Chickens Coming Home to Roost
“How soon the English workers will throw off what seems to be a bourgeois contagion remains to be seen….Only your small-minded German philistine who measures world history by the ell and by what he happens to think are ‘interesting news items,’ could regard 20 years as more than a day where major developments of this kind are concerned, though these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed.”
—Karl Marx to Frederick Engels, 9 April 1863
The speed and scope of developments following the hideous racist murder in which Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, protected by three cronies, casually choked George Floyd to death, sent a shockwave across America that reverberated around the world and compressed years of political developments into days. The widespread revulsion, anger and outrage at this brutal killing, viewed by tens of millions of people in the U.S. and beyond, far exceeded that touched off a generation earlier when the Los Angeles cops who savagely beat Rodney King in March 1991 were acquitted (LA: Days of Rage, 1992).
The protests over Floyd’s murder began in Minneapolis but quickly exploded into a generalized political challenge to many deeply rooted historical, social and political conditions that have resulted in an endless repetition of murderous police violence against black Americans. Like the beating of King a generation earlier, Floyd’s murder was a tipping point which galvanized a massive response because it was recorded so everyone could witness it for themselves. In both cases, most viewers understood that these crimes were manifestations of a deeply-embedded pattern of racist “law enforcement” rooted in the ulcerating legacy of slavery that has poisoned American society for centuries.
‘Racism—as American as Apple Pie’
As black militant H. Rap Brown famously remarked in the 1960s, “Racism is as American as apple pie.” American capitalism has, from its bloody colonial origins, been soaked with racism, beginning with the genocidal campaign waged against the native inhabitants of the continent and continued by the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans on plantations in the South. As we wrote in 1993:
“Racism is rooted in the historical development of capitalism as a world system. It has proved through several centuries to be a useful and flexible tool for the possessing classes. It justified the brutal wars of conquest and genocide, which established the European colonial empires. It rationalized the slave trade, which produced the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for the industrial revolution.
“Today racism in its various guises remains an important ideological mainstay for the capitalist elites, providing a rationale for the barbaric oppression of minorities. Racism ‘explains,’ for example, why black people in America fail to get a piece of the ‘American Dream’ one generation after another.”
. . .
“Racism has proved integral and necessary for the proper functioning of capitalist society for a variety of reasons….it provides one of the essential axes along which the working class can be divided against itself, encouraging one segment of the proletariat to identify with the exploiters. This impedes the development of class consciousness and undermines the unity necessary to challenge capitalist rule.”
– 1917, No.12
The scope and intensity of the initial reaction to Floyd’s murder prompted Minneapolis authorities to promptly fire the cops involved, a very unusual move. In 2014, when Eric Garner was choked to death by a cop in New York, his last words, like Floyd’s, were “I can’t breathe.” Yet Garner’s killer never faced criminal charges and was only dismissed from the force five years after the murder. Only after the outrage sparked by Floyd’s killing did the New York state assembly finally pass legislation outlawing choking, entitled the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act (CBSNewYork, June 12).
American police have historically killed citizens with almost total impunity, particularly when their victims are black or Hispanic. According to a March 2019 report by NBC news, “Each year in the United States, somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people are shot and killed by police.” Not surprisingly it noted that “Those killed are disproportionately black.” More surprising is the fact that of the more than 12,000 people killed by cops in the U.S. since 2005, “Only three officers have been convicted of murder during this period and seen their convictions stand.” (A few dozen others were convicted of lesser charges).
U.S. Ruling Class Alarmed by Outrage over Racist Cop Murder
Protests against Floyd’s murder spread rapidly, lasted for weeks, and involved millions of people. The largest was probably the demonstration of 200,000 in Washington D.C. on 6 June, a week after the Trump administration unleashed a brutal police attack on a few thousand peaceful protesters in that city—a move that backfired spectacularly.
Demonstrations took place in more than 2000 towns and cities across the U.S., and similar events, some of them quite sizeable, occurred around the world including Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Senegal, South Africa and South Korea. At most of these events Floyd’s murder was linked to more local cases of police brutality directed at racial minorities and indigenous peoples. The Associated Press reported how, even in Israel, one of the few foreign countries where Trump is popular, righteous Jews joined Israeli Arabs in highlighting the connection between racism in America and the crimes of their Zionist rulers:
“In Tel Aviv, thousands of protesters joined a Jewish-Arab rally against the Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. The protesters wore masks, but social distancing measures were not strictly maintained as some demonstrators formed small groups. Police initially sought to block the rally, but later allowed it to take place.
“Protesters in Israel also demonstrated against what they see as excessive violence by Israeli police against Palestinians. One protester held a poster showing George Floyd and Eyad Halak, a Palestinian with autism who was killed last week by Israeli police officers after apparently being mistaken as an attacker.”
– The Examiner, 5 June
The more rational elements of the American ruling class, clearly taken aback by the depth and breadth of the angry response to Floyd’s murder, and well aware of mounting social tension generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapidly deteriorating economy, have scrambled to undertake some hasty damage control. Within a few days, a number of corporate heavy hitters, including Nike, Twitter, WarnerMedia, Netflix and Citigroup came out in support of the protests. They were soon joined by the National Football League, many of whose team owners are closely identified with Trump. In an abrupt reversal, the NFL proclaimed that it had been “wrong” to oppose players kneeling during the pre-game singing of the national anthem to protest police racism. Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers who initiated this practice in 2016, was blacklisted by the league and has not played since. At the time Donald Trump, who recently declared that he “absolutely” supported Kaepernick’s return to the NFL, was calling for firing any athlete who “disrespects our flag” by kneeling (LA Times, 24 June).
A statue of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s notoriously racist “law and order” former police chief and mayor, has been removed along with likenesses of prominent representatives of the Confederate slavocracy in several Southern states (time.com, 24 June). “Cops” and “Live PD,” both popular, long-running “reality” television shows, were cancelled after being accused of glorifying police brutality. The U.S. Marine Corps has banned the public display of Confederate flags (ABC News, 6 June), and the Army announced that it was considering renaming ten military bases named after prominent Confederate white supremacists, a move it had previously rejected as “controversial and divisive”. (Trump has opposed the idea). Even NASCAR, the sport most closely identified with the heartland of southern white racism, opted to ban the Confederate flag at the request of its sole black driver (National Review, 11 June).
COVID-19, Social Polarization & Impending Economic Collapse
The explosive growth of the protests over Floyd’s murder was clearly linked to the heightened level of social anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as anticipations of what promises to be a severe and long-lasting economic downturn. With the New York Times predicting “A Tidal Wave of Bankruptcies” (18 June) and some 40 million already out of work, the immediate future for American capitalism is not promising. Since 1972, when the U.S. government first began to track black unemployment, the rate has been pretty consistently twice that of whites. It is very clear that the long-term pain and suffering caused by the continuing economic meltdown will be felt disproportionately by black and Hispanic families, as has been the case with the pandemic.
The uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 has discredited the entire ruling elite and the social order it sits atop—although the chief focus has been on the Trump administration whose gross incompetence vastly expanded the scope of the disaster. Tens of millions of Americans are now more acutely aware of the complete irrationality of “for-profit” medicine and understand that it is necessary to choose between public health and maximizing the profits of the medical-industrial complex. The willingness of millions of people to march against racism, despite the risks posed by a pandemic that has already killed well over 125,000 Americans, is evidence of a profound desire for a major social and political transformation.
