Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Backing Biden betrays socialist politics

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By Frank Brenner


Recently on twitter I came across an anguished plea: “I thought I would cut my arm off before ever writing this, but please folks we have to vote for Biden.” This guy considers himself a radical, hence his anguish. And he’s far from being alone. In this election year where the whole world seems to be spinning out of control, one small but notable feature is radicals who are, politically speaking, willing to cut their arm off. This includes some alumni of Sixties radicalism, people who have held on to an allegiance to revolutionary ideals through the long political twilight of neoliberalism, often at significant cost to themselves. They refused to follow the examples of many in the Sixties generation who renounced their youthful radicalism for lucrative careers in academia, media and the professions. But all those decades of not caving in to the pressures of the political mainstream no longer apply because this election is different.


I’m not going to single anyone out here for criticism but I do think it’s worth responding in a general sense to the ‘amputee’ arguments. And then I’ll add a comment or two about what I think this development means.


The basic argument is that the immediate consequences of a second Trump term would be so devastating that there isn't any other choice open to socialists except lining up behind Biden. 


My objections:


1. Those who are committed to a fundamental change in society, Marxists, above all, have never based our politics on immediate consequences. We base them on the objective interests of the working class. This doesn't mean that we don't engage with immediate consequences, but we always do so from the standpoint of whether such an engagement advances or holds back those objective interests.


2. If immediate consequences determine politics, then there is no escaping the trap of lesser evil-ism, that perennial curse of leftist politics in America. The argument that the 2020 election is an exception is a dodge. The same argument was made in 2016 and it will be made in 2024, 2028 ad infinitum. Every election from now on will be 'exceptional': all the arguments that apply now – above all, the threat to democracy posed by Trump and the Republicans - will continue to apply indefinitely. If we support Biden this time, the logic of that choice means abandoning any hope for an independent socialist politics of the working class for the foreseeable future. 


(This kind of logic brings to mind a remark by Ed Broadbent, who decades ago was a leader of the NDP, Canada’s social democratic party. He was once asked during an election campaign why it was that his party was losing votes, including from working class voters, even though there was a recession going on, and he replied, "Recessions are bad times for socialists." In the 2020 election it would seem that political crises are also "bad times for socialists." By this logic the only good time to be a socialist would be when capitalism is prospering and its politics are stable ... but then you might as well junk socialism entirely!)


3. Further to the argument that this year's election is exceptional: what if it is so because a Trump coup would mean no more elections or blatantly rigged ones? In which case socialists would try to promote mass political resistance within the working class. How would that goal be served by having called for a vote for Biden? On the contrary, it would promote the dangerous illusion that the only credible resistance to Trump is from the Democratic Party. Eugene Debs’s old line has never been more apt: if you choose the lesser evil, what you end up with is evil.


4. The position of revolutionary socialists should be that the Democrats are not the saviours of democracy but the enablers of the would-be dictator. A call to vote for Biden would obscure this critical point. In the fight to save democracy, we need to insist that only mass working class action can make this happen. That fight doesn't stop on Nov. 3, it only enters a new phase. But if socialists have already come out for a vote for Biden, then we bear responsibility for having promoted illusions we would now be trying to resist.


5. The same point applies if Biden wins, which is still the most likely outcome. A call to vote for Biden would undercut the credibility of socialists in resisting his administration’s policies, including the many ways it will endanger democracy, whether by sins of omission or commission. Having capitulated once to lesser evil-ism, socialists would indeed be ‘missing an arm’ when it comes to countering conventional political ‘wisdom’ (embraced now by many ex-radicals) that we have to stop dreaming of pie-in-the-sky revolutions and 'get real' by backing Democrats to keep the Republican fascists out.


6. My view is that Trump is not a fascist – yet – but a right-wing authoritarian. He is less in the mould of Hitler or Mussolini, and far more akin to figures like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. This isn’t to downplay the dangers that Trump poses, which are very real, but in a political struggle you need to have a realistic assessment of the enemy you’re facing. It can be just as fatal to overestimate an enemy as to underestimate them. I think labelling Trump a fascist adds nothing to our understanding of Trump but it greatly ratchets up the panic level. There will not be concentration camps on Nov. 4 if Trump wins. Polarization will spike, Bill Barr will have a green light for ever more police state measures, the fascist gangs will feel emboldened. Voter suppression, scapegoating of immigrants, lethal police violence, dismantling of Obamacare and probably Medicare too, maybe a Covid death toll of a million - all this is predictable and would be terrible but it is still not Nazi Germany. And most important of all: it is not the end of the struggle, it's not game over if Trump wins. At best he will win with a minority vote for the second time and if the election gets tossed to the Supreme Court, which Trump has packed with his nominees, his legitimacy as the nation's leader among the 65-75 million people who will have voted against him will be nil. The fight for democracy would spill out of the voting booths and on to the streets. It's precisely because it isn't game over on Nov. 3 that calling for a vote for Biden is so wrong and so damaging to whatever hopes revolutionary socialists have for engaging with such a mass movement.


7. But let's entertain the possibility that it is game over on Nov. 3. Let's say Trump really is a Hitler. Again, how would it help the cause of revolutionary class consciousness to call for a vote for Biden? In this case we can look back to the precedents of the 1930s. In the 1932 presidential election the Social Democrats supported Paul von Hindenburg, the conservative who was running for re-election, in order to 'stop Hitler'. Which sounds similar to the ‘stop Trump’ line of the radicals who are now lining up behind Biden. But this was not Trotsky’s position, he excoriated the Social Democrats for their policy, and I think it’s a fair assumption that he wouldn’t be among the ‘amputees’ if he were alive today.  As I said at the start, Marxists have never based our politics on immediate consequences. That's the way Bolshevism operated, and the Transitional Program is essentially a master class on that kind of engagement. 


We also know how this chapter of European history ended: having provided Hindenburg with millions of their workers' votes, the Social Democrats were repaid for their efforts to ‘save democracy’ by having Hindenburg appoint Hitler as chancellor in January of the following year. 


Nothing that I’ve said here should be news to any of the long-time radicals now lining up behind Biden. They know the pitfalls of lesser evil politics as well as anyone, and yet this isn’t stopping them from capitulating this time around. Why?


I’m speaking here in broad strokes, again without any particular individual in mind, but I think the simple answer to the question is – fear. By this I mean fear of a major disruption in their lives should Trump win re-election. It is of course completely legitimate to fear political repression given police violence in response to the George Floyd protests, but I think the kind of fear I’m talking about goes beyond that. As marginalized as radicals have been for a generation and more, they have still managed to sustain a life on those margins, including a more or less active political engagement. The little one has, the more attached to it one becomes. I’m not thinking here of possessions but rather of expectations. If you’ve grown used to a certain stability in your life, even as narrowly defined as that may be, the prospect of losing it can be terrifying. And a second Trump term very much entails such a prospect. In this sense, the move by radicals to back Biden partakes of a much broader social tendency – all those in the middle classes, and many in the working class too, who are increasingly desperate to ‘get back to normal’.


