Anti-police brutality protests in the United States: political implications and perspectives for the working class (June 5th 2020)
Anti-police brutality protests in the United States: political implications and perspectives for the working class (June 5th 2020)
Since the horrific killing of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis police department, there have been protests in over one hundred cities in the United States. The people in these protests are rightfully outraged by this murder, which is the latest in a series of similar incidents. Adding to the outrage, the police in the US have been on a real rampage across the country, targeting looters, as well as brutalizing protesters and passersby. We cannot ignore the social reality of police brutality, nor of widespread anti-black racism, and particularly the latter’s function in the history of American capitalism; to do so would mean to be complicit in chauvinism. We must express our solidarity with the victims of police brutality/violence and racist discrimination, while also attempting to highlight the shortcomings of the content and terrain of these struggles from the viewpoint of fighting against the intensification of both the exploitation of the working class as well as of state-repression. As communists, we offer an orientation that is on a working class terrain, the only one that is suitable for combatting capitalist domination and the bigotry that is part of the arsenal of ideological weapons used to maintain it.
Despite the sincere and justified fury in the wake of this brazen murder, as well as the apparent willingness on the part of many of the participants in these protests to physically confront the police, the protests are marked by several important weaknesses that are common to many of the inter-classist popular movements that we have seen over the past two years; primary among these are identitarianism and democratism. Regardless of these features, the political vanguard of the working class cannot ignore the reality of these protests just because they are not ’pure’ proletarian struggle. We must strive to provide a materialist explanation and draw the correct orientations for the international working class. Important to note that the significance of these events extends well beyond the borders of the US. Already before the pandemic, many social revolts as well as working class mobilizations were developing worldwide that were repressed by riot police. Today, with the general economic crisis, we are in a period of massive class confrontations and social revolts; and the protests in the US are also part of this new world situation that capitalism is throwing us all in.
The social role of the police
The universal social role of the police is fundamentally to act as the guarantor of capitalist domination, rather than a vehicle for white supremacy, or racial supremacy in general; this leads us to conclude that acting upon the slogan raised by the protesters to ’abolish the police’ requires the abolition of the capitalist state as a whole. This, in turn, implies that the working class would seize political power and exercise its dictatorship over society. The alternative view, that police are fundamentally an instrument of white supremacy, leads straight to the conclusion that having black people in positions of power would be sufficient to change the character of police, which clearly has not been the case, as is evident from Obama’s presidency. Many proponents of these trends of ‘radical race politics’ or black identitarianism will rebuke our position by asserting that they don’t believe simply putting black individuals in positions of power will eliminate white supremacy, because their conception accounts for black individuals who are complicit in white supremacy; they may continue that they are only emphasizing how this system of oppression distinct from capitalism itself uniquely affects black workers. However, to divide the working class into a front of particular identities with different interests is just the first step that inevitably leads to uniting with factions of the capitalist class on the basis of racial identity . Ultimately, by leaving capitalist power intact, we would not be abolishing the police; we would merely be rebranding it, for example by giving it a democratic veneer.
It is informative, therefore, that one of the orientations that has prominently been put forward by the capitalist-left is that of an elected community board to oversee policing, or even replacing the police with a different bureaucratic-body that materially serves the same purpose but with a more “therapeutic” image. In practice, these boards would most likely be filled by former cops and the local petty bourgeoisie. In the same way that the right of individuals to vote for public officials does not do away with capitalist domination, neither would the right to vote for members of a community oversight board do away with the social role of police under capitalism, which is to enforce capitalist property relations.
The harmful effects of lumpenization and looting on working class consciousness
When we speak of lumpenization, we refer to the process that has led many into the domain of petty crime, hustling, drug-dealing, prostitution, and other socially-useless activities; this is in great part a consequence of the large-scale de-industrialization of cities like Detroit. The tragedy is that this consequence of capitalist crisis makes the development of class consciousness more difficult and therefore makes it harder to fight against the very process that created this undesirable social phenomenon in the first place.
A typical activity of the lumpenproletariat in periods of unrest is looting, which has been a feature of the ongoing protests/revolt, due to its inter-classist character. Communists oppose looting, which is a complete affirmation of capitalist logic, namely private/individual appropriation and destruction of productive-forces. To give one example, the destruction of large retail stores is totally alien to the interests of the workers, because it makes the infrastructure useless for any possible appropriation by a collective body of workers, and enables a new round of exploitation of labor in the context of rebuilding in the aftermath of the destruction. In this regard, it has a similar effect as imperialist war; physical destruction of dead labor (factories, stores, infrastructure) enabling a new round of exploitation of living labor, which is the source of value in our society.
“Modern capital, which needs consumers as it needs to produce ever more, has a great interest in letting the products of dead labor fall into disuse as soon as possible so as to impose their renewal with living labor, the only type from which it “sucks” profit. That is why it is in seventh heaven when war breaks out and that is why it is so well trained for the practice of disasters. … To exploit living labor, capital must destroy dead labor which is still useful.” (Murder of the Dead, Bordiga 1951).
