What should we expect from the demonstrations in the United States?

5 June, 2020 · News> North America> USA

The protests over the murder of George Floyd have been going on for ten days now. From Merkel to Maduro there is no ruler who does not show solidarity with the protesters, nor any editorial which does not promise a “turning point” in the United States.

But so far, the only major milestone resulting from the protests is that the four involved in the murder of George Floyd have seen their charges increased. The policeman who pinned his knee to George Floyd’s neck and choked him to death went from being charged with “third degree murder and second degree manslaughter” to “second degree murder”. The other three officers who did nothing to stop the murder and prevented anyone from helping the victim became co-perpetrators. Scot X. Esdaile, president of the NAACP (“National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”) stated:

It’s a shame that we have to go through all this just to get them to do the right thing, which they should have done in the first place. The police are supposed to protect and serve, but when something like this happens, we have to resort to rioting, burning buildings and turning the whole country upside down just to get justice.

Dorie Dumas, president of the NAACP’s Greater New Haven chapter adds: “But we’re not satisfied with arrests, we want to see convictions.

The entire American left presents the toughening of the charges as a great victory proving the effectiveness of the protests. They characterize the mobilizations as an “awakening of the people”; some tendencies even venture to say that we would be facing a “rebellion of black workers”.

Yet the images, repeated in a thousand videos and social network messages, of groups of people invoking God, kneeling on the ground and asking “forgiveness for centuries of racism” from other neighbors during pathetic cathartic exercises, tell us of something with a very different moral and political foundation.

We don’t seem to be facing anything threatening to the existing social order, not even in a potential way.

The bourgeoisie

Senators observe a minute’s silence for the death of George Floyd.

This is not the only parallel with the “religious awakening” movements of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant and Nordic traditions. The spectacle is overwhelming. Dozens of celebrities whose lives are completely safe from police brutality, claim to have “awakened”. Democrats, NGOs, evangelical leaders and even the police itself are displaying their “solidarity”. The large companies (Disney, Airbnb, Apple, Amazon, Nike, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Netflix, IBM, HBO, Hulu…etc.) have spoken out one after the other against the racism of the police and the “system”. Facebook pledged $10 million to “anti-racist” organizations and Intel promised to donate $1 million to organizations such as “Black Lives Matter” and the “Centre for Policing Equality“, a research center whose goal is “to reduce the disparity that exists today in law enforcement across the country. “Glossier“, a cosmetics company, donated $500,000 to “racial justice” organizations and another $500,000 to create grants for black-owned beauty businesses. Even Amazon, known for its close ties to the police, is declaring “solidarity” with the movement.

It would be surprising, to say the least, for a supposedly “radical” movement to receive so much support from big business and to fail at swaying the stock markets for even a second. But what drives the capitalists is not a sudden change in morality… but an essential part of the existing one: the contractual “equality” that conceals our exploitation as a class and that “frees” us to sell our labor power:

This morality, which emerges from the religion of the commodity, crosses the whole of bourgeois society. In the first place the subjects: it is clear that classes did not cease to exist with feudality, however the morality of the commodity is a morality that makes classes invisible by creating a new abstract subject: the “individual”. This construct is defined by its sovereignty over itself. That sovereignty is claimed under the concept of freedom. What does it mean? Simply that the social bond of exchange – the basis of the exploitation of labor power – is voluntary and does not generate greater responsibilities in the person who buys labor power than in a person who would buy any object: paying a salary back. A wage that is no more than the social value of that labor power by virtue of the equality of all commodities being exchanged voluntarily. As exploitation is not an individual but a class relationship and as the capital-labor relationship becomes invisible under a “fair” and “free” exchange and therefore between socially “equal” values… exploitation disappears! The bourgeoisie still adds a coda to it, projects it up to the highest level with a third explicit value: fraternity, the national brotherhood of free and equal individuals that serves as a bridge between the mercantile religion and the political one.