The desire to ‘get back to normal’ is understandable, but it is also an illusion to think that anything approaching ‘normal’ awaits us after the election regardless of who wins. Those of us who are fighting for a fundamental change in society should steel ourselves against the seductive call of a return to normality. The coming period will present great opportunities for building a mass socialist movement as well as harsh challenges. One thing it will not be is a return to ‘normal’. We must be prepared.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Assessing Adolph Reed

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Assessing Adolph Reed: A Look at the Thinking of the American Left’s Foremost Anti-Identitarian

by Jim Creegan

Adolph Reed Jr.

“Ground-breaking”, and “momentous” were adjectives gushing forth from the liberal media to describe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. But neither Harris’s record as a tough law-and-order district attorney in California, where parents  in poor black neighborhoods were prosecuted for their children’s   truancy from school, nor her determined resistance to the reversal of wrongful convictions, broke any new ground; neither her failure to investigate questionable police shootings, nor her refusal to prosecute the shady estate speculator, Trump’s  treasury secretary to be Steve Mnuchin, for fraudulent foreclosures,  were of any great moment. In these respects, Harris is cut from the same cloth as Biden himself, who as a Senator pioneered the present carceral state by promoting draconian criminal penalties, and did the bidding of the credit-card industry that dominates his home state of Delaware. The momentousness of Harris’s nomination in the eyes of her liberal boosters rather consists in the fact that—as the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother-- she is the first woman of color to occupy second place on a major presidential ticket.

This appraisal of Harris’s significance exemplifies much of what is wrong with identity politics in the eyes of the man who has emerged in recent decades as its  leading left-wing critic, Adolph Reed Jr., a black professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.  He argues that emphasis on ‘diversity’ in the upper reaches of power conceals an acceptance of prevailing class hierarchies. To speak as liberals often do of racial and gender disparities alone, he argues, implies that their goals would be achieved if the composition of all hierarchical strata—from the prison to the boardroom—contained the same racial, gender and sexual-orientation ratios as those of society at large. Thus characterized, identitarian discourse, by occluding capitalist society’s most fundamental cleavage of class, itself contains an implicit class politics: those of self-appointed minority-group influence brokers who accept the class order, either because they occupy a comfortable place within it, or aspire to do so.
It is arguments like these that have earned Reed—along with academic co-thinkers Touré Reed (his son), Robert Ben Michaels and Cedric Johnson—the epithet of “class reductionist” in some left-wing quarters. His opposition to reparations to black people for the crimes of slavery and Jim Crow reinforces the accusation in his detractors’ eyes. His politics have become so controversial that a scheduled talk to a New York chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on the inadequacy of racial disparity measures regarding Covid-19 was called off in May because Reed refused to share a virtual platform with his ‘intersectionalist’ critics. This writer thinks their strictures are unwarranted. But Reed’s thinking can perhaps be better understood by examining its origins.

Against the Drift

Reed’s two most prominent books—Stirrings in the Jug and Class Notes—are compilations of essays and articles written mainly in the late 80s and 90s—the most dismal period for radical politics in recent memory. Under the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught, and the discrediting of Marxism with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there occurred a wholesale falling away from the revolutionary and even liberal reformist politics of the previous decades, and from politics in general. At the same time, many rebels of the 60s were scrambling to make the accommodations—practical and intellectual-- necessary to the respectable careers they were carving out.

As a young man, Reed entered politics through the black liberation movement, and went on to become an organizer in the Socialist Workers Party (US) and the anti-war movement of American troops. Although personally successful as a professor at three  prestigious universities since entering academia in 1972, Reed has remained politically active, and is among the minority that did not join the rightward drift. His two volumes are essentially a series of polemics against the retreats and conceits of the long night of neoliberalism.

Reed concentrates his criticisms on the political regressions of the black struggle. Much of what he aims at, however, are the reflections in black attitudes of larger trends. One example is the substitution of cultural poses for political action:

The thrust  of much of… “cultural politics”… is to [redefine] people’s routine compensatory existential practices—the everyday undertakings that enact versions of autonomy and dignity within the context of oppression—as politically meaningful “resistance,” thus obliterating all distinction between active, public opposition and the sighs accompanying acquiescence. The effect is to avoid grappling with the troubling reality of demobilization by simply christening it, Humpty Dumpty-like, as mobilization.[1]     

This ‘cultural turn’ amongst leftwing academics and others had many specifically black variants:

Participating in youth fads  (from zoot suits in the 1940s to hip-hop today), maintaining fraternal organizations, vesting hope in prayer or root doctors, and even quilt making thus become indistinguishable from slave revolts, activism in Reconstruction governments, the Montgomery bus boycott, grassroots campaigns for voter registration, and welfare rights agitation as politically meaningful forms of resistance.[2]    

Reed considers the more recent black cultural turn to be one symptom of the decoupling of the cause of black emancipation from the working class. To examine how this came to pass is one major purpose of his writings.

Careerism and Resignation

The aim of civil rights movement of the 50s and early 60s was full equality under the law; black people of all classes, being equally deprived of democratic rights, were more or less united in the struggle. With the victories of the movement marked by the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act ( 1965), however, the movement faced a choice of two possible paths. The first was marked out by the Washington March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Best remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the march was mainly organized by black social democrats A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin; it was a racially integrated event, which, as its title indicates, linked the cause of civil rights to that of economic equality. The second path—the one that more militant elements of the black struggle ultimately chose for reasons examined below—was that of separation from the ‘white movement’ and adopting a nationalist perspective. This is the turn that Reed and his co-thinkers lament.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington in 1963. Photograph shows (left to right): Willard Wirtz (Secretary of Labor); Floyd McKissick (CORE); Mathew Ahmann (National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice); Whitney Young (National Urban Leage); Martin Luther King Jr.(SCLC); John Lewis (SNCC); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (American Jewish Congress); A. Philip Randolph, with Reverend Eugene Carson Blake partially visible behind him; President John F. Kennedy; Walter Reuther (labor leader), with Vice President Lyndon Johnson partially visible behind him; and Roy Wilkins (NAACP).
The ‘black power’ slogan under which leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown assumed leadership of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was amorphous. In the hyper-charged atmosphere of the 60s, it was widely assumed to indicate a revolutionary content of some kind.  But, as that decade morphed into the somnolent 70s, the militant’s pose became more and more a camouflage for the social climber’s appetite. Appointing themselves spokespersons for an internally undifferentiated entity called the ‘black community’, newly arisen layers of professionals, elected officials and civil servants were inclined to measure the progress of their people by their own career success, and that of strivers like themselves. They, in turn, could only advance by making their agendas broadly compatible with ruling-class interests. In the meantime the large segments of the black population still mired in a ghetto existence—now expected to participate through a kind of vicarious racial pride in the good fortunes of those who had escaped-- were otherwise left to their own devices.

Stokely Carmichael
Accompanying this turn  was the rise of a school of thought that attributed the plight of the ghetto to something called the ‘culture of poverty’: the absence of black fathers, families headed by single mothers with too many children, street crime, drug addiction and dependency on government welfare. These phenomena were viewed not mainly as responses to economic deprivation, but as ingrained habits that prevented poor blacks from making the efforts needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and which resisted amelioration  through redistributive government programs or job creation.

