It’s Capitalism, stupid!
Absent a more frontal attack on the root causes of racism, the uprising may be hard pressed to resist a counteroffensive from above involving a combination of repression, mild reform, and cooptation.
As anti-racist protests continue unabated across the United States, the ruling groups have been forced momentarily onto the defense by the sheer scale of the uprising, the first full-scale pushback against global police state in the richest and most powerful country in the world. Yet absent a more frontal attack on the root causes of racism, the uprising may be hard pressed to resist a counteroffensive from above involving a combination of repression, mild reform, and cooptation.
The powers that be are already embracing the language of struggle against “systemic racism.” Racial justice is now being espoused by political and economic elites. CEOs of major global banks and corporations whose policies have perpetuated racial inequality have taken the knee, declared their “solidarity” with aggrieved communities, as have Democratic and Republican Party stalwarts, as they attempt to commodify and convert “black lives matter” into a corporate logo. Lest the anti-racist struggle end up emptied of its transformative potential it must identify and target capitalism as the system that gave rise to and continuously reproduces racism. Ethnic, racial, gender and sexual oppression are not tangential but constitutive of capitalism. There can be no general emancipation without liberation from these forms of oppression. Yet the opposite is equally true: there can be no liberation from these forms of oppression without liberating ourselves from capitalism.
“We never negated the fact that there was racism in America, but we said that the by-product, what comes off capitalism, that happens to be racism,” noted half a century ago Fred Hampton, the charismatic Chicago leader of the Black Panther Party shortly before his extra-judicial execution by the FBI and Chicago police in 1969. Hampton went on: “That capitalism comes first and next is racism. That when they brought slaves over here, it was to make money. So first the idea came that we want to make money, then the slaves came in order to make that money. That means, through historical fact, that racism had to come from capitalism. It had to be capitalism first and racism was a byproduct of that.”
Yet Hampton’s anti-capitalist perspective appears, at least at this time, to be largely absent. To the extent that the struggle against police brutality is limited to targeting disproportionate police violence against racially oppressed communities the less we will be able to confront the underlying structural causes of this violence. Racist police are but an extension of the capitalist state. They exist to defend property from the propertyless, to enforce the power of capital and the rich over the poor and dispossessed majority who in the United States come disproportionately from racially oppressed communities. In the big picture, the solution is not to reform law enforcement since law enforcement means enforcing a legal system that under capitalism is intended to protect the rich and the powerful from the poor and the dispossessed through criminalization of the latter or simply through enforcement of property rights.
As is now well known, the top one percent of humanity owns over half of the world’s wealth and the top 20 percent own 94.5 of that wealth, while the remaining 80 percent have to make do with just 5.5 percent. Such savage social inequalities are politically explosive and to the extent that the system is unable to reverse them it turns to ever more violent forms of containment to manage immiserated populations. The police are a coercive instrument of the capitalist state to control surplus labor, the poor, and the working class. In the United States, workers from racially oppressed groups disproportionately swell the ranks of surplus labor, as do worldwide those from the Global South.
The police are the visible frontline of the capitalist state. It is they who come into direct contact with those dispossessed and marginalized and who are responsible for controlling them. Capitalists and elite whose wealth and power are protected by the police do not go into the streets to confront poor black people and workers; they command quietly from corporate boardrooms, banking and financial houses, foundations and government offices. We cannot do away with police violence and mass incarceration without doing away with surplus labor, that is, doing away with the system that relegates tens of millions in the United States (and several billion worldwide) to the margins as surplus humanity.
From 2015 to 2019, a total of 4,885 people were shot and killed by the police in the United States, 1,295 of those black, compared to 2,471 white. While the rate that blacks are killed by police is more than twice the rate for whites, the greatest danger to black lives comes from the economic violence of capitalism, which takes hundreds of thousands of black (and other) victims of unemployment, occupational hazards, malnutrition, substandard housing, homelessness, lack of access to health care, exposure to toxic wastes, and so on. More than 5,000 workers die on the job every year as a result of work injuries, the majority of them preventable, and another 50,000-60,000 die each year due to occupational diseases (worldwide more than two million workers die at the job every year). Predictably, Blacks are overrepresented in this group, not because of racial discrimination per se but because they are overrepresented in the most hazardous (and least remunerated) occupations.