Some ultra-leftists have pointed to footage circulating the internet that depicts a mutual-aid setup appearing to freely-distribute goods salvaged from the looted shop, to prove that looting is a communist measure that produces class solidarity. However, though not bad in itself, activists salvaging debris from wreckage for redistribution does not demonstrate looting to be a proletarian act . The looting can be said to have produced the mutual-aid setup in the same way a natural disaster could potentially produce mutual-aid in reaction, and those engaged in the setup must waste a lot of time cleaning up after the looters, taking safety precautions due to broken glass, leaks, exposed wires, and scraping together what may be left behind for distribution. Looting is clearly not part of the spectrum of workers’ struggle; it is completely opposed to it. Whether workers dissolve themselves into looting, or enlist themselves in shop-keeper militias, they are being mobilized as cannon fodder for a battle between two opposing factions of the petty bourgeoisie (as the lumpenproletariat are, after all, merely the ‘illegal’ section of the petty bourgeoisie).
This episode is also a teaching opportunity to show the blatantly reactionary role played by anarchism and the adjacent theory of communization, the ideologies of the petty bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat. While anarchists and communizers promote looting and see in it de-commodification one commodity at a time (as if capitalism isn’t a totalizing system), we reject it and see it for what it is: zero-price-imposed individual appropriation with no regard to the collective needs of the working class. What Rosa Luxemburg wrote on anarchism in the 1905 Russian Revolution still rings true today:
"’...what is the actual role of anarchism in the Russian Revolution? It has become the sign of the common thief and plunderer; a large proportion of the innumerable thefts and acts of plunder of private persons are carried out under the name of “anarchist-communism” – acts which rise up like a troubled wave against the revolution in every period of depression and in every period of temporary defensive. Anarchism has become in the Russian Revolution, not the theory of the struggling proletariat, but the ideological signboard of the counter-revolutionary lumpenproletariat, who, like a school of sharks, swarm in the wake of the battleship of the revolution". (Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg 1906).
The ahistorical and idealist method of anarchism is irreconcilable with the materialist one that we use. Our method consists in analyzing the dynamic balance of forces between the classes, which enables us to provide orientations that correspond to the potentialities of the present moment.
The tasks of the working class and its vanguards
Those groups on the Left that are merely glorifying the protests without pointing out its shortcomings are ultimately playing into the hands of the capitalist class in the US, specifically the Democratic Party. If this continues to be disorganized violence on an inter-classist terrain oriented around the single issue of police brutality, rather than the organized and conscious violence of the working class affirming its own collective interests, it could lead to the proletariat being provoked into a confrontation in which it lacks the indispensable political tools to effectively struggle against the state. This threatens to result in a bloodbath and mark a decisive step on the march towards generalized imperialist war with major consequences for the proletariat, not just in the US but worldwide.
We should not shy away from demonstrating the utterly reactionary character of organizations like Black Lives Matter, which aims to mobilize black workers behind the capitalist state and on a completely identitarian basis. In fact, two of their stated goals are to ’vigorously engage our communities in the electoral process’ and to ’promote voter registration among Generation Z, the Black community, and our allies’ . The practical effect of BLM’s activity is to strengthen the Democratic Party establishment and to disseminate the ideological poison of racial identitarianism, which has been one of the pillars of the Democratic Party strategy in recent years.
Black Lives Matter and the various activist-machines of the Democratic Party will only channel an anti-racist revolt against police-violence into an impotent petty-bourgeois terrain of consumer boycotts and cultural-representation, reinforcing a project for black business-owners/managers to gain the exclusive-right to exploit black workers, and for black professional-mangers (corporate petty-bourgeois) to wield their identity as leverage when competing with their white counterparts for salaried-positions in the corporate/state-bureaucracy. This is the petty bourgeois version of “anti-racism”. In addition to reducing the justified anger against the repressive-apparatus to a struggle for “representation”, there is also the prospect of the capitalist class simply substituting the old discriminatory strategy with ones that justify intensifying the exploitation of workers, especially rural workers, designated as ‘racist’ or ‘backwards’ by progressive-multicultural corporate-functionaries. Both Republican and Democratic factions of the American bourgeoisie enforce the two inverses of the segregationist/identitarian strategies of division.
These protests have a particular significance in the present context of a crisis of historic scale, and share some features with other recent revolts like the Yellow Vests or Chile 2019. At the time of writing, the unemployment rate in the US is approaching 25%, with more than 40 million Americans having applied for unemployment insurance. By adopting a dismissive approach to these and other inter-classist movements, the vanguard would be ceding the terrain to the reactionary, identitarian, and bourgeois orientations that are already present. However, to provide the correct orientations, it is not enough to merely repeat the talking points of the bourgeois critics of police brutality; we must challenge these critics and contest their leadership in order to lead workers onto an explicitly proletarian terrain. The task is to encourage mobilized workers to pass from riots to the mass strike organized by general workers’ assemblies that resist police-repression/violence and racial discrimination on a unified-class basis. We see some tendencies towards this in New York and Minneapolis bus-drivers refusing to transport arrested protesters, and in Ohio food service workers refusing to fulfill orders for police; although the action by the bus-drivers was quickly overtaken by the union framework, which can only reduce the struggle to the dictates of the Democratic Party  . The orientations that are characteristic of the proletarian terrain in the present period are class solidarity without separation by race, an affirmation of workers’ needs, refusal to work in unsafe conditions, seeking to connect with the wave of wildcat strikes that have spread in different parts of the world, and refusal to pay the price of the crisis by working more for less.
We call on all workers and those who defend the communist program who want to really struggle against capitalism to gather around these proletarian orientations and the groups of the international Communist Left that put them forward.