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