As it now spreads across the globe, we must recognise that this vast uprising has all the makings of a class war, writes Michael Quinn. This article was also featured in the Morning Star.
Consider the situation of the US at the start of 2020. President Trump has comprehensively failed to deliver on his election promise to bring back US jobs for US workers and reverse the outsourcing of manufacturing abroad as he promised to do in his 2016 election campaign. He has not “made America great again.”
China, the emerging global superpower, now owns $1.08 trillion in US debt, partly created by the latter’s failed wars — wars that were in turn started to maintain US global dominance militarily, having liquidated their technology and manufacturing lead over the rest of the world.
Not only has this cost the US $5.9 trillion since 2001, but they have started to lose (Afghanistan and Iraq) or struggled to initiate wars that dislodge their stated targets (Syria, Venezuela and Iran.)
At this point the US economy relies almost entirely on finance capital, despite the 2008 crash which massively undermined the value of this sector. This means stocks, shares and e-commerce for the bourgeoisie where once Ford and General Motors stood, and service-sector jobs for the working class instead of the factory assembly line — roughly two-thirds of the US economy is consumer spending.
On January 21 the US records its first coronavirus case. By June this figure is 1.92 million. The US’s response is arguably the worst in the world. Not only did the barely existent healthcare system fail to provide for the hundreds of thousands who died directly from the pandemic, almost one third of all global deaths, the hands-off approach to welfare has done little for the more than 40 million US citizens who filed for unemployment between March and May.
Then white cop Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, for eight appalling minutes and 46 seconds until he dies, begging for his life — and the US’s most enduring social conflict explodes.
The outpouring of rage led by black Americans receives almost unanimous formal support across American society. Even the sections of the conventional and alternative right that make their bread and butter “debunking” incidents like these initially decide that discretion is the better part of valour for once.
As the pattern of direct confrontations between the US system and the US people spreads to 350 cities, and the National Guard is called in to 23 states, and with almost 10,000 arrested by June, the US Establishment, both black and white, liberal and conservative, unites in condemnation of the emerging movement’s use of violence towards the police, property damage and looting.
Imagine you are a part of the liberal Establishment, the kind of person who works for MoveOn.org and the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Your task is to make sure that the revolt focuses squarely on easily enacted police reforms and stays the property of the Democrat Party, an entity which you sell politically to black voters via local fixers, media personalities, church leaders and so on.
You can’t tell people not to be angry about the unemployment and inequality, and you can’t tell them to go home and wait for the election — but you absolutely do not want the politics to broaden to include grievances that all races can share, and you especially do not want angry or radicalised white youth uniting with the black revolt and weaving it into the incommodious protest culture of Occupy and the violence of the last four years of “antifa” activism inspired by Trump.
You would probably write a tweet like this:
“@benjaminokeefe: White people at #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd protests. You are our guests. Your job is not to spray paint, break shit, loot. That is not your right. Your job is to do everything you can do to put your bodies between Black bodies because you know they’ll actually do something if you die”
Make no mistake, these kinds of comments are 100 per cent part of the pro-Establishment, pro-system machine — even if they are made by someone with hammers and sickles in the Twitter bio rather than a mainstream Democrat. According to this logic:
– Only some people have the right to be angry, to protest and to riot
– The riots are about race exclusively and therefore have no class component
– White people face no danger from the police — if they do, they must be up to something/deserve it
– White privilege exists and instead of being dismantled, should be used to defend black people
Overall this “privilege check” only supports white supremacy rather than challenges it: within this paradigm white people as a whole remain the arbiter in US society, they need to “listen” to non-whites, but that power structure can remain in place — which is why whites cannot be legitimately angry, which is why they are only “guests” of the authentically oppressed.
This divisive rhetoric feeds easily into the modern online phenomenon of “cancelling” those who act: if white anti-capitalist and disenfranchised workers smash up and loot chain stores, on Twitter they are said to be undermining the real issue — racism — safe in the knowledge they face no serious repercussions from the police, due to their white privilege.
But there is almost no evidence for this. Not only has the rioting and looting forced the original issue to international significance where peaceful protest certainly would not have, but white rioters and non-violent white protesters alike — along with bona fide members of the press — have faced an unprecedented onslaught at the hands of the police nationwide.
The US Press Freedom Tracker “catalogued 150 press freedom violations in the US in all of 2019” but in the first week of the rebellion alone were investigating 280.
Defying the police in the US is extremely dangerous. The police could kill or maim you outright — or you will be sent to the most horrific prison system in the anglophone world for an extremely long time, where you will face rape and brutality and lose your job prospects on your release. Instead of condemning “antifa-”style agitators along with black Democrat Establishment and Donald Trump himself, socialists must acknowledge their bravery and the success of their tactics.