The morality of bourgeois society shapes how “individuals” should be and what they should expect from others and society. Its core, the mercantile religion of the commodity, has nothing to do with norms and restrictions, with social piety and sexual repression. On the contrary, the religion of the commodity is a religion of freedom and equality whose main sacrament is exchange, buying and selling. It establishes the individual as an abstract being in permanent conflict with the environment, it makes exploitation invisible and above all it educates in the “naturalness” of scarcity, in the need for private property and in the acceptance of the reification of relationships and human needs.

On the religion of the merchandise, in the entry “Religion”, of our Marxist dictionary

In other words, supporting “Black Lives Matter” does not contradict bourgeois morality, it affirms it; it is not a “sacrifice” for the capitalists, it is an investment. It is not a new emancipatory morality, it is the same old morality that recognizes us as equals to each other as to any other commodity.

There are those who argue that corporations and celebrities only see the “Black Lives Matter” movement as a market because, as the protests show, it is obviously large and draws in considerable numbers of young people. And that by the same token, this says nothing about the movement itself, which would basically be a victim of attempts at “external” commercial instrumentalization. But even if we were to accept that this is a pure exercise in cynicism by the corporate bourgeoisie and its “celebrities”, we would have to ask why they can ignore any other considerations and reduce the movement to “a market”. Of course, if they were faced with something minimally recognizable as an antagonist they would not take such a position.

Moreover, the movement is diverting attention from the effect of COVID-19 on workers’ living conditions and the fundamental consensus between Democrats and Republicans: to get us to work, by force if necessary, to save the investments of national capital. We are in the midst of the largest global wave of strikes and struggles in decades, with a pandemic that has exposed a class-based welfare system to the point of slaughter and a global economic recession. How can they not be grateful for the change of topic?

It is neither innocent nor coincidental that we are told about the supposed “privilege” of white workers and the oppression of black workers. To present white workers as “privileged” is to present as a supposed social goal something that the system and its ruling classes have no interest in defending. It is the old trick of anti-Semitism. But above all it is a way of dividing the workers and diverting them from an awareness of their common needs. This is why they “mix up” systematic discrimination with oppression. Oppression is not a social fact, but a political one. It means that there exists a class whose political project is able to draw society together in a transformation that takes precedence over any other class contradiction. To say that black workers are oppressed because of their racial identity means both affirming that they have a common interest with the black bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and that all these classes share a political project that workers should defend. In reality black workers are systematically discriminated against because of their blackness, but oppressed as workers, it is up to workers as a class, across all divisions, to end racial discrimination…from which they are emancipated from political oppression and end the exploitation of labor by capital which defines the system and debases and fractures society as a whole.

The petty bourgeoisie

Striker arrested by police during the 1977 Atlanta strike.

The black petty bourgeoisie has historically suffered from and fought against political oppression and racial discrimination in an attempt to move up the social ladder. Segregation, a radical form of discrimination, prevented black-owned businesses from expanding their market.

The civil rights movement was led by this black petty bourgeoisie and led to its consolidation in the state. The differences between black workers and the black petty bourgeoisie became evident when the first black mayor of the United States, Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, sent scabs to break the health care workers’ strike in 1977. The promise of civil rights, the equality of “races” before the law became a reality but, like the formal and contractual equality of the worker with the capitalist, it conceals real inequality, class exploitation and its antagonism with this inhuman world that has nothing else to offer humanity except more misery and death.

After the civil rights movement, the black petty bourgeoisie used “identity politics” to expand its presence in the corporate world and the state. This element can be seen in the “Black Lives Matter” protests in all its glory. The platform of the movement contains all sorts of points demanding support for Black business, and big business is following suit by giving its support. The slogan speaks for itself: Black companies should be supported in the fight against racism. Racism becomes anything that conflicts with the interests of the black petty bourgeoisie, “anti-racism” and “black business” become one and the same thing.

The identitarianism of the petty bourgeoisie sees in today’s protests an opportunity to demand a bigger slice of capital’s income and that is, after all, the core of its agenda.

