An international explosion
Protests against police violence and structural disadvantage have erupted in country after country, but what happens next, asks Paul Demarty
The police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has brought forth a mass, spontaneous political response.
One of the most striking features is its geographical spread, with protests taking place in cities throughout the United States - despite sometimes hideous police repression - and further afield indeed than that. Several cities around the UK have seen spontaneous solidarity demonstrations, with some marches numbering 20,000 participants - no mean feat under circumstances where mass gatherings are banned. The most stirring image perhaps came from Bristol, where a statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled down, dragged about town and tossed into the harbour. A hysterical response to the event from 10 Downing Street demanding these vandals be ‘brought to justice’ seems a little tone-deaf. Any attempt to prosecute the ‘guilty’ ought be resisted as enthusiastically as the images of their actions are to be enjoyed.
It is not uninteresting that the American events should have had such an intense response this side of the pond. Some rightwingers are scratching their heads a little. Many of the issues are different. Though our police hardly have a spotless record, when it comes to the deaths of young black men in their care (the death of Mark Duggan and subsequent riots of 2011 being a relatively recent case in point), the numbers are barely comparable, and the criminalisation of poor neighbourhoods is not nearly so advanced as in the States, where they are often effectively under permanent police occupation. The most notorious index, there, is the rate of incarceration: the US prison population is over two million, 20 times that of Britain (over four times per capita).
Many other things are the same, however. The immediate background - of a pandemic disastrously mishandled in both countries - is perhaps the most pertinent. (Race has, of course, made its way into that discussion as well.) The accession of ‘law and order’ politicians to the two countries’ highest political office (however oddly the word ‘order’ sits in a description of the Trump presidency) - in both cases men with a long history of racism controversies - is another relevant homology.
In this country, the protests have somewhat caught the left off-balance. The Socialist Workers Party, which has more or less reduced itself to an anti-racist pressure group with a sprinkling of Sunday-school socialism and a toytown-Bolshevik internal regime, was almost completely absent from the first wave of protests, having radically overcommitted itself to maintaining the lockdown in debates within the National Education Union. Mike Macnair discussed this question last week,1 so we will not revisit it except to note the irony. The one thing that the SWP ought to be the most ready for of all possible events - a mass spontaneous protest movement against racism - left it in the dust. A glance at this week’s Socialist Worker reveals ample coverage of the protests, suggesting an increased level of participation, but its profile remains low, with home-made placards in evidence and the Socialist Worker/Stand Up To Racism brand all but invisible. The Socialist Party in England and Wales was quicker off the mark this time around, and had a presence on some of the earlier demonstrations.
The primary question is: where next? This is an especially acute matter on this side of the Atlantic, where the very concrete issue of the police force being trained to act as ‘warrior cops’ is not immediately posed, and instead protests feed off a more varied cocktail of grievances (including, as well as the habit black men have of tragically kicking themselves down the nick stairs, the Windrush scandal, the demographics of Covid-19 deaths, the presence in Downing Street of a man unafraid to use the word ‘picanniny’ ... ), but the problems are the same in both cases: some tactical, and some strategic.
On the tactical front, it must be stated baldly that protest movements fizzle out as a matter of course. I was reminded, when I saw Colston dragged down like Saddam Hussein, of the day I - and thousands of others - stood and watched our comrades invade the office buildings of Millbank, evacuating Tory headquarters and a host of other grubby enterprises, and kicking off a movement against student fee hikes with a real bang. The result was that the police were ready for us next time, and kettled us half to death. Meanwhile, the fee rise passed, and we had run out of road. The movement never gave birth to anything longer-lasting, so it faded into the memory of a particular generation of activists. Those in Oxford hoping to put Oriel’s monument to Cecil Rhodes out of commission ought to bear in mind that Thames Valley police will be ready for them, and will send rougher sorts of officers to deal with the situation than we usually see on Inspector Morse. In any case, sooner or later the shock value of violence against imperialist statuary will fade; and BLM supporters will be faced with the transition from attacking symbols of power, to power itself.