These notions originated in a 1965 report, The Negro family: a call for action by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future New York senator who was then assistant secretary of labor in the administration of Lyndon Johnson. It was actually a call for inaction: Moynihan famously advocated a policy of “benign neglect” in relation to black poverty. But elements of the ‘underclass pathology’ trope were, according to Reed, echoed in the writings of the prominent black sociologist William Julius Wilson, and often found a friendly reception among black influence brokers. Although the proponents of this ideology did not harbor notions of black racial inferiority, Reed argues that their thinking often produced the same end result: the idea of static patterns of behavior, impervious to political or social action.

Reed also claims that the few remaining currents of black radicalism—Afro-centrism and self-styled Marxism-Leninism—responded to the decline of 60s-type militancy by retreating into an ideological purism that serves more as a refuge from the problems of daily black existence than an action program.

Demonology vs Political Economy

It is hardly astonishing that those who speak of unchanging black behaviors should ascribe a similar stasis to whites. The Reeds—Adolph and Touré (who, with his father, has now become a leading proponent of their jointly held views) —do not deny that centuries of racial oppression have had lasting effects, or that parts of the European-descended population remain committed to white supremacy in varying degrees. Adolph Reed grew up in New Orleans when segregation was in force. The Reeds are  unfairly accused of class reductionism. What they emphatically reject is the assumptions of many black intellectuals—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Michelle Alexander come to mind—that white racism is a supra-historical phenomenon. These thinkers argue that slavery, Jim Crow segregation, mass black incarceration and police brutality are all different instantiations of a single essence called white racism—the innate hatred of whites toward blacks--that  remains constant throughout American history despite its many guises. The Reeds insist that the black question cannot be understood apart from history and political economy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West. West called Coates "...the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle".

Take, for instance, the present concentration of approximately one fifth of the black population in deprived urban areas. In his “Case for reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates tends to explain ghettoization by the refusal of the government and banks to extend housing loans to black families, and the existence of restrictive covenants, forbidding the sale of suburban homes to blacks. [3] The Reeds would probably counter that, harmful though these things were, black residential patterns cannot be explained by racial animus and deliberate discrimination alone.

One factor in ghettoization was the mass emigration of blacks from the South. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European immigrants filled American industry’s growing need for workers. Yet as that need diminished in the 1920s, concerns for maintaining the ‘ethnic integrity’ of the US began to take priority, and a strict quota system was enacted into law.

Yet there was one immigration stream that legislation could not shut off: that of Southern blacks who acted against poverty and lynch law in the only way left open to them—by moving to Northern and Midwestern cities. Between 1916 and 1970, nearly 7 million relocated, in the biggest migration in the country’s history, larger than the influx from any European country. Many hoped to—and did—fill the industrial jobs vacated by white workers during the two World Wars. But, having been deprived in the South of education and opportunities to acquire skills, black workers could only fill the lowest-paid, least skilled jobs, and there were many more migrants  than openings at the factory bench. There thus came into existence a permanent black underclass, rendered even more precarious by automation and outsourcing.

Hence the US found itself with a population that the 20th century capitalist economy could not fully absorb. And it is by no means mysterious that the poverty of this population leads to street crime, substance abuse, family instability and a number of other symptoms inimical to middle-class notions of respectability and striving—all of which tend to reinforce existing racial prejudice. Racialized poverty, moreover, presents endless opportunities for right-wing demagogues—one of whom now occupies the White House—to portray this marginalized demographic as composed of shiftless parasites, eating up the hard-earned tax dollars of solid citizens in the form of social-welfare subventions.

With the progressive abandonment of 1960s government anti-poverty programs, culminating in a full- fledged neoliberal attack on an already inadequate welfare state, harsher police tactics and mass imprisonment were expanded to keep this ‘surplus population’ in line. Neoliberal capitalism, not eternal racial animus in contemporary form—not the “new Jim Crow” of Michelle Alexander—is responsible for increased reliance on repressive methods. It is these methods that inflame relations between the police and communities of color, and make police forces attractive to many whites predisposed to racism in the first place. One result are the episodes of police brutality—now electronically recorded and disseminated-- that have given rise to the biggest wave of demonstrations in American history. [4]

The Reeds help us understand the fruitlessness of  any counterposition of the abstract and vacuous categories of ‘race’ and ‘class’; that contemporary racial politics are the result of  complex interactions between economic forces and a history of black oppression, itself rooted in economic exploitation. And just as they refuse to see this history and politics as a morality play in which the only actors are white racists and black victims, they also  reject the moralistic demand for reparations.

This writer has no doubt that, under a regime of socialist planning, a major effort will be required to redress the historic deficit in income and opportunities that the African American population has incurred over the centuries. At the current moment, however, the reparations demand is being presented as the payment of a moral—and financial-- debt owed by the white population as a whole to the descendants of slaves. It is of a piece with attempts to point an accusing finger at ordinary Caucasians for enjoying ‘white skin privilege’ because they do not share the adversities of the most oppressed.

White shaming may tweak the guilt feelings of liberals (for whom it is largely intended), but will fall on deaf ears among white workers, who consider their existence to be far from one of privilege. Many will answer—not without some justification—that they have never done anything to harm blacks, and are not collectively responsible for the sins of their forbears, who, in many cases, took no part in the oppression of black people either. Put in terms of practical politics, any project aimed levelling down—the idea that one section of the population must give up part of what they have to put themselves on a more equal footing with those who have less—is a politics with no future, especially at a time when the entire working class is facing hardships on a scale unknown in since the great depression.

What the Reeds propose as an alternative is a politics of levelling up, consisting of demands for the improvement of the entire working class, such as those advanced by Bernie Sanders in his two presidential campaigns: Medicare for all; a hike in the minimum wage; free public university tuition. As Touré Reed writes in his book, Toward freedom:

The bottom line is that is that because blacks have borne a disproportionate share of the damage inflicted on working people by deindustrialization and the subsequent neoliberal economic consensus, African Americans would benefit disproportionately from Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 platforms despite the absence of the reparations “brand”[5]

Most capitalist countries contain a lumpenised underclass. That the bottom social rungs of American society are disproportionately black is a result of the country’s sordid racial history. To deny that black people of all classes face special  impediments by virtue of simply being black would indeed be color blind. Democratic demands, including those for affirmative action—special efforts to promote people of color to higher education and better jobs—are intended to overcome specifically racial barriers, and are not opposed by Adolph or Touré Reed.  Arguably, Adolph Reed bends the stick too far in his recent disparaging of attempts to measure racial disparities in the effects of Covid-19 and other blights; it is undeniable that blacks and minorities always get the worst of the sufferings of the working class. But greater black distress does not automatically point to the necessity of black-specific remedies.

The principal injustices now commonly treated under the  head of racism—police brutality and mass incarceration—are not afflictions of the black middle class, but of the black poor, both working and chronically unemployed. That their condition can best be addressed by demands aimed at lifting the working poor and unemployed as a whole, without putting the accent on race, with all its divisive pitfalls, is not color blindness, but a corollary to the Marxist aim of uniting the working class.


In addition to evaluating the kinds of demands the Reeds argue for, one may enquire as to the process by which they envisage the demands as unfolding. The question posed over a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg, reform or revolution, is considered largely irrelevant in a contemporary American left dominated by a militant social-democratic reformism. For Jacobin and most of DSA, the possibility of revolution is seen as either non-existent, or a distant bridge, to be crossed (or not) when the working class comes to it. This was not the political sensibility that held sway in the long-lost 1960s, when to avow being a reformist was to place oneself on the rightward side of  the left political spectrum.