For over three decades growing inequality has steadily eroded the stability of American society. Today the disparity in wealth between the tiny handful at the top and the vast majority beneath has reached roughly the same proportion as it was on the eve of the Great Depression. The tens of millions of people whose lives have become increasingly insecure, and who have lost confidence in the government, state institutions and increasingly in the entire system of “free enterprise,” will likely be joined by millions more in the near future.
Today, with unemployment levels worse than the 1930s, many Americans who long considered themselves part of the “solid middle class,” are suddenly having trouble paying their bills or even getting enough to eat. According to a mid-May survey:
“Three in ten adults (31%) say they have fallen behind in paying bills or had problems affording household expenses like food or health insurance coverage since February due to the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, one in four Americans (26%) say they or someone in their household have skipped meals or relied on charity or government food programs since February, including 16% who say this was due to the impact of coronavirus on their finances. The share who say they have skipped meals or relied on charity or government food programs due to coronavirus is higher among those in households that have lost a job or income due to coronavirus (30%) and among Black adults (30%) and Latinos (26%).”
– Kaiser Family Foundation’s May Tracking Poll
The COVID-19 crisis has both highlighted and exacerbated the perverse inequality of the allocation of medical care on the basis of the ability to pay. On 7 June Axios reported that, unsurprisingly, those with the least money get the worst treatment:
“Poor hospitals that treat minorities have had to rely on GoFundMe pages and beg for ventilators during the pandemic, while richer systems move ahead with new hospital construction plans.”
– axios.com, 6 June
The impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately felt by those who already had the worst housing, the worst healthcare and the fewest financial resources (CNN, 3 June). This is further exacerbated by the fact that many of those facing the highest risks are the low-paid, “essential” cleaners, clerks and personal support workers, who are mostly blacks, immigrants and Latinos (axios.com, 3 June). A huge disparity in COVID-19 fatality rates has been the inevitable result:
“The age-adjusted COVID-19 death rate for Black people is 3.6 times that for whites, and the age-adjusted death rate for Hispanic/Latino people is 2.5 times that for whites.”
– brookings.edu, 16 June
The ravages of COVID-19 in many areas may soon be compounded by the impact of climate change; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that elevated surface sea water temperatures and other “climatic factors” will likely result in an “above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season” (noaa.gov, 21 May).
As many as six “major hurricanes” are projected to hit the U.S. this year, any one of which could turn into another “Katrina,” where incompetent leadership, cost-cutting, indifference and negligence combined to produce a social catastrophe in New Orleans in August 2005 (New Orleans: Racism & Capitalist Irrationality, 1917 No.28).
‘Violence & Looting’
During the tsunami of protest that erupted after George Floyd’s murder, over 10,000 people were arrested, mostly for curfew violations. During the first week, as the protests grew, the media played up incidents of arson and looting, a tactic that has usually turned public opinion against dissenters—but this time it was different. When protesters set fire to the police station where Floyd’s killers had been dispatched from on 28 May, many ordinary people inclined to view it not as a criminal act, but rather a justified blow against murderous cop violence. In a 30 May piece in Slate, a liberal online journal, Steven W. Thrasher commented that, in the circumstances, ”destroying a police precinct is a reasonable reaction”. Reporters in the mainstream corporate media began to acknowledge that much of the looting was carried out in a semi-organized fashion by people who appeared to be using the protests as a cover. There were also situations where aggressive police attacks on demonstrators resulted in window-breaking and other acts of petty vandalism. Given the size of the mobilizations, and the depth of the anger, damage to property was not only relatively insignificant but it tended to taper off as protests scaled up.
Some incidents were apparently the work of police provocateurs or rightist “accelerationists” (described as “an extreme subset of white nationalism whose goal is to bring about chaos and destruction” – justsecurity.org, 30 May) seeking to discredit the protests (news.yahoo.com, 3 June). The 1 June Financial Times (London) reported:
“One known member of the Boogaloo Bois along with 15 associates was in Minneapolis, said Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right who has watched footage of the protests. The Boogaloo is an anti-government group that advocates for civil war in the US. While claiming to be antiracist, it exists within the racist ecosystem of the far-right fringe.
“Neo-Nazis and fascists turned up at protests in New York, Portland, Dallas and Toronto, Mr Ross said. Nick Fuentes, a celebrity within the far-right who lost his YouTube channel in February for hate speech, was spotted at a protest in Tampa, Florida.”
One “boogaloo boy” has been charged with killing a police officer in Oakland while a protest was underway (salon.com, 17 June).
The Real Looters: Wall Street’s COVID-19 Heist
The economic precarity faced by a huge swath of young working people of every color, that has eroded confidence in the existing social order and turned the idea of an “American Dream” into a bitter joke, was doubtless a factor in precipitating the massive outpouring in response to Floyd’s murder. Revolutionaries seek to direct the justified anger of the masses at the real “looters”—the Wall Street speculators and other obscenely wealthy parasites who have been massively enriching themselves for decades with a series of fraudulent, but “legal,” financial maneuvers.
In a recent interview Prof. Michael Hudson provided a simple explanation of why, for almost three months during the COVID-19 lockdown, stock market valuations rose as economic activity contracted 50 percent: “speculative demand for stocks by Federal Reserve manipulation and the actual flow of funding money into the stock market from the government has been pushing [asset values] back up”. He also described how wealthy speculators took advantage of the Coronavirus to dodge fallout from the imminent economic “correction”:
“It’s enabled them to have an excuse for a huge bailout and an excuse to…enable them to get out of stocks, get out of bonds and avoid the crisis that’s coming, lea[v]ing the Federal Reserve and the suckers, as they would say, holding the bag when the economy collapses. Obviously, there’s going to be a collapse, and there was going to be a collapse even before the Coronavirus.”
– unz.com, 1 June
The economic “rescue” packages were advertised as measures to save jobs but were in fact designed by Wall Street insiders to protect the financial sector, big business and their hangers-on, at the expense of pensioners and those employed by small and medium-sized enterprises. Bloomberg News described how most of the money supposedly intended to minimize economic damage from the lockdown actually went directly to big corporations, which then “downsized” their workforces:
“Not long after that, the food-service giant announced plans to cut one-third of its workforce, more than 20,000 employees. Dividends to shareholders would continue, executives said.
“That process repeated itself in April and May as the coronavirus spread. The Fed’s promise juiced the corporate-bond market. Borrowing by top-rated companies shot to a record $1.1 trillion for the year, nearly twice the pace of 2019. Companies as diverse as Sysco, Toyota Motor Corp., international marketing firm Omnicom Group Inc. and movie-theater chain Cinemark Holdings Inc. borrowed billions of dollars — and then fired workers.
“The companies were under no obligation to behave any differently, but their actions call into question the degree to which the U.S. central bank’s promise to purchase corporate debt will help preserve American jobs.”
– bloomberg.com, 5 June
Chris Hedges provided the following useful breakdown of where the money from the COVID rescue package ended up:
“The CARES Act handed trillions in funds or tax breaks to oil companies, the airline industry, which alone got $50 billion in stimulus money, the cruise ship industry, a $170 billion windfall for the real estate industry, private equity firms, lobbying groups, whose political action committees have given $191 million in campaign contributions to politicians in the last two decades, the meat industry and corporations that have moved offshore to avoid U.S. taxes. The act allowed the largest corporations to gobble up money that was supposed to go to keep small businesses solvent to pay workers. It gave 80 percent of tax breaks under the stimulus package to millionaires and allowed the wealthiest to get stimulus checks that average $1.7 million. The CARES Act also authorized $454 billion for the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a massive slush fund doled out by Trump cronies to corporations that, when leveraged 10 to 1, can be used to create a staggering $4.5 trillion in assets. The act authorized the Fed to give $1.5 trillion in loans to Wall Street, which no one expects will ever be paid back. American billionaires have gotten $434 billion richer since the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, whose corporation Amazon paid no federal taxes last year, alone added $34.6 billion to his personal wealth since the pandemic started.”
