Summary: Presentation to online November 14 mini conference of the IMHO, “Where Do We Go from Here? Global Revolutionary Perspectives on the Present Moment” — Editors
The Black dimension is crucial to the total uprooting of the existing, exploitative, racist, sexist society and the creation of new, truly human foundations. — Raya Dunayevskaya
Black Lives Matter and the 2020 Elections
The current Black Lives Matter uprising erupted on May 26th after yet another brutal murder of a Black man at the hands of the police, Mr. George Floyd. This movement, which has spread across 2000 cities and over 60 countries, is a broad coalition of activists whose practices are rooted in Black and Indigenous radical traditions, specifically those found in de-/anti-colonial (3rd world) feminisms, queer liberatory feminisms, abolitionist feminisms, and Marxist and other socialist feminisms.
The movement for Black lives across the United States has forced large sections of mainstream society to reckon with the legacy of racialized capital in this country. Before the George Floyd uprising, the Republican party was out-registering voters. In May and June, we see a huge Democratic party voter registration spike that can be attributed to the creative organizing of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) organizers and youth around anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics. These politics range from social democratic reforms to more radical abolitionist demands. While the Democratic party showed symbolic solidarity with the movement, it hinged its organizing tactics on wooing suburban centrist whites and distancing itself from the progressive wings of the party. Post-election polls showed that the masses, even those who live in historically Republican strongholds, are amenable to ideas such as raising the minimum federal wage, implementing some climate justice and a more equitable healthcare system. At a time when we are facing an economic crisis, a global pandemic and a historic racial justice uprising, the ruling elite of the Democratic party could not offer even basic societal reforms as part of their campaign bid against Trumpism. Their platform fell woefully short of addressing not only issues of racial, climate or economic justice but also refused to project a humanizing alternative vision. As the social media joke goes, the Democratic get-out-the-vote slogan was “nothing will fundamentally change.” Conversely Black activists used the momentum from the summer uprising to put forward anti-racist policies at local, state and federal levels. While recognizing the limitations of electoralism and having a strongly repudiating the neoliberal tone-deaf policy proposals of the Democratic party, BIPOC communities organized themselves to vote against the authoritarian necropolitics of the Trump regime, hailing small wins in historically Republican states like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan.
This grassroots organizing from below achieved several social reforms this election cycle. These include funding decreases for several police budgets, agitation for police unions to be expelled from the labor union movement, the defeat of pro-police prosecutors, the decriminalization of drugs, voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, and gaining funding for program alternatives to incarceration in the criminal (in)justice system. Many in Black movements view these reforms as necessary for survival as they build power and creatively work out what a revolutionary restructuring of society might be.
Organization, Care and Mutual Aid
Many in the movements locate their politics in anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-imperial abolitionist feminist organizing. In the last few months, we’ve witnessed these movements not only critique dehumanizing Democratic party neoliberalism, but also the politics of the Black bourgeoisie and the reformist projects of white social democrats whose analysis of racial and gendered capitalism fall short. When asked about unique ways BLM movements are organizing, Black feminist scholar Cathy Cohen acknowledges the horizontal, democratic leadership models of the current movements noting “that many of the young leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement recognize that the male charismatic leader, or the singular charismatic leader, is not the form of leadership that they adhere to or they are going to put forth. In fact, many of these new organizations are led by young black women who identify as queer and who promote the idea, as Barbara Ransby has noted, that far from this movement being led by one person or having no leaders, it is a leaderful movement with cis and trans women taking positions of power. So the organizations that are part of a network of groups working under the broad framework of the Black Lives Matter movement look different and structure their leadership differently than organizations significant to the civil rights movement in part because of feminist teaching, feminist scholarship, especially Black feminist teaching and scholarship and the fact that many of these young activists have been in the classroom learning about these alternative forms of organizing and leadership.”
Beyond organizing in horizontal democratic collectives and making abolitionist demands, Black Lives Matter and other related movements are engaging in mutual aid work and creating large networks of care to address the economic, political and healthcare crises we find ourselves in. Mutual aid addresses communities’ survival needs, but it also serves another purpose, i.e., to undermine the reification of human relations under capitalism. Mutual aid care work in particular necessarily reveals how reproductive labor, mostly done by working class women of color, sustains capitalism, especially in women-led movements like BLM. As the capitalist mode of production reproduces the capitalist-worker relation and capital subsumes all aspects of our lives, the very structures it relies on to reproduce itself (such as the patriarchal nuclear family and other institutions of care) begin to degrade. This for Marx presents an opening if you will for new forms of family and care-taking institutions that are not based in exploitative social relations to emerge. So beyond addressing immediate needs, the mutual aid work we are witnessing is also solidarity work that “hinges upon the recognition of our deep interconnectedness, and suggests ways of relating to one another that might begin to dissolve the transactional attitudes inculcated by capitalism” (Sparrow, 2020).