One decidedly reformist figure that the Reeds, father and son, refer to approvingly is the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. They commend him for perceiving the necessary linkages between black emancipation and economic equality. Rustin emphasized the need for expansive federal efforts to overcome black poverty. In conjunction with the trade unionist and civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph, Rustin promulgated the 1965 Freedom Budget, a series of proposals for legislative action, including a big federal wage hike and job and income guarantees.

Bayard Rustin (left) in debate with Malcolm X (center)

What the Reeds neglect to mention is the political allies Rustin looked to for the budget’s passage. He viewed the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson and the AFL-CIO trade union federation, headed by the notoriously anti-Communist George Meany, as his principal change agents.  Making sure not to offend these perceived allies, Rustin not only refused to join King in denouncing the Vietnam War—which Johnson waged with Meany’s support--but actively red-baited anti-war protestors, and ultimately refused to participate in the Poor People’s March, led by King’s lieutenants after his assassination, whose demands  were adopted from the Freedom Budget. Rustin was afraid of alienating the Democrats.

Rustin had earlier fallen in with Max Shachtman, the former disciple of Trotsky who was then in swift rightward motion. By the 60s, Shachtman fully supported US imperialism in its global struggle with what he saw as the Soviet totalitarian menace. The alliance with Shachtman launched Rustin on a political trajectory from which he emerged a neoconservative. By the end of his career, he had become a fervent supporter of Israel, an advocate of American aid to South African forces battling anti-Portuguese guerillas in Angola and Mozambique, and a proponent of  escalation of the nuclear arms race. More was involved than an evolution of Rustin’s views. He headed the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the civil-rights arm of the AFL-CIO. Rustin was only too aware that taking any political position offensive to George Meany would result in the discontinuance of his pay cheques. It is understandable that the Reeds find the Freedom Budget commendable in and of itself. But it was half of a social democratic  devil’s bargain: support by certain bourgeois parties for reform at home (which the Democrats eventually abandoned) in exchange for complicity in the global defense of private property  that was the Cold War. The  Reeds’  favorable mentions of Rustin would be less irksome if they would include some acknowledgement of his larger reactionary arc.

In opposition to Rustin’s brand of reformism stood sections of the black movement that considered themselves in some sense revolutionary—the black nationalists the  Reeds decry.  A revolutionary working class politics is what Marxists strive for, then and now. But history does not always serve up  political elements packaged together in an ideal way. During those years, key unionized segments of the US working class—still overwhelmingly white—were enjoying the unequalled prosperity of the post-war boom, and were indifferent or hostile to radical politics. The locus of revolutionary/emancipatory energy largely shifted to the anti-imperialist revolts then convulsing what was called the third world. More than domestic labor struggles, the  Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions were the stuff of far-left consciousness.

In the context of the time, it is understandable why the more militant elements of the black struggle—Malcolm X, SNCC and, later, the Black Panthers-- were inclined to take as their model third-world liberation movements and regimes, which at best professed  nationalist-tinged versions of Marxism,  as opposed to what was seen as a sclerotic labor movement. Most nationalist groups also rejected the liberal-pacifist commitment to non-violence under all circumstances, and asserted the right to black self-defense, placing themselves further beyond the pale of mainstream respectability than King. And, most importantly, they denounced the Vietnam War, in marked contrast to the right wing of the union bureaucracy to which Rustin was captive. If the alternative to black nationalism was the kind of labor-oriented strategy Rustin represented, one could be forgiven for looking elsewhere for inspiration.

An activist during the 60s, Adolph Reed is no doubt aware of this history. But one wonders if his sneaking admiration for Rustin is not unrelated to a subsequent political involvement. In the 1990s, Reed was an important player in the attempt to found a union-based US labor party. The project represented the collaboration of union officials disgruntled that the neoliberal administration of Bill Clinton no longer offered them a ‘seat at the table’, and left-wing activists inside and outside the unions who hoped to nudge these officials into breaking with the Democrats. The Labor Party was stillborn at its  founding in 1996 because union leaders, in the face of deindustrialization and shrinking union density, lost any taste they may have had for political independence. The efforts of left-wingers involved in this project were completely honorable. One wonders, however, if they did not overestimate the potential of even the most left-inclined of labor bureaucrats.

Identity Politics as Diversion

Reed, however, is not being opposed by identitarians because of any soft spots for bureaucrats or right-wing social democrats, but for his insistence on a class-centered politics. Here it is important to appreciate the ruling-class ideological disarray accompanying the economic and social crisis triggered by the pandemic. One bourgeois aim on the ideological front is to preclude the development of a class politics by means of mass diversion. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign represented the last gasp of neoliberal attempts to sell the masses on the ‘magic of the market’, now an impossible feat in the midst of a collapsing economy. The Republicans have thus resorted to the only strategy left to them—the mobilization of white resentment against immigrants and blacks. They will continue along this course for the foreseeable future, with or without a less erratic and more capable leader than Donald Trump.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party, which counts among its voters more of the masses in need of diversion, has recently been haunted by the spectre of a class-based movement in the form of Bernie Sanders and successful insurgent campaigns for lesser offices. The party leadership, along with more astute corporate representatives, have latched onto identity politics as one response to this challenge. We have  been treated in recent months from everything to the spectacle of the Democratic Congressional leadership taking a knee clad in Kente cloth, to Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of the leading investment house of Goldman Sachs, talking about the need to combat “structural racism.” Relegating the party’s left to a couple brief token appearances at the Democratic National Convention, and saying next to nothing about measures needed to combat the economic devastation caused by Covid-19, the party went out of its way to foreground women and minority politicians willing to toe the centrist line. In this climate, the need is greater than ever for a class politics like that promoted by Adolph Reed and his co-thinkers, this time free—it is to be hoped—from the fatal compromises of social democracy.

[1]  Stirrings in the jug, Minneapolis London 1999, p. 118, emphasis in original.

[2] Ibid. p. 151

[4] M Alexander, The new Jim Crow, New York 2010.

[5] Toward freedom, London, 2020, p. 120

Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com

This article was originally published in the UK periodical, Weekly Worker. 

by Jim Creegan

New York,

26 August, 2020

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Defunding the police as a stepping stone to getting rid of capitalism

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by Frank Brenner

Defunding the police has become the marquee demand that’s emerged from the George Floyd protests. It’s understandable given the history of racist police violence in America, but more than that, it indicates that for masses of people – in the black and brown communities and among progressives of all races – the lynching of George Floyd has crossed a line. The cell phone video of a cop’s knee on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him, is now seared into our collective consciousness. In just shy of 9 minutes that video has undone nearly a century of cop hero-worship from Hollywood and broadcast tv. Which is in itself remarkable, attesting to two things: first, that social media, seemingly almost suffocated to the death by surveillance capitalism and the social pathologies of trolling, still has enough residual power to break through all the bullshit with moments of searing reality; and second, that the masses respond to those moments with outrage, as if all the decades of pop culture programming are just so much loose dirt easily brushed away.

