Tag Archives: USA

Capitalism and Social Justice: The Floyd Protests in the US


In 1968, when Europe was witnessing student revolts, Italian Marxist filmmaker, novelist and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a poem addressing students, where he unabashedly told them,

When yesterday at Valle Giulia you fought 
with policemen, 
I sympathized with the policemen! 

He went on to explain that these boys in the police came from poor families and were dehumanised by the system — 

…Worst of all, naturally, 
is the psychological state to which they are reduced 
(for roughly sixty dollars a month); 
with a smile no longer, 
with friends in the world no longer, 
separated, 
excluded (in an exclusion which is without equal); 
humiliated by the loss of the qualities of men
for those of policemen (being hated generates hatred). 

Pasolini tauntingly challenged the students,

We obviously agree against the police as institution. 
But get mad at the Legal System and you will see! [1]

The Defunding of Police: What does it signify?

In the context of the ongoing movement against police violence in the US, the proposal for defunding and disbanding the police force has gained a wide currency. It has enthused many towards a more libertarian future. Its influence has also reached the learned sections of the left and liberal circles in India. As in 1968 and some years after it, today once again we see a confluence between those who stress on the virtues of a lean state and those demanding social justice, trying to give meanings or definite agenda to the movement —binding it to concrete demands. As David Harvey has shown, the intellectual force and initial consensus for neoliberalism were derived from such confluence.[2] However, neither in the case of the 1968 upsurge nor today can one reduce a whole movement to these vocal agencies who are there to negotiate with the system — in the case of the Floyd protests, to bring in police reforms and the Democrats to commit for them, while blaming Trump for everything. 

It is interesting to see the complementarity of Trump and his right-wing bandwagon, on the one hand, and the left-liberals, on the other. The former sees the conspiracy of anarchists, communists and anti-capitalism everywhere, destroying American values and institutions; therefore, they stress on violent incidents that have happened during the upsurge. The liberals and left see in the protests the assertion of American values rescuing  institutions from their takeover by conservative and even fascist elements. They downplay violence and sometimes even blame rightwingers for infiltration. Hence, in both discourses American values and basic institutions remain sacrosanct.

Even the apparently radical suggestion to defund and even disband the police is perhaps not very drastic. With the growing numbers of private security agencies and the localised community-level management of their engagement, the state run formal police force is increasingly becoming obsolete. Two prominent journalists-cum-business experts, while writing in Business Insider, applauded police-free Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) and found Trump’s accusation that such zones are  anarchistic to be unwarranted and “a wrong response”. They go on to say,

“Whether you believe in the Black Lives Matter cause or not, you should want this test to continue. If the Floyd protests have shown us anything, it’s that America needs new models for law enforcement, regulation, and community organising. CHAZ is one tiny demonstration. We can think of tons of experiments worth trying: no-armed-police zones, no-police-car zones, an-officer-on-every-corner zones… Let’s try ‘em all. May there be 1,000 more CHAZzes!”[3, emphasis mine] 

Disbanding the police force is a wonderful idea, but what does it mean to implement this idea in an unequal system? Isn’t policing an intrinsic need of such a system? Is this system itself being questioned, or is it just an anger against a particular “alienated” form of policing? Empowering people without destroying the internal hierarchy in a community will only allow those on top to accumulate more power. Disbanding police in this scenario will force the community to internalise policing, and the powerful will play the judge. Power always clings to the powerful, who in turn are only personifications of power. That is why you see no significant outrage at such “radical” proposals in the US, except from the supporters of Trump, and Fox News. But what we see most of the time, if not always, depends on the perspective that we take, which in turn is dependent on our location relative to various socio-cultural (superstructural) asperities that break open whenever there is a heightening of structural stress energy in capitalist class relations.  Hence, the relevant question would be whether the Floyd Protests are merely about different demands that are being posed, or whether something more is happening in the American society that we need to understand.

