Zadie Smith Finds Her Way to Class

Todd Cronan on Zadie Smith’s politics of compassion.

Zadie Smith Finds Her Way to Class

“I RECOGNIZE MYSELF to be an intensely naïve person,” Zadie Smith tells readers in the opening essay of her 2018 collection, Feel Free. Despite “frequent pretensions to deep sociopolitical insight,” she worries that she is in fact politically unsophisticated. She resolves to become “less naïve,” and her recent essays and novels are evidence of that evolving political consciousness.

At first glance, the newfound political wisdom looks pretty old. There is “no perfectibility in human affairs,” because in this world there is “only incremental progress.” “I believe in human limitation,” a lesson learned from “recent and distant history.” One of the longest essays in the collection, “Windows on the Will: Anomalisa,” on Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s 2015 puppet film, presents a surprisingly flattering picture of arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. What is the cause of the suffering of the main character, Michael? Unquenchable desire. “The striving of matter can always be impeded only, never fulfilled or satisfied,” Smith quotes Schopenhauer as saying. Smith sums up the situation for the reader: “[L]ike so many of us [Michael] remains stuck between those twin poles of want and boredom.” This is what Smith means with her ironic title, “Feel Free.” The solution to Michael’s predicament and ours, the one that Schopenhauer and Smith affirm, is compassion and empathy.

Compassion might describe Smith’s basic approach as a writer. What motivated her to write? “Above all,” she says in a 2019 essay in The New York Review of Books, “I wanted to know what it was like to be everybody.” Her novels are tours de force of literary empathy, and White Teeth (2000), her breakout work, epitomizes a vision of multicultural possibility that the “less naïve” Smith could no longer accommodate. That world, the one she inhabited growing up, mixed “the relatively rich and the poor, the children of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Protestants, Catholics, atheists, Marxists” as well as those who are “religious about Pilates.” Smith celebrates a world where these people “are all educated together in the same rooms, play together in the same playground, speak about their faiths — or lack of them — to each other.”

At once we can begin to see the limitations of compassion, at least as a political idea. Smith’s empathetic universe is a world without ideology. Being rich and being poor, after all, are not subject positions worthy of affirmation; it would be perverse to celebrate a world flush with poverty. And yet Smith’s earlier novels revel in their capacity to turn ideological difference — Christian and Muslim, Marxist and atheist — into cultural difference, a choice between health food, exercise, and church on Sunday. No one wants to (or should want to) rid the world of cultures. Those differences should be celebrated. But the point of leftist politics, its difference from pluralism, is something else: to rid the world of poverty, which requires ridding it of the rich, first.

Smith’s political education seems to run in the opposite direction from Marxism. Her commitment to “incremental progress” is explicitly pitched against all manner of “apocalyptic thinking,” which she loosely identifies with progressives. Her only mention of Jeremy Corbyn in Feel Free is to chastise him for “profoundly betray[ing] the youth vote” that (putatively) “swept him into power” and so “he must go.” We can begin to see how Smith squares the youth vote with incremental progress when she cites the Obama administration as teaching her the lesson of modest gains.

In her latest book, Intimations (2020), written during the lockdown and taking the events of 2019–’20 as its subject, Smith’s recent conversion to a more hard-headed philosophy is confronted with a far more hard-headed world than the Obama years. As she writes in the foreword, Smith now takes Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as her guide (which feels like a lateral move from Schopenhauer). The tone is darker and explicitly philosophical. Glossing a March 2020 statement by Trump, she finds he “spoke the truth” when he said (as though by accident) “we didn’t have death” in our “old life.” COVID-19 has shown us, has even shown Trump (that’s how bad it is), that something is missing from American life: “death absolute.” “Death absolute,” the “truth of our existence as a whole,” Smith writes, is something Americans — apparently allergic to seeing life whole — refuse to see. The truth can no longer be denied, death comes to us all. Give up those utopian ideas about changing the world and accept the world as it comes to you in its inevitability.