The demand to defund (or abolish) the police is not just a slogan that protestors have latched on to as a way of venting their outrage over Floyd’s murder. There is good research by activists and academics underpinning this demand. Notable in this regard is the book The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, a criminologist from Brooklyn College. (The e-book version is available for free from the publisher, Verso Books.) The book is a thorough deconstruction of mainstream cultural myths about how the ‘thin blue line’ is here to serve and protect us all. In a chapter on the history of policing, Vitale writes:

“The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and non-white people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements … [P]olicing emerged as new political and economic formations developed, producing social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal, and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the eighteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class.”

Predictably the origins of the police in England go back to the suppression of the Irish; in America, again predictably, policing goes back to patrols for capturing runaway slaves in the antebellum South. The suppression of labor unrest became a paramount concern for the powers-that-be with the ramping up of the industrial revolution in the later decades of the 19th century. America’s imperialist expansion starting at the end of that century, particularly its military takeover of the Philippines, provided important models for how to run domestic police operations. (In this respect, the much-discussed militarization of the police in recent decades is more an intensification of past practices rather than a departure from them.)

In a recent interview with Jacobin, Vitale explained how this history bears on the current crisis with policing:
Today, we’re not dealing with slavery and colonialism in the same way. Instead, we have neoliberal capitalism and austerity. That system is producing massive wealth inequalities and the hollowing-out of the welfare state, which is in turn producing mass homelessness, mass untreated mental illness, mass problematic relationships with drugs, black markets for drugs and sex work and stolen goods, that people have turned to survive in this precarious economy. Policing has come in to manage those suspect populations — really, in their mind, surplus populations. They’re not trying to form them into a working class, they’re warehousing them in our prisons and jails. We have to understand policing as fundamentally a tool of social control to facilitate our exploitation. So the idea that we’re going to make them nicer and friendlier while they do that task, and that’s gonna make everything okay, is laughable.”
These truths are evident to many protestors on the streets and to activists who have long been fighting against police brutality and mass incarceration. A recent op-ed in The New York Times by one such activist, Mariame Kaba, got a lot of attention. The piece was titled: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police”, with a subhead: “Because reform won’t happen”. In support of the latter claim, Kaba walks us through over a century of public commissions and inquiries which again and again laid out the facts about police brutality and called for reforms, only for nothing to change beyond some window-dressing.
Kaba zeroes in on the fundamental weakness of all these reform proposals: “The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence. But police officers break rules all the time.” And then she lists some widely-reported examples of such rule-breaking during the recent protests: “police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters.” She also notes how Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014, wasn’t worried about being filmed; in fact he waved to the camera. “He knew,” writes Kaba, “that the police union would back him up and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years.” Most telling of all in clinching the argument against police reform is that no city was more committed to such an agenda than Minneapolis – and yet it made no difference in terms of getting George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, off the force despite a record of 17 misconduct complaints over two decades.

All too often, impassioned arguments against injustice get murky when it comes to spelling out alternatives, but that isn’t true in this case. The protestors do have a clear objective, which is to make the police “obsolete”, as Kaba states, and in order to make that happen what they want is massive cuts to police budgets and to the number of cops, and redirecting those billions in savings “toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”

Mental health problems, which cops all too often make much worse with shocking and at times lethal brutality, would instead be dealt with by community care workers with special training. Restorative justice models could be used as an alternative to the plague of mass incarceration. Vitale spells out a number of measures that could be taken immediately, including eliminating COPS – the Orwellian named Community Oriented Police Services – which has been the federal government’s main conduit for militarizing and expanding city police forces.

The police would no longer be able to function as an army of occupation in minority communities, a brute force for keeping a knee on the collective necks of “surplus populations”, as Vitale puts it. Kaba sums up her vision as being that “of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation … This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”

It isn’t hard to see that Kaba’s vision of “a different society” is really a socialist society: there simply isn’t any other kind that’s based on cooperation and mutual aid. Maybe Kaba was leery of using the s-word in the e-pages of the authoritative newspaper of the American establishment or maybe she hasn’t thought this vision through beyond a rejection of society as it exists now, which I imagine is true for many protestors. There is a glaring gap between the radicalism of what protestors want and the absence of a vocabulary to articulate it. That’s because the sort of vision Kaba is talking about is traditionally associated not with any particular race but with the working class – and yet that class has largely lost its voice.

Trade unions have been marginalized for generations (apart from police unions, that is!) and no mass socialist party exists. The Bernie Sanders campaign could have provided the impetus for such a party, but Sanders turned out be more radical in his rhetoric than his politics. At the very moment when reality itself (the pandemic, mass unemployment, the George Floyd protests) seemed to be crying out for the sweeping social reforms that Sanders had been campaigning for – at that very moment Sanders bowed out and threw his support to Joe Biden, a candidate who, in combining reactionary politics with doddering mental faculties, vies with Trump for exemplifying how rotted-out mainstream politics has become. In this way Sanders consigned himself to the same historical junkyard where many other progressives in America have ended up – the one with the words ‘Lesser Evil’ over the entrance.

Bernie Sanders-brand popcorn

This leaves the current political situation in a dangerous place. On the one hand, mass protests against police brutality; on the other hand, the contagion of Trump’s populism that still largely fills the political vacuum left by the corporate Democrats (and by Sanders now as well) in the white working class. If we are ever going to have a chance of getting to a society based on cooperation and mutual aid, that fissure has to be overcome.

One big obstacle to doing that is the prevailing mindset of identity politics. A term like ‘white privilege’ – without any qualifiers – is egregiously counter-productive. Racism is deeply entrenched in American history but painting all whites with a racist brush does nothing to overcome it. White workers are as much wage slaves as black or brown workers, assuming that they can get a job at all. To the extent that all workers remain demobilized as a class, to that extent many of them are also vulnerable to the scapegoating of minorities and immigrants that capitalist ideology constantly resorts to in order to keep its wage slaves divided and obscure the systemic nature of its economic oppression. But the first step in mobilizing such workers is to recognize them as potential allies rather than enemies. Terms like ‘white privilege’ only perpetuate those divisions, and in that sense undercut the struggle for structural change that will really make it possible for black lives to matter. Like all identity-based politics, ‘white privilege’ isn’t a cry for liberty but a bill of complaint, one whose ultimate purpose isn’t to change the system but to ‘diversify’ it, as in having a black president in the White House.

‘Defund the police’ is potentially a breakthrough to structural change because it is a direct challenge to the legal monopoly of violence exercised by the government machinery of corporate capitalism.  The “surplus populations” are saying they’ve had enough with being warehoused by the system and constantly terrorized by its armed thugs. The argument is beginning to shift from vague rhetoric about structural racism to concrete manifestations – but the remarkable thing about that shift is that it ceases to be just about race. If it were just that, then the problem would have been solved decades ago, with more black and brown cops and even (by now) more black and brown mayors and chiefs of police. But this is the police reform agenda that has completely failed, as Vitale and Kaba make perfectly clear. So the consciousness of the masses has begun to move on. The police are un-reformable, so we have to get rid of them.

What would it take to abolish the police? Kaba tells us: the billions from police budgets should be redirected “toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs.” Big investments should be made in mental health and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, which account for an appallingly large percentage of the victims of police brutality and mass incarceration. Even bigger investments would be needed to improve education, provide free college tuition and create millions of decent-paying jobs. The redirecting of police-budget money would be a start – but only that. What this would really take is a massive re-distribution of wealth from the rich and super-rich to the increasingly impoverished great majority. Or to the put this another way, defunding the police can only work if it’s a down payment on getting rid of social inequality.

