On the question of the state, what Negro, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line, believes that the bourgeois state is a state above all classes, serving the needs of all the people? They may not formulate their belief in Marxist terms, but their experience drives them to reject this shibboleth of bourgeois democracy. On the question of what is called the democratic process, the Negroes do not believe that grievances, difficulties of sections of the population, are solved by discussions, by voting, by telegrams to Congress, by what is known as the “American way.” Finally, on the question of political action. The American bourgeoisie preaches that Providence in its divine wisdom has decreed that there should be two political parties in the United States, not one, not three, not four, just two; and also in its kindness, Providence has shown that these two parties should be one, the Democratic Party, and the other, the Republican, to last from now until the end of time. That is being challenged by increasing numbers of people in the United States. But the Negroes more than ever have shown—and any knowledge of their press and their activities tells us—that they are willing to make the break completely with that conception.
-CLR James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US
Whiteness invests ordinary white people with agency (even if only in evildoing), in the flabby sense that agency has acquired in American historical literature. Furthermore, by equating race with identity and attributing it to white persons, whiteness seems to banish the troubling asymmetry that is the essence of racism. The vagueness of the concept of identity and its usually undetected incursions, back and forth across the border between individual and collective, subjective and objective, optional and compulsory, have tempted scholars to collapse racism – a forcible and authoritative assignment of race – into racial identity. Once racism, having passed through the buffer zone of whiteness, crosses the border into identity and voluntarism, it returns to its point of origin with an alias – race – and a new passport. The blurred photograph shows a neutral face, and the impostor goes surrounded by the benevolent trappings of agency. A brand becomes an identity, and those who wear the brand become agents in its burning into their own flesh.
–Barbara J. Fields, “Whiteness, Racism, and Identity”
Nothing prevents us, therefore, from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, i.e., from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them. This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with true campaign-slogans. Instead, we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.
– Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge 1843”
The police have opened up a really splendid field for our people: the ever-present and uninterrupted struggle with the police themselves. This is being carried on everywhere and always, with great success and, the best thing about it, with great humour. The police are defeated–and made to look foolish into the bargain. And I consider this struggle the most useful in the circumstances.
-Friedrich Engels, “Letter to J.P. Becker 1884”
The reemergence of mass confrontation with the police in the United States is a major event. Out of an epidemic (which is certainly far from behind us) a furious anti-authoritarian wave of protest and violence has broken out. Activity against police brutality and for the protection of black individuals and communities in the US has revealed numerous important opportunities, but also questions and conflicts. These preliminary notes are not an attempt to critique, reconstitute, or orient the current ongoing struggle. Such an attempt would not only be futile, but counterproductive. Our starting point is not so much “the line” of activity that has already started, and even if there are limits arising in the contemporary situation fingerwagging is not “the real movement.” In fact, if struggle is truly a process, the feeling out of limitations and lines of tension is essential to the struggle here and now. If rupture “forces every individual, who is engaged in struggle, to take sides… [either] on the side of the communist movement – as the movement for the practical destruction of this world – or else, on the side of continuing to revolt, on the basis of what is”[i] then rupture will not come from commentators holding out “the practical destruction of this world” and waiting for masses from the struggle to flock to their line. The rupture is a taking sides within the struggle. At the same time, abolishing, destroying, doing away with domination, exploitation, and oppression often requires realizing the scale of social forces beyond certain immediate appearances. The point is not to dismiss struggle on the ground as ignorant, to proclaim “they know not what they do!” It is an attempt to truly relate how the struggle for life and death on the ground, which appears in the form of parceled single issues, contains the current of society’s motion.
THE POLICE STATE AND THE STATE OF POLICING
The police, and the objection to them, appears to be the unifying of the contemporary struggle in the United States. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has been recognized as an “inciting incident” of sorts. On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. During the arrest, cop Derek Chauvin – who already had 18 complaints against him[ii] and who had “bumped heads” with Floyd previously[iii] – murdered a handcuffed and unarmed Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes. Floyd exclaimed “I can’t breathe! Please, the knee on my neck” as he was murdered on camera.
