Race: A Factor of Social Reproduction

Recently I stumbled upon a text on the site libcom.org called “”Races” and the working class in USA”, also referred as “Letter #48”, from a group I think is called Mouvement Communiste1. Broadly speaking, the text consists of two parts. In the first part the authors take a look at race and class in the USA today through an array of statistics, and the second part takes a critical look at intersectionality, politics of identity, and other related themes. Reading the text, I found it lacking severely in almost every department. Seeing how a few groups I have decent respect for seem to have shared it approvingly, and that the themes are timely and important, I felt I needed to get some objections off of my chest. I will not cover everything though, and mainly limit myself to the main assertion of the writers, and the data they use to back it up.

The text starts out by asserting that racism in USA has to be understood “in the framework of the proletarian condition” and “must be fought with the means of class struggle against capitalism and its state”. It is an unremarkable, if in my opinion somewhat reductive start, and I was eager to see where this analysis would go. Soon enough this became painfully apparent, as the authors of the text proclaimed that racial discrimination towards Blacks is not, in our view, a central element of the exercise of capitalist domination and even less one of the present foundations of civil society and the state in that country.”

They go on to say that [i]t was, however, like that until the 1970s, before being swept away by the formidable civil rights movement of the 1960s, which succeeded in eliminating the racial segregation laws rooted in the slave regime of the previous century.”

Realizing they are already in a conundrum, the writers quickly note that:

Certainly, communists know very well that it is not enough to withdraw laws to change things and that competition within the proletariat maintained by capitalism ceaselessly regenerates antagonisms – of which racial discrimination is a part – between the components it is made up of.“

To sum up, the writers set out an argument that racism in the USA is blown out of proportions, and while still lingering, it is not in any way central to social reproduction, especially after formal racist segregation laws were swept aside in the 60s and 70s. It is also clear that the authors think that, in as much as racism is a thing in today’s USA, it is primarily a tool which capital might or might not use to divide the working class. Lastly, the writers admit that the change of the formal or legal situation does not mean that things on the ground have necessarily changed, but this is something the authors aim to show is the case throughout the text, which should lead to the following conclusion:

This text proposes that the discrimination which hits the Blacks does not target them because of their skin colour but because they are “over-represented” among the poorest.”

Having lived in the USA for years, and been involved in both analysis and practical work surrounding racism and working class struggles in the country, historical as well as contemporary, I was pretty sure I knew how this would pan out. Still I wasn’t quite prepared for how dire things would be at places throughout the text. So let us strap in, and take a ride through the arguments and data presented throughout the text.

George Floyd Rebellion and BLM
The first thing the authors of the text turn to is an assessment of the wave of social upheaval that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. They initially seem to complain that “the media” wanted to attribute the uprising to “the nebulous BLM”, seemingly implying that this is incorrect, and that it is unclear what BLM signifies. Nevertheless, much of the critique towards this “badly structured” movement focuses solely on the organization going by the name Black Lives Matters, and pretends it is the movement as a whole. In this way, the movement as a whole can be portrayed as having as its “one shared ideology” the “refusal of the notion of class and, therefore, of class struggle”, and that the organization and/or movement “has served the campaign of the Democratic candidate for the US presidency very well, along with the Democratic Party in general, while provoking the mobilisation of Trump supporters around the defence of “law and order”. Radicals that participated in the uprising in one way or another, raise your hand if you recognize yourself in this description. Anyone? Ok, never mind then, let’s move on.

By flattening the entire spectrum of participants in the movement this way, the writers do exactly the thing which they accuse BLM of doing – they forge a narrative about a liberal movement focused on race, and obscure the real movement, which is much more dynamic and diverse, which – as any mass scale movements – finds supporters among liberals, and even some reactionaries, as well as among radicals. There is a large part of the movement outside of the organization that is BLM, and even within the organization, significant voices have been raised and entire chapters have left while raising critiques that are far more profound and interesting than anything found in “Letter #48” 2,3.

Another initial thread of the letter has to do with some of the methods and slogans of the movement, especially in relation to how the uprising evolved in Seattle. The first remark is about the slogan “Defund the Police”, which the authors characterize as follows:

It is a demand which explains in itself the political perimeter in which the movement is situated. Most of the activists chose to remain in the framework of the democratic dialectic of the state, without expressing political practices of autonomous organisation, capable of sketching the first lines of a social order other than that of capital.”

The authors continue by claiming that this slogan and its related practice actually endanger working class people, especially people of color and black folks:

In addition, to demand the removal of the police from poor neighbourhoods, to demand the sacking of the most violent cops etc., is not a solution for the impoverished who live in such degraded zones. To make their existence more bearable, it would also be necessary to neutralise in turn the informal police (drug dealers, gangs of all sorts) who subject these neighbourhoods to periodic culling and who rival the militias of the state in anti-proletarian violence and barbarism. On the contrary, there is the real risk (as is already the case in a good number of “at-risk” neighbourhoods in the metropoles of capital around the world) that large sections of the poorest populations crowded into concentrated habitats will turn towards the “official” defenders of existing law and order, towards the police and their legal auxiliaries. Some recent examples (Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland) show that the retreat of the latter from “sensitive” areas ends up with the growth of assaults on the inhabitants. Being particularly affected, shopkeepers call for private security guards, thus reinforcing the militarisation of these territories.”

This section is highly interesting for several reason. First, it includes a reference to an article supposedly backing up the claim that the retreat of police from “sensitive” areas results in the “growth of assaults on the inhabitants”. The reference is to an article in New York Times dated August 8 2020, with the title “Abolish the Police? Those Who Survived the Chaos in Seattle Aren’t So Sure”. Interestingly, “those” who “aren’t so sure” seem to be a group of small business owners located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, who suffered damages and lost profits due to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and the withdrawal of police from the area.

Granted, the CHAZ in itself had its problems, but nowhere in the article is there a mention of working class blacks or PoCs feeling threatened or suffering assaults as a result of the withdrawal of the police. On the contrary, the article shows all the hallmarks of a propaganda hit piece intended to garner sympathy for petit bourgeoisie in the midst of a nation wide and radical wave of protests and uprisings, while discrediting the protesters. Considering that the writers of “Letter #48” spend considerable time bemoaning the “cross-class alliances” that “nebulous” BLM-movements get involved in, their choice of allies here seems peculiar.

Their off hand dismissal of the “Defund the Police” slogan is equally damning. In doing so, the writers showcase a lack of understanding of social movements in general as well as of radical abolitionist theories, debates and practices in the USA. In reality, the slogan was largely popularized by abolitionist circles, which were quickly propelled from the margins to the mainstream as the rebellion grew, and resulted in liberals and established media scrambling to try to contain the increasingly radical and generalized demands on the streets. This lead to at least 3 strains of interpretation of what the slogan meant – from simple reform, to serious defunding, to full on abolition4.

Still further, the authors’ attempt to correlate violence and insecurity with the withdrawal of the police comes across as highly dishonest, if one really delves into what the abolitionists want. Just as most people who would prefer a stateless society aren’t referring to a situation that might often arise in the power vacuum of a collapsing state in the absence of strong social movements, police abolitionists don’t put police withdrawal at the heart of their agenda, instead turning to self-organized community defense, rapid response networks, notions of restorative and transformative justice, and other theories and practices which have the purpose of replacing cops from within the movement, as for instance highlighted by the works of groups and individuals such as Critical Resistance5, Alex Vitale6, Project NIA7, or 8 to abolition8.

Lastly, instead of wanting to paint a bleak picture of police absence so badly so that they end up siding with petite bourgeoisie, the communists of “Letter #48” could investigate what black people themselves say about the presence or absence of police in their daily lives. In a YouGov poll from the early days of the George Floyd uprising – that means, exactly the time frame we are talking about – 60% of black folks reported that they felt “less secure” when they personally see a police officer, as compared to only 5% saying that they feel “more secure”9. Alas, if only these blacks read the communist “Letters” from overseas, which could dispel such false consciousness.

With this out of the way, let us now turn our attention to the statistics that the writers amassed, and the conclusions drawn from them. We will do this by replicating the headlines of the article, and in that manner go through the content section by section.

Legalized segregation
The authors get off to a strong start, declaring that legalized segregation is over in the USA, even though some institutional resistance has lingered, and that the “application of the law by judges, cops etc. is another matter entirely.” I’m sure most people noticed that Jim Crow laws have been ended, but to quote the authors of the letter, “communists know very well that it is not enough to withdraw laws to change things”, so one would expect an investigation of how de jure desegregation translates into de facto desegregation. While our friends will find some time later on to discuss this, they don’t say anything about it in general under this header.

This leaves us with the work of investigating what is trivially obvious to most people living in or familiar with US social conditions. The fact of the matter is that US authorities have targeted black people directly and indirectly, both before and after the abolition of segregation. This has happened by seizing land for public spaces, by local as well as federal policies subsidizing predominantly white neighborhoods, and probably most blatantly, by the process called redlining, which barred black people from the possibility of obtaining loans for buying houses:

To carry out these missions, the newly minted Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps to assess the risk of mortgage refinancing and set new standards for federal underwriting. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) used these maps to determine the areas in which it would guarantee mortgages. But HOLC maps assessed risk in part based on a neighborhood’s racial composition, designating predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods as hazardous, and coloring these areas red.”

These practices were not abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as shown by the fact that the Fair Housing Act followed in 1968, and the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. Did these laws prevent explicitly racist discrimination? It doesn’t seem so:

“A recent CAP report, “Racial Disparities in Home Appreciation,” highlighted that although the Fair Housing Act banned discriminatory housing practices, many lenders continue to unfairly target people of color with limited federal, state, and local oversight or accountability.” 10

And in a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles, first covering Atlanta and then the national situation, investigative journalist Bill Dedman showed how banks pursued directly racist lending practices:

[A]lthough they had made loans for years in even the poorest white neighborhoods of Atlanta, [they] did not lend in middle-class or more affluent black neighborhoods.” 11

These, and a myriad of other practices by federal, or local government, by capital or by collective or individual actors, have resulted in levels of segregation remaining very high, and home ownership among black people being dramatically lower than for whites even accounting for level of education:

[C]ollege educated Black people are less likely to own their own homes than white people who never finished high school.“ 12

Even when black people own houses, racism does not stop affecting them:

“Racial bias not only undermines access to housing but can also affect property values. One study found that homes in Black neighborhoods were undervalued by an average of $48,000 due to racial bias, resulting in $156 billion in cumulative losses nationwide.” 13

Furthermore, the segregationhas contributed to persistent disparities in access to public goods—such as parks, hospitals, streetlights, and well-maintained roads—and has undermined wealth building in communities of color nationwide.”

In short, the situation of black people in terms of segregation in the USA is a result of a mix of practices, some due to pre-existing class positions and lack of resources (which often can be traced all the way back to slavery), some clearly and directly racist in nature. These factors were present before the abolition of legal segregation, but have also persisted beyond, in ways that are too numerous to mention exhaustively. The question remains, though, why the authors of “Letter #48 chose not to mention this at all.