Capitalism is ever ready to recompose itself according to the crisis that a social movement poses. Reducing a movement to its immediate demands is one of the main ways that contribute to this recomposition. The demands are crucial to organise the movement, but reducing the latter to the literality of the former is not just ludicrous, but a serious reduction that reifies demands and is a  result of commodity fetishism — of reducing social relations to thingness, which helps in capitalist reproduction not just in ideology, but also materially. It is through this reduction that the legitimation of a capitalist state, as the chief arbitrator of the system, is derived. But a movement is definitely more than its demands, it is about social relations. What is happening in the US is not simply a reaction to an incident, rather it is the eventalisation of that incident exposing the ab-normalcy of those relations.       

The Political Economy of Policing and the Floyd Protests

It seems corporate America has found “a public relations windfall” in the Floyd protests. Many delivery-based firms, like Amazon, Instacart, GrubHub among others, who have been crucial agencies of commodity circulation during the ongoing pandemic, were engulfed in labour conflicts. They found a respite in the protests, as “corporate anti-racism is the perfect egress from these labor conflicts. Black lives matter to the front office, as long as they don’t demand a living wage, personal protective equipment and quality health care.”[4] However, these spectacular protests could not be reduced to militant black liberal demands of Black Lives Matter, foremostly because the problems of policing themselves could not be understood simply from the perspective of race. 

Racial disparity is an important description of inequalities that characterise the American society. The statistical significance of this phenomenon can hardly be overstated in describing police violence and incarceration in the US.  However, it is not self-explanatory, it is linked to the deeper political economic processes. 

“What the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests is what might have been the focal point of critical discussion of police violence all along, that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.“[5, emphasis mine]

In the Marxist framework, “the uncertainty and irregularity of employment, the constant return and long duration of gluts of labour are all symptoms of a relative surplus population.”[6] The growing number of marginalised sub-employed segments of the working class are what constitute today the relative surplus population and its various types: Floating, Latent, Stagnant and “the sphere of pauperism…the hospital of the active labour-army and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army.”[7] This ever growing population must be harnessed for capitalist accumulation, to obtain cheap labour and to cheapen existing labour. Yet it is a dangerous disruptive force when not engaged productively in an immediate manner. The increase in police violence is perhaps evidence of an increased self-activity of this population.  A proper regime of incarceration and policing is needed to contain, suppress and productivise its energy. 

In fact, Ruth Gilmore in her book, Golden Gulag, shows “how resolutions of surplus land, capital, labor, and state capacity congealed into prisons.” The “phenomenal growth of California’s state prison system since 1982” can be understood as a part of the resolution to the crisis of the golden age of American capitalism, which was characterised by overaccumulation wanting radical measures like “developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions out of what already exists.” [8] Since the late 1990s, Gilmore along with Angela Davis and others has been involved in the organising efforts against what they call, the Prison-Industrial Complex.[9] 

With regard to the Floyd Protests too, it has been observed that among the masses that have emerged on the streets, there are those who have suffered because of the pandemic and being sheltered-in-place “without adequate sustained federal relief.” Therefore, these protests are also a consequence of “mass layoffs, food pantries hard pressed to keep up with unprecedented need, and broad anxiety among many Americans about their bleak employment prospects in the near future.” This can be grasped only if the widespread looting is not rejected, but explained. 

Unlike the ghetto rebellions of yesteryears, the composition of the looters today is multiracial and intergenerational, targeting downtowns and central shopping districts. These are “the most dispossessed of all races and ethnicities who are the most likely to be routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures, the collateral damage of the American dream.”[10] The law-preserving and law-constituting forces can understand only the language of demands, and the surplus-ed do not demand, but act.

Beyond Neoliberal Social Justice 

The hegemonic tendency in the American anti-racist movement today “accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice”. It has emerged as “the left wing of neoliberalism  [whose] sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines.”[11] This provides a crucial clue to understand not just the limits of the movements for representation, recognition and redistribution, but also the compatibility of social justice with neoliberalism. This can help in making sense of why in some countries, like India, policies and laws towards ensuring social justice frequently accompanied the aggressive implementation of neoliberal economic reforms. 