Throughout May 26 scene of the murder became a memorial and grew into a site of protest with hundred in attendance. At 6pm the protest marched to the 3rd Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department. Eventually violence began as sections of the protest shattered windows and spray-painted squad cars. Officers responded with riot gear, tear gas, and flash grenades. Protesters returned with rocks and bottles.[iv] By midnight protesters had forced their way into the precinct and the building was set on fire. Looting and rioting continued over the next couple of days and by Thursday May 28 had spread into the state capital of St. Paul. That same day Governor Tim Walz brought in the National Guard.[v]
The full scope of the massacre of black individuals at the hands of the American state, or effectively sanctioned by the state, is grounded in a form of domination that not only maintains race relations but is inoperable from race. While George Floyd’s death was a catalyst, the events that followed his death contain a rage that is ingrained to the very nature of our society – our world – as it exists and has always seemed to exist. This rage unites – the suffering that begins with particular black men in 2020 then overturns the stones to reveal the sufferings of women of color, of trans individuals of color, of colonized people, of the enslaved – but it also remains diffuse. It remains to be seen how this resistance to domination will crystallize.
The exact form that this domination takes certain has changed through time and is expressed differently in different places: “’Race’ has been reconfigured in response to this world-historical anti-racist upsurge, and continues to exist as a body of ideas — but also as a relation of domination inside and outside the wage relation — reproduced through superficially non-racial institutions and policies.”[vi]
In a very real sense, the “police state” is not out over there, in the foreign land, incompatible with contemporary American society. Nor is it simply the police precinct, or the ghetto. The police state is already here and has been here for quite some time in the basis of the United States. The United States is built on stolen land and dispossessed labor power. These foundations were part of a global(izing) system that predated the United States and continued through the development of the United States. The dispossession of common property and massive movement of waged labor within a growing market of finance and merchant capital produced a proletarianized European body which was redeployed as a mechanism of late-feudal expansion as the mode of production fell into crisis.[vii]
Primitive accumulation in England produced a dispossessed and superfluous ex-peasantry, for the factory system that might absorb them had not yet been created. Many of these ex-peasants were eventually sent to the colonies, or inducted into imperial enterprises – the navy, merchant marines, etc. In the 18th and 19th centuries, more of these surplus populations were integrated into the developing capitalist economy, whether as chattel slaves or as wage labourers, according to an increasingly intricate typology of ‘race.’[viii]
This intricate typology produces a category of race that is not capable of being assigned to “class,” yet which produces a complex division between the “double freedom” of wage labor and the life-as-property domination of the slave’s labor.
“Bondage and wage-labour are not contrasting systems but one simply the most reified form of the other. (If you like, in bondage the slavery inherent in wage-labour is posited as such).”[ix] We should remember that this use of “wage labour” is in a historical sense particular to the capitalist mode of production as “capital positing, capital producing labour.”[x] It is a “concrete abstraction,” rather than a “simple category,” that is, a general term for being paid a wage- a relationship that has occurred in many societies with different forms of social logic well before capitalism. Still, the relationship to property would define policing in a general, transhistorical sense.
In France, in the 11th and 12th centuries, these towns became known as communes. They incorporated into communes under various conditions, sometimes with the permission of a feudal lord, but in general they were seen as self-governing entities or even city-states. But they didn’t have cops. They had their own courts — and small armed forces made up of the townsmen themselves. These forces generally had nothing to do with bringing people up on charges. If you got robbed or assaulted, or were cheated in a business deal, then you, the citizen, would press the charges. … The towns didn’t need cops because they had a high degree of social equality, which gave people a sense of mutual obligation. Over the years, class conflicts did intensify within the towns, but even so, the towns held together — through a common antagonism to the power of the nobles and through continued bonds of mutual obligation.[xi]
We should not be too starry eyed of course. Feudal societies were still class stratified, and taboos turned public opinion against certain professions and persons (prostitution was unequivocally condemned throughout the middle ages, despite being seen as a “necessary evil”).[xii] Highly bureaucratic ancient societies such as Egypt at the time of the 5th dynasty had armed “officers” in public squares, and Rome maintained security with military forces. Nonetheless, these historical instances are quite particular and rarely match the conception of the capital-P Police as we think of them today. Nor does the existence of such enforcement necessarily disprove the point that policing becomes apparent with social inequality, especially in societies where guards protect temples, palaces, and offices of administration: institutions of ruling and administrative classes. This might seem like an odd digression, but this point is important. The use of force, justified by “higher powers” – whether they be lords, Pharaohs, popes, or state bureaucracies – is both transhistorically tied to property and at the same time historically specific in its structure and interests.