– scheerpost.com, 2 June
This gigantic swindle has been aptly described as “the great Wall Street Heist of 2020.” Jim Cramer, CNBC’s popular loud-mouth stock-picker (who claims to have once belonged to the Spartacus Youth League), recently pointed out that this “solution” to the impending economic crisis guaranteed the wholesale destruction of small and medium-sized companies. Commenting that “we’re looking at a V-shaped recovery…in the stock market, and that has almost nothing to do with a V-shaped recovery in the economy,” Cramer concluded that we are witnessing “one of the greatest wealth transfers in history.”
The evidence is all available in the public domain, but the highly monopolized corporate media, whose owners include many of the beneficiaries of this enormous swindle, have exhibited little interest in pursuing the story.
Trump’s Plan to ‘Wipe Out’ the Radical Left
The scope of the Floyd protests, and the speed with which they spread, caught much of the ruling class and their publicists by surprise. In a comically stupid moment, Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, reflexively blamed any violence on “foreign actors” and told Fox News that “this is right out of the Russian playbook” and that she “would not be surprised to learn that the Russians are fomenting” the turmoil by “funding extremists on both sides.” Trump seemed more inclined to blame Venezuela. On 5 June the Miami Herald reported: “The White House said Friday it has information that individuals linked to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro have incited violence at protests in the United States….”
Earlier, on 31 May, Trump announced that he was designating Antifa (a generic name used by anti-fascist activists internationally) as a “terrorist organization.” Many cops interpreted Trump’s tough- guy “law and order” talk as a licence for assaulting the media. Dozens of American and foreign reporters covering the protests were attacked. The Australian prime minister called for an investigation into an unprovoked police assault on an Australian television crew. Germany’s foreign minister lodged a similar protest after reporters for Deutsche Welle News were attacked.
On 1 June, Trump threatened to “quickly solve the problem” posed by the persistent expansion of the protests by invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act and dispatching federal troops to states he saw as insufficiently harsh on demonstrators. Trump mouthpiece Senator Tom Cotton called for the 82nd Airborne to attack and do “whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters and looters.” In a 1 June conference call with state governors, defense secretary Mark Esper referred to America’s cities as “battlespaces” that had to be “dominated.” Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Matt Milley, who was wearing his combat uniform, joined Trump that evening in the bible-clutching publicity stunt in front of St. John’s Parish, known as “the Church of the Presidents.”
“‘I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America,’ Trump said from the [White House] Rose Garden, before walking to St. John’s Church. ‘I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans.’”
—mcclatchydc.com, 1 June
To clear the way for Trump and his entourage (including Esper and Milley, both of whom later denied having any idea of what was going on), police attacked peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park and also “expelled at least one Episcopal priest and a seminarian from the church’s patio.” Bishop Mariann Budde, who has responsibility for the church, is reported to have said that Trump’s arrival at St. John’s happened without warning and left her “outraged” (religionnews.com, 2 June).
Trump’s slanderous claim that Antifa activists are “terrorists” was treated by the media as just one more preposterous lie from a president whose political career has been marked by overt racism. Trump promoted the 1989 frame-up of the Central Park Five, and later pushed “birther” lies about Obama. Perhaps most egregious was his claim that the white supremacist filth staging the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville included some “very fine people.”
But the slanders about Antifa militants was not merely another manifestation of his white supremacist proclivities. It had a far more sinister purpose, which was revealed in the 1 June conference call with state governors where Trump, Esper and U.S. Attorney General William Barr outlined their plans to use the “tried and true” technique of branding protesters “terrorists,” which had proved so useful to the Obama administration against the Occupy movement in 2011. Trump praised Obama’s strategy as “a thing of beauty,” and a template for liquidating the current protests by rounding up their “radical left” leaders and jailing them for “five years or ten years.” The following excerpts from the transcript published by CNN begin with Trump’s introduction:
“TRUMP: People here that you’ll be seeing a lot of. Gen. Milley is here. He’s head of the joint chiefs of staff, a fighter, a war hero, a lot of victories and no losses and he hates to see the way it’s being handled in the various states and I just put him in charge. The attorney general is here, Bill Barr, and we will activate Bill Barr and activate him very strongly. We’re strongly — the secretary of defense is here.
“We’re strongly looking for arrests. You have to get much tougher. You’re gonna get over it. …. we have all the men and women that you need. But people aren’t calling them up.
“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you, you’ll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate, and you have to arrest people, and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.
“This is a movement. We found out they’re delivering supplies to various place in various states, your people know about it now. But we found out many things, it’s like a movement, and it’s a movement that if you don’t put it down, it’ll get worse and worse, this is like Occupy Wall Street. It was a disaster until one day, somebody said, that’s enough and they just went in and wiped them out and that’s the last time we ever heard the name Occupy Wall Street….”
. . .
“You have everybody on tape, you gotta arrest all those people, you gotta try them. And if they get five years or ten years, they have to get five years or ten years.”
The next speaker was Attorney General Bill Barr:
“I know the situations vary around the country… you have opportunistic people like looters, but in many places, if not most places, you have this ingredient of extremist anarchist agitators….
“Law enforcement response is not gonna work unless we dominate the streets, as the President said. We have to control the streets. If we treat these as demonstrations, the police are pinned back, guarding places and don’t have the dynamic ability to go out and arrest the troublemakers.”
. . .
“The structure we’re going to use is the joint terrorist task force, which I know most of you are familiar with. Tried and true system, it’s worked for domestic and homegrown terrorists, and we’re going to employ that model. It already integrates your state and local people and it’s intelligence driven and it will go operational.”
Before calling on Defense Secretary Esper, Trump reiterated his approval for how the Obama administration crushed Occupy:
“….You’ve got to arrest these people and you’ve got to judge them, and you can’t do the deal where they get one week in jail. These are terrorists, these are terrorists, they’re looking to do bad things to our country.
“They’re Antifa and they’re radical left. And the reason you have other radicals is because they’ve been watching this for years, many years. And they don’t like this. Go back and study Occupy Wall Street, because you’ll see the way that is, a thing of beauty, everybody said ‘I can’t believe how easy it was’ it was an hour of…and when it was all over it was a beautiful thing. And that’s the way it has to end for you, alright secretary of defense.”
“ESPER: Thank you Mr. President….
“By Saturday morning, after the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and I suppose the governor [of Minnesota] increased their [National Guard] presence 10-fold I think the evidence was clear from Saturday night and Sunday night. And so, in my urging I agree, we need to dominate the battle space…. I stand ready the chairman stands ready, the head of the National Guard stands ready to fully support you in terms of helping mobilize the guard and do what they need to do…. I think the sooner that you mask and dominate the battle space, the quicker this dissipates, and we get back to a — the right normal.”
As far as we are aware the American “radical left” has yet to pick up on this, although the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) did—describing it as “a declaration of war against US civilians,” and commenting that “Trump, Barr & Esper sound like Pinochet & the military dictatorships of Latin America” (twitter.com, 5 June). Even though CNN released a transcript of the leaked audio, the mainstream capitalist media essentially ignored it, as they had in 2012 when the PCJF revealed how, under Obama, the FBI, “though it acknowledges Occupy movement as being, in fact, a peaceful organization—nonetheless designated OWS repeatedly as a ‘terrorist threat’.”