Housing is instructive in this regard. There is no more blatant manifestation of structural racism than the big city ghettos where black and brown families seem condemned to live eternally. And nothing has perpetuated this de-facto segregation more that the redlining of minority neighborhoods by banks in their mortgage-lending practices. According to recent reporting by NPR, in Chicago 68 percent of all the housing loans made by banks went to majority-white neighborhoods compared to 8 percent for majority-black neighborhoods. JP Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in the country, was also the worst in this regard, lending out 41 times more in white than black neighborhoods. It’s a similar story in other metropolitan centers like DC, New York, Los Angeles and the eye of the current political crisis, Minneapolis.

It could be the banks are all full of racist loan officers, but this would miss the point. This isn’t about the prejudices of individual bank officials (many of whom happen to be minorities themselves) but about the way banks operate. Their guiding principle isn’t race but the bottom line. Historically ghettos were indeed the product of racist policies, especially by federal government housing authorities, but banks don’t operate to right historic wrongs. They go where the money is – where they can make the most profit at the least risk. In minority communities the reverse is most often true: low profits, high risks. So the only way to end the blight of urban ghettos would be a massive overhaul of the banking system so that the need for decent and affordable housing takes precedence over the bottom line. You can’t get rid of the structures that perpetuate racism without getting rid of the structures of capitalism.

But no matter how true an argument is, it needs to find a point of connection with mass consciousness to have a political impact. For many protestors who’ve just begun to be politically engaged, ‘defund the police’ sounds like something do-able whereas overthrowing capitalism sounds like a far more distant (and hazy) prospect. But in a period of crisis like the one we’re living through mass political consciousness doesn’t tend to develop incrementally but can suddenly leap forward to positions hardly anyone would have expected. A mere month ago ‘defund the police’ would have seemed pie-in-the-sky, but seemingly overnight it’s become a demand that millions are backing. What’s crucial now is to make sure such demands don’t get gutted of their radical potential through the usual co-opting by the political mainstream. You can already see this happening with Black Lives Matter, as it gets suffocated to death by the embrace of corporate and political elites.

We should do everything possible to push ‘defund the police’ as far as it can go – and if that pushes the limits of what the mainstream considers acceptable, then so much the worse for the mainstream.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Getting up off our knees: race, class and politics

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To say that America in 2020 is in an existential crisis is an understatement.  Manhattan, where I live, just had the first curfew since World War II.  You had to be off the streets by 8 PM in the evening or you were liable to be arrested, especially if you were a person of color in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city.  We are experiencing a double pandemic – a medical one and a social one – at the same time.

The murder of George Floyd has energized the biggest protest movement in this country in decades. The banners of this protest movement typically read “Black Lives Matter”, or the acronym “BLM”.  But “Black Lives Matter” is not so much an organization to these protesters but a symbol of what motivates them.  The movement is completely spontaneous and, in its beginnings at least, completely leaderless.  It is an expression of outrage and anger on a very primal level. In that respect it bears some resemblance to the Occupy Wall Street movement that shook first New York and then the whole world in 2011. But the intensity of anger as well as the level of popular support far surpasses the OWS movement. Not only have we seen protests numbering tens of thousands in every major city in the U.S. (as well as some cities in other countries),  but there has even been significant protests in small town and rural areas throughout the country.  Another remarkable aspect of this protest movement is its multi-racial character. While African-Americans are in the forefront of this movement, they are joined by other racial and ethnic groups representing a consensus that the repressive institutional structure that allows police to kill black people with impunity must come to an end. What was politically unthinkable just three weeks ago has now become a common refrain.  The militarized police who have gobbled up a huge percentage of the budgets of every major city, particularly since 9/11, are now perceived even by middle class people who do not think of themselves as “radical”, as an occupying force, much like the way the Israeli Defense Force is perceived by Palestinians on the West Bank. While most African-Americans have always perceived the police in this way, this understanding is very new to most of their white brothers and sisters.  That is a significant step in the development of class solidarity.

In the last two weeks the anger of the protesters has sometimes spilled over into looting and destruction of property.  Much ink has been spilled in the bourgeois press and the Internet about “looting and rioting” and “attacks on police” spurred on by “outside agitators”. The real story behind the looting is very simple – many young people who have been pushed into financial desperation as a result of decades of racism, increasing social inequality and the Depression brought on by the pandemic, see looting as an opportunity to get something back from an oppressive system.  They see what they are doing more as an act of liberation than of looting.  My partner and I went outside after midnight one night and witnessed first-hand some of the looting and spoke to a couple of participants.  There were so many people involved in these actions that the police did not interfere when a crowd smashed a window and ran into a store.  They did however pick off isolated individuals on the street here and there.

Looting and random acts of violence are counter-productive and impede rather than encourage the growth of class consciousness,  but it is very much what one would expect given the powder-keg that has finally erupted after years of abuse and given the lack of leadership and a coherent organization to give the protest movement a clear direction. Were there such leadership the pent up anger could be channeled in a political direction to challenge the power of capitalism itself.  I  should also add that the overwhelming majority of protestors were demonstrating peacefully.

A police vehicle that was burned

In the Manhattan neighborhood of Soho almost every store has now been boarded up with plywood.  Even before the protests erupted, Manhattan seemed like a ghost town during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.  Now with the added covering of boarded up stores it has the feel of a desert landscape.  Mid-town Manhattan is much the same.  I passed by the entrance to the Empire State Building, one of the biggest tourist attractions in New York. There was no one in front of the building and all the windows on the ground floor were boarded.

Empire State Building entrance

Soho was an epicenter of the looting and broken windows due to the number of stores with brand names that are symbolic of the elite – Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Versace, etc. After its windows were broken, the Chanel store not only covered the windows with plywood but even took its sign down so no one would be able to identify it. 

Chanel store before the sign was removed

A number of Manhattan neighborhoods, including my own, have been the subject of constant surveillance from the sky by police helicopters. Even as I write this, there is the buzzing of a police helicopter directly over my building. The drone of the helicopter is a constant presence almost 24 hours a day, a reminder that we are living in an occupation zone.

There are also indications that some of the violence has been deliberately stoked by undercover police agents and by neo-fascist provocateurs who are trying to incite a civil war.  One neo-fascist outfit, known as the “Bugaloo Bois”, carry automatic weapons and are openly encouraging a new Civil War.

The reaction of the Trump Administration to the protests was entirely predictable. Trump has used the protest movement to stoke fear within the older white middle class and racist elements in the working class to firm up his base. He has incited police departments to “shoot” the looters and has labelled himself the “Law and Order” President.  He has blamed the Left and his Democratic Party opponents for the violence when it is the police that are responsible for 99% of the violence.  He has declared  “Antifa” a “terrorist organization” in a blatant attempt to criminalize the Left.  Antifa is not even an organization much less a terrorist one. According to one non-partisan researcher,

Antifa is not … a terrorist group. At the most basic level, it is not even an organized group but rather a set of ideas and behaviors coalescing into a social movement. In addition to lacking any membership lists, they have no organizational structure or designated leader… 

In the most blatant attack yet on the Constitution and whatever vestiges of democracy remain, Trump called on the governors of the States to request the deployment of Federal troops to suppress the protests.  He then followed that up by attempting to deploy active Federal troops against the protestors in the streets of Washington. He had to back off at the last minute due to push-back from within the military itself. Instead, the active duty troops were placed on standby outside of Washington while Federal police agencies under the control of Attorney General William Barr were sent in to brutally remove a crowd of peaceful protesters, using rubber bullets and pepper spray, so that Trump and his entourage could walk across the street from the White House to pose for a photo-op in front of a church.  Trump’s actions underscore the movement towards authoritarianism that he and a section of the ruling class now favor. The Constitution strictly forbids the deployment of military forces against civilians within the borders of the United States.