Contemporary policing is explicitly tied to colonial projects, slavery, and regulation of large-scale production. The growth of an unemployed – or brutally employed – laboring class without ties to land meant the risk of riots. These riots could be quelled by the army but, “there are really only two things the army could do, and they’re both bad. They could refuse to shoot, and the crowd would get away with whatever it came to do. Or they could shoot into the crowd and produce working-class martyrs.”[xiii]
The first “modern” police department, establishing the “local civilian model” is usually cited as the London Metropolitan Police of 1829. “The goal was to allow the state to penetrate civil society with a legitimacy that militaristic forces lacked, making it more acceptable to the populace.”[xiv] America would follow this model with a professionalized police department in Boston in 1838, and one in New York in 1845. However, this standard account overlooks the important role of imperial management. Before the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police there were organized police forces in Ireland. The Peace Preservation Act, pushed by Sir Robert Peel, was instituted in 1814, creating a Peace Preservation Force. This would become the effective Royal Irish Constabulary in 1822 which created a nation-wide police force divided between four provinces. These forces were technically separate until Irish Constabulary Act of 1836 would officially combine these into one unified, official Royal Irish Constabulary. The importance of the Royal Irish Constabulary as a model for all colonial policing has been overstated, but its early development is important and shows an important development in the logic of policing.
[T]he Irish police may be seen as a precursor or an example rather than as a model that other colonial police forces emulated throughout the empire. The fact that the Royal Irish Constabulary preceded most of the colonial police forces historically, gave prominence to the Irish example. … The power relation that was created in Ireland by the colonial regime brought forth a type of knowledge that was not there prior to the history of colonization. … By initiating colonial policing practice in a particular geographical space, a knowledge of colonial policing is constituted that would provide certain structural characteristics applicable across [many] boundaries.[xv]
It is notable that the RIC featured “a system of rank and file that replicated the officer corps structure of the army,” which was not repeated in the London model.[xvi]
Similarly, non-urban forms of early policing can be seen in the slave patrols of the American colonies, emerging from South Carolina in the 1700s. Philip L. Reichel called the southern slave patrols a “transitional police type” intended to control the “dangerous class” of enslaved peoples in the US (or the colonies that preceded the US).[xvii] These patrols were much closer to militias – they were officially tied to colonial militias when created – and were difficult to control and featured little training. Notably, even plantation masters could be resentful of the slave patrols, who they saw as unruly and as a threat to their “property.” Nonetheless, “patrollers were allowed a rather free hand and many unlawful acts were accepted in attempts to uphold the patrol system.”[xviii] Even where the behavior of such enforcement broke the law and risked damaging “property,” it was seen as a necessity for the maintenance of “property” as a whole and necessary part of social order. It has even been claimed that the increasing power of plantation masters in the American South reveals an interest in policing rural whites to ensure subservience to the plantation system:
The master class had an effective, long-established system of social control. They kept the white poor uneducated and illiterate on purpose. Refusing to invest in public education, slaveholders instead used public money to fund law enforcement departments, creating an intricate and bureaucratic criminal justice system. This system allowed masters to incarcerate (at will) whites who failed to follow their social dictates. The owners of flesh understood that preserving slavery necessitated a society with near-constant surveillance, a harsh legal code, and vigilante groups ready to mete out ‘justice’ whenever courts failed. This brutal, terroristic system of extralegal violence reinforced the entire hierarchy. As Hinton Helper wrote in 1857, ‘The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks, they are also the oracle and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely perpetuated.'”[xix]
We do not need to fall into the trap of claiming that this oppression merely made poor whites equivalent to enslaved black peoples, nor do we need to imagine that there was a massive disdain for the practice of slavery. The “enforced hierarchy” indeed would involve the perpetuation of racial prejudice and violence. We might recall the insights of WEB DuBois regarding the “wages of whiteness,”
[Racial solidarity under Reconstruction] failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.[xx]
However one looks at it, it is obvious that the role of policing is to enforce a social system organized through private property. Race is a category enforced through domination which exists in a feedback loop with the property-preserving state.
