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.

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.