Segregation in the administration
Next up, the text deals with segregation in the state administration, and it starts with the same good news as in the previous section: “Blacks can access all types of jobs in state administration”. The writers underscore this by mentioning Colin Powell as an example, and go on to say that “[s]tatistics show that Blacks in the Army are more represented than in the population, including amongst officers.” However, the very source they use goes on to say that:

Racial diversity decreases at the upper echelons of the military. While the officer corps has similar levels of racial diversity as the general population, those with higher ranks—generals in the air force, army, and marine corps, and admirals in the coast guard and navy—are disproportionately white. There is an even greater ethnic disparity in the top ranks.”

This immediately reveals the writers’ namedropping of Colin Powell as disingenuous, but also shows that racial disparities once again manifest, even in the military, except for the bottom level – the cannon fodder that is sent to fight imperialist wars for rich people. To add insult to injury, what actually explains the over-representation of young black men in the military is the predatory practices of US Army recruiters towards poor people, tied to various incentives.14,15,16,17

In other words, black people aren’t over-represented in the military because there is a lack of racial bias, but because they are on average in far more financially insecure positions, which, at least so far into our investigation, turns out to be based both on class positions and direct as well as indirect systemic racism. It is also worth mentioning that the problems with racism within the military are so serious, that some black folks in the military report being “[grinded] down by overt racism” and bear witness to a lack of judicial tools to fight this phenomenon18.

Furthermore, other types of administrative jobs aren’t exactly a walk in the park for black people. As an example from Alaska, an investigative book by United States Commission on Civil Rights, tells a sobering story:

African Americans have difficulty securing jobs, and when they do, often they are not given the opportunity for promotion to higher positions. This pattern can be seen in state, federal, military, and private sectors.” 19

A segmented labor market
The section on labor market gets off to the usual bright start with a clear statement that “[s]tatistics indicate lower wages for Blacks in all employment categories [and that] [t]he differential also exists for Black women even though they are lower down the scale”.

This is true, but it might also be worth quantifying this claim. While black men earn around 80 cent on the dollar compared with white men, black women earn as little as 63 cent per dollar. On aggregate, black households have a median yearly income of $40k, while white households have a median income of 68k20. In other words, the median black household income is roughly 59% of a median white household income. And if this seems like a large gap, then it is still nothing compared to wealth gaps. The median net worth of a white household, at $163k, is roughly 1000% or ten times that of the median black household, which is at approximately $16k21.

The authors of “Letter #48 instead choose to focus on what I guess should be considered the positives, writing that we must not forget that almost a quarter of blacks are paid at the same level as their White equivalents [and] a third of Black households do not live in poverty and destitution”. This is admirable optimism, seeing the glass as half full, or maybe rather, seeing that one third of the glass is still something. Very encouraging. It is however a misleading line of reasoning. Firstly, it is unclear which data point the writers actually use to reach the conclusion that a quarter of black people are paid at the same level as their equivalents, because looking at median incomes cannot provide that information. A suspicion is that it is based on a breakdown of the median incomes into various income levels, but not even this data can lead to that conclusion. Just to make things abundantly clear – the fact that, for instance, 10.8% of blacks fall in the above average $100-150k bracket, does not mean that they are being paid “at the same level as their White equivalents”. Indeed, research indicates the opposite – that black people get paid less for the same jobs and at the same educational levels22. Thus it seems once again that our friends, in their optimism, are obscuring real disparities which point, once again, towards explicit structural racism as a factor.

If the writers of the text actively fail to see explicit instances of systemic racism, they also do a good job of obscuring secondary instances of the same phenomenon, thus acting, in a way, like a Kafka-esque bureaucracy, shuffling a complaint between different departments, until they can be forgotten. They thus write:

Numerous Silicon Valley firms (Apple, Google, etc.) have adopted recruitment programmes for “people of color”, but struggle to find people with the right qualifications and experience for their needs. The difference in employability between Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians etc., is in fact due more to the fact that education does not match the needs of the labour market. These are disparities in education directly attributable to the material conditions of existence of these various populations (high cost of education, environments unfavourable to studying in poor neighbourhoods, unemployment, single-parent families etc.) rather than racism targeting a particular group.”

We will deal with the spurious claim that big tech companies are “anti-racist” later, while the very next section in the Letter gives us the opportunity to discuss the problem of education. As a quick spoiler, we’ll see that access to education in itself contains elements of explicit systemic racism. As for the labor market in general, it is also worth mentioning that at the point of hiring, as one example, racial discrimination persists, and does not show any signs of declining for at least the last 30 years23.

Access to education in retreat
The authors of “Letter #48” start off with some facts:

“According to the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University, run by Gary Oldfield, the real desegregation of state schools plateaued in 1988. Since then, schools have in fact become more segregated.”

After going into some detail, the section ends with the statement “[i]f, since 1964, more and more “white” universities have opened their doors to a growing number of Black students, this process has reversed since 1990″.

As we’ve seen before, the statistics themselves are correct, but what conclusions can be drawn from them, and do they support the main thesis of the authors? In this section, they are very silent, and the optimism from earlier segments seems gone. This is especially alarming since they’ve shuffled the problem of hiring, discussed in the earlier section, to education, in an attempt to show that there was no explicit racism involved. If we are to continue the Kafka analogy, we could see this as the end of the line, tumbleweeds masquerading as a dial tone with no one on the other side to answer, after being shuffled around by various bureaucrats. So there’s no escaping doing the work ourselves again.

Just to get us started, black eight graders are five times as likely as white to attend schools that are highly segregated by race or ethnicity, and more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools. In both instances, the percentage of black students in this situation is a whopping 70%. Needless to say, this has been shown to affect school performance24.

The failure of school desegregation is closely linked to the housing segregation. After school segregation formally ended, neighborhoods were still largely segregated and continued to be so, due to reasons we’ve partially already covered, like redlining. This resulted in the struggles such as that over the busing system, which could take white and black students alike to schools that weren’t in their immediate vicinity, thus supporting desegregation efforts25. While many whites did not dismiss the notion of mixed schools, explicit racist currents and deep rooted identification of black neighborhoods as dangerous caused problems that undermined these attempts. Republicans also tended to oppose busing when in power, and this proved to be a convenient cover for racist policies – they could now be made on economic grounds while still consciously appealing to racist sentiments, something we will come back to in greater detail later.

It is also notable that black people overwhelmingly report experiencing discrimination (76%), and that this level is higher among those with college education (81%) than those with high school education(69%), while57% of blacks with at least some college experience believe being black has hurt their ability to get ahead”26. This is an interesting observation, which also suggests that black people in environments socially assumed to be white, thus subverting race-based social expectation, face greater pushback in some regards. This is in line with the history of the Reconstruction, and the violent racist backlash to the gains blacks were making after the abolition of slavery.

In terms of class and race, it can be said that explicitly racist practices (harassment starting as early as pre-school, lower ratings despite similar scores, less recommendations for gifted and talented programs, etc)27 and economically based inequalities (majority in high-poverty low resource schools, restricted access to college due to economic situation, etc) have both compounded the problem in education, and with the end of the formal racist segregation, few efforts have really succeeded to desegregate housing and schools, and in that way level out the incomes and opportunities for black people. Thus both before and after formal desegregation, economic as well as racist factors have affected the continued racist outcomes, while the system at large has continued to reproduce racial divisions and inequalities.

Life expectancy improves but health situation remains terrible
This sections starts out by highlighting the life expectancy of black men (72.2) and women (78.5) as well as white men (76.6) and women (81.3). Here, as in all other areas covered so far, we see a discrepancy disadvantaging black people.

The authors of “Letter #48” go on to list some of the most common causes of death observed in Washington DC (Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS) and quote the same source to establish that blacks “suffer and die from these killer diseases in vastly disproportionate numbers compared to white residents“. Disproportionately poor health not only affects black folks in the urban centers, but we learn that the same is largely true in rural areas. Lest we start to think that some racism might be at play, the authors are quick to point out that “Poverty and bad health walk hand in hand. Always, poor Whites are in the same boat as their Black peers. Poverty is thus the determining factor in bad health and not skin colour. To put it simply, the Blacks are over-represented in the most impoverished sections of the population.”

Avid readers might start noticing a trend, that is continued in this section. The authors list some statistics, and then draw conclusions that are not based in the least on the sources they have provided. We are again left to our own devices to make sure they have not “missed” something.

Let us quote at length from a comprehensive source:

“Differences in health status reflect, to a large degree, inequities in preventive care and treatment. For instance, African-Americans are more likely to require health care services, but are less likely to receive them.Disparity in treatment has been well documented in a number of studies, including studies done on AIDS,cardiology,cardiac surgery,kidney disease,organ transplantation, internal medicine, obstetrics,prescription drugs,treatment for mental illness, pain treatment,and hospital care.Certainly, difference in treatment can be based on a number of different factors, including clinical characteristics, income, and medical or biological differences. However, race plays an independent role.There are marked differences in time spent, quality of care and quantity of doctor’s office visits between Whites and African-Americans.Whites are more likely to receive more, and more thorough, diagnostic work and better treatment and care than people of color — even when controlling for income, education, and insurance. Differences also exist in the number of doctor’s office visits between Whites and African- Americans, even when controlling for income, education, and insurance. Furthermore, researchers have concluded that doctors are less aggressive when treating minority patients. Thus, the most favored patient is “White, male between the ages of 25 and 44.”In fact, at least one study indicated a combined effect of race and gender resulting in significantly different health care for African-American women. 28 (emphasis mine)

Maternal and infant health studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further confirm these findings:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, black mothers and children die at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts, regardless of their income levels.” 29,30

A lot of research has also gone into uncovering the various racist myths concerning black people and their supposed higher pain threshold, which obviously leads to worse experiences when seeking medical help31.

There is also evidence suggesting disparities when it comes to classifying the need of black children to receive emergency care, and a greater reluctance to admit them to hospitals32.

Even when health care decisions are done by algorithms, studies show that they can transfer implicit and explicit racist bias as well as economic discrepancies in a way that leads to worse outcomes for black people33.

We could go on, and on, and on, but I think the point has been made. The writers’ assertions about health care for black people are completely unfounded based on the statistics they present, and wrong when statistics on racist discrepancies are considered. This is not to say that class and economics do not play a role – clearly they do – but more to point out that these two factors compound and interact to create a truly dire situation for black people in particular.

The writers of “Letter #48 end the section by saying that

Blacks have been proportionately hit three times harder than Whites by the Covid pandemic (along with Latinos and Native Americans). Living in unhealthy areas, cramped housing, lack of information, but also the high representation of Blacks among health workers are the causes of this.”

It is clear that a number of factors, including access to healthcare, insurance, occupation, education and housing compound to create a more serious situation in regards to covid for black people. But there is one factor missing, which plays a part directly, and indirectly through all other mentioned factors. I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure out which it can be. The imagination of the authors of “Letter #48”, it is increasingly clear, does not admit any such further factors.

The central question of housing
The authors dedicate this short section to discussing the limited access and ownership of housing which black people experience in the USA, and admit that desegregation is “weak” at best. They write that

The Whites tend to flee these areas, and this is notably above all because mixing in schools which young Blacks go to is associated with the idea of delinquency.”