The official “opposition” to Trump, the Democratic Party,  and their supporters in the press such as the New York Times, have offered only the most tepid opposition.  
The political implications of the protest movement are explored in depth in the following essay by Frank Brenner.  I would just add that since he wrote his essay one demand has come out of the protest movement that has gained much traction, and eclipsed the vapid “No justice, no peace” slogan, namely the demand to “Defund the police”.  This is potentially a very radical demand.  But it has already been “interpreted” to take the teeth out of it by the liberal media.  A recent article in the Washington Post said the following,

Be not afraid. “Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds…

and added,

For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. 

All of which reinforces the point Brenner makes in his essay, that the best of intentions and the best conceived reforms will fail to change anything fundamental unless the problem of endemic poverty is confronted - and that cannot be done without confronting capitalism.

Alex Steiner
New York, June 11, 2020

Getting up off our knees: race, class and politics

By Frank Brenner

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.  George Orwell, 1984.

The protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd have provoked a big political crisis. The crisis seems to have unhinged Trump more so than he usually is, with his threats to “dominate” major cities with military troops and his use of armed thugs and tear gas to clear peaceful protestors out of Lafayette Square across from the White House so that he could stage a photo-op. 

A key point about understanding mass psychology is that it's a mistake to believe that the political behaviour of the mass of workers can be reliably predicted only by 'rational self-interest', that other irrational (i.e. emotional) factors can be just as important or more so. But a related point can be made about the ruling classes. In their case, ideological delusions (political, militarist, religious) can lead them into making huge political miscalculations. This is often how wars start – and civil wars too. There are deep divisions in the ruling class, many of the rich and powerful know full well how reckless Trump is being, but they have only a weak alternative in Biden and the Democrats whereas the 'wrecking crew' of Trump and Fox News is going full throttle - going, that is, over a cliff but with the other ruling elites reluctantly along for the ride. 

Here’s a good example of this: Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's Labor Secretary and one of the more astute liberal public intellectuals, took to twitter with the following cry of despair: "Where is Congress? Where is the Supreme Court? Where are the mayors and governors? Living former presidents? Where are the university presidents, foundation heads, editors and publishers? All must stand up to Trump's madness."

Since this was posted, there has been some of the pushback Reich was pleading for, notably from Trump’s former defense secretary Jim Mattis. Even the current secretary Mark Esper was forced belatedly to distance himself from Trump, obviously reflecting unease in the upper echelons of the military. But that it should have come to this underscores how destabilized the institutions of state power are. Another retired general, John Allen, made this point explicitly, saying that the clearing away of the protestors from Lafayette Square “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.” While comparisons between Trump and Hitler are facile, comparisons to the Weimar Republic do now seem in order. It is now a subject of open speculation in the mainstream media that Trump will refuse to leave office if he loses the election in November. Or, to cite a line of thinking by Jacobin writer Seth Ackerman, it may be time to consider America as a failed state.

All that being said, when it comes to the protests, the old question yet again arises: What is to be done? 

The protests are spontaneous, despite the torrent of lies about outside agitators. This is their strength in the sense that they are direct and genuine expressions of mass outrage. They are also impressively multi-racial, with whites often outnumbering minorities. But their spontaneity is also their great weakness. 

Mass outrage is a feeling, not a program. There is some informal organizing on line, but it's so informal as to barely register. There are no banners from any organizations with concrete demands, all one sees are signs scrawled by individual protesters on pieces of cardboard. Black Lives Matter has little presence as an organization but is visible everywhere as a slogan (just as Occupy Wall Street only has an after-life as a number - the 1 percent). The most common chant is No Justice No Peace - which is vague to the point of being almost meaningless. What is justice - jailing the four cops who killed George Floyd? And if that isn't enough, what would be?

The Floyd murder was the spark that set off an explosion fueled by enormous social discontent, which probably explains why the protests persist without any organization. The pandemic and the grossly disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos dying from it, 20 million unemployed, countless numbers of families facing eviction and ‘food insecurity’, a large cohort of young people suddenly with nothing to do and no prospects: this is the tinderbox that is America.

And then of course there are the police, where racism is so pervasive it almost seems to come with the badge. It’s no surprise that all the police unions are avidly pro-Trump. Reform efforts going back to the Civil Rights era primarily led to hiring some black and brown officers, but the reign of police terror in minority communities hasn’t abated much, if at all. One noticeable difference, though, is that many of the authority-figure faces on the tv screens – the big city mayors and police chiefs – are black or Latino. In other words, the elites have become more diverse, exemplified above all by Barack Obama’s presidency, but that diversity has done next to nothing to diminish the police violence that young blacks and Latinos face on a daily basis. Which must mean that something deeper is at work.

This is usually where ‘structural racism’ gets pulled into the conversation, though when a phrase has become so commonplace that even the likes George W. Bush or the Clintons bandy it about, you know it’s become so sanitized that nothing’s left to it except political posturing. In any case, if ‘structural racism’ is meant to point to something deeper than personal prejudice, then that structure must be the poverty of a permanent underclass of blacks and Latinos.

Of course, there is also widespread poverty and misery among whites, highlighted in the ‘death by desperation’ reports that came out a couple of years ago. There is also lots of police violence against poor whites, and in absolute numbers more whites are killed by cops than blacks or Latinos. But what distinguishes the poverty of minorities is their concentration in big city ghettoes, itself a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and, most directly, the redlining of big city neighborhoods (initiated under the auspices of the New Deal, to its eternal shame) that has condemned generations of black families to a poverty sinkhole.

To respectable society (upper and middle classes), the police operate (ostensibly anyway) to ‘serve and protect’; in underclass communities, they operate to ‘contain and control’. Add to this the militarizing of police forces over the past few decades and the vast increases in their budgets, and you have an operation that generates police terror almost by design, a real-life version of Robocops.

The ‘structure’ in structural racism is about protecting private property – and that applies no matter what the racial identity of the person running the police department happens to be. It also means that after the dust of this current crisis has settled, there will be more George Floyds. That’s because structural racism can only be de-structured by getting rid of poverty – and capitalism is structurally incapable of doing that.