Black Movements, Abolition, and Emancipatory Internationalism
As a global movement, Black Lives Matter is building on the history of Black radical internationalism. The Black radical organizing we are seeing today maintains a dialectical relationship between local level praxis and international liberation-making or what Paul Ortiz calls emancipatory internationalism. Ortiz traces the history of this framework, saying “emancipatory internationalism had been born in the first stormy years of the republic when African Americans and their allies recognized that slavery, racial capitalism, and imperialism were fatally intertwined. Now, even as they were embroiled in struggles for land, the right to vote, and protection from Ku Klux Klan terrorism, African Americans insisted that their emancipation was incomplete as long as oppression existed elsewhere” (2017).
We cannot forget the internationalism of the first abolitionist movement of the early 19th century. Many early Black abolitionists understood that the work of the anti-slavery movement was not over after the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, they acknowledged there would be no liberation without a radical restructuring of society that addressed all global struggles in relation to white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, and racialized capitalism. In the 1800s thousands of Black revolutionaries joined the Cuban solidarity movement, urging the U.S. government to support the independence of Cuba. We see a strong condemnation of European states in their scramble for Africa by Black radicals during the same period. In the 20th century, Black revolutionaries again rejected the imperialist and colonial practices of the U.S. in the Philippines, the annexation of Guam, and the export of U.S. militarism across the globe (Byrd, 2020). From the 1960s on we witness new Black internationalist solidarities emerge alongside the anti-colonial movements, the anti-apartheid movement, the fight against U.S. imperialist actions across Latin America, Asia and Africa, as well as resistances to the never-ending expansion of the U.S. military industrial complex.
While Black radical internationalisms are not new, current movements are drawing on frameworks from the early abolitionist movements along with new theoretical insights articulated by the PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) abolitionist scholar-activists of the 1990s and the early 2000s. These movements are also developing their own creative organizing practices based on knowledge co-produced and shared across BIPOC and feminist collectives who’ve been doing this work for over the past 3 decades.
Here, I would like to highlight the #endsars movement in Nigeria whose original purpose, according to its leaders in the Feminist Coalition, was “to champion equality for women in Nigerian society with a core focus on education, financial freedom, and representation in public office. We have a vision for a Nigeria where equality for all people is a reality in our laws and everyday lives.” This movement, while not revolutionary in all of its aims, has clearly stood not only against state violence but also cisheteropatriarchy and neoliberal capitalism. The young people leading this movement know the police brutality inflicted by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) disproportionately affects youth, sex workers, those working in the informal economy, women and queer folks who are most vulnerable to state surveillance, harassment, and imprisonment. We are witnessing the SARs movement shift from one interested in reforms of a corrupt state to one that is now liberating food from government storehouses for the people, fighting for the full humanity of queer folks in a country where being LGBTQ is mostly illegal, and for self-determination for Indigenous folks and religious minorities. In short, they’re now making demands for a complete restructuring of society.
In a recent piece, Afary and Al-Kateb (2020) ask “What is holding back the formation of a global prison abolitionist movement to fight COVID-19 and capitalism?” Their analysis of carceral systems extend to the plight of the world’s 70 million displaced refugee populations, and the oft-forgotten prison populations of states like China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, India, and Mexico. Similarly to the U.S. prison industrial complex these countries disproportionately surveil, police and imprison their dispossessed, racialized, ethnic, and religious minorities. And while fewer women are incarcerated globally, the imprisonment of women and non-gender-conforming people is growing at a much faster ratethan men’s imprisonment. From their perspective, a global prison abolitionist movement should fully extend its anti-imperialist analysis to non-western authoritarian states that are oppressing the national minorities within their borders and criminalizing their female, queer, and non-gender-conforming populations. As they note, the global left has sometimes been reluctant to criticize authoritarian non-western leaders that claim to be against U.S. imperialism.
This international abolitionist theorizing must continue to engage fully with the geography of global carceral capital, i.e., the contradictions of capitalism that lead to more and more people being in some cage or other. The international abolitionist movement needs to anticipate and organize effectively against new technologies that will be used to further surveil populations under the guise of security, ensuring financial precarity among the global masses, expanding the indebted class, and resulting in further criminalizing the poor, state repression of organizers in societies with authoritarian governments, the crisis of climate breakdown and the resulting criminalization of climate refugees, the ongoing social management of non-white people through immigration policies, the increased privatization of large sectors of the carceral state, to name a few.