We have already touched on this problem in the section on schools, where we discussed the close connection of that issue to housing, and also mentioned redlining outright. While clearly we are dealing with partially economic causes, it should also be obvious that the “idea of delinquency”, as imagined by many whites, spans the entire spectrum of innocent misconception to open racism.

Nevertheless, the writers press on with a theme that should be familiar by now:

Coming from poor neighbourhoods considered “sensitive” is often the cause of hiring discrimination against Blacks. But this problem does not only affect Blacks in the US. It concerns all countries. In France, for example, bosses are reluctant to employ residents of “mal famés” (disreputable) neighbourhoods such as Grande Borne in Grigny, in the Paris suburbs, and it doesn’t matter if they are called Adama, Mohammed or Francis.”

First, it is notable that once again, we are presented with no data, and a very unconvincing line of reasoning, as to how racial segregation is wholly explained by class and economic factors. Yet again, we have to venture into the wild to find some relevant information. And luckily, there is a lot of it out there. A recent and highly relevant study, for instance, asks precisely this question. The result of the experiment was the following:

race, per se, shapes how whites and, to a lesser extent, blacks view residential space. Residential preferences are not simply a reaction to class-based features of a neighborhood; they are shaped by the race of who lives there.“ 34

In other words, whites generally, consciously or not, tend to not only rate neighborhoods based on their socioeconomic appeal, but also based on racial composition.

In the case of hiring discrimination mentioned, we also only get anecdotes as the single justification for the remarkable opinion that employers discriminate on socioeconomic factors and based on neighborhood, not race. Yet again, these two correlating is just an unlucky coincidence, inherited from a dark past, banished by the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we must assume. The immediate instinct here is to repeat our feats from earlier sections and look for actual data that points to the contrary. We have actually already mentioned direct connections to racism in the section on the labor market. But let us raise the stakes. Can we try to not only disprove the general point that the writers of the letter are trying to make here, but literally discredit their assertion? It turns out we can.

In a study that looked into bias in hiring practices in the US, the researchers found that

[r]esumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks than those with black-sounding names.” 35

Whether the same would be true in France is a matter for further investigation. Personally I know I’ve seen this type of research confirming the same bias in Sweden, and I would be rather surprised if these findings weren’t indicative of a general trend. But no matter what, I wouldn’t lend a lot of credibility to the unsourced words of the writers of “Letter #48.

The police and criminality
This section contains an unusual admission, so let us start by quoting the first few sentences:

“Blacks are more exposed to police violence than Whites, Latinos or any other fractions “of color” of the population. If there are more Blacks murdered by the forces of repression, that is partly due to racism but also to their higher level of participation in economic activities deemed criminal, as is shown by the law enforcement statistics.”

It seems that the authors’ heroic attempts not to see racism faced an obstacle too difficult to scale here, but they still immediately point out that there are socioeconomic factors involved. Let’s leave aside the fact that, as we’ve mentioned before, even these socioeconomic factors tend to harbor components of structural racism, and let us still call this a victory. If we squint, this part of the analysis is actually reasonable, if underplaying racism a bit. Unfortunately, as if on cue, things take a weird turn:

“Also, the violence that Blacks are subjected to is greater from other Blacks (perpetrated within the family or by gangs) than from Whites or the police. This is shown by the figures for inter-racial murders and for gun homicides, where the US holds first place in the world.“

For anyone familiar with the political climate and discussion in the US, this is a familiar form of whataboutism, aimed at shifting focus from structurally racist violence, towards the victims. There is a word for it, when used in more extreme fashion on the right – “black on black crime”. Other than being a myth, because this highlighting of black crime is largely explained by the social and geographical racial segregation36,37, it is a racist tactic to turn the discussion on its head. Trump has used it, and right wing extremists as well as more established republicans use it frequently in various forms. I’m not sure how the writers of “Letter #48 got the brilliant idea to recycle such far right talking points, but let us just call it an unlucky accident and move on.

To be brief, it should be mentioned that police and policing in the USA has its roots in slave patrols, repression of indigenous populations, and subduing unruly workers in the fledgling urban industries. As such, policing has a clearly delineated historical heritage of racism and a distinct class character built into it. These characteristics have never gone away, and there is a massive amount of data to support this.

First, the police force is an organization or community with a well established identity and ideology. They have an overblown danger imperative, a siege mentality, and explicitly anti-black biases38.

We also have data showing that the more black people live in a neighborhood, the more likely are white cops to use a gun during an emergency call response – much more so than black cops. Thus it seems to matter, who is holding the gun39. This is not to suggest, as some liberals do, that hiring black officers solves the problem. The police is also beholden to systemic institutional pressures, and the institution changes the individuals rather than the other way around. But it does show that white police seem to have a stronger anti-black bias which translates into greater use of force.

There is also an overwhelming amount of research40 that shows the explicitly racist biases and outcomes of policing in the USA, from traffic stops, Stop and Frisk incidents, to abuse, violence torture and of course, murder. It is interesting that this section, in the original text of the “Letter #48”, is among the shortest. Perhaps it was just the least fertile for the writers’ argument, because no amount of statistical acrobatics41 can hide the fact that policing in the US is deeply racist.

Not to mention the overt racist incidents within the force and overlap of the police and outright racist organizations42, or the comical “discovery” of “racist infiltration” into the US police force in a recent report, which found that

[w]hite supremacist groups have infiltrated US law enforcement agencies in every region of the country over the last two decades” 43

As if overt racism has been anything but the normal way of operating for US police since its inception.

In summary, even though they do their best to avoid the topic, at least the writers of “Letter #48admit that racism plays a role here, and as a result there’s no need to list statistics exhaustively to disprove them, especially as much of that data overlaps with the next section.

Criminal justice and discrimination
The section on “criminal justice” is surprisingly lacking, considering that prisons have been one of the greatest areas of contention and resistance in class based anti-racist movements in the US, with a long history of critique44 and a modern abolitionist movement including such classics as Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? The writers do mention that

The majority of prisoners is made up of “people of color” with an over-representation of Blacks and Latinos [and] Almost 70% of people incarcerated are inside for crimes linked to drug dealing.”

But don’t follow that up with any closer look, even though the latter statistic hints at the cause of the former. The War On Drugs, a vicious government policy deployed in the 1970s, might have just as well been called the war on black people, and it is a phenomenon with roots going as deep as the history of slavery. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Once again, we’re dealing with a section where the authors drop a few facts, and then largely stay silent, presumably because it’s hard to make a point that supports their general argument. The argument in question of course falls apart immediately, would it be made. It is well known that drug criminalization in the US happened not only in a way that explicitly prioritized working class neighborhoods, based on which drugs were popular there compared to middle- or upper class neighborhoods, but was also designed to directly target black people. Even as many of the architects of the war on drugs claim that they have changed their minds, we still live with the effects of it, with a prison population that has exploded in recent decades:

There are 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years.” 45

Many of the practices surrounding this process, also didn’t and still don’t simply target blacks because of their socioeconomic condition. As a recent summary of studies46 showed:

More than one in four people arrested for drug law violations in 2015 was black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race and ethnicity and drug users generally purchase drugs from people of the same race or ethnicity. For example, the ACLU found that blacks were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in 2010, even though their rate of marijuana usage was comparable.”

Or in relation to Stop and Frisk, where it was found that

[t]he highest officials in New York City had “turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,“

Or in relation to stopping vehicles:

A closer look at the causes of traffic stops reveals that police are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers for discretionary reasons—for “investigatory stops” (proactive stops used to investigate drivers deemed suspicious) rather than “traffic-safety stops” (reactive stops used to enforce traffic laws or vehicle codes). Once pulled over, black and Hispanic drivers were three times as likely as whites to be searched (6% and 7% versus 2%) and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested. These patterns hold even though police officers generally have a lower “contraband hit rate” when they search black versus white drivers.“

Blacks were also found to be put in pre-trial detention at rates of 3.5 that of whites (which has been shown to affect sentencing), are more likely to be denied bail, have higher money bond set, are twice as likely to be charged with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than similarly situated whites, are more likely to be charged under habitual offender laws, some research suggest that parole boards are influenced by race, and there’s research suggesting that racial bias among correctional officers also shapes parole outcomes despite comparable in-prison conduct.

As before, we could keep going for a very long time, but the point is probably clear enough. There is a clear structural racism in the US prison system.

And this should come as no surprise, as many people have pointed out time after time, especially in relation to the prison system’s role as a substitute for slavery. The saying that the plantation never disappeared, but just shifted form and moved out into society at large, has a lot of truth to it. And so, even going back to the 13th amendment, which technically abolished slavery, we notice that this amendment did not cover the case of prisoners. That’s why we now have mostly-black prisoners working jobs in prison without getting paid, doing everything from assembling commodities to working as firefighters, under abysmal conditions of health, and in systematically poorly maintained facilities.

None of this seems to be of interest to our communist friends.

Civil society still scarred by racism
In this weirdly but unsurprisingly named section, the authors establish that “[US] civil society remains polarised and identification by race remains strong”, which, yes, we have not failed to notice throughout this investigation. They, however, seem somewhat confused by this:

“This is the paradox of the United States, where the population in general and proletarians in particular define themselves first of all in terms of race, despite the generalisation of wage labour and the fall of legal barriers to equality before the law.”

Here, in one sentence, the authors both reap the fruits of their own analysis, and fail to adhere to their own caveats. They have spent numerous sections failing to notice explicit racial discrimination, and must thus call the observed racial divisions and identifications a “paradox”. Secondly, they seem to have forgotten their own proclamation, to the effect that “communists know very well that it is not enough to withdraw laws to change things”. Their position this far, can thus be summarized as, “When communists face a reality that does not reflect their analysis, something must be wrong with the reality”.

Advanced “antiracist” capital
Having done so well at the beginning of many sections, it is disappointing to see the opening statement of the present one:

Capitalism in the US (as elsewhere) is neither racist, nor antiracist. It is quite simply capable of exploiting in turn all the various divisions and fractures existing within the dominated class to assure the valorisation of capital.”

I’m not sure what reality the authors of Letter #48 exist in, but it is surely not the one as the rest of us. Capitalism has historically always been racist. There has been no point at which racism didn’t play an important part. In fact, the writers will soon be quoting Marx to that very effect, in relation to the role of slavery in the rise of North American capitalism. Since those days there has not been a minute where capitalism has not been in a close relation to both explicit and implicit racism. The agnostic capitalism of the writers is thus not a historical phenomenon, but an abstract ideal construction – and one at that which there is no certainty could ever exist as such in practice.

Next, our attention turns to the main topic of the section, which is meant to expound on this doubtful foundation:

Today, for the advanced sectors of capital, those with a high technical composition and active globally, racial discrimination is no longer useful. It is even judged counter-productive. The support of the giants of high-tech, particularly all those of GAFAM (Google Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft), for BLM is something which must not be forgotten.”