(I don’t want to ignore entirely the psychological aspects of racism. But it seems necessary these days to repeat the obvious – that no one is born a racist, that prejudice is learned, absorbed through family, friends, work, politics, mass media and the culture at large. In the case of cops, you could say that racism is almost an occupational inevitability. The cops are essentially an occupying force in minority communities – that is what ‘contain and control’ amounts to. It’s not hard to see that as a cop, the way you justify to yourself the daily grind of pushing people around, arresting them, violating their rights, brutalizing and even killing them – the way you justify all that is to dehumanize them. You are part of a heroic ‘thin blue line’ and they are scum. From there to overt racism is no big stretch. A personal anecdote to illustrate the point. I was in Chicago in 2018 on the day a cop was convicted of the murder four years earlier of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black teenager. The cop had shot him in the back 16 times, and when a video of the incident came out, there were widespread protests in the city. On that day I was covering a tragic fire that had taken the lives of ten children, and I happened to be talking to a cop posted at the scene. I asked him what he thought of the guilty verdict in the McDonald case. A look of disgust came over his face: “He should’ve been given a medal for marksmanship.”)

I said earlier that spontaneity was the great weakness of the protests. There is a lack of organization and also of direction and purpose. The most consciously political act to come out of the protests so far is the destruction of the police station in Minneapolis, and the most coherent political demand is to defund the police. The people on the street are well aware who their immediate enemy is. But this is only the barest beginning of political consciousness – and it leaves loads of room for mainstream politicians to fill the void with their hot air and corral the outrage on the streets into yet another pointless exercise in voting for the supposedly ‘lesser evil’ Democrats, who always turn out to be the same old evil of corporate capitalism but with a more congenial face.

(Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were masters of this political charade: they would console the insulted and injured by telling them how much they ‘feel your pain’ – and then go ahead and impose the same ruthless policies that had inflicted the pain in the first place. Joe Biden is cut from the same cloth, except that he is a lot less talented as a performer.)

In looking at the protests, the strongest impression you get is of atomization: individuals materialize from various places, cohere for a while and then disperse, if they aren’t attacked and arrested by the cops. Their atomized character is especially evident if you compare these protests to the union organizing of the Thirties or the civil rights or anti-war protests of the Sixties. Saying this isn’t about making a virtue of the past: new struggles need to find their own ways of doing things because they’re never just a replay of previous struggles. But a movement that aspires to be more than just a flash in the pan needs to learn from the past, if only to avoid repeating old mistakes. Already though this assumes a lot that may not be true: are these protests a movement or are they just a way for individuals to ‘make a statement’ about police violence? And if this is a movement, what does it aspire to?

The power of workers, as a social class, is that they are more than just an agglomeration of individuals. The fact of their work gives them potentially great collective power and the fact of their exploitation under capitalism gives that power a direction for revolutionary social change.

This potential has been highlighted by the pandemic: from health care workers often risking their lives to save those of their patients to the countless workers delivering packages or working grocery stores or maintaining essential services so that the bulk of the population could stay home during the lockdowns: these previously all but invisible workers are widely being hailed as heroes. But they are heroes because the mainstream political culture suddenly woke up to the fact that society can’t function without them. The more those workers wake up to that fact as well, the more they will call into question their ongoing subservience.

The poverty of an underclass does not have the same potential for social change: their plight is often so dire and unrelenting that they can rarely get beyond immediate survival needs. Suffering, as the writer Bertolt Brecht once said, is a poor teacher. Nor, for that matter, is moral outrage. It can lead many thousands on to the streets, but it doesn’t on its own show them a way forward. In this sense social energy is akin to physical energy: if it isn’t harnessed to a purpose, it eventually dissipates.

No one was in a better political position to harness this energy than Bernie Sanders. If ever there is a time for Medicare for All, the pandemic is it. His other signature policies – free college tuition, decent low-cost housing, a Green New Deal, raising the minimum wage – would have resonated powerfully with the protestors on the streets. Sanders could have used his political stature and popularity to link up the outrage at racist police violence and the structures of poverty that generate that violence.

A noteworthy fact in this regard: The Sanders campaign refused to accept corporate money and so it was funded entirely by small donations from millions of individuals. It turned out that the single largest group of donors to the campaign were workers at Amazon, who have become increasingly militant in fighting the super-exploitation imposed on them by the Simon Legree of 21st century capitalism, Jeff Bezos.

Yet Sanders suspended his campaign just as the social crisis brought on by the pandemic was beginning to take hold. By April the corporate ‘centrists’ of the Democratic party had consolidated support behind Biden, Sanders lost a series of primaries and it was clear he wasn’t going to get enough delegates to win the nomination. Sanders’s calculations were of the narrowest sort. He dropped out, declared his support for Biden, signed on to a token policy committee on the Biden campaign and effectively disappeared from view. Even more damning was his vote, just after dropping out, for the ‘Cares Act’, which in the guise of ‘caring’ for workers who’d lost jobs and small businesses that had to shut down during the pandemic, really amounted to a transfer of trillions of dollars to corporate elites. 

To call this a betrayal of his supporters is an understatement. His campaign was never supposed to be just about winning a nomination – it was supposed to be about mobilizing millions of people to effect major social change, above all to fight back against the neo-feudal levels that social inequality has reached in the United States. Sanders could have galvanized workers during the pandemic (as opposed to Biden who has spent the past two months in his basement!) and he could have electrified the crowds protesting the lynching of George Floyd. He could have been a huge catalyst for the very thing he always claimed to be doing – building a movement for radical social change.

It turned out though that Sanders wasn’t that kind of politician at all. Though Sanders makes a show of venerating the great American socialist Eugene Debs, he is nothing like Debs – who cared so little about winning elections and so much more about raising the political consciousness of workers that he famously campaigned for president from a federal prison cell (where he’d been jailed for opposing American militarism) in the 1920 election. It turned out that Sanders is nothing more than a ‘left-talking’ Democratic Party hack whom Debs would have abhorred.

A crucial underlying weakness of the Sanders campaign was that it was just that – a personal political campaign. Sanders had no party and made no effort to build one: though he wasn’t technically a member of the Democratic Party, it was the only political organization he had any connection to. The same goes for the ‘Squad’ – four progressive members of Congress elected in 2018. Though they come out with progressive rhetoric on twitter and in speeches, their actual votes in Congress have done little, if anything, to rock the boat or cause trouble for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (In fairness, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the best-known member of the Squad, was the sole vote against the latest version of the ‘Cares’ [for corporations] act, but she too has by now been co-opted by the Biden campaign.)

In this sense, progressive politics partakes of the same atomization that afflicts the larger body politic. Though there have been some signs of life in the labor movement (teacher strikes for example), the labor movement as a whole is largely moribund, and unions have virtually no noticeable impact on daily life – apart that is from police unions! A small but telling sign of this: during one of the protests in Washington last week, when there was some sporadic looting and window breaking, one of the places that was broken into was the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the American labor federation. I would be willing to wager that the looters had no idea what the AFL-CIO was, that it probably looked to them just like any other faceless corporate or government building, in other words a symbol of oppression – and they wouldn’t have been far wrong.

We need to break out of our collective political atomization. Whether that will come through the protests cohering into a political movement or through an upsurge of labor resistance to corporate exploitation and greed, or through some combination thereof, it’s impossible to say. But we need a breakthrough – and that will only come with the emergence of a mass party opposed to capitalism and its political duopoly. That’s what Eugene Debs would have fought for, and we need that kind of spirit again to animate socialist activism. It’s not enough to have political ‘stars’ with feel-good rhetoric or crowds making statements. We need not just to ‘take a knee’ but politically to get up off our knees.

Election Pin for Eugene V. Debs when he ran for President from the Atlanta Penitentiary