I want to conclude by exploring the concept of “Black masses as vanguard” as articulated by Raya Dunayevskaya, founder of the Marxist-Humanist tradition. I recently encountered a very clear and accessible explanation of this idea.
The idea of Black masses as vanguard should not be conflated with the idea of a vanguard party that leads and directs the masses. What Dunayevskaya meant with vanguard in this sense really goes back to Marx and his concept of alienation. As an oppressed group the Blacks are alienated, in fact deeply alienated. The term alienation was used by Hegel when he described a situation of self-estrangement. Marx famously picked it up and used it as a key concept in his writings. The opposite of alienation for both Hegel and Marx is self-activity. Emancipation from alienation is therefore self-activity. It goes without saying that self-activity is something no one else can do for you, just because it is a self-activity. When the Black masses then act as vanguard, they are not leading anyone else, but instead act as an inspirational force that is showing what is possible and, by doing that, make others want to liberate themselves from their own self-estrangement too. (Grahn, 2020).
Always working from Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence, we should explore the question often, “what happens the day after the revolution”? This question as I see it requires “the day” to embody the past, the here-and-now and the future. It is a question that suggests the task is not simply overcoming racialized and gendered capital but that the overcoming cannot happen without working out a vision of a new emancipated, un-alienated society. To address the question of “what happens the day after the revolution,” who better to look to than those who have historically at every turn rejected dehumanization and whose demands have never been quenched with bourgeois recognition or reforms? These BIPOC and queer and youth revolutionaries are at it again. They also envision that day after the revolution. A day built not only on robust radical traditions or principled hope but also on their present-day work. To become part of this important project, we can learn from these practices from below and allow these new insights to guide our theorizing. We must also engage with philosophies of liberation that have the potential to inform practice.
I end with a quote from Terrance Hawkins, a North Carolina Black community organizer & public theologian whom I met last week. As he reflected on the Black movement work of the past few months he wrote, “But there exists a people, kissed by the sun, who in every generation have kept the ‘smoldering wicks’ of democratic possibilities from being snuffed out. Their vision is bigger than the nation-state. Their tradition is a critique of the very foundations on which it rests. Their practice does not call into being ‘a more perfect union’ under imperialism. Rather, it abolishes & reconstructs. It births new worlds rooted in borderless love, compassion, justice, mutuality, & life. And best believe: its chief architects & practitioners are Black women!”
Afary, F. & A-Kateb, L. (2020). https://spectrejournal.com/what-is-holding-back-the-formation-of-a-global-prison-abolitionist-movement-to-fight-covid-19-and-capitalism/
Bhattacharya, T. (2018). Mapping Social Reproduction Theory. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3555-mapping-social-reproduction-theory
Brown, H. (2018). Gender and Capital 150 Years Later. https://imhojournal.org/articles/gender-and-capital-150-years-later/
Byrd, B. R. (2020) As BLM Goes Global, It’s Building on Centuries of Black Internationalist Struggle https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28964/from-abolitionism-to-the-black-power-movement-to-blm
Grahn, J. (2020). The Intersections of Race and Class-Based Social Movements under Fordism: Rediscovering a Neglected Form of Critical Social Analysis. Masters Thesis.
Marx, K. Capital Vol. I. Ch. 23 Simple reproduction https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch23.htm#n20
Ndifon, N. (2020). Nigerian Women vs. SARs: A coalition against police brutality. Black Women Radicals. https://www.blackwomenradicals.com/blog-feed/nigerian-women-vs-sars-a-coalition-against-police-brutality, https://feministcoalition2020.com/
Ortiz, P. (2017). Anti-Imperialism as a way of life: emancipatory internationalism and the Black radical tradition in the Americas. In: Johnson, GT, Lubin, A (eds) The Futures of Black Radicalism. New York: Verso Books, pp. 133–147
Sparrow, J. (2020). Mutual Aid, Incorporated. https://newsocialist.org.uk/mutual-aid-incorporated/
Targetsmart data services firm. (July 10, 2020). How COVID & Protest Movement Have Impacted Voter Registration. https://insights.targetsmart.com/july-10-2020-how-covid-protest-movement-have-impacted-voter-registration.html
Terrance Hawkins, North Carolina community organizer & public theologian written on Nov. 6, 2020 (personal communication)