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The Prophetic (Night)Vision of Butch Lee and Red Rover

In a 1990s interview, the radical and influential social theorist bell hooks spoke glowingly of Butch Lee and Red Rover's Night-Vision: Illuminating War & Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain.  hooks referred to this book as a vital contribution to social theory, lamenting the fact that it was not being widely reviewed or read.  And though hooks is constantly cited by numerous chic academic theorists, Night-Vision remains obscure and relatively unknown.

Take Anne McClintock's influential and best-selling Imperial Leather, for example, a work of theory that purports to establish the "intimate relation" between the categories of race, class and gender but ultimately fails to deliver on its promise due to its tragic inability (despite its impressive rigor and beauty) to grasp the material conditions behind these categories.  Although McClintock often cites bell hooks she is utterly oblivious to a work of theory hooks claimed "brings together class, race and gender in a way that academic feminist theory gives lip service to but doesn't manage to convey."  Published two years before McClintock's impressive study, Night-Vision went much further than Imperial Leather in developing an understanding of the links between these categories and their existence under imperialism.

Night-Vision's absence from the academic dialogue of established radical theory is not surprising.  Written in 1993 and published by an activist press, this book belongs to that subterranean historical materialist tradition that has little tolerance for hallowed academic spaces.  One of its core theoretical foundations is J. Sakai's Settlers, and it is clearly influenced by that controversial book's tone and style.  There has been more silence around Night-Vision than Settlers; aside from bell hooks' excited endorsement, it is not read in those classrooms that would make selections from Imperial Leather mandatory.  In fact, even though my academic work is connected to the subject matter of Night-Vision, and I am constantly ordering out-of-print and out-of-country books that provide historical materialist engagements with colonialism and imperialism, I had no idea that this book even existed until one of my good friends gave it to me a few months ago.  I wish I had discovered it earlier, but how does one discover a book that is never cited or acknowledged by today's hip social theorists?

Night-Vision's exclusion from academic debate is probably due to the same reasons discussed in my recent review of Settlers.  And yet radical social theory is weaker because of this exclusion.  Whereas McClintock's inability to properly comprehend the material conditions behind the intersection of class, race, and gender (Imperial Leather is marked by a vague appeal to difference, multiplicity, and the rejection of any attempt to make scientific sense of complexity––a problem inherent in all those social theories written by literature experts who refuse to study political economy and history), Lee and Rover grasp the intersection in two sentences: "In class society what is man-made is always disguised as the natural, the biological, or the Holy.  What we think of as race or gender or nationality is class in drag." (Lee and Rover, 7)  And yes, these authors do mean man-made rather than human-made in this instance.

Night-Vision is a queer feminist development of Sakai's analysis of race and racism in class composition,  a rebel literature meant for radical activists and political prisoners––who, by the way, provide the endorsements on the back cover.

Here is the "intimate relation" between class, race and gender that Imperial Leather could never deliver: it is social class that is the fundamental connection.  Lee and Rover have no sympathy for those theorists who would treat class conflict as an abstract and similar category to race and gender in capitalist society.  They reject both crude marxists and idealist postmodernists.  Class gets raced and gendered, they argue, but they agree with Sakai in the claim that it's really all about class.  But also like Sakai, and the theoretical tradition behind Sakai (that includes Mao and Fanon), they are arguing for a better understanding of class conflict.  Social class has historically never been abstract, stripped naked of the drag of race, gender, nationality, etc.

Perhaps this is why Night-Vision will never be read alongside the more comfortable and academic theories of the McClintocks and Spivaks: it hasn't really been in, at least not for a long time, to say that class is the fundamental category––at least not amongst privileged academics.  Of course, Lee and Rover do not mean class in the simplistic manner promoted by early 20th century euro-marxism––not that anyone who snubs their nose at the word class would bother to read them long enough to figure out what they mean.