This claim is backed up by the fact that Apple pledged $100 million to “challenge systemic barriers that limit opportunity for communities of color in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice.” Let us first look at the numbers. Just Apple’s annual R&D budget stands at roughly $18.75 billion, while the annual gross profit tends to hover around $100 billion, and the annual revenue sits around 270 billion47. Quickly translated onto my own earnings, it would mean a donation of $1 for the cause of the abolition of structural racism. On a personal level, few people would be impressed, and considering the amount of money corporations use for various types of PR campaigns, it is probably a pretty good deal – it sure managed to impress the communists behind “Letter #48”. Let us instead be honest for a moment. If this announcement was about investments in LGBTQ issues, every socialist worth their salt would simply call that rainbow capitalism, and proclamations that corporations – even if we just limit ourselves to big tech – now are in any way pro-LGBTQ, would be met with ridicule. Not to speak of cops kneeling and marching in Pride parades, or other similar stunts.

A more precise statement regarding all this, grounded in historical developments and power dynamics, would conclude that capitalism is still firmly racist and patriarchal, but that it will dress up in any color or costume in order to cynically exploit small or big trends, developments or contradictions, for its own benefit.

In reality, the thin veneer of inclusivity barely covers the obvious inequality hiding behind it, and the tech firms hailed as “anti-racist” generally fail to live up even to their own promises and proclamations48. Companies like Apple thrive on racist practices of forced labor49, have racist ads ran for them50 and even lobby China to soften prison labor laws51. Being able to tap into the free black US prison labor force would likely be a dream come true for the likes of Apple, only potentially offset by the perceived PR losses resulting from such endeavors.

Next, we are reminded that The Democrat Joe Biden, then the Presidential candidate, in his turn expressed himself in favour of the protests while condemning violence committed by the protestersand much is made of the fact that some Black Lives Matter member has reluctantly stated that Biden is to prefer over Trump. We’ve already dealt with the imprecise way the authors of the letter try to approach last years uprising and the myriad of tendencies and organizations within the broader movement, so we’ll put that to the side. And as far as Biden goes in general, this is not much different from when Obama was in office, and in fact presided over the presidency while the repression of black people was so harsh and blatant that the Black Lives Matter movement was born in the first place. In short, it isn’t exactly convincing if it is meant to signal some significant shift in the political and/or economic ruling class.

Not to mention factors overlapping government policies and labor market, like the militarized southern border of the US. Scholar Aaron Bobrow-Strain commented, during an interview on Against the Grain52, that the border regime of the US should not be viewed as a failed attempt at keeping people out, but as a successful precarization machine. It provides jobs for people in the border-industrial complex and opportunities for tech industry to provide the tools, while at the same time serving up cheap precarious labor through the practices of racist violence upon those fleeing dire circumstances in Central- and South America. In the context of “Letter #48” we’re of course focusing on racism against black people, but it is worth mentioning that other racist policies, hitting people in different circumstances, are deeply ingrained in the US imperial machinery, and that corporations of all stripes make great profits off of such policies.

Turning the tables
Before wrapping up and trying to provide some sort of concluding remarks, we’ll briefly mention something that doesn’t fit into any of the categories above. To reiterate, the main thesis of the writers seems to be the argument that most of what we perceive as racism in US society in particular, is actually the result of the economic class position of black people. The fact is, that the opposite has often been the case in the US, especially since the time of the civil rights movement. The smoking gun is the famous 1981 Lee Atwater interview. For those unfamiliar with it and with him, Atwater was a White House staffer under Ronald Reagan, and was widely lauded on the right as “South Carolinas most effective Republican operative.”

In the interview, Atwater does something rare – he speaks clearly about the tactics Republicans had pursued for decades in order to win over racist votes while not alienating other sections of the population completely:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” 53

This was a realignment of what had been referred to as the Southern Strategy – a catchphrase for a Republican political analysis and practice, which identified the racial tensions following the civil rights movement’s victories, and aimed at playing off those tensions with racist rhetoric to win white southern voters. As Atwater points out, this was no longer viable in the same way a few decades later, and thus racist rhetoric was veiled in “fiscal conservatism” – a prime example of a sort of dog whistle.

In conclusion, the authors of “Letter #48” have argued that racism does no longer play a major role in the social reproduction of the system in the USA. They admit that this was the case in the past, but draw the line roughly at the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From then on, they argue, any vestiges of racism are marginal, and generalized wage labor has made capitalism agnostic, or even “anti-racist” in some respects, because it is a hindrance to capital accumulation.

Throughout their text, they’ve provided numerous links, mostly showing how racial inequalities are still a material fact in the lives of the people in the USA, and in several categories these inequalities are growing. However, none of these sources actually support their thesis, which takes the form of short sentences here and there, either undermining the statistical findings to make their case, or pulling proclamations out of thin air to the effect that this nevertheless is all a matter of class. In contrast, this text has provided ample evidence on pretty much every matter touched upon by the original text, which shows that racial dynamics affect every aspect of the lives of black people, and that these various dynamics and categories interact and overlap – poor housing, poor education, job opportunities, incarceration, violence, and so on. This has been done mostly without even referencing or bringing up the de facto extreme right and racist movement in the USA, which stretches well into the republican party and is a real risk for black people all over the country, and instead focused on more seemingly innocent but nevertheless pernicious and wide-ranging dynamics of everyday life.

So where the authors of “Letter # 48” set out to prove that racism in fact was only veiled class antagonism – something we have seen no evidence for – we’ve now been able to show that racism in the US not only persists as a factor of social reproduction, but also has a long tradition of being veiled in conservative economic terms. In doing so, we have been able to show that the authors’ thesis is standing on its head, and have now hopefully managed to put it right side up again.

In the section concluding the situation of black people, the writers say that

“[a]dvanced capital in the US could certainly change its position rapidly if Black proletarians found their place in the class struggle again or if the antiracist fight fused with that for the political autonomy of the working class”

in regards to the notion that “advanced capital” is now “antiracist”. Are we to understand that this “identitarian” black anti-racist movement they have painted at the beginning of their text, has caused the black population to leave their place in the class struggle? Turning for the last time to statistics, black people are actually more likely to be unionized54, and view socialism more favorably than white people55. They play integral parts in political organizations, in mutual aid efforts, in labor organizing, as well as during uprisings in the streets. To be sure, we’re not essentializing or claiming that all black people are, do or think the same things. But many black folks have reacted to the material conditions put in front of them in a way that have put them right in the middle of the class struggle.

The statement, in the context of the entire text, sheds some light on why blacks might find it difficult to exist in predominantly white working class spaces: Because material issues which explicitly concern them and which complicate every aspect of their daily existence are waved away, or at best instrumentalized, and the call for unity instead goes along a narrow line – only what will directly benefit the white part of the working class. Now we’re slowly sliding into the territory of the last part of the text, and as for these concluding sections on intersectionality, politics of identity, and the writers’ explicit adherence to a “determinist Marxism”, I am very much in disagreement with them, but that is a topic for another time.

Finally, in a political climate where the far right is rising to prominence everywhere and explicit racist ideologies, practices and policies are gaining traction, it is easy to succumb to opportunism and tone down notions of anti-racism, receding into a reductionist economism that not only leads to bad analysis, but also risks to actively hurt black people, people of color, and other marginalized folks and ethnicities, sometimes going as far as straight out red-brown alliances. As a secondary concern, such analysis and practice based on it, will undermine rather than support building strong working class movements. As such, I think it is important to react and counteract such tendencies, and I hope to have done so here. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine where exactly on the scale from harmfully ignorant to blatantly racist the text we’ve been scrutinizing belongs, and with that said, withdraw back into the shadows.

1. http://libcom.org/library/races-working-class-usa-mouvement-communistekolektivn-proti-kapit-lu-letter-48

2. https://www.blmchapterstatement.com/no1/

3. https://leftoutmag.com/2021/02/04/breaking/amp/

4. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/06/12/abolish-defund-police-explainer-316185

5. http://criticalresistance.org/resources/

6. https://theintercept.com/2017/10/15/alex-vitale-interview-the-end-of-policing/

7. https://project-nia.org/

8. https://www.8toabolition.com/

9. https://www.vox.com/2020/6/17/21284527/systemic-racism-black-americans-9-charts-explained

10. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472617/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

11. http://powerreporting.com/color/

12. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472617/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

13. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472617/systemic-inequality-displacement-exclusion-segregation/

14. https://newrepublic.com/article/156131/military-views-poor-kids-fodder-forever-wars

15. https://inequality.org/research/military-recruiters-high-school/

16. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1117&context=pitzer_theses

17. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/the-military-targets-youth-for-recruitment

18. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/racism-in-us-military_n_60affb01e4b0f2a82ee77724

19. https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/sac/ak0402/ch3.htm

20. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/2018/demo/p60-263/figure1.pdf

21. https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2019/10/income-and-wealth-in-the-united-states-an-overview-of-data

22. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/racial-wage-gaps-persistence-poses-challenge.aspx

23. https://www.pnas.org/content/114/41/10870

24. https://www.epi.org/publication/schools-are-still-segregated-and-black-children-are-paying-a-price/

25. https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2017/february/the-troubled-history-of-american-education-after-the-brown-decision/

26. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/02/for-black-americans-experiences-of-racial-discrimination-vary-by-education-level-gender/

27. https://www.seattetimes.com/education-lab/to-understand-structural-racism-look-to-our-schools/)

28. https://academic.udayton.edu/health/07HumanRights/racial01c.htm

29. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2018/02/21/447051/systematic-inequality/,
https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternal-mortality/pregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm and

30. https://www.kff.org/report-section/racial-disparities-in-maternal-and-infant-health-an-overview-issue-brief/

31. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/how-we-fail-black-patients-pain

32. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/racism-in-healthcare#emergency-care

33. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03228-6

34. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3704191/

35. https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/discrimination-job-market-united-states

36. https://aninjusticemag.com/black-on-black-crime-the-mythology-65fe7e60d84d

37. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-on-black-crime-myth

38. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/7/7/21293259/police-racism-violence-ideology-george-floyd

39. https://media.nature.com/lw800/magazine-assets/d41586-020-01846-z/d41586-020-01846-z_18100874.png

40. https://outline.com/rMR2Hs

41. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/11/opinion/statistical-paradox-police-killings/

42. https://prospect.org/justice/police-and-racist-vigilantes-even-worse-than-you-think/

43. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/27/white-supremacists-militias-infiltrate-us-police-report

44. https://www.akpress.org/classic-writings-in-anarchist-criminology-ebook.html

45. https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/

46. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/

47. https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/gross-profit

48. https://thewashingtonmail.com/how-big-tech-allows-the-racial-wealth-gap-to-persist/

49. https://9to5mac.com/2020/12/29/iphone-workers-forced-labor/

50. https://9to5mac.com/2021/06/08/apple-suppliers-in-china-racist/

51. https://www.ped30.com/2020/11/20/apple-prison-labor-lobbying/

52. https://kpfa.org/episode/against-the-grain-april-30-2019/

53. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/

54. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf

55. https://www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/axios-capitalism-update/

The meaning of justice

It’s hard, especially for white folks, to comprehend how racist a place the USA is, so it is best to start from the beginning. And just to preface, this is an outsiders attempt to grapple with these things. I am not speaking for anyone but myself and my experiences as a white non-citizen living in the USA.