The history of capitalism shows that it includes through differentiation and segmentation, constituting the unevenness of its social geography, which is a crucial factor in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. It is this differential inclusion that structures the extension and intensification of division of labour, facilitating the circulation of commodities and capital and ensuring the transfer of value. This aspect of capitalist development manifests itself in real identitarian inequalities, insecurities, anxieties and politics at diverse levels of social structures. Social differentiation, obviously, in effect preempts or defers the emergence of class-against-capital that threatens not just law and order, but the very system that they conserve. Simplistically put, identities are all about horizontal divisions and vertical (re)integration. This engenders a perspective that does not allow various segments to think beyond redistributive economics and the politics of representation and recognition. So all social conflicts become just problems of management, engineering, and of statistics. Hence, tweaking specific variables is what needs to be done. Blaming individuals  or even specific institutions for what is an endemic problem of the system is the best way to salvage the system. This is how today, as Pasolini would put, people everywhere (differentially, but definitely) “belong to a ‘totality’ (the ‘semantic fields’ on which they express themselves through both linguistic and nonlinguistic communication).” This is how “bourgeois entropy” is reached, when “the bourgeoisie is becoming the human condition. Those who are born into this entropy cannot in any way, metaphysically, be outside of it. It’s over.”[12] But, is it so?  

Can we deny the experience of racism and, for that matter, of any enclosed segment of class? Aren’t such experiences crucial to the politics of class? While it is true that racism cannot be understood in its own terms, and all problems faced by black proletarians cannot be reduced to racism, can we deny that class always appears through such specific geo-cultural forms of social relations? The sedimental reality of all these forms is, of course, the dynamics of class relations and struggle, but these dynamics can only be captured in the experience of these forms. The struggle against segmentation is not to wish it away. Any unity based on such ideological wishing away of inter-segmental conflicts will be external and an imposition. 

An identity assertion becomes revolutionary when it is a ground for negating the very logic of differentiation and segmentation that sustains capitalist accumulation through competition and hierarchy. Then, the assertion is not for identitarian accommodation, but against the logic of identification—to envisage a non-identity against and beyond all identities. The positive assertion of identities, on the other hand, is for accommodation within power and accumulation of power —this is what social justice means within the logic of capital. However, any assertion of oppressed identities always contains the possibility of the release of an anti-identitarian subject, the class of proletarians, that goes against racism, casteism and other segmentations to destroy the stability of the very system of classification and gradation of labourers that sustains capitalism. It is this subject that can be traced in the incidents of looting and arson in the Floyd protests. Since they serve no means, they are ignored by those who don’t decry them.

Note: My special thanks to Arvind, Lalan, Nilotpal, Paresh, Prakash, Pritha and Satyabrat for innumerable discussions on the article. 

References

[1] Il PCI ai Giovani (The PCI to the Young), in Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1972 [2005]. Heretical Empiricism. Tr. Ben Lawton & Louise K. Barnett, New Academia Publishing, pp 150-158.

[2] David Harvey. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press. (Chapter 2, ‘The Construction of Consent’).

[3] David Plotz & Henry Blodget. 2020. ‘We need more experiments like Seattle’s police-free’, Business Insider (June 13, 2020). Accessed on June 15, 2020.

[4] Cedric Johnson. 2020. ‘The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption’, nonsite.org (Posted June 9, 2020). Accessed on June 15, 2020.

[5] Adolph Reed, Jr. 2016. ‘How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence’, nonsite.org (Reposted June 9, 2020). Accessed on June 15, 2020. 

[6] Karl Marx. 1976. Capital. Volume 1, (Trans. Ben Fowkes). London: Pelican Books, p. 866.

[7] Ibid, p. 797.

[8] Ruth Wilson Gilmore. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, p. 28.

[9] Critical Resistance Publications Collective, ed. 2000. Critical Resistance to the Prison-Industrial Complex. Special Issue of Social Justice 27(3). 

[10]Johnson, op. cit.

[11] Reed, op. cit.

[12] Pasolini, op. cit., p. 156.