The striking opener of Intimations, “Peonies,” is a reflection on writing in a “season of death,” and it is another story about her conversion to seriousness. She writes of being stopped short, and seemingly against her will, by tulips seen through the bars of a public garden. It is a collective act of “submission,” as two other women appear gripped by the unexpected sight among the urban gray. The fact that she and the women are drawn as though by some instinctive force to the sight of tulips leads her to reflect on the act of writing more broadly. The tulips put in doubt her deeply held view that “[w]riting is control,” that “[w]riting is all resistance.” The tulips, like death, alert her to the fact that, out there “in the field,” in “real life,” experience “just keeps coming at you,” and it bears no predictable shape or form. Whether one chooses to “submit” or not, every form, every order will confront its equal and opposite in obdurate reality.

“Suffering Like Mel Gibson” meditates on the difference between privilege and suffering and, like the other essays in the collection, underlines the need to accept reality rather than the latest media fixation. The title refers to a meme in which Gibson sits in a director’s chair talking to Christ, who is “soaked from head to toe in blood and wearing his crown of thorns.” The caption under one version reads: “Explaining to my friends with kids under six what it’s been like isolating alone.” It’s a check your privilege moment. Smith reflects on the fact that, just before the pandemic hit, “checking your privilege” was hotly debated (within the professional managerial class, at least). Privilege could be mediated, addressed, contested, altered, while suffering was immune to media chatter — the irrational but unimpeachable sense that the world conspires to “to destroy you and only you.” Suffering is “not relative; it is absolute.”

As with death in the other essays, Smith implores her readers to admit the “reality of suffering” into their lives, rather than fight an enemy that will always win. As a writer, Smith is on the side of everything the social aims to suspend: suffering, loneliness, death, the constant nag of human frailties. Social decorum suggests it is appropriate to say you are “fine and privileged, lucky compared to so many others, inconvenienced, yes, melancholy often, but not suffering.” Suffering, for Smith, is a reality we disown at our peril. And yet Smith’s turn to philosophy, and putative turn away from a multiculturalism, is yet another form of empathy. Although she moderates her vision of teeming plurality, she comes to embrace a classical vision of empathy, that everyone might be suffering, rich and poor alike.

In “Something to Do,” Smith deflates various popular literary pretensions used to justify art. The “potential political efficacy” of art is “usually overstated”; literary manifestos use a borrowed language, “echoing and mimicking the urgency of the guerrilla’s demands”; the connection drawn between the “artist’s labor” and “truly laboring people” is “tenuous” at best; the people “almost never demand art.” So, what’s the point of writing? Writing fills time in the way that baking banana bread during lockdown fills time. Ouch. What happened to compassion? Writing and bread are not acts of compassion, they are acts of love. Love, like tulips, is “something to be experienced,” it cannot be “preplanned or determined” by the author. Unlike tulips, love directly involves others, it “frightens” you with the demands it places on you. Art is love without the pressure or desire to reciprocate. In some of the most effective passages in the book, Smith observes how there would be “no culture in this world” without the “habit of indirection” expressed by bread and novels.

What, then, is the difference between the indirect expressions of love that make bread and the ones that write novels? Art works, unlike bread, are “love comprehended.” In a crucial turn, Smith finds this sentiment cogently expressed by those most alone in the world, pointing to the works of Yukio Mishima and Édouard Levé. Mishima and Levé turned their suicides into works of art, so that the “final rejection of the idea of doing ‘something’” could be “refashioned into a work of art.” Mishima’s and Levé’s actions — committing suicide as a public event, not unlike the consumption of bread leaving nothing behind — was like a literalization of their accounts of the autonomy of the work of art. The meaning of the act was independent of its reception by a viewer, even if it included the viewer as part of its performance. By literally collapsing life into art, consumption into production, Mishima and Levé expressed a vision of love as something that demands nothing in return. By demanding nothing, writers produce works that seek out a way to not be misunderstood by their audience, works whose meaning is independent of their reception, even in the case of a work that is itself a public event.