The Guardian characterized the revelations about the cynical “terrorist”-baiting of Occupy as “a groundbreaking scoop that should once more shame major US media outlets (why are nonprofits now some of the only entities in America left breaking major civil liberties news?).” The answer is pretty obvious: U.S. news organizations routinely tend to ignore or downplay stories that are not compatible with the interests and attitudes of their billionaire owners. The media failure to pick up on revelations about Trump’s plans for “wip[ing] out” peaceful protests is clearly motivated by the same considerations that led them to treat the police-state suppression of Occupy under Obama as a non-event. The big money interests that set the agenda of the popular media have no desire to pursue stories that might tend to undermine whatever popular illusions remain in the legitimacy of the institutions of American “democracy.”
U.S. Military Tops Interdict ‘Commander in Chief’
Trump’s notions about using the military to suppress popular dissent and round up the “radical left” recall the many anti-democratic interventions engineered by U.S. imperialism over the years. But in this case the high command of the U.S. military refused to go along with what they clearly considered an irrational, unnecessary and potentially disastrous adventure. The central public figure in the interdiction of Trump’s half-baked plot was former defense secretary “Mad Dog” Mattis.
In a 2 June statement, Mattis excoriated Trump for failing to “unite the American people…. Instead, he tries to divide us.” To underline the seriousness of his charge and signal the determination of the military to act if necessary, Mattis invoked another leader who had ruled by dividing rather than uniting, recalling that during World War II, “The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” Brushing aside the petty vandalism of “a small number of lawbreakers” Mattis (who had been the top U.S. military commander in the criminal imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan between 2010 to 2013 before becoming defense secretary) praised the “tens of thousands of people of conscience” who had participated in the recent protests, and declared:
“I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
– theatlantic.com, 3 June
In a clear reference to the attack on the Lafayette Park demonstrators prior to Trump’s “bizarre photo op,” Mattis pointedly called for citizens to “reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
The warning Mattis issued to the ostensible U.S. “Commander in Chief” that he no longer had the confidence of the officer corps was promptly echoed by a variety of other former senior military figures. Defense secretary Esper signalled that he got the message by immediately announcing that he opposed the use of active-duty troops against demonstrators, while Milley signalled his compliance by issuing a statement to remind the officer corps of their duty to uphold the constitutionally protected right of Americans to “freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” Finding himself completely isolated, Trump was left with no choice but to endure the humiliation and climb down. He was reportedly furious at Esper for acting as the messenger for the joint chiefs, but also knew that firing him would create far more problems than it was worth.
It is hard to exaggerate the significance of this episode, which came as close to a “Seven Days in May” scenario as anything in living memory. The fact that the entire top echelon of the U.S. military agreed to publicly slap down a sitting president has not been treated as news by the corrupt corporate media does not make it any less significant.
The American ruling class has good reason to be worried that it could be facing a “perfect storm” with an economy that is cratering, a pandemic raging out of control and a sudden, unanticipated and unpredictable eruption of popular opposition to white supremacy–the racist bedrock of American capitalism. Life is about to get a lot worse for tens of millions in the U.S., and the bourgeoisie is anxious to conciliate in the hope of regaining some measure of social stability. Given this situation it was therefore necessary to send a clear message that Trump’s capricious plans to experiment with police-state repression would not be tolerated.
‘A Different Country Today Than Just 30 Days Ago’
Trump retains much of his core support, but his “law and order” message failed to resonate, as the Wall Street Journal reported on 7 June:
“Voters by a 2-to-1 margin are more troubled by the actions of police in the killing of George Floyd than by violence at some protests, and an overwhelming majority, 80%, feel that the country is spiraling out of control, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.”
It was no surprise that voters who favor the Democrats were generally supportive of the demonstrations, but it was big news when a majority of Republicans (52 percent) indicated that they had more concern about Floyd’s murder than protester “violence.” Among white voters the split was 54 percent to 30 percent.
A 2 June Monmouth poll picked up a similar shift, reporting that a “majority of Americans (57%) say that police officers facing a difficult or dangerous situation are more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black” with only 33 percent believing that blacks and whites faced similar risks. This reflected a dramatic shift in attitudes, particularly among whites:
“Currently, 49% of white Americans say that police are more likely to use excessive force against a black culprit, which is nearly double the number (25%) who said the same in 2016. Another 39% of whites say police are just as likely to use excessive force regardless of race, which is down significantly from 62% four years ago.”
This was paralleled by a shift in attitudes toward “violence” at the protests:
“‘It seems we have reached a turning point in public opinion where white Americans are realizing that black Americans face risks when dealing with police that they do not. They may not agree with the violence of recent protests, but many whites say they understand where that anger is coming from,’ said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.”
It is unclear exactly how permanent this change will be, but it certainly captured the attention of the man known as “the G.O.P.’s message master”:
“On these [Monmouth] findings, the Republican pollster and famous message-crafter Frank Luntz tweeted that ‘in my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.”
– slate.com, 8 June
Trump appears to have the unflinching loyalty of a third of the population including the more nativist, nationalist and overtly racist sections of the ruling class. He was never embraced by the traditional Ivy League/Country Club bourgeoisie, Wall Street, Silicon Valley or the upper layers of the state apparatus; he was always seen as too crass, too stupid and too impulsive to be trusted with the reins. He has now vindicated that assessment with a completely incoherent foreign policy—unnecessarily alienating Germany and most of the other important imperialist allies, ripping up previously carefully negotiated international agreements (including the Paris Agreement on Climate, the Iranian nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and upending longstanding elements of U.S. imperialist strategic doctrine without providing any plausible alternative. The disastrous mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has further undermined his popular support at home and American credibility abroad.
The “American Dream” has lost its allure for the millions of former students who now realize that the degrees they worked so hard for, and sunk so deeply in debt to get, will not open any doors to secure and well-paid careers. The imminent threat of ecological disaster and the indifference of America’s capitalist rulers to the destruction of much of the biosphere is another source of acute anxiety for many during a pandemic which has starkly revealed the illegitimacy of the existing social hierarchy. As a writer for the New York Times recently observed:
“If America has just now descended into conflagration, it is only because the dry wind of chronic crises — a brutally racist tradition of policing, murderous health inequities and a yawning class divide chief among them — has for years been turning the fabric of national life into kindling.”
– nytimes.com, 4 June
Tens of millions of U.S. citizens are dependent on food banks for survival and unable to afford basic healthcare. The drinking water in many communities is suspect, and as those thrown out of work by the pandemic lock-down contemplate the possibility of soon joining the vast legions of destitute and homeless Americans who have already fallen through the cracks, there is much anxiety among people who previously considered themselves part of the “middle class.” Many of them are doubtless observant enough to notice that funding foreign military adventures or bailing out “too big to fail” banks and corporations is never a problem for the U.S. government.
When the short-term supplementary increase in unemployment benefits and the other limited attempts to reduce some of the damage are wound up in the very near future there will be a lot more pain. Lifting the temporary ban on evictions is going to mean a surge in homelessness, and when the temporary suspension of mortgage and student loan payments comes to an end, a lot more people will be pushed over the edge (bloomberg.com, 29 May).
Many white workers who have played by the rules and always saluted the flag are suddenly experiencing a sharp decline in living standards due to no fault of their own. They are naturally concerned that things are likely going to be even worse for their children. It is not entirely surprising that in this context, the traditional white-supremacist “divide and rule” tactics seem to have lost some of their efficacy. One way to read the unexpected outpouring of anger by white people over Floyd’s killing is that, to some extent, it represents a “backlash” against a half-century of relentless attacks on working people of all colors on every front—union-busting, longer hours for lower pay, higher tuitions, and reductions in pensions and social services.