So why is it all about class for Lee and Rover?  Simple: in the real world every nation exists because of productive relations and there are people who own these relations and people who are owned:
"Our primary question is who is the modern proletariat and what role does it play as a class?  The answer is simple: it is primarily women, children, and alien labor.  Those who are colonized.  The modern proletariat or industrial working class, which is both among the most oppressed and the most productive class that supports the structure of capitalist society by its labor, is not and has never been gender-neutral or nationally self-contained.  No matter how indignantly some men may scream at these words, this is a matter of historical record, of fact." (Lee and Rover, 132)
Here is the gendering of class on a world scale, shot through with race and nationality.  Those who are the most exploited, the largest group of workers upon whose production global capitalism depends, are the class who will be capitalism's grave-diggers.  Night-Vision demystifies the ideology that considers only one type of labour––that performed by the white working class at the centres of capitalism––as proletarian labour.  Moving from Sakai's insights regarding the slave labour, raced and colonized, behind the "proper [white] working class" wage labour, Lee and Rover assert:
"The majority of the productive work done by the human race is, in fact, unwaged labor performed under duress by women and children.  Not only raising crops and providing cooking, laundry, cleaning and sexual services to men, but in maintaining a community and reproducing physically and socially the next generation of workers, women's unwaged labor is such an absolute necessity to male society that it is considered part of Nature along with forests and oceans and rainfall.  The rightful bounty of men to share and fight over.  All waged labor rests upon the greater foundation of women's unwaged labor." (Lee and Rover, 159)
But it is more than this for Lee and Rover.  So far, they are only rearticulating the argument about reproductive labour made by the Italian Marxist-Feminists in the 1970s.  More than simply reproductive labour, women and children actually labour in a feminized world-wide industry: textiles, electronics, shoe-making, food processing.  Hundreds of millions of women and children working world-wide...

The analysis moves through the same terrain covered by McClintock––sex work, the gendering of labour, the racialization of class, the threat of queered gender categories, the ideology of the domestic sphere––and yet marks out a different route.  Always with an eye toward material conditions and history, always with revolutionary desire, Lee and Rover write: "capitalism does raise up whole new classes to meet its economic needs by making new races and genders.  But also, when these classes become obsolete to its needs or too dangerous––threatening slave rebellions––capitalism is prepared not only to repress them, but to transform or even eliminate them in the millions.  This is the battleground of our time and place." (160)

Lee and Rover describe a battleground where the categories of race and gender are always in transition, constantly rearticulated around class to preserve the system even as the victims of previous articulations still feel the lingering oppression of past racializations and genderizations.  "Out of world domination, a super-parasitism developed that made euro-amerikans, and especially white men, the least productive and most highly subsidized people since the fall of Rome." (166)  But now that this labour aristocracy is in crisis there is a rise in fascist ideology as white men imagine that their loss of privilege is oppression.  The resurgence of white supremacism, mens rights movements, and now even the Tea Party, speaks to this crisis: "White men are so bone-hostile to multi-culturalism not because of their racism or sexism alone, but because they sense it foreshadows their own demise as a nation." (164)  All of these currents are attempts of the privileged to not fall to the level of the world's proletariat:
"While the New Afrikan inner city has been turned into what is outwardly the familiar racial ghetto but is more a reservation for class, a place outside the real economy and society, where New Afrikans of the dangerous classes can be penned up––not for labor as in the colonial past, but for elimination––there is still no answer for capitalism's family contradiction of what do with the excess millions of useless white men they subsidize both here and in europe." (165)
 What is most striking about Night-Vision is that it is a decade and a half ahead of its time.  Lee and Rover are describing a capitalism where everything sacred is becoming profaned, everything solid melting into air, so that the basic class dimension––once obscured by its drag––is being stripped naked.  Of course those who once profited from the way that class was dressed are not happy with this transformation and so are fighting for the old racisms and old sexisms to remain.

Night-Vision might well have been written now rather than 1993, especially if we think of the current crisis and the swelling ranks of predominately white and male reactionary movements whose ideologues believe they are somehow victims simply because their power-monopoly is in crisis.  And the above quote about the inner city resonates with lost New Orleans, that ethnic cleansing covered up by the Obama administration's ideology of a "post-race" America.  Indeed, Lee and Rover actually predict the Obama era by examining how black political leadership could actually mean "black genocide."  Other points are even more prophetic: a passage about the white fear of "over-achieving" asian students taking over universities is quite striking considering the recent racist babbling in Macleans magazine.

Of course there are some problems with Lee and Rover's analysis: the odd willingness to give capitalism a planning capability, its mutation the product of a deterministic agenda rather than from the struggles of its victims; the anarcho-communist solution of "dis-unity" and autonomist struggles in the midst of chaos; the habit of citing a single text continuously for six or seven pages.  And I'm certain that some potential critics, like the reviewers of Sakai's Settlers, might be inclined to attribute too much significance to these problems.  As I've mentioned before, no piece of social theory is beyond criticism.  What is significant about Butch Lee and Red Rover's Night-Vision is that it not only develops the critique begun in Settlers, but breaks new ground by driving the queer feminist theory-convertible across the chasm and into territory that is extremely relevant now with the recession and the rise of neo-fascism

Written ahead of its time, just on the threshold of capitalist "parasitism", Night-Vision reads like an uncanny prophecy of these days when the bare bones of class, though a class still garbed in the drag of race and gender, is emerging from the whirlwind of crisis.