If love is a surer foundation for literature, it is also, more surprisingly, a surer foundation for politics. Loving another, versus compassion or empathy for another, might mean taking beliefs seriously. Loving a poor person would involve something far different from tolerance for their subject position; it would mean coming to terms with their manner of exploitation and inevitably result in hating — that is, expropriating from — the rich who exploited them.

The philosophy of love comes into conflict with “death comes to us all” when Smith arrives at the theme of her book, the pandemic. As Smith points out, the so-called “democratic nature of plague” is wildly overstated. COVID-19 does not come to us all. Smith’s grown-up philosophy confronts class reality, the one both her early pluralism and stoic philosophy cannot help but obscure. “More poor people are dying than rich,” she observes. “The virus map of the New York boroughs turns redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings.” Far from being random, “[u]ntimely death,” Smith writes, has a “location and bottom line.” (When Smith was writing this, in the depths of the first fatal wave of the pandemic, African Americans were dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of whites; now, the death rate for white Americans exceeds the rates for Black, Latino, and Asian Americans.)

Smith’s formidable postscript, “Contempt as a Virus,” is an ambitious effort to cast the disease as a contagious social attitude. Here, death does not come to us all; rather, this plague flourishes among the poor. The poor, not minorities. The people who catch this disease are “plagued by poverty, first and foremost,” Smith insists. In her closing paragraph, Smith dispenses with philosophy, with the politics of empathy, and with the whole liberal catechism of racial disparity.

Real change would involve a broad recognition that the fatalist, essentialist race discourse we often employ as a superficial cure for the symptoms of this virus manages, in practice, to smoothly obscure the fact that the DNA of this virus is economic at base [her emphasis]. Therefore, it is most effectively attacked when many different members of the plague class — that is, all economically exploited people, whatever their race [my emphasis] — act in solidarity with each other. It would involve the (painful) recognition that this virus infects not only individuals but entire power structures, as any black citizen who has been pinned to the ground by a black police officer can attest. If our elected representatives have contempt for us, if the forces of so-called law and order likewise hold us in contempt, it’s because they think we have no recourse, and no power, except for the one force they have long assumed too splintered, too divided and too forgotten to be of any use: the power of the people. The time has long past when only one community’s work would be required to cure what ails us.

Gone is the stoic philosophy and with it any lingering traces of “essentialist race discourse.” The multicultural utopia becomes “all economically exploited people.” Even the moral language of contempt — which undoubtedly still carries the trace of empathy — is directed at an exploitative structure. Power lies not in resignation, or in the collection of yet more statistics on racial disparity, but in the collective organization of the economically exploited. At this point, for Smith, it is no longer about her talent for orchestrating the lives of others (rich and poor, Christians and Muslims), but of construing the economically exploited as a collective political entity. And being part of a collective means bracketing off one’s particular identity in order to achieve shared political ends. Empathy is the (class) weapon designed to foreclose one’s capacity for seeing the fundamental role that economics plays in our lives. By turning differences into subject positions or identity groups, empathy aims to obscure the fundamental structural forces that shape collective life under capitalism.

In Feel Free, Smith describes the causes behind the effort to keep people divided. We might “take a look at the last thirty years and ask ourselves what kind of attitudes have allowed a different class of people to discreetly maneuver, behind the scenes, to ensure that ‘them’ and ‘us’ never actually meet anywhere but in symbol.” “Wealthy London, whether red or blue” — the neoliberal consensus — carefully monitors the line between poor Blacks and whites. Smith writes of replacing the “mythical or essentialist theories of racism in favor of a concrete economic analysis,” because “racial distinctions have been created and maintained primarily for the sake of capitalist exploitation.” Race “subdues class antagonism,” it is a class weapon designed “to keep blacks and poor whites from seeking common cause.”