Race and class
Which brings us to strategy, and theory. On the face of it, the orientation of the BLM movement - its determinate character as politics - is anti-racism in its modern ‘identity politics’ form. This is hardly surprising. Black identity politics is, today, the lens through which most liberal and leftwing activists view events of this sort; and it can hardly be said that yet another black man dying at the hands of a police officer offers any kind of disproof of this theory.
Meanwhile, the far left has - to some extent since 1968 and overwhelmingly in the last decade - come to an uneasy accommodation with what is now called identity politics. This may be summarised in the proposition that capitalism is the root cause of racism, and therefore anti-racist politics can be expected to grow over into socialist politics if pushed to their limits. Indeed, therefore, the left’s fight against racism is inherently a fight against capitalism, which cannot live without it. SPEW’s Hugo Pierre quotes Malcolm X on this point: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”2
Things are, at the very least, more complicated than that. There is first of all the brute fact that in western capitalist societies, including America and Britain, deliberate efforts have been made to diversify the professional layers of society over many decades. It has not, for a long time, been unusual for American cities to have black mayors, congressmen, state officials, lawyers and so on. All these cohorts remain disproportionately white, of course - the point is merely that they are no longer essentially 100% white.
The overwhelming majority of - well - everyone, but disproportionately black people, are not in the upper layers of the professions. What the black proletariat has in common with the black professionals and bourgeoisie as an object of struggle is, of course, prejudice and discrimination; and doing anti-racism as identity politics proposes black people qua black as the political agent. But the interests of black people are not aligned - there is, in an important sense, no such thing as ‘the black community’, though that is not to say - like Santa Claus - the idea of it is not effective. So whose interests are concretely represented in identity-politics anti-racism? No prizes for guessing.
At issue, then, is the subordination of politics around the race question (but also, for that matter, the question of the repressive state apparatus) to the interests and outlook of the professional elite’s black members and, consequently, to that elite as a whole. (This analysis is most closely associated today with Adolph Reed junior, Walter Benn Michaels and others on the United States left.)
Of course, this style of anti-racism is not consciously an ideology of that sort. The protestors of Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, and Minneapolis, Bristol and wherever else today are certainly not under the impression that they are fighting for technocratic managerialism. It is not the sort of thing for which people are generally prepared to get tear-gassed. It is nonetheless discernible in the characteristic blurring of the line between representation and violence in this sort of politics, such that relatively minor workplace discomforts may be dramatically designated as “microaggressions”, while the deaths of people like George Floyd are traced back to the tropes through which white police officers dehumanise black people (that is, a representation). Representations are the playthings of the professions - indeed, the very material substrate of them (the possession of quasi-proprietorial rights over information leased to the capitalists or the state for rent). We generously-salaried professionals - even if our skills are very technical and abstruse - live by our ideas, and the representational aspects of our lives. Evening out the semiology of race is in the interests of black professionals. We need, in short, to attack more than statues.
There are signs that - for the more radical activists in the recent movement at any rate - certain limits are being reached. We may instructively compare the political demands of the last such wave of protests in the middle 2010s to those of today: while the greatest prominence is given to the ‘moderate’ demands for meaningful judicial reckoning for Derek Chauvin et al and firmer oversight of police activity in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, demands for the ‘defunding’ and even abolition of the police have far greater prominence and popularity today, however hard corporate PR departments and pious politicians and clergymen attempt to smother such things with gestural solidarity.
It seems to me that that this represents a rejection of the mainstream identity politics associated with Wall Street Democrats, albeit not directly a rejection of Wall Street, and thus an aspect of the shift in American politics that resulted from the Bernie Sanders nomination challenges and the return of the word ‘socialism’ to the political vocabulary of American progressives - who are now refreshingly liable to see the Democrat right as enemies, not merely disappointing allies. It is no more than a nudge, however, and a more systematic programme with regard to the capitalist state is needed than essentially emotivist demands for the abolition of its most obviously despicable elements. Unfortunately, activists will not get it from the existing far left, busily telling them how brilliant they are in all things.
The first BLM protests gave us, as a by-product, the term ‘woke’ - initially used as a self-designation by activists, but now primarily used by the sneerier elements of the right as an insult. The question today is whether the ‘woke’ are capable of waking from the slumber of identity politics.
‘Behind the aircraft’ Weekly Worker June 4.↩︎