Some intuitively identify racism with things like the risk of being called a slur on the street, or an unfortunate prejudiced mindset in some people against others. While technically not wrong, these things relate to racism as a whole in the same way a needle relates to a haystack, or like the tip of the iceberg to the whole thing. Even more importantly, identifying racism primarily with prejudice makes us miss that it is, above all, a power dynamic – a system that benefits those in power and is prone to reproducing itself.

All nation states have displaced and oppressed people in the process of trying to enforce and project some sort of national “order” and narrative on the territory inside their proclaimed borders. But for the USA, if there is one defining foundational feature, it is racism. The country is literally established on the back of a genocide, through means of slavery as well as often racially fueled capitalist exploitation. Native peoples were mass murdered, cheated, driven off their lands and almost made extinct. Black people were kidnapped and transplanted into the plantations growing indigo, tobacco, and eventually cotton. Asian people died in droves building the railway system. Indentured laborers were shipped from all over Europe into dangerous conditions with high mortality rates to pave way for the riches of the industrial barons.

To undermine any potential solidarity growing between the exploited, they were actively pitted against each other by the rich and powerful. Not happy with your meager pay? Watch out, or the worse off will come and take your job! This is how whiteness was created. To drive home the point of how immaterial whiteness is, it is worth mentioning that many of the European workers – like the Irish – while not suffering the same level of oppression and discrimination as native peoples or black people, were still not considered white at this time.

It might seem like an irony of galactic proportions that a settler colonial state built on the forceful subjugation and exploitation of people from all over the world – and one whose economy still largely depends on undocumented migrants doing hard work – spends so much time bemoaning immigration and painting it as some sort of threat. However looking at the history of the USA, it becomes clear that this is not some sort of anomaly but simply a continuation of a long standing tradition. As has been said elsewhere, the US border regime is not a failed attempt at immigration control, but a well functioning precarization machine.

To cut a long story short, racism in the USA today permeates every aspect of the lives of native peoples and people of color, because the country is built on it, and wouldn’t – couldn’t – exist without it. The state has actively undermined and sabotaged native communities, while hand in hand with big business trying to exploit what little land they have left whenever the opportunity arises. For black people, the plantation has never really gone away – it has been socialized and trickled out into all aspects of the society. The types of institutions whose main purpose once was to chase down and lynch escaped slaves, or discipline unruly workers, now go by the name of police. Is there any wonder, then, that black folks are systematically targeted, abused and murdered? Thinking that the USA or the police can exist without racism, is like thinking that a gun can be a flower, or a skateboard a submarine. It’s a picture that liberals like to sell us, but much like the story of the American Dream, it is not really saying us anything about a potential reality, as much as it is a bedtime story that is supposed to put us to sleep.

As a person of color, you’ll be discriminated against when you apply for a job, when on the job, or when trying to collect benefits. You will be discriminated against when you’re trying to get an apartment, or when you try to vote. You risk getting stopped, beaten, murdered or otherwise abused and harassed by cops and white supremacists (of course, the two largely overlap) – whether you’re shopping at the Walmart or just playing in your yard. As a black male, you’ll have an almost 1 in 3 chance to be arrested by the time you’re 18, and potentially be sent off into the prison-industrial complex where you will do hard or hazardous work almost for free. You will be discriminated against in the educational system, and when you retire. You’ll be “offered” a way out of systemic poverty by serving in the military, flown off to some country on the other side of the world to do the bidding of big business and the state, and then disposed of as trash when (or if) you return. You’ll have white people threatening to call the cops on you (in other words, threatening your life) if they don’t like how you react to them. As a black person, your life expectancy is years shorter than that of any other ethnic category in the country. If they don’t just shoot you, they are sucking the life out of you and killing you slowly.

And god forbid should a black person get involved in any form of social movement or direct action. Anyone who has refused to act subservient to cops and engaged in social justice related direct action knows the abuse you’ll get from cops and authorities. I hardly know of anyone that has not been harassed, lied to, beaten, bullied, threatened or otherwise abused by cops and authorities for doing what is supposedly a democratic right. For black people, these things take on even more somber proportions. It is a fact that cops have systematically targeted black activists, from COINTELPRO to the bombing – bombing! – of MOVE in Philly in 1985. White supremacists can stand in capitol buildings yelling with rifles without any repercussions, while unarmed Black Lives Matter activists or completely innocent black civilians will be threatened, jailed or killed.

With all this in mind, things suddenly start to make sense. The armed white supremacists might be conveying their opinions in a somewhat rowdy way, but they are in all regards part of the same game as the politicians inside or the business lords of the country. The black person demanding an end to racism, on the other hand, is threatening the very foundation of the entire system.

So are we ready now to discuss the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight by 4 Minneapolis cops? Actually, there is not much more to say, that isn’t already being formulated in the streets, from the smashed cop cars to the burning police station in the 3rd Precinct. All I can say is may George rest in power and may we never stop seeking justice for him and the countless others who suffered and died because of this racist system. But what does justice really mean here?

It is said that a riot is the voice of the unheard. And they are not unheard because there is something wrong with the ears of the supposed receiver – it has been confirmed long ago that the system has no ears. It only ever loosens its choke hold on us when we collectively punch it in its racist face. That punch can look a lot like a riot in Minneapolis or Ferguson, but it can also look like a strike at Amazon or Walmart. It can look like organizing food programs Black Panther-style, or like other mutual aid efforts in our neighborhoods. Above all, it looks like us doing things for ourselves, without and against the system, and in a solidarity stemming from the knowledge that racism, capitalism and the cops are different sides of the same thing. Justice, in that sense, can only mean abolition.

No justice, no peace. Fuck racism. Fuck capitalism. And fuck the police.

Callifornia on fire

California, is on fire. I know, because I can smell it from where I am.


When I participated in a Mutual Aid Disaster Relief workshop last year in NYC, one of the things that stuck with me was the discussion about the term ”natural disaster”.

It sounds very innocent, but on closer inspection it tends to hide the social aspect of almost all such so called disasters. Storms, fires, earthquakes etc, all occur naturally, this much is true. In some cases they can actually play an important role in rejuvenating ecosystems.

The problem, however, begins when we move into the realm of disasters where humans were either the direct or indirect cause, or, equally important, where the social relations in our societies have caused catastrophic outcomes as a result.

A storm that hits a city is one thing. The resulting deaths, homelessness and suffering caused, on the other hand, are all directly proportional to the social, economic and political status of those affected. It is no secret that poor communities are hit the hardest, and that cutting corners in construction and safety is the norm and not the exception when it comes to “accommodating” poor people, both on a local and global scale.

So marginalized communities live in sub-par housing, often in areas more prone to be hit by disasters, and to top it off, they are often ignored when it comes to emergency response. Even worse, when disasters happen the state is usually more interested in (re-)establishing “order”, thus sending armed forces, imposing curfews, and engaging in other activities which directly and indirectly prohibit people from getting to safety and from helping each other. Then, when the social tragedy is a fact, the disaster is often used as an opportunity to gentrify areas and permanently displace people. This is the sick logic of state and capital.

Far from being a natural disaster, this process should be labeled an unnatural disaster, created opportunistically by the social system we live under. Or in the words of Japanese anarchist Kōtoku Shūsui, who witnessed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 first hand:

hunger followed, and cold. Unemployment followed. One hundred thousand poor tasted bitter suffering to its fullest extent. And yet, this was not the fault of the fire, this was the fault of today’s social order alone.

Shūsui also experienced the mutual aid developing directly between people in this emergency, where the sluggish and disinterested state abandoned them. An experience that was important in his own political development towards an anarchist conception of socialism.

Today we also know that what we do to the environment on a large scale, the fossil fuel based and exponentially growing economy, causes emission of greenhouse gases, leading to climate change, which in turn leads to more extreme weather.

So is this what is happening in California right now? Just some fires caused indirectly by human greenhouse gas emissions? Mostly no. The reason why people are trying to escape the fires while losing their homes has a much more direct connection to the powers that be in our current social system.

The major electric company in California, PG&E, has prioritized profits and bonuses for decades, severely neglecting their infrastructure. Even after having been found guilty of causing 8 deaths due to a gas explosion in San Bruno in 2010, not only did the neglect and safety violations continue, the company even falsified gas pipeline records to avoid attention.

Their aging infrastructure has been the direct cause of many fires, most notoriously the Camp fire of 2017 that killed 86 people. In the aftermath of that fire, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy due to the immense amount of money it suddenly had to pay in fines and settlements. A well deserved financial fallout that nevertheless feels near meaningless compared to what the company has actively caused by its profit-driven disregard for safety.

The company has been forced to admit that its infrastructure probably caused the ongoing Kincade fire in Sonoma County in North California, and it has been confirmed that they are responsible for two other, smaller fires, that started during the weekend. All this despite the ongoing precautionary blackouts that the company has resorted to in order to avoid further fires.

So we have severe blackouts, human-made disasters, extreme corruption – if this would be in any place western or US media don’t approve of politically, it would be portrayed as a failed political and economic system. But what does that say about the most powerful state on earth, the flagship of the capitalist world?

Whether this could have been avoided had PG&E been a public company might be an interesting question, and it’s hard to imagine it would make things worse. But on the whole I think it partially misses the point. Most public companies are run like private businesses anyways, and have to deal with most of the same external pressures to cut costs in the name of “efficiency”.

Nor is corruption or exploitation limited to the private sector – it is inherent to power, which runs unchecked not only on Wall Street but also in politics. I think reclaiming the utility and making it into a public one is a fair demand, but not one that would be entirely sufficient. Let’s remember that the state of California that would be presumed to run the utility company in the best interests of the people, is the same that for instance uses prison inmates to fight fires. Inmates that, until a recent drop in interest (gosh I do wonder why) forced the state’s hand to raise remuneration a bit, earned as little as $1-2 a day.

Personally I think we will have to deal with this kind of problems until the day a few simple, yet in my view almost intuitive, things change. First, the ones who know best what to do are the workers, and they should be running the facilities themselves in a democratic fashion, without capitalists or politicians. Secondly, they should be beholden to the communities they serve – which in many instances are the very communities they live in. Together with the communities, they should decide what needs to be done, how to do it, and how to prioritize resources.

In this way, when issues are decided by those they directly concern, and power is dissipated, we might escape the incentives that not only set the agenda of utility companies today, but also of our entire society, and thus our entire lives. There’s a reason why the state and capitalist businesses cause harm and exploit people, while volunteer run grassroots initiatives create mutual aid information sheets, engage in resource sharing, and distribute breathing masks. We can’t eliminate disasters entirely or avoid disagreements, but how about we stop incentivizing downright destructive behavior?

On class reductionism

Times like these we live in leave their mark on everyone. Throughout the world, we’ve seen the rise of fascism and racist right wing populism. All sort of problems are blamed on the most vulnerable in our societies – a lot of the time people fleeing from conflicts created, fueled and supplied by western interests.

It’s hard to avoid being affected, even for people who consider themselves as socialists. Horseshoe theory is of course an absurd centrist myth, but there is no denying that certain more cynical and opportunistic elements of “the left” have always historically had a tendency to slip into red-brown alliances.