To sum up this section we can take away four propositions by Robinson and Scaglion:
1 . The origin of the specialized police function depends upon the division of society into dominant and subordinate classes with antago-nistic interests;
2 . Specialized police agencies are generally char-acteristic only of societies politically organized as states;
3 . In a period of transition, the crucial factor in delineating the modern specialized police function is an ongoing attempt at conversion of the social control (policing) mechanism from an integral part of the community structure to an agent of an emerging dominant class; and
4 . The police institution is created by the emerg-ing dominant class as an instrument for the preservation of its control over restricted access to basic resources, over the political apparatus governing this access, and over the labor force necessary to provide the surplus upon which the dominant class lives.[xxi]
LIMITATION, CONTRADICTION, DIVISION
The very fact that policing seems correlated to economic and social inequality produces certain problems for the abolition of police as it is currently understood. The existence of community “policing” in Rojava has been eagerly pointed out by American leftists, but little examination of the political-economic preconditions of such efforts has been made. How is such a system of social management built for the needs of an independence movement, assaulted on all sides, whose largest city is roughly the same size as Boise, Idaho capable of being transported to even one Borough of New York City? Demands for police abolition is important, and that these demands have gained unforseen popular support in the United States is historic, but these demands can be hijacked. Already the idea of even “defunding the police” has been twisted. Senator Kamala Harris – once a prosecutor in California – stated that the idea the Democratic Party would back defunding the police was “creating fear where none was necessary”; Nancy Pelosi stated that the Democrats had no intention of defunding the police through the Justice in Policing Act but that local governments could “shuffle some money around.” Calls to defund the police are mistranslated and framed as mere debates over budgets. It is certainly a step for mass movements to demand the police be defunded, but the conversation is about power, not budgets as such. Camden, New Jersey has been heralded as a practical example of “defunding the police.” In 2011 Camden “dissolved and reorganized” its police department in 2013, turning it over to County jurisdiction. This example is as such:
daily, noncrisis interactions between residents and cops went up. Police also got de-escalation training and body cameras, and more cameras and devices to detect gunfire were installed around the city. … The department adopted an 18-page use-of-force policy… the rules emphasize that de-escalation has to come first. Deadly force – such as a chokehold or firing a gun – can only be used in certain situations, once every other tactic has been exhausted. An officer who sees a colleague violating the edict must intervene; the department can fire any officer it finds acted out of line. By the department’s account, reports of excessive force complaints in Camden have dropped 95% since 2014.[xxii]
Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s easy to forget that so much of the power to enforce and maintain these new rules is invested in the police department itself. Most of the police department are white cops who live in the suburbs and not within the city itself, which is more than 90% black and Latino. Activists in Camden sued the City Counsel for turning the police department over to the county, which they claim was due to budget cuts rather than community involvement. Members of the Camden, We Choose Coalition argued that the “defunding” had increased police presence in newly developed neighborhoods with little change for struggling neighborhoods.[xxiii] On the other hand, an even more brutal option is to simply transfer policing over to privatized security companies. Chicago has already budgeted $1.2 million for reinforcements from three private security companies. While these extra security forces are “unarmed and solely in place to monitor activity on commercial corridors and notify the Chicago Police Department if any illegal activity occurs,” they reveal the extent to which force is already compatible with business, and the potential of leveraging privatized force in the name of preserving social order.[xxiv]
One of the most curious, yet revealing, features of contemporary policing in the United States is the degree to which policing seems to “get away” from itself. On the one hand, police forces bear a seemingly autonomous force: like a boulder rolling down a hill, once pushed, they do not seem to stop. On the other hand, the police do not appear as a force capable of staging a coup. Unlike the military, the police do not pose a potential direct threat to the leaders of the state. If anything, the autonomous tantrum of police violence is more of a bit of egg-on-the-face than a threat. It is in this sense that it is the police who riot- attacking the media, protesters, looters, children, anyone. This may be one of the reasons why it now seems so reasonable, so popular, to demand the defunding or abolition of the police. Even the leaders of the state cannot conceal how embarrassing (for them, deadly for everyone else) the actions of the police have become. Nonetheless, it provides cover: the police must simply become “reasonable,” it is not that society must be changed.