The current wave of Black Lives Matter protests express more than a desire to put an end to racist police violence against blacks—they also represent an as-yet inchoate, but developing recognition by millions of Americans of all ethnicities that the growth of social inequality over the past several decades has become intolerable. The white youth who have made up the majority of many recent “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations are expressing not only their revulsion at racist police violence, but also anxiety about their own lives and uncertain futures.
Cops Out of the Unions!
The police constitute a key sector of what Frederick Engels called the “special bodies of armed men” (and women) that make up the capitalist state and which exist for the purpose of safeguarding the privileges of the exploiters. The dissolution of the police (and other repressive state institutions) is, along with the expropriation of capitalist property, the central task of any genuinely socialist revolution. A revolutionary workers’ state, based on collectivized property and dedicated to promoting a rational, egalitarian social order, will necessarily create entirely new bodies to perform the function of suppressing violent criminality, counterrevolution and other forms of anti-social activity.
As the generously compensated attack dogs of the ruling class, cops are generally shielded from the consequences of their actions, as long as they remain loyal to their masters. Police work has historically tended to appeal to backward elements of the working class. Upon joining the force, new recruits are indoctrinated with hostility to working people, as well as immigrants and minorities. Across North America police culture tends to be pretty consistently racist, misogynist and homophobic. Many new recruits, who signed up naively imagining that they would be serving and protecting their fellow citizens, end up resigning within a few years once they understand what the job actually involves. Marxists are opposed to police unions, which tend to be hotbeds of reaction, and advocate their exclusion from trade-union federations and all other working-class associations.
The issue of the class nature of the police has often been a point of contention within the socialist movement in the past. Reformists tend to view police, prison guards, immigration cops, etc., as simply “workers in uniform.” In November 2018, for example, Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city councillor who belongs to the supposedly revolutionary Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group, identified police as “public sector workers” like teachers or civil servants:
“….I want to be clear that I support the right of all public sector workers to negotiate raises, including the police. Though it is deeply unfortunate that few public sector workers get raises as substantial as these, including EMTs.
“I also want to be clear that I support the right of the police to their union and to collectively bargain.”
– Socialist Alternative, 21 November 2018
Sawant’s social-democratic position on cops is shared by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) and all the other political descendants of the former Militant Tendency, the ostensibly Trotskyist group led by Ted Grant which spent decades buried in the British Labour Party (see: Marxism vs. Militant Reformism). Sawant’s group is one of the larger fragments emerging from the recent break-up of the Committee for a Workers’ International, which had been home to the majority of former Militant Tendency cadres (CWI Implodes, 23 November 2019).
At its height, shortly before winning a majority on the Liverpool city council, the 3 October 1981 issue of Militant denounced the call for expelling police from the labor movement as “ultra-left” and argued:
“While an arm of the state — increasingly one of the ‘armed bodies of men’ who make up the capitalists’ repressive apparatus — the police, like the armed forces, are composed of men and women drawn from the working class, with their own interests and demands as workers.
“It is vital, therefore, that while campaigning for democratic accountability of the police, the labour movement must also call for trade union rights for the police, with the replacement of the Police Federation with a genuinely independent union organisation.
“It is not only a question of defending the economic interests of the police, but of working to bring the ranks of the police into the orbit of the labour movement.
“This has been opposed by some on the ultra-left as utopian. They want to write off the police as an homogenous, reactionary force for repression.”
Leon Trotsky took the opposite view. He asserted that: “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker” (What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, January 1932). This issue remains a live one and periodically arises as the subject of polemics within the left, as it did in 2007 when British prison guards staged a one-day walkout (1917, No.30).
Neither the IMT nor SAlt are pushing the view of cops as “fellow workers” too hard in the U.S. these days. This is hardly surprising—opportunist groups have a tendency to adjust their program in accordance with currently popular attitudes. But serious people who stand in the tradition of Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency (or Tony Cliff’s International Socialist Tendency) should be prepared to draw the lessons of recent protests and explicitly repudiate the idea that cops and screws are part of the workers’ movement.
On Reforming, Defunding, Disbanding and ‘Controlling’ Capitalist Cops
In an attempt to get ahead of the curve, many large corporations have promised to undertake initiatives designed to ameliorate the effects of generations of racial oppression. (The Bank of America alone has pledged a billion dollars for this purpose.) The more sophisticated elements of the bourgeoisie are aware that a major shift is underway and, in an attempt to re-engage some of the angry, disenchanted youth at the core of the protests, they have been scrambling to come up with plausible sounding proposals for reforming what the New York Times has recently taken to describing as America’s “brutally racist tradition of policing.” The ideas range from imposing national training standards and requiring cops to record all interactions with citizens with body cameras, to more ambitious calls for breaking the power of the police unions, “defunding” police and even “disbanding” particularly incorrigible police forces.
While some proposals have a radical ring, in practice they will not result in any sort of qualitative transformation. “Defunding” means reallocating some portion of the police budget to expanding social services and dispatching sympathetic professionals to deal with situations involving people with emotional or mental health issues. That would be a sensible move, but as soon as a new round of budget cuts rolls around such programs will be at the top of the list to get chopped.
In Minneapolis, the city council recently voted to “disband” the existing police force, because of its deeply embedded culture of racist brutality. Such a measure was actually carried out in Camden N.J. a few years ago. The reconstituted police force (which included 100 recycled cops from the “disbanded” outfit) is reportedly somewhat less abusive, but nothing fundamental has changed.
Decades of police reform have demonstrated that, even with liberal black police chiefs and “progressive” prosecutors, little really changes. This is because, at its core, the function of the police is to serve and protect the beneficiaries of a social system which is profoundly inequitable. The laws and regulations that the police are required to enforce are designed to protect the right to exploit and oppress working people—with the harshest blows inevitably directed at poor black people who have historically been forcibly segregated at the bottom of American society.
Marxists are advocates of the revolutionary reconstruction of society and the destruction of the repressive apparatus that defends the capitalist social order. But this does not mean we are not prepared to make concrete, generally negative, demands on the capitalist state that are in the interests of the oppressed. We call for dropping all proceedings against everyone arrested in connection with the protests against George Floyd’s murder. We also support banning police use of choke-holds, a move that is presently being implemented in many jurisdictions. We oppose the existence of police unions, which in many cases operate as little more than criminal enterprises, intimidating citizens and critics of police misdeeds on the one hand while, on the other, lavishly funding the election of reactionary “law and order” district attorneys and judges. This corrupt practice routinely produces egregious violations of democratic rights in a “justice” system already heavily tilted against minorities and poor people.
Another proposed reform is to lift the “qualified immunity” from civil lawsuits that federal law provides for killer cops, even when their “grossly negligent” actions are found to have resulted in death. Jay Schweikert, of the libertarian Cato Institute, argued that “this doctrine is the cornerstone of our culture of near-zero accountability for law enforcement” (axios.com, 5 June). Schweikert, and other bourgeois critics of “qualified immunity,” suggest that if police were held to the same standards for their actions as ordinary citizens they would kill fewer people. This is obviously true, and, as Marxists, we are of course opposed to “near-zero accountability” for police, and therefore support measures to reduce their immunity, even while maintaining that this will not significantly transform their function or, in most cases, their behavior. Such measures may however marginally reduce instances of murderous abuse, and that is certainly worth supporting.