To a lesser degree, we have also seen socialists call for immigration control and strong border protection, and putting unreasonable blame on migrant workers instead of on capitalist enterprises and governments that try to stage a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and wages across the world.

But going even further, I’ve noticed a worrying tendency among socialists which I think partially might explain the drift of some anti-capitalists towards more or less racist approaches to politics and analysis. It is a tendency that’s always existed in socialist theory, and which I think easily lends itself to sliding down this type of slope. It is the tendency to fall into class reductionism.

First, I am not talking about the vulgar type of class reductionism here, that disregards racism, patriarchy or state exploitation altogether. I am talking about people that are anti-racist, feminist and anti-state, but whose analysis, in the last instance, boils down to the primacy of class.

But isn’t this proper materialism? The material “base”, the mode of production, determines the ideological and political “superstructure”. As the productive forces develop, the mode of production becomes a fetter, it changes, and the superstructure follows. This is the standard story of orthodox materialism.

From it, it is easy to draw the conclusion that class society is the exploitative “base”, and other “forms of oppression” are helpful auxiliaries used by capital to perpetuate it’s domination. In it’s most mechanistic version, what this theory simply proposes is that technological development drives social change.

The problem with this “materialist” line is that, at its core, it is based on historical and anthropological data from the 19th century, used in a highly modernist context. This data is used to develop an over-simplified and stagist model of how societies develop, a model which at best only partially explains what is going on.

What we know today, is that the process of state or class formation is much more complex and nuanced. Military, religious, ethnic, state, patriarchal or economic power played different roles in different places, and almost any combination could at times be considered be the “base” of class formation.

Thus class was neither temporally “first”, nor always the primary determining factor for the rest of the social relations. To take an example from the industrial revolution, handloom weavers were often concentrated in factories before centralizing technologies were developed, as David Dickinson points out in his 1975 book The Politics of Alternative Technology.

The entire concept of so called historical materialism could be put in question, as for instance Alan Carter does in his book Marx, a Radical Critique. However, there are of course more recent and less mechanistic interpretations of so-called historical materialism, so let us briefly turn to one of them for a moment.

Autonomist marxism protests such mechanistic accounts by positioning the working class as an active subject in history, through the means of class struggle. Yes, forces of production tend to develop, but *how* they develop and are applied is influenced by class struggle. The subjective actions of the working class are shaping history, productive forces, and the mode of production – and not only the other way around.

What I am proposing is to extend this notion of “historical subjectivity” to other power dynamics and their subjects as well; racism, patriarchy, the state, the domination of humans over nature. None of these power dynamics is reducible to any other. They all co-constitute each other, and they all also contain within them their own dynamics, their own incentives for reproduction, their own struggling subjects, and their own seeds for a potential class society.

Thus we should neither expect racism to disappear automatically if class is abolished, nor expect the state to simply “wither away” on its own. We have to struggle against all such power dynamics here and now. The process of liberation is a struggle against all of these power dynamics simultaneously. But there are even more important insights at stake.

First, by erasing the driving forces and subjects of these power dynamics and reducing them to class, we will be unable to explain how society develops and the causality of social forces. It’s like looking for a key you lost under a street light, instead of where you lost it.

Secondly, this form of class reductionism very easily lends itself to instrumentalizing struggles. Thus even well-meaning people can come into struggles against racism, the state, or patriarchy with a mindset of this at best being a tool to further class struggle.

This obviously will alienate people for whom these struggles might be of existential proportions, and also simply leads to bad tactics. It’s not enough to fight racism on a class basis, you also have to fight class on an anti-racist basis, and so on.

Ironically, class reductionism can also lead to instrumentalizing the class struggle itself. Without a broad concern for all co-constituting power dynamics, even genuine class struggle can end up being used as a tool to gain power over people.

And lastly, maybe the most important point of all. I think all our political projects are doomed if we don’t ground them in a sort of ethics of empathy, solidarity and mutual aid. The primary reason we should fight racism, sexism, the state and capitalism is because all these power dynamics cause people great harm.

Whether all this is called materialist, intersectionalist, or something else is beside the point, but it is worth noting that intersectional analysis is often attacked on the basis of that it “demotes” class analysis to a shallow liberal framework of “classism”, and views all forms of oppression as simply reflections of certain identities.

This does not have to be the case though, and instead the proposition is to promote other power dynamics to the level of class analysis, and consider them all part of a connected web of social hierarchies producing different outcomes at different times, places and intersections. Identities are always a part of politics, the problem only arises when the former is mistaken for the latter.

To My Friend Van Drew

Umm, what? Who the f… I mean who are you? V-Van…Drew?

Well. I see you’re running for congress. That’s pretty much all the information I need, to be fair. Now, Van Drew, don’t take this personally, but I trust politicians just about as much as I trust data viruses, so I won’t click your link, because I’m afraid I might get one.

But, tell you what, Van Drew. I’ll make it up to you by giving you more than you bargained for. You called me a “principled” and “commited” New Jerseyan, after all, which is flattering. But you know what, Van Drew? The part that most caught me off guard in that sentence was “New Jerseyan”.

I’ve lived here for almost two years now, but haven’t thought of myself as one. I’m definitely not the typical one, Van Drew, that’s for sure – I don’t even have a car, for crying out loud. But, damn it, Van Drew, you are right. I am a New Jerseyan. Huh.

Now, before you get your hopes up, Van Drew, just let me tell you that I won’t be voting for you. Because I can’t, even if I wanted to. Not a citizen (not that that always helps, though). Albeit white and privileged, I’m one of those New Jerseyans without a voice in politics. Or, so it would seem. In fact, I don’t see it that way. Truth is, Van Drew, if I could, I probably wouldn’t vote anyway. Not out of spite, not out of principle – I’m not that principled in this regard, despite your kind words. Just.. out of the sheer feeling of how meaningless it is. But no, it’s not that I’ve given up. I’ll explain in a while.

Some say that my attitude here is in itself a privilege. That I am disrespecting the struggle of many fine people that fought hard for the right to vote. And to be sure, Van Drew, I’m totally against the discrimination of people in terms of refusing them their right to vote, if others have that same right. Be they indigenous peoples, black, women, working class people, or, like today, prisoners… but also those some call undocumented or even “illegal” (you’re not one of those a-holes, are you, Van Drew?) immigrants. So yes, people say it is privileged not to vote. But the thing is, I don’t mind people voting. This is not me telling people not to vote.

And the fact of the matter is, Van Drew, that those who predominantly don’t vote, even if we discount all the ways in which politicians and those with economic power try to prevent them, are poor and marginalized people. Rich, privileged people generally vote. You know why, Van Drew? Because if you’re well off, you both tend to think you deserve it, and that you actually have a say. The first part is self-delusion, but the second part is true, Van Drew. Those on the economic and social margins of this society, though, they know that their voices – votes or no votes, don’t matter. Because no matter who they vote for, the government and the capitalists always win.

This is the thing, Van Drew. You know what I believe in? I believe in freedom and in a society where everyone’s needs are met. That might sound simple, it might sound utopian, but, by god, Van Drew, with the resources we have today, do you know how easy that would be to implement? That’s why, to be honest with you, I am not that fuzzed about voting or the question you ask. “Should members of congress work across the aisle?”. I mean, what the actual… heck, Van Drew. That’s like asking someone in a burning house whether they prefer rice or pasta. That’s like asking people to vote on the color of traffic lights while their homes are commodities on a market. That’s like asking someone to recycle plastics in a world economy based on mass production and consumption, governed by infinite exponential growth.

I don’t know how you did at math, Van Drew, but let me tell you something about “exponential”. Picture a curve. It’s not one of those rather straight lines, or even slightly bent ones, this sucker is curving upwards – like hell. It’s one of those where, pretty soon, the line looks like it’s heading straight up, in fact. Imagine if that means resources over time. That is, plainly speaking, a hella lot of resources over very short time.

But, I digress. Suffice to say, Van Drew, your question sort of misses the point. Voting sort of misses the point. With all due respect, I think the problems in our society actually have a lot to do with most of us being told that the only way we can change society is voting for people like you. Now, ok, Van Drew, calm down, don’t take this personally. The problem isn’t you as an individual, or even all politicians. The problem is a society where we supposedly are free but yet can’t decide anything about most of the things in our everyday life without either having to defer to politicians, or simply abdicate to bosses and business owners that rule over our places of work and preside over our homes with the apparent authority of modern day feudal lords.

But as I said, Van Drew, I believe in freedom and in a society where everyone’s needs are met. Now, it is easier said than done to just “be free”, right? We can choose what we think, what we believe in, and how we act in the world, but we don’t exactly choose our conditions. And as little as we can choose our conditions, we can choose to simply “become” better or different people overnight.

But don’t get me wrong here, Van Drew. A lot of people like to talk about human nature. Human nature, this, human nature that. Humans are naturally greedy, naturally competitive. It’s a dog eat dog world, and so on. I don’t buy that crap, Van Drew, do you? Like, as I said about you and the rest of your politician friends, I don’t think y’all are bad people. Really. I don’t think you for some reason lack character or moral backbone, and thus I don’t think that the solution is to replace you with other, supposedly better people.

The problem, Van Drew, is that you and your politician friends, are placed in a situation within a definite set of conditions with certain clear cut incentives, that, pretty much like gravity makes an apple fall, make you and your politician friends “fall” from grace and time after time turn out to serve the interests not of the people, but of vested powerful interests, both political and economic. So it’s not that we’re not good enough to be free, Van Drew, it’s that we, if anything, are not good enough to rule over others.

What’s more, we humans don’t have a rigidly fixed human nature, we have all sort of tendencies and propensities. Egoistic ones, as well as altruistic ones. Peaceful and harmonious ones, as well as violent and unpleasant ones. So the question, Van Drew, is not what kind of humans we are, but what kind of conditions that bring out the best out of us, that bring out those qualities which enable us to live together, free, in a society where everyone’s needs are met.

And true, we can’t choose the conditions we try to realize this under, Van Drew. We can’t change ourselves by snapping our fingers. But do you know, Van Drew, how we humans evolve as social beings? By acting on our conditions, and changing them, we change ourselves. And if we want a free society where everyone’s needs are met, we can’t expect to accomplish that by social forms that are everything but free. Freedom cannot be given, Van Drew, it can only be taken. We can only become free and realize our aspirations for a different society, by directly acting for it ourselves. Despite certain appearances and narratives, that’s always how social change has come about.

That is why, Van Drew, I don’t care much for politicians and voting. That is why I instead see hope where people organize directly in their everyday lives to change their conditions there and then. In grassroots-organized unions, in tenant associations, in neighborhood assemblies, in social centers and book cafes, in study groups, in migrant sanctuaries, in mutual aid associations that help feed people or perform disaster relief, in autonomous art spaces and community gardens, and in a thousand other places that provide us with the means to change, but also with beautiful radiant things.