  1. Hey JMP,
    Thanks for the excellent review of "Night-vision" and I completely agree that the marginality of this text within both academic and activist circles is not surprising, although ultimately damaging to our understanding of the society around us. I hope that you will a) post a link to Kersplebedeb so that your readers can buy the books you have been reviewing and b) that you will review "False Nationalism False Internationalism" and Butch Lee's collection of essays, "Military Strategy for Women and Children" and her biography of Harriet Tubman.

    Keep it coming.

  2. Thanks BF. I haven't read "False Nationalism False Internationalism" (though I've always meant to and am aware it's considered part of a "trilogy" formed by Settlers and Night-Vision), nor do I have Butch Lee's collection of essays: I shall get them in the future.

    Good point about Kersplebeded. Those who are interested in reading both Settlers and Night-Vision can order them from this site:

  3. Very interesting review. Any suggested spots where we can find the book? More and more I wish someone would just set a printing press up in a basement somewhere and start reprinting these texts, NCM tracks, etc.

    Do the authors touch much on the role of the peasantry? B/c it jumped out to me that much of the worldwide hyper-exploitation of women's uncompensated labor gets extracted through feudal modes of production as well. Likewise with regards to whole populations capitalism no longer needs and is willing to eradicate, I hop back to Amin's chilling argument in The Liberal Virus about the 1/5th of the worlds population still under the yoke of feudalism, a feudalism that capitalism would much rather starve and bleed to death than overthrow in any sort of progressive manner.

  4. Ha! just saw the above comment, thanks for the link already to where we can get these books!

  5. And right now Kersplebedeb is having a sale and Night-Vision is only $4.95!

    Yes, when the authors talk about the global working-class they do deal with how a lot of this labour is agrarian. (They also use Amin's statistics to show the hyper-exploitation and Amin's statistics always take the peasantry into account.) There are definitely areas missing in Night-Vision but they have a specific target, and these areas are generally tangental to their focus. Definitely Samir Amin's work dovetails nicely with the tradition of which Settlers and Night-Vision is a part of - all of these maoist-influenced authors fit nicely together.

  6. Thanks so much for these thoughtful words! Butch Lee & J Sakai's current work-in-progress on the Katrina genocide is also very illuminating (and available for sale in draft form from Kersplebdeb). J's talk about his experiences in the civil rights movement at last year's anarchist bookfair was stunning. Can't wait for your next review!

  7. I can't wait to read that book, minussmile, especially since they're writing it together. I read Sakai's analysis of the Obama campaign and his insightful comments about New Orleans there and had hoped he would say more: looking forward to the book.

  8. They've been working on it for a few years now so the current draft is very good already (and inexpensive :o)

  9. I hope the final version will be published soon: it's definitely important in light of the "post-racism" garbage surrounding the current American regime.

  10. Hi JMP, I just finished this book and I think you may be suffering from a mis-reading of "dis-unity." In NV, B.L. and R.R. discuss that while the Imperialist (neo-colonial) bourgeoisie transitions towards becoming a transnational capitalist class, and shedding it's borders, that *nations* (oppressed, un-oppressed, or identitarian formations) strive to become nations- B.L. and R.R. say that neo-colonialism cannot make a phone call to (clearly losing) white settlers to call of their political programme as the 'white nation', that the forces unleashed by settler colonialism maintain an autonomy of their own. And based on this premise, the "dis-unity" is not about dis-unity in the sense of un-leashing concomitant struggles through a multiplicity of national/identitarian groups but "dis-unity" in the sense of *un-binding* For example, B.L. and R.R. talk about how "Black and Brown Unite and Fight" is an antiquated slogan for the neo-colonial era, not because *unity* is bad, but because there is a black president who promotes the genocide of the New Afrikan nation, that, for example, the populist former mayor of D.C. Marion Barry launched the largest drug arrest raid against his own people - it is more of an appeal to the resurrection of the universal term 'proletariat' (which they describe as women and children, gendered and racialized, in the most stunning application of intersectionality which avoids all of it's cliches.) than an endorsement of the multiplicity of social movements = revolution idea.

    1. It's been a while since I read the book so you might be correct. However, while I am willing to admit that I quoted "dis-unity" without accuracy, it does seem clear (and Butch Lee at least has been clear about this elsewhere, and has even been referred to as an "anarcho-maoist") that the political proscription is some form of movementism, though not the same kind of movementism advocated by Hal Draper and his ilk.


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