Revolutionaries are in favor of disarming the police, as well as every limited or partial step in that direction. For example, we endorse calls to reverse the militarization of U.S. police forces that has taken place under the “1033 program,” created by the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law by Bill Clinton. Under the “1033 program,” the Defense Department has provided more than $7.4 billion in “excess” equipment to local police forces, much of it military-grade weaponry (wired.com, 2 June).
It is important however to distinguish between demands that benefit workers and the oppressed from those that promote the illusion that the major problems they confront can be solved (or reduced to exceptional events) by anything short of a socialist revolution that will overthrow the existing social system and smash up the coercive state apparatus that protects it.
The comrades of Socialist Action (SA—an ostensibly Trotskyist organization linked to the tendency historically led by the late Ernest Mandel) would, we suppose, subscribe to that proposition, at least in theory. In reading their 29 May statement, as the Floyd protests were beginning to gain momentum, we noted a number of supportable slogans, including “Cops out of our neighborhoods!, “Jail the killer cops!”, “Drop all charges against protesters!” as well as the “Right of self-defense for oppressed communities!” The final demand on their list, however, namely for “Black community control of police!” we cannot support. It sounds militant and a wide variety of leftists and black militants have raised similar calls over the years. But it is premised on the false notion that the police, and other agencies of the capitalist state, can somehow be brought under the “control” of those they exist to oppress through the ballot box or otherwise. This reformist illusion is grounded in the same social-democratic framework that leads the IMT/SAlt, etc. to view cops and screws as “fellow workers.” In fact, the police are the enemy of working people and the oppressed—they are at the very core of the capitalist state which is, and can only be, a weapon wielded by the oppressors against their victims.
This is the essential lesson Karl Marx drew from the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, and which Vladimir Lenin reiterated in State & Revolution. The state apparatus of any society exists to serve the interests of a single class–the ruling class. The capitalist state serves the capitalists; working people and the oppressed cannot simply lay hold of it and use it for their own interests—they must break it up through a social revolution that will collectivize capitalist property and establish a new state apparatus dedicated to “serving and protecting” an entirely different, egalitarian-socialist social order.
Lock Up Chauvin et al & Throw Away the Key!
At demonstrations called to protest police killing innocent victims (usually black youth) the demand to “Jail the Killer Cops” is often heard. In 2000 the ex-Trotskyist Spartacist League (SL), which had previously raised this demand suddenly repudiated it, claiming that it promoted the illusion that “the capitalist state can be pressured to serve the interests of the workers and minorities” (Workers Vanguard, 10 March 2000). In a statement released a week later we commented:
“If calling for jailing killer cops only creates illusions in the capitalist state, one might imagine that this would also be true of demands for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal or abolishing the racist death penalty. Yet Workers Vanguard reprints a March 1st  letter from the SL’s legal arm to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and San Francisco DA Terence Hallinan raising both of these. Go figure.”
– Justice for Amadou Diallo!, 1917 No.22
This was the first in a series of polemics on this issue with the SL and its 1996 offshoot, the Internationalist Group (IG). We were particularly critical of the IG when it refused to endorse a 23 October 2010 rally by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in connection with a port shutdown to protest the racist cop murder of Oscar Grant, due to its “disagreement with the ‘jail killer cops’ slogan.” We replied:
“Far from ‘propagating the bourgeois democratic myth that under pressure, the state can be made to serve the interests of the masses,’ [as the IG alleged] organizing widespread opposition to particularly egregious cases—like the cold-blooded execution of Oscar Grant—can provide an opportunity to help militant workers and rebellious youth see that the pervasive and systemic racism of American capitalism can only be ended through socialist revolution.”
– IG on ‘Jailing Killer Cops’, 1917 No.33
We observed that “American capitalism is deeply racist and incapable of operating on a genuinely democratic basis, but Marxists are not indifferent to violations of formal democratic rights,” and noted that the “democratic right not to be executed by racist cops is one of vital interest to working people and the oppressed.” We received no response on this point.
We reminded the IG comrades how, prior to the Spartacist League’s complete degeneration (and while the IG founders were still among its leading cadres) it had vigorously opposed violations of bourgeois legality:
“The SL’s suit against the Secret Service was followed in the early 1980s by successful lawsuits in defense of democratic rights against the anti-communist Moonie cult, California Attorney General George Deukmejian, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General. We consider all of those initiatives to have been valuable contributions to the protection of the democratic rights of the entire left and labor movement. The opposition of the SL and IG to raising the demand to ‘jail killer cops’ should logically compel them to denounce such lawsuits on the grounds of promoting illusions in the possibility of reforming the capitalist state. The SL has thus far refused comment, and we anticipate that the IG will be similarly anxious to avoid addressing this awkward question.”
As there is no way to square this circle, the IG did indeed withhold comment, as we had anticipated.
Following Floyd’s murder, the IG wrote: “One demand heard in Tuesday’s [26 May] protests, trumpeted by various opportunist left groups, is the call to ‘jail killer cops.’” In an attempt to edge away from its previous stupid assertion that calls to jail killer cops “actually serve to legitimize” police violence, the IG acknowledged that Chauvin and his cronies “are all guilty of murder and should spend the rest of their lives behind bars.” But instead of raising that as a demand, the IG nonsensically intoned that “as revolutionary Marxists, we must warn that this won’t happen in the capitalist U.S.A.: the bourgeois politicians will go all out to protect their professional killers-in-blue.” – The Internationalist, 28 May
The IG is led by intelligent and experienced political people who must know that the American ruling class has often thrown underlings a lot less toxic than Chauvin under the bus when it suited them. The speed with which he and his racist buddies were fired and charged (as a direct result of the unanticipated explosion of popular outrage at their callous crime) suggests that, contrary to the IG’s “warning,” these particular “professional killers-in-blue” are not likely to get much protection from state authorities. In fact, by throwing the book at these disposable murderous thugs, “progressive” bourgeois politicians hope to find a way to restore confidence in the racist judicial system.
There is a more general problem with the IG’s proposition that “revolutionary Marxists” should not raise demands that they think “won’t happen.” Since when have Marxists limited their demands to those they think the capitalists are likely to implement? In 1914, when the question of voting for the German defense budget was posed, Karl Liebknecht famously declared:
“We will not retreat by even an inch from our basic attitude towards militarism. The fraction must be told in no uncertain terms: we remain the mortal enemies of militarism, and not a man, not a penny for this system!”
Had the IG had deputies sitting alongside Liebknecht in the Reichstag, would they have felt compelled, “as revolutionary Marxists,” to object to “not a man, not a penny” on the grounds that, “this won’t happen in the [Kaiser’s Germany]: the bourgeois politicians will go all out to [fund] their professional killers”?
‘Biology is not (Political) Destiny’– The Identity Politics Cul de Sac
The great Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, argued that a successful challenge to capitalist rule required the creation of a disciplined vanguard party based on the working class, composed of people of all genders, ethnicities and races, and armed with a consistently revolutionary program. One of the central tasks Lenin set for his party was to act as the “tribune of the people” and combat every form of social injustice. This strategy—creating a workers’ party fighting against all forms of abuse, oppression and exploitation—is flatly counterposed to the idea of organizing people separately according to their race, sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender. The essential problem with “identity politics,” from the point of view of carrying out a revolutionary social transformation, is that while all members of a particular sector may suffer from a similar form of “special” oppression, they are differentiated by social class. Michelle Obama and a black woman employed by Walmart may both oppose racism and support abortion rights, but they have very different class interests.