The importance of contemporary struggle lies in the strength of mass action and anger, not in the decisions of policymakers. We must measure our success by the power gained by the struggling mass movements, not by the concessions granted from above.
Examining the limits of police abolition under the contemporary mode of production and form of social control is not intended to denounce every possibility as futile and reformist. On the contrary, to seize upon solutions as they currently exist is important, especially as they reveal new limits and new problems. The key is precisely to show that the problems we can solve at the current level of analysis and struggle may not be the problems we want to solve. The struggle against the police and the movement that has loosely formed around the slogan of “Black Lives Matter” necessarily call into the question the presupposed bond of private property to liberty, equality as a self-evident right preserved by nature, and the very necessity of domination in various forms to reproduce the existence of society.
Recognizing revolutionary potential, as well as limits, benefits from some knowledge of history. For one thing, it is obvious the limits of reforming the police themselves. It should not be a shock that community organizer Derrick Sanders, who trained the San Jose police department on bias for three years, was shot with rubber bullets by the very same department.[xxv] It is because the police exist as the force of the state to preserve property that racial diversity or bias training will not work to change the way the police function. It is, in fact, true (despite the new counter-narrative by Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, Michelle Alexander and documentaries like 13th) that there was a boom in crime in the late 1960s and 1970s in the United States. Adaner Usmani notes that “over-time trends in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Rate are not very different from trends derived from other sources. … According to these data, the rate almost doubled between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, where it remained until it began to fall in the early-to-mid 1990s.”[xxvi] For Usmani the evidence suggests the crime boom was real, but what does a boom in crime suggest? “African Americans are not overrepresented in violent crime because they are naturally predisposed to violence, but rather because they have been persistently overrepresented in hollowed-out urban ghettos, and the lowers, most deprived reaches of the American class structure. Crime is an index of oppression.”[xxvii] Long-term trends in mass unemployment and precarity have always been more severe for black Americans and significantly impacted the urbanization of large populations who would be unable to acquire jobs or education.[xxviii] According to this account, the idea of a Liberal-constructed carceral state holds no water, but it is still obvious that Liberal policy makers failed to prevent such a state.
To understand liberal failure, one has to first appreciate what success would have required. Consider liberals’ choices. On the one hand, they had recourse to the state’s punitive arms (police, prisons, and the courts). Both conservatives and liberals agreed that these policies mattered. On the liberal view, however, the crime rate was additionally (and primarily) governed by a second set of social policies: welfare, unemployment, housing, education, and health care. When politicians in the 1960s tried to wage war on the root causes of crime, it was to these tools that they turned. In either the punitive or social dimensions, expansion or contraction is generally a matter of dollars spent. This is obviously true of social policy, which mostly consists of redistributing resources, whether in kind or in cash, from rich to poor. But it is also characteristic of penal policy. While there are ways to make police, prisons, and the courts more punitive without spending more money on them (e.g., by cutting programs for prisoners), in general harsher policing, expanded imprisonment, and more efficient courts require more police, more prisons, more judges, more prosecutors, and so on. Yet the costs of relatively generous social policy will always far exceed the costs of relatively harsh penal policy. The reason for this is simple: penal policy is hyper-targeted. Police arrest only that small fraction of the public that commits arrestable offenses; prosecutors charge that smaller fraction that commits offenses deemed worthy of being charged; and prisons harbor that even smaller fraction of the public that is sentenced to serve time. Moreover, contact with the criminal justice system is typically occasional. In contrast, social policy is indiscriminate in both dimensions. To be politically feasible, it must often be universal. Even at its most targeted, all poor people are eligible. And when they are eligible, they are usually eligible for significantly larger fractions of their life: time below the poverty line, while unemployed, if disabled, during childhood, or after retirement. … Penal spending is hyper-targeted, because the penal system makes less and briefer contact with the population than does the social arm of the state. And thus, it is much cheaper to build a harsh penal apparatus than to build a generous welfare state. [xxix]
It is essential to recognize two things from these conclusions.