In one beautiful moment, the cowardice and sabotage of “privilege checking” — browbeating people out of taking action by convincing them they are not authentically oppressed enough — has been swept away by a wave of fury, as hundreds of thousands of black and white workers have united in conflict with a barbaric system.
If we reduce the conflict purely to police racism we heavily restrict the movement — and help cover up what is arguably a clear-cut class issue. Research as recently as September 2019 indicates class, not race, is the main factor in deaths at the hands of the US police.
“The odds ratio of getting killed by police for poor black citizens, 3.34 out of 100,000, is similar to the odds ratio of getting killed by police for poor white citizens, 3.64 out of 100,000. The odds ratio is close to 1, and does no longer show a racial bias for black citizens to be killed more often by police, OR(B/W) = 0.92.”
The function of liberal anti-racism, even in its most radical-sounding forms, is to cover this up and accuse those arguing for a class perspective of aligning themselves with right-wingers claiming “all lives matter.”
But the rebellion has overcome liberal anti-racism with its rage. Their fury shows they want answers, they want justice, far beyond the tokenistic firing of police officers, tokenistic diversity training, tokenistic quotas — although Obama’s election represents a watershed moment in how black Americans see themselves and are seen, that too was tokenistic in real terms: the family income gap between blacks and whites today remains at almost exactly the level it was in the 1960s.
The slogan may be “black lives matter” but by the sheer size and diversity of the unrest, it clearly encompasses and involves all working-class lives — and what “matters” is what people are willing to put on the line for those lives.
Liberalism will not provide answers, like jobs, welfare, housing, security and purpose — the only real answers to racial inequality in the US. As its victims try to breach the ramparts, liberalism is busy burning down its own palace from the inside, desperate to replace Trump with yet another neoliberal yes-man.
The “change” they offer is best summed up by Joe Biden’s comments on police violence to black community leaders: “Instead of standing there and teaching a cop when there’s an unarmed person coming at them with a knife or something, shoot them in the leg instead of in the heart.”
Economic equality is not on the agenda, very little progress can be made for any other kind of equality, and at the ballot box poor Americans only get to choose whether to die instantly with a bullet through the heart, or bleed out a little slower through their leg.
Because the civil-rights movement did not fail outright: since the 1960s black university attendance, high-school test scores and life expectancy has begun to catch up with whites. But since the 1970s the formal rights gained have been savagely undermined by increasing economic inequality: wages have not improved whilst profits have been concentrated at the top. In 2019 the five richest men in the US were worth just over 2 per cent of the nation’s GDP — $435.4 billion.
Racial equality is dependent on overall societal equality. Anything or anyone that masks that fact is harming the cause. Even it is motivated by the utmost sympathy to black people, even if the masking is done by a black person themselves.
Because things won’t ever “go back to normal” — the normal of a 1970s industrialised high-employment US plus some better-trained, less punitive police is a fantasy. It is just too late for that — they’ve sold off everything, even the prisons.
And so, the US is collapsing economically, militarily and now politically. Trump has been defied by “sanctuary” cities and states over migration, was similarly defied over his Muslim ban and had gotten to the point of calling his followers to the streets to break the lockdown imposed by some governors, so deep was his rift with regional government.
While Trump’s leadership style is an anomaly, his politics are not — and the breakdown in the authority of the federal government that has happened under his tenure, especially during the coronavirus crisis is unlikely to be reversed.
With the onset of climate chaos no longer just around the corner but here — and the vastly different responses that will generate from different states — it would make more sense for US citizens concerned with justice to pre-empt the devolution of the US and look at the possibilities that offers rather than bank on the certainties that allow “woke” navel-gazing to seem relevant.
Sentiments like “If you don’t think police are the problem, then you think black people are” seem useful, easy to follow — but preclude us from asking “Why are the police a problem? Whose interests can possibly demand this level of brutality?”
Telling white folk to “confront their own racism” and ask a black person’s permission before getting angry is a cosy relic of a time before the US was in flames. Whites looking to themselves to confront prejudice is only useful if it spurs them to real-world action. The idea that internal self-improvement and attitude adjustment alone will solve the problems of a crumbling empire whose police force acts like an occupying army is just the kind of distraction that the neoliberals want.
Instead socialists should take heart in the fact that 54 per cent of Americans supported burning down the police station in Minneapolis and instead of the dreaded right-wing reaction to the riots that some expected, anti-cop sentiment has crystallised around actual steps to cut funding to the police in LA, New York, Philadelphia and other cities. In Minneapolis the plan has gone beyond defunding to “dismantling.”
There are dangers here, of course. Defunding must not mean a tax cut for the rich and the police replaced by private security and gated communities. It must mean the money saved — and more — is spent instead on addressing the social issues that lead to George Floyd’s death and every death at the hands of the police, or in the prison system, or due to crime, to poverty, to hopelessness and inequality. Because if socialists do not use this moment to extend the debate beyond racism to challenge racism as a structural problem then they are not “anti-racists” at all.