In 2017 Briahna Joy Gray observed that “identity” can provide a useful lens for exposing “how historical inequities have been distributed across different races, genders, religions, abilities, and sexualities.” She also noted however that “when used cynically, as a political weapon, a simplistic view of identity can allow people of a particular political faction to wrongly imply that they speak for all members of their racial or gender group.” She illustrated this by referring to how supporters of Kamala Harris (currently favored to be picked as Joe Biden’s running mate) responded to leftist criticism from Bernie Sanders supporters as a case of “misogynist white men defaming her.” Gray, a black woman who supported Sanders, acknowledged that Harris had many “political accomplishments” as well as “intelligence and tenacity,” before reiterating the criticisms made earlier by her co-thinkers:
“As California’s Attorney General, with responsibilities for overseeing the second largest prison population in the country, Harris’s professional obligation to put people behind bars was seen as being in direct tension with the goals of Black Lives Matter…., she has also come under heavy criticism from activists for, among other things: defending the state against court orders to reduce its prison population, declining to take a public stand on sentencing reform proposals, attempting to block a court decision requiring the state to provide a transgender inmate with gender reassignment surgery, opposing a measure to require independent inquiries into police uses of force, and obstructing efforts by federal judges to hold California prosecutors accountable for an “epidemic” of misconduct. Harris has been a zealous prosecutor (at times, she said, she has been “as close to a vigilante as you can get”), and certain of her policies—like bringing criminal charges against parents whose children miss school—conflict with the efforts of groups like BLM to reduce the reach of the criminal justice system into people’s lives.”
– currentaffairs.org, 3 September 2017
Gray drew the obvious conclusion that:
“a critic should not be impugned on the basis of a candidate’s identity, but on the soundness of the critique itself. Nor should a critic be ignored because of their own identity, without anything more. After all: biology is not (political) destiny.”
Fred Hampton was the brilliant 21-year-old leader of the Chicago Black Panthers who was considered so dangerous that in December 1969 the FBI and local police carried out a joint operation to assassinate him as he slept in bed. One of the reasons that Hampton was seen as such a potent threat was that rather than promoting black nationalist “identity politics,” he had come to see that a class-based approach to fighting oppression was the only strategy that could win:
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”
– Fred Hampton, Power Anywhere Where There’s People
‘The Black Quisling Class’
The recent wave of popular revulsion at the extent of racist police abuse, an integral feature of capitalist rule in America, poses a difficult challenge for the ruling class in a period in which the economy is collapsing while the level of social inequality is soaring to unprecedented levels. The Democratic Party has historically been the main political mechanism through which many of capitalism’s victims have been reconciled to a system of multiple, overlapping forms of injustice. But confidence in the possibility of achieving significant change through electoral channels has been declining in recent years, particularly among young people.
The election, and subsequent re-election, of Barack Obama, and the significant number of black faces sitting around the cabinet table in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the elevation of a layer of blacks to highly visible positions in the corporate world represents a substantial change from the 1960s and 70s. There has been real progress for the top echelon of the black population, even as the situation of working-class blacks (as well as Hispanics and poor whites) has not improved, and in many ways worsened.
In a meditation at the end of “the age of Obama,” prominent black radical Cornell West noted how little had really changed after the eight-year tenure of America’s first black president:
“We called for the accountability of US torturers of innocent Muslims and the transparency of US drone strikes killing innocent civilians. Obama’s administration told us no civilians had been killed. And then we were told a few had been killed. And then told maybe 65 or so had been killed. Yet when an American civilian, Warren Weinstein, was killed in 2015 there was an immediate press conference with deep apologies and financial compensation. And today we still don’t know how many have had their lives taken away.
“We hit the streets again with Black Lives Matter and other groups and went to jail for protesting against police killing black youth. We protested when the Israeli Defense Forces killed more than 2,000 Palestinians (including 550 children) in 50 days. Yet Obama replied with words about the difficult plight of police officers, department investigations (with no police going to jail) and the additional $225m in financial support of the Israeli army. Obama said not a mumbling word about the dead Palestinian children but he did call Baltimore black youth ‘criminals and thugs’.”
– theguardian.com, 9 January 2017
During recent decades the growth of inequality among American blacks has proceeded in lockstep with that of the population as a whole. Today the top 10 percent of American blacks have an income 9.8 times greater than the bottom 10 percent, higher than the 7.8 multiple for whites and Hispanics. While all black people suffer racial oppression, this does not change the fact that those at the top have very different material interests than most of the rest. Dave Chapelle, the black stand-up comedian whose caustic observations about life in America made him a wealthy man, was telling the bitter truth when he informed poor white Trump supporters that their champion is not in fact fighting for them, he is “fighting for me” (and other multi-millionaires).
Racism developed as an adjunct of capitalism and it will only be ended when the exploitative “free enterprise” system is finally consigned to the dustbin of history. In the meantime, nothing will change the fact that America’s black bourgeoisie has very different objective interests than those of the plebeian youth whose anger and resentment it would like to channel into support for the Democratic Party.
In a recent article in Black Agenda Report, Margaret Kimberley described how widespread participation by young whites in black-led protests over the Floyd murder forced “the Black quisling class” of Democratic Party mayors and other officials “to reveal themselves as agents of the racial and economic status quo”:
“Anger boiled beneath the surface after years of the race to the bottom austerity regime, the worsening economic collapse in the wake of the COVID-19 quarantine, and another Democratic presidential primary rigged by that party’s donor class to defeat the prospect of even minimalist reforms.
“While black people led the way, they were joined by many white people too. They are also angry about Floyd’s death and are primed to rise up against the injustices that are expanding and becoming more deeply entrenched against them as well.”
Kimberley went on to identify St. Paul Minnesota mayor Melvin Carter as one of the “black misleaders” who attempted to drive a wedge between angry black demonstrators and the white youth who rallied to their cause:
“They claimed to grieve for Mr. Floyd and expressed a desire to see justice done while also saying that white protesters were using the demonstrations for nefarious ends. They even evoked the ‘outside agitator’ trope from the bad old days of Jim Crow segregation. They pleaded for peaceful protest or no protest at all and some of them told outright lies.
“Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was among the worst. She accused protesters of disgracing her city, George Floyd’s memory and Martin Luther King’s legacy all in one fell swoop. She told them, ‘Go home.’ According to Madame Mayor every protester was snatching liquor, setting fires and pulling knives on the police.”
. . .
“The underlings and their patrons are afraid. They know that if young black and white people find common cause they may march for other reasons too. They may lead general strikes, demand an end to war or try to resurrect the Occupy movement. It is better to cast aspersions now instead of risking needed change that would undermine their positions.”
– blackagendareport.com, 3 June 2020
Joe Biden: Candidate of the Racist Status Quo
At a 2018 rally Trump proclaimed that the central slogan for his 2020 re-election bid would be “Keep America Great!” But a lot has changed since then. Republican strategist Rob Stutzman recently observed that, for Trump: “There is no obvious strategy in terms of message.” Trump’s message problems are at least partially offset by the selection of Joe Biden as the candidate of the Democratic Party machine. Trump could not hope for a weaker opponent: Biden is not only a deeply corrupt hack with an odious history, but his cognitive decline is at least intermittently interfering with his ability to read a teleprompter. Given Trump’s manifest inability to effectively address any of the multiple crises currently wracking the U.S., and his declining poll numbers, beating him in November should be a slam-dunk. But the Biden candidacy gives Trump an outside chance at pulling off an upset, just as he did in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a one-time FBI informant, who spoke at Floyd’s Minneapolis memorial, is calling for a march in Washington D.C. in August to mark the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Sharpton made it clear that the event is designed to mobilize votes for “a push into November”:
“One of the things King’s dream was about was voting rights and gives us like 90 days before the election and a great emphasis on that, which you’re going to, in order to change laws, you’ve got to impact lawmakers and they get elected in November. … Otherwise it’s for nothing.”