The lumpenproletariat

The civil rights movement empowered the black petty bourgeoisie while all workers, of all “races,” continued to see their conditions deteriorate. Nor did it get rid of the state violence and insidious racial discrimination that led to the concentration and accelerated pauperization of Black workers in many cities. The accelerated social decomposition in these cities produced a considerable lumpenproletariat, generating a dangerous element that would play a significant role in the black nationalist movements that followed. The “Black Power” that followed the civil rights movements was in essence an alliance of the separatist and angry black petty bourgeoisie with the lumpenproletariat. After the Watts riots, both social groups converged into nationalist organizations promoting a “return to Africa”, “black culture”, segregation, a picturesque version of the Muslim religion, anti-semitism, extreme sexism and, in the case of the Black Panthers, the most brutal and inhumane Stalinist regimes.

This confluence between a part of the black petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat, continues to be expressed through looting in the current protests. Stores are looted in many states around the country, people sell their loot, “swindle” other looters, steal what other looters have stolen… in the end… it is all part of the logic of private appropriation in a grotesque and marginal version of the accumulation of capital. And of course, the left applauds. Nothing could be further from a class struggle capable of challenging capital today.

The trade unions

Demonstrators cheering a bus driver who refused to transport arrested protesters in New York City.

Where were the workers in these protests? As workers, nowhere to be found. There have been no workers’ assemblies in the companies to discuss how to position themselves in relation to these protests, much less strikes in solidarity or actions as a class.

But there are those who claim that the working class asserts “its will” by “demonstrating in solidarity with the protests. Practically everyone identifies the working class with the same unions that day by day lead the workers’ struggles nowhere. They are the same ones who give the example of “TWU Local 100“, the New York City bus drivers’ union, which prevents its drivers from transporting protesters to jail.

Similarly, those from the “Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005“, which represents 2,500 public transport workers in the twin cities of Minneapoli and Saint Paul, also refused to transport the protesters to prison. Ryan Timlin, the union’s president, said that “if we feel something is unfair, the workers should have the right not to support the situation or stop providing their services, and this is not a strike”. The union issued a statement that, interestingly, discussed how “ATU members face racism on a daily basis, our members live and work in the neighborhoods where this kind of thing happens”. And it ended with:

Police brutality is unacceptable! This system has failed all of us in the working class from the Coronavirus to the economic crisis we are facing. But this system has failed people of color and Black Americans and Black youth more than anyone else. More than ever we need a new Civil Rights Movement.

These are not the only cases of union support. More than 400 union members signed a petition on the Facebook group, “Union Members for #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd,” whose purpose is “to ensure that our work is not used to help the Minneapolis Police Department end calls for justice”. The Minneapolis teachers’ union, which by the way is affiliated with the same AFL-CIO including police unions, also showed its “solidarity” with the protests.

What does all this mean?

Let’s add it all up: we are facing a movement with massive corporate support, identified with the interests of the black petty bourgeoisie and its political organizations, which is “joined” by the lumpen and actively supported by the unions.

Its great success has been to ensure that, while the aid to workers is being cut off to force a full reopening as soon as possible, despite the fact that the epidemic continues at a fast pace in the workplaces, the “anti-racist” movement suddenly becomes the central political question in the USA.

The movement’s message is that workers should no longer protect themselves at home from the virus, they should go out to protest… against police racism… or, if they are white, to apologize for their “privileges”. Workers should no longer fight for their safety and the safety of their loved ones, putting their needs above those of capital, but should support a “new civil rights movement” that helps the “less fortunate”…the black bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. In other words: the message of the movement is that workers must stop fighting as workers and support what is completely harmless to capital… so harmless that capital actively supports it.

The reality? It cannot even be presented as a “temporary sacrifice”, as a pause in the class struggle to obtain a victory over racism that will later revert to a greater unity of the working class. Because the truth is that the “movement” cannot even be expected to achieve anything against racism. There is no point in a mass “awakening” in condemnation of racism, because racism is not a problem of “individual consciousness” that can be separated from social structure and class division. Nothing will ever come from the trade unions, the bourgeoisie or the identitarianists bent on maintaining this same class structure. The struggle against all discrimination is inseparable from the social question and therefore inseparable from the centralization and independence of our struggle as workers.

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