It is in the collective interests of the wealthy to keep the splinters and divisions alive so that murky economic foundations remain murky. This splintering and division, Smith says, is “part of the interest in identity politics.” If you can turn politics into “an ethical position from which [one] can be superior,” then those economic bases disappear. “I’m much more interested in the questions of structural inequality than ‘my personal identity is more blameless than yours.’” Note that “structural inequality” is manifestly not racialized disparity but rather the more sweeping reality of economic inequality. It’s not about white privilege so much as the classic privilege of wealth. Those who get shot by police, who get thrown into jail, who lack adequate health care, who receive a bad education are overwhelmingly poor, and on this score poor whites and poor minorities are on the same exploited team, a fact that disparity politics is designed to obscure.

Evidence of Smith’s evolving political commitments emerge even more clearly in her most recent writings. In a remarkable essay on “Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Visions of Power” (2020), Smith considers Odutola’s ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, A Countervailing Theory, 40 drawings in pen, pencil, charcoal, and pastel situated along a curving wall, unfolding a complex mythical narrative. Here, the artist asks: “What would it look like if women were the only imperialists in known histories across the globe?” The question is meant to stop a (neoliberal) audience short. The scenes depict two beings, Akanke and Aldo — the first an Eshu, of the ruling class of women, the other a Koba, a male slave worker. Smith opens with a reading of Odutola’s The Ruling Class (Eshu) and compares it to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818).

As no one can fail to notice, the artist has “flipped the script,” the Enlightenment Master is a Black woman (a “hierarchical reversal […] black replacing white”). But that’s exactly not the story Smith or Odutola aim to tell. Why? Because while one script is flipped, another is more secure than ever: the script of exploitation remains, while the identities are reversed. Moreover, reversing the identities makes “invisible” the larger story of exploitation. As Smith asks readers, “What are the possibilities and the limits of countervailing, as a political or an aesthetic project? Is it sufficient merely to counter?” (The obvious points of comparison here are Smith’s twinned depictions of the Black conservative Monty Kipps in On Beauty and the Black barrister Keisha/Natalie in NW, although in both instances Smith’s problem is classism, how people treat one another, not the structure of exploitation itself.) One has only to compare this to the utterly conservative, but also remarkably pervasive, account of Odutola’s work, the one that unironically asks, “What if the script was flipped and art history was filled with portraits of Black sitters showing off their wealth and power?” But Odutola is not Kehinde Wiley. For Smith and for Odutola, that the figures are “confident, defiant” describes the problem, not the solution.

Smith focuses on a stark visual pairing, Early Embodiment (Koba) and Unsupervised Education. In Early Embodiment, the male Koba slaves inhabit a “zone somewhere between the bardo, the depths of a mine, and a penal colony.” In Unsupervised Education, by contrast, “[y]oung girls, future rulers, roam their environment freely, evidently curious, touching and examining the land, even breaking off pieces of it, at ease within their surroundings and never doubting that ease.” Subsequent works project some hope that the master and slave will mate, creating a new being, giving “expression to Fanonian ideas of hybridity.” But hybridity is yet another evasion: the hybrid fantasy runs up against “the law,” and the concluding series of drawings shows how the law crushes Aldo.

This brings Smith to her final point — that when “Walter Benjamin claimed that every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism, he made no exceptions.” On this score, the

fact remains that the same community that made […] exquisite Ife heads also proved capable of slave raids, of selling their fellow-Africans to European slavers, just as the same culture that produced Constable conceived the Royal African Company, which issued slave-trading licenses to the merchants and middlemen of a thriving global business.

Male or female, black or white, unmixed or hybrid, role reversal is not enough. The point of Odutola’s “radical visual reversals” is not a matter of “flipping the script” but of looking “beyond the merely hierarchical” to the structures that are hidden by first-order countervalence. This is what Odutola means when she reflects on the whole notion of countervalence, describing the project as a “challenge” to her “own implicit biases about power.” “At the beginning of this project,” she says, “I naively thought simply flipping the script by countervailing was a direct way of challenging established norms. What I ended with was flipping the script for yourself to see how insidious the system is and who stands to benefit when the ones at the top could be anyone.”