– marketwatch.com, 7 June
Biden is a tough sell as an anti-racist. He got very few Hispanic votes during the Democratic presidential primaries because under Obama “illegal” immigrants were deported at a higher rate than under Trump. Biden, the candidate of Big Pharma, has promised to veto any “Medicare for All” legislation, a policy identified with Bernie Sanders, which is overwhelmingly popular with Hispanics and blacks and has the support of some 70 percent of Americans.
In a piece published the day before Floyd’s murder, Briahna Gray touched on some of the skeletons in Biden’s closet:
“It seems fair to ask whether Biden, whose record on race includes co-authoring the infamous 1994 crime bill [which aimed at putting an additional 100,000 cops on the streets], effusively eulogizing segregationist Strom Thurmond, lying about his civil rights record, repeatedly advocating cuts to Social Security—on which elderly Black Americans disproportionately rely, and famously railroading Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, is ‘with us.’ Does opposing marijuana legalization, as Joe Biden does, make you ‘with us’?”
– currentaffairs.org, 28 May
During the Democratic presidential primaries, Nina Turner, co-chair of the Sanders campaign, itemized a few other atrocities by Biden:
“As a recent NBC News headline said of Biden’s time in the Senate: ‘Biden didn’t just compromise with segregationists. He fought for their cause.’ The NBC report quoted the NAACP’s legal director saying that one Biden-backed measure ‘heaves a brick through the window of school integration.’
“And Biden didn’t just vote for bills designed to prevent black students from accessing white schools: in a series of personal letters he actively courted pro-segregation senators to support the legislation.”
“Biden also fought alongside right-wing Republicans to pass so-called ‘welfare reform’ that reduced financial support for low-income families. Biden echoed former President Ronald Reagan’s dishonest ‘welfare queen’ language and wrote a column conjuring an ugly stereotype of ‘welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous.’”
“Similarly Biden worked with segregationist Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond to pass ‘tough on crime’ legislation that targeted black communities with punitive criminal justice policies while promoting mass incarceration and harsh punishment for nonviolent crimes. At one point Biden declared that every ‘major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the state of Delaware — Joe Biden.’”
– thestate.com, 12 January
Despite this overtly racist record, Biden won the overwhelming support of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the rest of the corrupt Democratic political machine. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden is running as the candidate of the status quo. At a meeting with 100 wealthy donors last year in New York, Biden reassured those worried about the possibility of a Democratic administration taking steps to reduce the obscene and growing economic inequality in America today that, if he gets elected, “No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change.” That is of course not how the Democrats will be spinning things between now and the election.
The Democrats’ insistence on imposing a “business as usual” candidate at a time when most of their base is crying out for change is beyond tone-deaf. It almost seems to be a deliberate attempt to flaunt the fact that American “democracy” is so completely corrupted by big money that both major capitalist parties are equally indifferent to issues of life and death for ordinary people. There are still some differences—over the right to abortion and a few other social and “culture-war” issues—but these days there is very little of substance separating the twin parties of racism and imperialist war.
The position of the American ruling class today is precarious, and a policy of “business as usual” will translate into further attacks on working-class living standards, growing social tensions at home and more military adventures abroad. The Democrats are not, and never will be an instrument for meaningful progress for those trapped at the bottom. If Biden is elected, not a thing will change for the better. Any attempt by a Biden White House to placate tens of millions of desperate Americans, who feel the ground crumbling beneath them, with empty reassurances, token concessions and perhaps a couple of moves taken from the “identity politics” playbook, could produce a nasty backlash and the resurgence of ugly xenophobic, misogynist, homophonic, white-supremacist sentiments.
Build a Workers’ Party—Fight for Socialism!
The current crisis of legitimacy of the U.S. bourgeois order results from the unusual intersection of growing anxiety about an already contracting economy perched on the edge of a precipice; the manifestly incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the sudden and completely unanticipated mass mobilizations against police racism and its white-supremacist roots. These developments have created the preconditions for continuing social turmoil and, potentially, the re-emergence of pro-working-class politics on a significant scale. Revolutionaries must seek ways to channel rising discontent into recognition of the necessity for developing organized political activity—with the objective of creating a labor party, centered on the working class and completely independent from the capitalists, committed to fight for an entirely different, egalitarian, social order.
Racism, poverty, imperialist war abroad and brutal police repression at home cannot be ended by unorganized spontaneous actions, however militant, even when carried out by millions of people. Only through forging a multi-ethnic and multi-racial workers’ party can the interests of the victims of racism oppression, as well as women, the homeless, the unemployed and all others oppressed by life under capitalism, be given effective political expression.
At this point there is a great opportunity, but no plausible leadership, nor even any approximation of the nucleus of one. The best that can be hoped for is that elements among America’s several thousand would-be revolutionaries will recognize that the present moment represents an opportunity to engage a lot of new people in leftist activity—both the study of the history and theory of the socialist movement and direct involvement in practical struggles, such as strike support, or union organizing drives, or the breaking up of fascist gatherings. The broad expansion of this sort of activity could help prepare the ground for the emergence of a socialist labor party independent of the bosses and their Democratic political operatives.
The current mass leftist upsurge has produced hints of some encouraging, if as yet very limited, leftward movement within the ostensibly Trotskyist milieus. For obvious reasons, recent events have made many members of the IMT and SAlt uncomfortable with their founders’ historical identification of cops as “workers in uniform.” If they were to come out and clearly renounce this position, and embrace Trotsky’s view as outlined above, that would be a promising development and signal a willingness to renounce a core element of their social-democratic heritage. The IG is evidently similarly anxious to walk back their previous assertions that to call for “Jail[ing] Killer Cops” is to create illusions in the perfectibility of the capitalist judicial system.
These perceptible shifts to the left, while limited in scope and, as yet, only tentative and covert, are hopeful portents of a much-needed future process of revolutionary regroupment. If generalized, and openly acknowledged, they might herald the possibility that elements of the cadres of the various fractured components of America’s “far left” may one day be capable of working together to lay the basis for launching a mass, revolutionary workers’ party capable of emerging as a serious factor on the national stage. Such a party would be the natural organizer of the righteous anger and willingness to struggle recently exhibited by millions of anti-racist protesters across America. Its extension into the union movement would generate an organic conflict with the pro-Democratic, pro-imperialist politics of the existing bureaucratic misleaderships over the future direction of the workers’ movement in the U.S.
A class-conscious labor leadership would seek to aggressively organize the unorganized, and fight to secure decent jobs and wages for the tens of millions of workers who have recently lost their jobs, and the tens of millions more to follow. Such a leadership would also address broader political issues—opposing the presence of the U.S. imperialist military abroad and campaigning for a vast expansion of social services at home, including universal medicare, free childcare, free tuition and a massive housing program to eliminate the scourge of homelessness.
It is both necessary and possible to create a mass revolutionary workers’ party. While this is also an immense and difficult undertaking, there is no choice but to begin from where we are. Such an undertaking requires, above all, studying the successes and the failures of the generations of revolutionaries who have preceded us. We of the Bolshevik Tendency see no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. In our view the essential lessons needed to create an instrument capable of liberating humanity from capitalist tyranny are to be found in the experience of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin, and in the subsequent struggle by Leon Trotsky to uphold and develop the internationalist program of the first four congresses of the Communist International.