia and Atlanta even as  Chicago’s Sociology department worked to develop the discipline, constructing the fields of race relations which ‘sought to understand and control the challenges posed by nonwhites to white rule‘ and ethnic studies, which ‘conceived of ethnicities or cultures as the way to preserve white supremacy by assimilating problem minorities into the dominant group‘. (6)

Okihiro writes that

Black (or brown, red, and yellow) power is a potent antidote to the poison of white supremacy, but it follows and is in reaction to white power and is accordingly limited by its model and prior conditions. (3)

But there was a different current of rebellion and of thought that grappled with the full complexities of social formation, and looked to move beyond the racial binary.

The Third World Liberation Front’s course of study was directed at liberation, called self-determination. The Third World curriculum was designed to create “a new humanity, a new humanism, a New World Consciousness,”… (5)

Okihiro writes further

A third world consciousness sustains the theory and that intersectionalism draws form the lived experience of the subjects of Third World studies–the oppressed, the masses. Social formation theory purports to explain the structures of society in their totality and their changes over space/time. The theory understands power or agency as the means by which societies are organized and changed, and social structures involve primarily race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. (12)

The state, then, is also central within these structures.

The sovereign nation-state is both spatial and social. It is marked by borders within which rulers rule over people. In the narrative of nation the people were related biologically and were thus referred to as races. They shared a common descent and were of one blood. In addition, under patriarchy men occupied the public sphere or the state because of their alleged virtues, while women were confined to the domestic sphere because of their presumed deficiencies. Families constituted the nation, and sexuality and marriage were thus state prerogatives. Under capitalism inviolate was the bedrock of possession of property, including land, goods and dependents–women, children, slaves. The nation-state accordingly was designed to install and interpellate hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and (national) citizenship. Those relations of power privilege the few and oppress the many (7)

This book explores these categories and how we understand them, explores the struggle both to conceptualize them and to ensure that such work contributes to liberation within a wider, repressive academic arena even as it connects it to liberation movements emerging from the two key historical moments for world struggle: the Pan-African Conference in 1900, and Bandung in 1955. See, recalibrate that.

So we come briefly to power and agency — this is explored more in the 2nd post.

Power in the physical world is expressed as energy: power in the social realm is realized as agency. As Foucault points out in his critique of the sovereign model of power that reduces complex relations to a single dialectic, power is dispersed throughout the social order. that fragmentation, however, does not preclude the possibility, indeed the necessity of locating power, apprehending its workings, and contesting its consequences. Third World studies subscribes to that species of positivism for the imperative of pointing to privilege and poverty, exploitation and oppression, revolution and liberation. (15)

Oh hell yes. He draws on Franz Fanon’s work to explore the ways in which the

divide and hierarchy of race and class placed white, capitalist expansionists from the first World over colored, native workers of the Third World. The former were humans and individuals; the latter, nonhuman and faceless masses (17).

Du Bois and Fanon could have been foundational, but instead it is this other psychology that underpins so much western academic work, it is hard to see what is worth rescuing sometimes.

This understanding brought to bear on the city and the impacts of immigration resulted in the incredibly famous and terribly flawed models of the Chicago school that I see repeated as almost a matter of faith in urban study after urban study. Okihiro writes:

Within that flattened world of the modernizing, homogenizing city Chicago sociology abandoned race for ethnicity, and European ethnic immigrant groups constituted the model for the progressive ethnic cycle of immigration, contact and interaction, competition and conflict, and accommodation and assimilation (23).

This allowed race to be removed from the discussion, for the horror of racism and redlining and slum housing to become naturalised, part of a cycle that just represented the way things were:

This, in the language of ecological succession, the “invading race,” as posed by Park, whether black, brown, or yellow, was the problem, not white supremacy or the ideology and material environments and conditions that sustained white rule. (25)

Urban studies for the most part continue citing Parks, failing to grapple with white supremacy instead. Not that this has gone uncontested. There is always a return to the counter arguments, the grassroots battles, the search for a more productive and liberatory way of thinking here.

I had no idea of the student struggles, the pressure on University administrations to allow in a broader spectrum of students which in the end led to Merritt College in Oakland offering black studies classes in its experimental programme. Who was in that? Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Ernest Allen, Richard Thorne, Marvin Jackman. God damn. And for all that went wrong, for the ways in which ‘patriarchal nationalism‘ came to ‘eclipse Third World consciousness and solidarity‘, this was still a beautiful moment (31).

This book is full of such beautiful moments.

Global constructions

As early as 1906 Du Bois was writing of the colour line as a world wide issue — ‘The Color Line belts the world‘ he said. He was also the first to explore the ways in which this line was a construction.

It is important to consider that the essentializing color line of white and nonwhite emerged in the late nineteenth century at the height of imperialism. (41)

I know I haven’t thought enough about colonialism and imperialism. Okihiro looks at the ways in which imperialism is both ideological and material, how it is involved in discursive conquest, and hierarchies of merit and worth. It is also a historical phenomenon, a phase of capitalism beginning in the fifteenth century — first through mercantilism, then industrial capitalism. Okihiro draws on Wallerstein’s world-systems theory here.  Colonialism is defined as

the discursive and material subjugation of extraterritorial spaces and their life forms, including life forms, including lands and waters and all of their properties. (84)

I love this definition, it helps broaden how we think abut these logics and how they are applied. He also brings in Fanon’s point on the ways in which colonialism worked to deny people their past. Okihiro writes:

While one in general features and functions, extraterritorial colonies were of two main varieties: extractive colonies and settler colonies. (85)

The world system is anchored by these colonies with their boundaries,  but migrant labor remains as a product and vital element of the world system. (87) He describes how Polynesians were taken to Peru, the Chinese and Indians to plantations. He writes of the attempt first to kill the Indian in the Americas, and then to kill the Indian in him.

So what does struggle against oppression at the world-system level need to draw on? Okihiro moves on to think about what theory is useful for liberation and starts with Freire. Hurrah. Because of course central to Freire is engaging with social and material constructions, entering the struggle and only becoming truly human through that struggle. When thinking about how white supremacy works and the damage that must be undone, could there be any other choice I wonder? It rests on a certain view of power:

Power is thus relational: it circulates and is never localized; it is not a commodity; it is deployed, not possessed. Individuals are mere vehicles of power/ Power’s strategy of segregation is mirrored in taxonomy and the structuring of knowledge into discrete disciplines (discourses) to attain finality as closed, self-contained systems. (108)

I love this acknowledgment of how power is used to segregate, and the ways it it is wielded to accomplish this in the world are the same ways it is wielded to divide up knowledge into academic disciplines. This is also discussed by Wallerstein of course.

Anyway, more on theory, subject, power, struggle next.

Okihiro, Gary (2016) Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

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