Following Odutola, Smith does not question the refusal to be a slave but ponders a deeper problem: “[D]o we want to be masters — to behave like masters?” If our first glib response to the portrait of “black, female masters is some variation on #bowdownbitches or #girlboss,” we have woefully failed to “put down the master’s tools.” When we witness the “unexpected figure of the black woman as master, as oppressor,” the image should suspend “our focus on the individual sins of people — the Mississippi overseer, the British slave merchant, the West African slave raider — and turn[] it back upon enabling systems.” Capitalism is not a moral problem, and it cannot be undone by a higher morality. What is the enabling structure? A “racist global system of capital and exploitation.” It is global capital that “allowed the trade in humans to occur.” The temporality is crucial: it is capital that marshals racism to achieve its exploitative ends.

Smith concludes with a surprising turn to the work of Frantz Fanon, noting how Fanon did not seek the “replacement of one unjust power with another unjust power.” Smith is referring to the opening of The Wretched of the Earth (1961), where Fanon observes how the “colonist’s world […] incites envy”: “[T]he colonized always dream of taking the colonist’s place. Not of becoming a colonist, but of replacing him.” From one perspective, colonization represents “hell,” but from a countervailing perspective (in Odutola’s sense), it is also a “paradise within arm’s reach.” Redescribe capitalism as white, flip the script, and “Black capitalism” becomes liberation. Hell becomes paradise, for the newly minted capitalist.

Fanon’s point, the one Smith is invoking here, is that there is a point within every independence struggle, the moment when nationalism must be replaced with “social and economic consciousness.” “The people discover,” Fanon writes, that “the iniquitous phenomenon of exploitation can assume a black or Arab face.” Fanon never tired of making the point; it is at heart of his concerns in The Wretched of the Earth (a point typically lost on his legion of admirers):

The people who in the early days of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manicheanism of the colonizer — Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel — realize en route that some blacks can be whiter than whites, and that the prospect of a national flag or independence does not automatically result in certain segments of the population giving up their privileges and their interests. The people realize that there are indigenous elements in their midst who […] seem to take advantage of the war to better their material situation and reinforce their burgeoning power.

For Fanon, nationalism is a temporary measure, one that needed to be rapidly replaced by “social and political consciousness.” What the latter requires is “[n]ot only an economic program but also a policy on the distribution of wealth.”

Algeria, according to the most recent data, remains among the most equal countries in the world: its most recent Gini index is recorded at 27.6, the same level as Norway’s and slightly better than Finland’s. The United States, by contrast, fares far worse, at 41.5. And that number is the highest level reached in 50 years. Consider, moreover, the changes that have occurred in the United States between 1968, the year after Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks was published in English, and 2020, when Smith’s Intimations appeared. In 1968, the top 20 percent of households held 43 percent of the wealth, while those in the lower four income quintiles held 56 percent. By the end of 2020, the top decile had 70 percent of the wealth and the bottom half had 1.9 percent. Over the period from 1979 to 2020, the top one percent saw their wages grow by 179.3 percent, while the wages for the top 0.1 percent grew 389.1 percent. By contrast, the bottom 90 percent annual wages grew by 28.2 percent. (Currently, the top one percent of earners in the US earn roughly 40 times more than the bottom 90 percent of earners.)

This reality has effectively revised Smith’s picture of what it means to be political, and also what it means to be a contemporary novelist. Smith’s path to class travels a surprising and instructive route, from the literature of empathy (of which she was one of the most profound voices) to a stoic literature that goes “beyond culture” to a sense of the deep injustice at the heart of neoliberal capitalism — the slow death that comes to “all economically exploited people.” If one listens to elites, that injustice disappears behind a sea of unending disparities, how “some” rather than “all” have it worse than others. But when disparity is the problem, exploitation is no longer one. Disparity is about who gets their share of the rapidly diminishing spoils and who gets to be a newly inducted member of the wretched of the earth.


Todd Cronan is associate professor of Art History at Emory University and editor-in-chief of His most recent book is Red Aesthetics: Rodchenko, Brecht, Eisenstein (2021).

LARB Contributor

Todd Cronan is associate professor of Art History at Emory University. His most recent book is Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (2014).


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