- The use of force, state-sanctioned murder, and incarceration are integral to maintaining a large body of labor that has an unstable relationship to its own reproduction. To put it simply: where there are more people living in precarious conditions – conditions of unemployment or underemployment – there develops an increasing use of force to maintain order. Such “surplus populations” are becoming more globally prevalent as deindustrialization continues. US and European GDP growth has slowed on a cycle-by-cycle basis for 40 years, credit has become essential to maintaining living standards as well as business cycles, and labor has been funneled into service industries.[xxx] Furthermore, a large portion of the US working class, once “uplifted” into a contradictory middle-class through credit and a post-war boost in homeownership, finds themselves descending back into proletarianization.[xxxi] Today’s labor market is not being wrecked by rising productivity, but by a lack of output demand “due to the proliferation of industrial capacities across the world,” and “service-sector demand must… rely on income effects for its expansion- the growth of demand for services depends on the growth of income across the wider economy… as the rate of overall economic growth slows with the dilapidation of the industrial growth-engine, the pace of service-sector employment growth should slacken, too.”[xxxii] Inequality will continue to grow as global growth slows, a system built on profit will continue to throw off labor and destabilize working classes (and, increasingly, the contradictory middle classes). Reforms to provide security and social democratic measures are increasingly necessary, at the same time, so long as they rely on growth and sharing profit, they will be inadequate and at risk.
- The fact that inequality, murder by the police, and the growing carceral state have economic foundations does not mean that race is irrelevant or a mere distraction. Race is foundational to this system because race is tied to the way the economic system reproduces itself. At the same time, just as class is divided by racial animosity, communities that connect through race are divided by economic and political interests.
Black Lives Matter encapsulates the real violence that underlies our political reality, it does not necessarily unite all black communities with a vision for what should be politically achieved. As Cedric Johnson notes:
The notion of black ethnic politics remains at the heart of Black Lives Matter protests and falsely equates racial identity with political constituency. Black Power and Black Lives Matter as political slogans are rooted in racial-standpoint epistemology — that is, the notion that, by virtue of the common experience of racism, African Americans possess territorial ways of knowing the world and, by extension, deeply shared political interests. This commonsensical view is a mystification that elides the differing and conflicting material interests and ideological positions that animate black political life in real time and space.[xxxiii]
That black incarceration is inherently tied to the maintenance of surplus populations, the defense of private property, and the regulation of production is not new. It has been foundational to the work of figures including Stuart Hall, LoÏc Wacquant, and Panther-associate George Jackson.[xxxiv] This may seem self-evident to some: black lives, poverty, and incarceration are bound together through state violence, what’s new with that? What is more uncomfortable, though, is that the way these are connected and the causal mechanisms that define these processes put limitations on certain strategies and conceptions of resistance. If the carceral state is fueled by property relations and surplus populations, then black opposition to the state is not a universal black opposition. Black radicals have commented on this for some time, most noticeably with the emergent popularity of Ta-Nahisi Coates after the Obama presidency. R.L. Stephens wrote in 2017:
Black politics [for Coates] is only relevant as far as it can arouse white consciousness, which he sees as a largely futile exercise, due to “the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.” Coates sees common interest between the black elite and the black poor, as he marvels at “the entire diaspora,” from lawyers to street hustlers, present at Howard’s homecoming. Yet he cannot conceive of anti-capitalist class solidarity across racial identity.[xxxv]
The concern is not that the illusion of “Whiteness” which creates domination of “Blackness” is illusory, only that it is strategically limited to fight on the grounds of an already-existing, universal black viewpoint. It is beyond the scope of this piece to delve further into parsing race and class or uncovering the reality of “social death” without an overwrought ontology. What it means to develop a movement not primarily defined by some presupposed identity (including “worker”) and that seeks to destroy the divisions of currently existing identities has not been answered. It is a negative question, and one that has plagued every radical movement that has opposed capitalism. Nonetheless, it is a question worth considering in the contemporary situation. We see now a sudden outrage against the police. What is more surprising is that we see a relatively concentrated attack against the police and against large businesses. Looting of small businesses has been relatively rare compared to other riots. An autonomous zone – with severe limitations to be sure – has sprung up in Seattle. Public opinion appears to be on the side of the rioters. We are simultaneously facing the same limitations as previous movements and in completely uncharted territory. It is useless to talk about “organizing” what is already happening, but it is necessary to continue and refine the struggle as collapse (COVID-19 is far from over, the stock market is ready to plummet, and unemployment relief soon expires) inevitably looms over the horizon.