In the United States workers and poor people have escalated their struggles since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Amazon warehouses, meatpacking and auto plants, supermarkets, hospitals and nursing homes, they undertook a wave of strikes and protests as the coronavirus spread to demand safe working conditions and hazard pay (note that these frontline and essential workers come disproportionally from racially oppressed communities), while tenants called for rent strikes, immigrant justice activists surrounded detention centers and demanded the release of prisoners, and homeless people took over homes. Yet there appears to be a disconnect between these worker-led struggles in the capitalist economy and the black youth-led anti-racist uprising. This has to change if the anti-racist movement is not to peter out and become reincorporated into the hegemonic order as repression, cooptation, and fatigue take their toll. The secret to moving forward the mass anti-racist struggle is to link it with mass working class struggles, and this involves targeting the roots of racism in capitalist exploitation.
Global Capitalism has been mired in an intractable crisis that is as much structural as it is political and that has intensified many times over by the pandemic. Structurally, the system faces a crisis of what is known as overaccumulation, which refers to a situation in which enormous amounts of capital (profits) are accumulated, yet this capital cannot be reinvested profitably and becomes stagnant. Politically, capitalist states face spiraling crises of legitimacy after decades of hardship and social decay wrought by neoliberalism, aggravated now by these state’s inability to manage the health emergency and the economic collapse.
Capitalist crises are times of intensified class and social struggle. We are on the eve of a massive new round of class and social struggle worldwide. From Chile to Lebanon, Iraq to Hong Kong, and France to the United States, these struggles reached a crescendo in fall of 2019 and were acquiring a radical anti-capitalist character before the pandemic lockdown pushed protesters off the streets. The working-class actions and the anti-racist uprising in the United States are part of this broader worldwide upsurge in mass struggle.
Where is the Socialist Left?
There is another disconnect in the current moment, between the social movement in the streets and an organized left that could give it a more coherent anti-capitalist direction. The millions of young people risking life and limb in the streets can hardly be blamed for failure to link the anti-racist to anti-capitalist and socialist struggle. That responsibility lies in my view with the failings of the socialist left and the betrayal of the intellectuals, for no struggle of the oppressed can be without its organic intellectuals.
The mass struggles of the 1960s and 1970s opened up space for representatives from the oppressed groups and others who had earlier identified with the radical agenda of those mass struggles to join the ranks of the professional strata and of the elite. In academia, it opened up space for a new intellectual petty-bourgeoisie whose class aspirations became expressed in post-modern narratives and identitarian politics, and most notably in a visceral rejection of the radical critique of capitalism and of a socialist vision. These narratives shaped the consciousness and understanding of a whole generation of young people, alienating them from embracing a desperately needed critique of capitalism at the moment of its globalization.
With the apparent triumph of global capitalism in the 1990s following the collapse of the old Soviet bloc, the defeat of Third World nationalist and revolutionary projects, and the repression of radical working-class struggles, many intellectuals who previously identified with anti-capitalist movements and emancipatory projects put forth an identitarian politics of reform and inclusion. The most such a politics can aspire to is symbolic vindication, diversity (often meaning diversity in the ruling bloc), non-discrimination in the dominant social institutions and equitable inclusion and representation within global capitalism. It is no wonder that the corporate and political elite came to embrace as its own the politics of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” as a strategy to channel the struggle for social justice and anti-capitalist transformation into non-threatening demands for inclusion if not outright cooptation. The strategy served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes and of anti-capitalism.
Upturning monuments that symbolize racism is an act of symbolic or discursive justice that by itself is not a fundamental threat to the system, so long as these acts can be isolated from demands for more fundamental social and economic transformation, which is why they are now being embraced by many political and corporate elites. Changing the names of military bases may be satisfying as a demand for symbolic justice, yet it does not change the fact that these bases house military forces that exist to intervene around the world on behalf of capital and empire, and that blacks are overrepresented in the military because they are overrepresented in the ranks of surplus labor and enjoy the least opportunity for satisfying employment in the civilian economy.
The ruling groups are momentarily on the defensive and deeply divided on how to respond to the crisis of legitimacy and the erosion of capitalist hegemony. They are pursuing a strategy of accommodation to symbolic demands and mild reform. But if history is anything to go by, they will launch a counteroffensive that will attempt to reimpose and consolidate the global police state just as soon as a correlation of social and political forces becomes more favorable for them to do so. As fissures and splits in the ruling bloc become more acute they open up opportunities for counter-hegemony from below whose development will require a radical critique of capitalist exploitation that links race to class. The significance of millions of people rising up against racism around the world cannot be overstated. Popular forces cannot squander this moment of acute capitalist crisis. We are at a crucible.
- William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara.
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