And where we struggle for dignified working conditions today, tomorrow we want to control and transform our places of work without any bosses or owners. Where we fight against gentrification and rent hikes we want communities to cooperatively manage the neighborhoods, and homes being a matter of needs instead of a commodity on a market. Where we fight with undocumented migrants, colonized peoples and people of color, against state repression and racist violence, we want a world without states and borders, divided and united only by the intricate social relationships we build as individuals, groups and communities, always fluctuating and morphing into something new, while respecting each others autonomy.

Where we do prison support we want to abolish prisons together with the economic and social roots for most so-called crimes, and otherwise use methods of restorative justice and mediation to resolve inevitable conflicts and hurtful behaviors. Where we fight for food security and decent access to basic supplies we want to let a thousand gardens grow under the control of those communities they concern, and turn them into wonderful flowering commons, while in the process creating independent, resilient communities where we contribute what we can and take what we need.

By starting to change the things around us, directly, as equals, in solidarity both because we care for each other and because we realize that our freedoms are inextricably linked, we also start to change ourselves. This is why the things I describe are not utopian, Van Drew, but a practical and open ended road map, an inspiring glimpse of what could be and a rough sketch of how to get there.

Do you see now, Van Drew, why your question washes off me like the New Jersey dirt when I hop into the shower in the morning? The aisle you speak of is a mirage. Bipartisanship is not open minded or pragmatic, but incredibly narrow and hopelessly far away from anything meaningful. The gulf between what is and what could be is an ocean, wide, uncrossed and untamed, and you’re sitting at the beach of reality, thinking pragmatism is using all the wood to make a bonfire instead of building boats to get to the other side.

We’re builders, Van Drew, but we’re also pirates. We will build our boats and sail off, with no regards for your laws and regulations, for the sanctity of property or borders. We will not sit around and wait for you or someone else to deliver us to the world we dream of. We’re dreamers, it is true, but what we dream of is a greater reality where we ourselves are the heroes of our story.

That is why, Van Drew, you have nothing to offer me, and why I now bid you farewell. Good luck with the questionnaire, which undoubtedly will provide invaluable information for your campaign team when it is time to decide the correct slogans to win back your seat. And, as soon as you’ve done that, I’m sure our lives will improve immediately. But, really, joke aside Van Drew, that’s not what it is about, is it. That, my friend, would be utopian thinking.

On elections and voting

USA, now that you’ve had your midterm elections, I’d like to say a few words about electoralism and voting.

First, let me say that I am not overly bothered about whether people vote or not, so I am also not interested in trying to shame people into doing either. I don’t think there is any merit to moralizing about it either way. If it makes you happier to vote – then do it, if you feel better not participating, then go right ahead and ignore it. Neither really affects your possibilities to organize and change the world around you in a positive way.

But here is the thing. Voting as a concept, and the idea that real, tangible change can be accomplished by voting – or even that voting is a sort of damage control or harm reduction – are all propositions that, in my opinion, overestimate the power of voting and elections. The problem with that, is that it can have the effect of tricking people into a false sense of accomplishment when they do vote.

Most countries, and especially the US, are inherently tied to financial interests and big capital elites in terms of what they can do policy-wise. In the case of the USA, in fact, serious research institutions have come to the conclusion that the country is, more or less, a type of oligarchy. Or, put in academic terms:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

This is further underlined by the fact that pretty much none of the significant indicators such as income inequality, wealth inequality, situation for minorities, incarceration rates and so on is in any way correlated to any particular party being in power – be it federal or state level. The fact that one of the most important movements in recent years – Black Lives Matter – formed as a result of repression of black folks under the first black president ever is but the most ironic of many examples that together show a trend – it doesn’t really matter very much who is in power, because power is in power. No matter who you vote for, the government always wins. And the government, it turns out, pretty much ensures business as usual for itself and for economic elites.

Ok, but what about all the times that congress or state legislature actually passed progressive laws that helped poor people out? Surely this cannot be denied, and shows that despite all, there is change to be had within this political system? This might be a tempting proposition because after all, it’s there, right in front of our eyes. We can see the politicians smiling, signing off on one or another bill that actually helps folks in their everyday life, be it in economic terms, lgbtq+ rights, anti-discrimination or something else.

I once thought so too. Then I picked up – almost by accident – a copy of Howard Zinn’s amazing book A People’s History of the United States. That book clarified many things for me, but the most astounding was that I started to see history from a bottom-up instead of a top-down perspective. Instead of putting the spotlight and cameras on government men in suits, the idea of change that the media tries to sell us, I started to see change as the result of social movements fighting for it – in the streets, in the neighborhoods, in workplaces – in every corner of our everyday lived experiences.

This made me realize that in seeing governments, politicians and laws as the source of change I was getting things backwards – I was confusing cause and effect. The laws, oftentimes forced upon governments and legislatures, ware caused by all these people fighting for them. For every good thing that has happened, for instance in terms of legalizing gay marriage, trans rights or other important lbgtq+ issues, there’s been a Stonewall. For every civil rights gain there was a Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther King and a Malcolm X. For every immiserated neighborhood or minority there was a riot, for every change they managed to affect there was a social movement. Without these movements, there is nothing. But without these politicians in power, and the capital owning elites that mostly have them in their pockets, there would be, what?

We don’t need them, but they need us.

Stepping back again, regardless of what one thinks of the efficacy of voting, there is an inescapable aspect of alienation about it. Voting is an inherently individualized and isolating thing. It doesn’t build any movements, it doesn’t create solidarity or bring us closer to people around us. It is just the ceremonial act of signing off on which group of powerful elites gets to decide over our lives for the next few years. The change it promises, as we’ve seen above, rarely materializes, and even in best case it is supposedly done for us, not by us, and not where we’re at.

Organizing, on the other hand, can have immense effect on our everyday lives and experiences, even before we’ve seen the change we’re working on. Getting together with people, establishing networks of mutual aid and solidarity, building affinity, empowers us and gives us a social meaning in our everyday lives. While your vote floats off into an intangible abstract political landscape, our everyday organizing, no matter how modest in scope and limited in time, makes real tangible change in your life and the lives of others, and when we succeed with something – winning a conflict with a landlord, a workplace struggle, providing food or security for our communities, etc – it is immediately felt and experienced by us and those around us.

Or, to sum up and put all of this more eloquently:

“Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers’ organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace. Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.” – Rudolf Rocker

Now, in an honest attempt to strike a balance, some people will inevitably say, “but why not both”? And this really leads us to the core of my issue here. Of course, as I’ve already expressed I don’t mind the act of voting as such. Since my entire argument is that, especially on a personal level, the act in itself is near enough meaningless, it shouldn’t matter much whether people vote or not, and if it actually has the slightest thrust, then why not do all these other things, and also vote?

The problem I have with this line of reasoning is connected to the problem I see every time an election nears. And this is the overestimation of the power of voting. “Why not both” puts organizing and voting on a sort of equal footing, as if we’re talking about a two pronged strategy. But a vote on an individual level has at best such minuscule influence, that it is an act of mystification to compare it to organizing. I could just as well be arguing that a steady breakfast is important, to have energy to be able to organize during the day. In fact, I believe a steady breakfast is probably more important than voting. There are probably thousands of things I could think of that are more important. So “why not both” is actually a rigged question – it is a symptom of the fact that even people that on some level understand how little – if any – difference voting makes, still act as if it made more difference.

This can have the effect of making people complacent, because if seen this way, voting in itself becomes an achievement, when in fact one of the main effects of the spectacle is precisely to act as a safety valve, redirecting popular anger and dissatisfaction into a sphere where it can safely be contained and worn down, like an animal stuck in quicksand. One highly unfortunate way in which this already happens in a very material way is union funds being funneled into political campaigns instead of used as leverage to express and expand workers’ power at the point of production.

In the end, there is no shortcut to affecting significant and lasting social change. It is a slow process of movement building at the grassroots, of experimentation, of failure, and of victories and gains. For those of us that want to build a new world, we have to stop looking at others and start building it ourselves where we’re at. If history has taught us anything, it is that such change can only come from us, and last only as long as we can reproduce it as a habit.

So no matter whether you vote or not, don’t let that process enclose the way in which you are political, straitjacket your activism, and curtail your imagination. From the point of view of electoralism and those in power, those of us that want to see a radically free and egalitarian society are demanding the impossible. But from our own perspective, such a society is not only possible, but increasingly necessary, if we want any sort of future at all. I don’t see how one can be any more realistic than that.

On fascism

This is a Jewish memorial site near Kazimierz Dolny, in Poland. It is a small town that at its height, a few hundred years ago, was an important trading hub on the banks of the river Vistula. The town used to have a significant Jewish population, but this all changed during World War II when the Nazis occupied Poland and committed atrocities both against poles resisting the occupation, differently-abled people, and ethnic or religious groups like the Jews, among others.

Jews and polish antifascists or “undesirable” civilians would often be rounded up and sent to either labor and concentration camps, or pretty much shot on the spot and buried in mass graves. The site on the picture, outside of Kazimierz Dolny, was an old Jewish cemetery at the time of the war, and was used by the Nazis for precisely such executions. But the Nazis didn’t stop at committing genocide – they also wanted to humiliate their victims. In Kazimierz Dolny this took the form of pillaging the Jewish cemetery and using the tombstones to build an access road and yard for a Gestapo office set up in a nearby monastery. Decimated, sent off to camps, and humiliated, the Jewish community in Kazimierz Dolny was pretty quickly all but a memory.

How do you recover from something like that? You don’t. The dead stay dead, and the living never came back to Kazimierz Dolny. There are no Jews living in the area today.

This is only one of an almost endless row of stories about those repressed and exterminated by the Nazis. To put it in a larger context, Poland used to have a population of over 3 million Jews before World War II. Around 3 million perished in concentration camps or on the spot executions – at the time this constituted 90% of the overall Jewish population in Poland. Most of the rest escaped never to return. Today, the Jewish population of Poland is around 10 000.

The monument on the picture features recovered pieces of the tombstones used for paving roads by the Nazis, and is inspired by the wailing wall of Jerusalem. It is an attempt to at least document what happened and honor the victims of one of the most devastating genocides in history. The story of Kazimierz Dolny is far from unique. Most cities and areas of Poland and beyond had similar experiences.

Some are commemorated with monuments or museums, for others, only the trees, earth, rocks and the sky tell their stories. These are stories of great sadness and disgrace, but also of equally great bravery and courage. They are also stories about the fascist ideology in practice, and how all attempts of organizing around fascism are inextricably tied to a history of genocide, persecution, rape, torture and immense, unimaginable human suffering.

What can we learn from all of this? How do we stop it from happening again?

There are no easy answers here, but the least we can do is to attempt to take small steps in the right direction, bit by bit.

I think that we can’t treat these ideologies as some sort of general ‘evil’ that can be corrected by persuasion or by simply contrasting it with some more or less general ‘good’. Things like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are impossible to understand, and to defeat fascism, we need to understand these movements. They arise out of specific conditions, which we have to analyze to be able to undermine and attack fascism at it’s root.

We also need to understand that fascism starts small. All the atrocities recounted above started with parties that were tens or hundreds strong when their leaders to-be joined them. Even though the specific conditions today are somewhat different, the core ideology and impetus of these movements remain the same, within the small groups or larger movements we see today. Thus every such group carries the seeds of human disaster and genocide within it, and we have to treat them as such – to me, this means trying to undermine them at their base by any means necessary, and that there is no such thing as “too early” or “too harsh” when it comes to rooting out fascism from our communities.