[vii] “The initial impulse which sustained the vast network of world commodity-exchanges before the eighteenth century derived from the expanding consumption-requirements of the lords. Moreover, at its inception the colonization of Latin America was a feudal colonization, a response to the crisis of feudal profitability which all the landowning classes of Europe were facing down to the latter part of the sixteenth century. … in Spain and Portugal where this feudal crisis recurred with periodic sharpness, it expressed itself in a movement of overseas-colonization. The Spain which launched this movement of expansion was a Spain dominated by feudalism, but a feudalism in crisis.” Jairus Banaji, Theory as History, Haymarket Books (2010), 93.
[viii] Chen, 209.
[ix] Banaji, 114
[x] Ibid, 54.
[xi] David Whitehouse, “Origins of the Police,” https://libcom.org/history/origins-police-david-whitehouse.
[xii] Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, & Culture in the Middle Ages (1982), 58, 60-62.
[xiii] Whitehouse, “Origins of the Police.”
[xiv]Julian Go, “The Imperial Origins of American Policing: Militarization and Imperial Feedback in the Early 20th Century,” American Journal of Society (March 2020), 1195. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/708464.
[xv] Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, “Importing Back Colonial Policing Systems? The Relationship Between the Royal Irish Constabulary, Indian Policing and Militarization of Policing in England and Wales,” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research (1998), 254. https://sci-hub.tw/https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13511610.1998.9968566
[xvii] Philip Riechel, “Southern Slave Patrols as a Transitional Police Type,” in Policing – A Text/Reader, SAGE (2012), 16-29. https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/50819_ch_1.pdf
[xviii] Rachiel, 24.
[xix] K.L. Merritt, Masterless Men (2017), 24-25.
[xx] WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935), 700-701.
[xxi] Robinson and Scaglion, “The origin and evolution of the police function in society: Notes toward a theory.” Law & Society Review (1987),109. Quoted by Riechel, page 27.
[xxvi] Adaner Usmani, “Did Liberals Give Us Mass Incaraceration?”, Catalyst Journal (2017), https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/did-liberals-give-us-mass-incarceration.
[xxviii] John Clegg, Adaner Usmani, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” Catalyst Journal (2019), https://catalyst-journal.com/vol3/no3/the-economic-origins-of-mass-incarceration. Italics added.
[xxix] Clegg, Usmani, ibid.
[xxxii] Aaron Benanav, “The Realm of Necessity,” New Left Review (2019), 121, 126.
[xxxiii] Cedric Johnson, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” Catalyst Journal (2017), https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no1/panthers-cant-save-us-cedric-johnson.
[xxxiv] Cedric Johnson, “Coming to Terms with Actually Existing Black Life: A Response to Mia White and Kim Moody,” NewPolitics (2019), https://newpol.org/coming-to-terms-with-actually-existing-black-life/#_edn6; Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (2013); Loïc Wacquant, “Class, Race and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America,” Daedalus (2010), 74-90; George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (1996).
[xxxv] R.L. Stephens, “The Birthmark of Damnation: Ta-Nahisi Coates and the Black Body,” Viewpoint Magazine (2017), https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/17/the-birthmark-of-damnation-ta-nehisi-coates-and-the-black-body/.
For further criticisms of an ontology-centered black politics see Kevin Ochieng Okoth, “The Flatness of Blackness: Afro-Pessimism and the Erasure of Anti-Colonial Thought,” Salvage 7: Towards the Proletarocene (2019), 79-114; Annie Olaloku-Teriba, “Afro-Pessimism and the (Un)logic of Anti-Blackness,” Historical Materialism 26(2).