Some of the means to do so might involve direct confrontations and self-defense where and when needed, like defending rallies, spaces, and other gatherings where groups usually targeted by fascists are present, or preventing fascists from effectively organizing or recruiting. But it is even more important to undermine the very foundations of fascism’s social and political appeal. This can only be done, in my opinion, by building locally rooted networks and grass roots communities where people feel empowered and in control of their lives – in other words, by self-organization that not only promises but also delivers real difference and meaning to people’s lives.

It is also important to realize that the same groups that are targeted by Nazis have often been persecuted by the police and other state institutions, meaning these authoritarian institutions are among the least likely to help fighting fascism. They are also among the least effective in doing so, as their authoritarian logic tends to reproduce oppression rather than move us towards a more free society. A really effective anti-fascism also can’t be anxious about what the public/majority or mainstream media think is appropriate at any certain point, because marginalized groups have rarely if ever been able to count on most of that part of society when trying to defend themselves from fascism.

Instead of this anxious least-common-denominator approach to anti-fascism that tries to please even the most moderate and conservative of social forces that aren’t straight out fascist, effective anti-fascism has to be based on the immediate needs and threats against marginalized communities, and only aim to build mass support or mass movements from such effective anti-fascist practice.

So what we really need is an anti-fascist group in every neighborhood, not only doing the direct and necessary work of counter-acting fascist threats, but also interlinking with a more generalized form of community self-defense with solidarity networks and networks of mutual aid taking care of problems with (for instance) landlords, radical unions in our workplaces, community gardens, social centers and all kinds of other structures of social care which we use to meet our every day needs and immediately improve our conditions, with the long term aim of transforming all the productive, financial and social wealth that today is mostly privatized by rich people or monopolized by states, and turn it into a commons in which we all share based on our needs and desires.

Who the hell would want or care to be a fascist in such a world? Let’s start here and now. Let’s smash fascism and create a whole new world while we’re at it. Because, in the end, I think it is the only way to really defeat it.

Concerning borders

There’s been a lot of talk lately about immigration and separating families. And rightly so, because what is happening both in the US and all across the world, with detentions, deportations, draconian border regimes and so on, is nothing short of a disgrace. It is a sort of collective moral collapse with even many of those espousing the values of solidarity starting to point fingers at others while supporting policies of closed borders and state violence against immigrants, working class people, activists and dissidents. Trump and his likes, on the other hand, have become a sort of symbol of the unabashed straight out racist, sexist and elitist politics that are at the forefront of all of this.
But that being said, there is a risk here of missing the broader point. Because this is not really about the Trumps of this world. Obama not only oversaw and expanded a deadly drone war, was in office while black people were being persecuted and killed to an extent that caused the rise of Black Lives Matter, but also, importantly, massively expanded the institutions and agencies designated for persecuting “illegal” immigrants – the very infrastructure Trump is now building upon.
Realizing that this is not simply about Trump is important, because that leads to realizing that the solution cannot simply be replacing him. Obama, Hillary, and even a Bernie Sanders, they are all beholden to the same power dynamics and pressures of the institutions. And the same “inertia” that sometimes has overturned Trumps outrageous policies, would overturn those of a very radical “left”-leaning president. The bottom line here is the following: Politicians are not the cause of social change, but the reflection of it. They are to social change what a thermometer is to heat. Sure heat affects us, but it would be futile to try to change it by manipulating the thermometer – at best we’d just be fooling ourselves.
Change does not happen when the “right” people are voted into office – it happens when social movements force change upon those in power, by themselves becoming the change they want to see. It happens through riots, strikes, agitation, assemblies, organizing, blockades, occupations, insurrections, and through a thousand other grassroots-oriented forms of direct action that undermine the power of political and economic elites while multiplying and building their own. This is the only way real change, change that promises more than just a brief pause or a band-aid solution, can be achieved.
It therefore infinitely saddens me when people bemoan separation of children from their parents, but still say that “we” need these borders, controls and detention centers. This is not true. The borders and the institutions protecting them (and which they in turn protect) do not serve us or make us safe. On the contrary, they are part of the problem, part of a system of nation states and global capitalism that most of the time also is the very cause of the unnatural disasters that generate refugees in the first place.
There are of course those that immediately say that abolishing borders altogether is unrealistic, and instead put forward piecemeal reform as the “practical” way to go about the issue. Yes, we can’t just abolish borders and keep everything else the same, because they are an inseparable part of a larger, tightly interdependent system. But that does not mean that the goal of abolishing them, and a practice towards that end, are in themselves unrealistic. Compared to trying to affect radical change through a system that is practically immune (and often openly hostile) to such change, directly attacking the problem at the grassroots is both more effective short term and promising long term.
While reforms can be part of that, they can never be seen as the thrust of such change. They are rather, if anything, a by-product of people’s struggles for freedom and equality. These struggles have to be based on grassroots social movements, or will just wind up getting recuperated into the very institutions they seek to abolish. So, for instance,
Where we see borders, we undermine them and help people cross. Where we see ICE or police repression, we create sanctuaries, mutual aid networks, and make the oppressors as miserable as we can through occupations, blockades and protests, and with an eye to abolishing these institutions and replacing them with our own ways of dealing with social problems, ways that are actually human-centered, not tailored for preserving the power of small elites.
Where we are being exploited at work, we organize not only to get decent wages, but to get rid of the dictatorial notion that bosses and private ownership of the resources we need to survive are concepts any more legitimate than feudalism.
Where we fight landlords that live off of our need for a home, and the gentrification of our societies, we organize not only for affordable housing, but to eventually put into practice the notion that these are *our* homes and societies, and any claims on them that landlords or big land owners put forward are as archaic as those of their medieval namesakes.
All these grassroots movements, linked together, form the bigger picture and the road map that I’m thinking of when I say “abolish ICE”, “abolish borders” and so on. I really think we can and should do it, but I think that we can only get there through this type of broad, diverse and direct action based social movements. To me, this is a more practical and inspiring starting point, than trying to persuade others (and ourselves) that if we only elect the right rulers, or convince enough of them to “do good” through reasoning, things will get better. Nothing about this system indicates that such a thing is even possible, because this system didn’t emerge to bring about equality, but to preserve and expand already existing power of a small minority.
That’s why I think it is important not to focus just on what the current US administration is doing, but on the system that led to this as a whole.

In the era of Trump

As I went out for a small picket protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump today, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on the recent events, and the ongoing drama that has unfolded like a horror show ever since he announced his candidacy in the primaries last year.

The protest, held in the center of Cambridge, UK, where I currently live, brought together a curious mix of people – from disgruntled liberals, Labour voters and Corbyn supporters, to union organisers, socialists and a couple of us anarchists. Among the signs and chants condemning racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiments, ours stood out a bit – while we agree with all that, we also reject what many people unfortunately mistake for the solution. Let’s face it, where would most of these people be had Clinton picked up her expected win?

Comically, a passer-by reproached us for being anti-Trump and anti-Brexit, telling us that we should accept the democratic outcome, as he would have done. Obviously missing the part of our signs saying no to Clinton and Remain as well as Trump and Brexit. After hearing that we seemed to have a broader critique of the system, and of capitalism, he backtracked and told us communism doesn’t work. He then discovered our red and black flags: “Oh, so you have the anarchy flag…” he said, “but how do you organise things without leaders?” Soon after he disappeared into the crowd again. I guess sometimes you just can’t win either way.

And that is sort of the point here. Saying no to Trump, for many, implies saying yes to Clinton, or perhaps Bernie Sanders. But the fixation with these false dichotomies is a symptom of a deeper problem with politics today, where representatives and celebrity-like political figureheads are hailed as saviours. Instead of analyzing the systemic issues, the particular interests of various powerful groups, and of the capitalist class as well as of the government, we reduce the problem to simply one of having the wrong ideas or personality traits. That is dangerous, because if your analysis misses the point, so will any action you take based on said analysis.

The outrage over Trump’s sexist, anti-immigrant and populist rhethoric, and the hypothetical difference that a Clinton would make, has to be put in perspective, beyond the type of superficial identity politics by the logic of which, Clinton, as a woman, would mean a victory for the struggle over patriarchy and sexism. As quick as some people seem to be in hailing the next saviour, as fast do they seem to forget what just played out before their very eyes.

The outgoing president, Barack Obama, a black man, if that eluded anyone, oversaw a regime of brutal war, detentions, neoliberalism and, crucially, blatant structural racism towards indigenous as well as black people, to the point where violent clashes with the police and a growing Black Lives Matter movement materialized as the desperate outcry of various hugely marginalized and horribly abused communities. Behind the scenes, the entire prison-industrial complex with it’s lifeblood – the war on drugs – ensured black americans could be used as cheap labor, in what is nothing else than modern day slavery. Exactly how did the symbolic presence of a black man at the helm of this oppressive system help those people?

The anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, in his eerily prophetic polemics against authoritarian socialism in the late 1800s, once pointed out that the people do not really care whether the stick they are being beaten with is called “The People’s Stick”. Likewise, today, we can say that any oppressed group – be it women, blacks, immigrants or LGBTQs – is not automatically better off just because “one of them” is administering the oppressive system at some level. This is because the dynamics of power itself , be it political or economic. A shared identity, in some narrow sense, does not necessarily mean a shared interest in abolishing all those structures of power.

Now some could say that Obama, for instance, faced a hostile Republican party apparatus that crippled his possibility to enact meaningful change in many areas. While this is partially true, it has to be noted that this is pretty much by design. No matter if we’re talking of a system rigged for a two-party setup, or one with a multitude of bickering political interests, the entire point is to direct people’s attention to something that does not and cannot emancipate them – the theater of parliamentarism – and away from what can – self organisation and direct action.

Change has never emanated from parliaments, it has rather reached them after often long and arduous grassroots campaigns and people’s struggles in the streets, in their communities and at their places of work. But it is easy to mistake the cause for the effect, when, day in and day out, we’re fed media images of those parliaments as the real seats of power, while we rarely get to see the people that really make change happen, or force it on parliaments, by their own actions. What parliaments do, though, is often to take the momentum out of such social movements and struggles, pacifying them, and in that making them reliant on an alienating form of politics that limits them to adjustments within the pre-determined parameters of the system.

Shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as the president of the United States, several sections of the White House website were taken down. Most notably, those concerning LGBTQ rights and environmental issues. Many take this as an ominous sign of things to come. While it is true that we should not expect much good from Trump in this regard, it could be argued that the US government now operates according to a more honest policy than it has in a long time. Because despite Trump’s awful politics and track record, it is not at all obvious which is actually worse; the powers that be openly rejecting the important problems facing us, or ostensibly acknowledging them and then pretending to be doing something about it.

While the latter will just pacify us and make us expect someone else to actually make the change we want and desperately need, the former offers a meaningful alternative, although disguised as a sobering realization.

We have to be the change we want to see. We have to fight for ourselves.