Global Suffocation In Time of Crisis

Morteza Samanpour

The lynching of George Floyd as part of the larger systematic police violence against African-American communities has sparked mass protests in more than 140 cities in the United States. With the flames of uprising burning the whole country, seventeen thousand National Guard troops have been deployed to put down the legitimate rebellion. Curfews were imposed in at least thirty cities and more than ten thousand people have been arrested and at least twelve people, mostly African-American men, have been killed.1 The U.S. protests have had also huge global repercussions in Brazil, Greece, France, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Palestine, the UK, Turkey, etc. The proletarians across the world are not only expressing ‘symbolic’ solidarities with the racialized communities in the U.S. but also struggling against a similar racist structure operating in their own societies. The suffocation of George Floyd reminds them of the lashed refugees in Greece punished for crossing the border, of Afghans drowned and beaten by the Islamic Republic of Iran for seeking super-exploitative jobs, of the racist murder and police surveillance of descendants of former colonies like Adama Traoré in the suburbs of Paris, of the illegal deportations of the Windrush people from the UK, and Erdogan’s AKP hyper-fascist attitudes towards the Kurds in the region. The list is not, of course, exhaustive and can be continued ad infinitum but the upshot is that racism is an integral part of every capitalist society and it becomes even more intensified in times of crisis. 

 Crisis is the moment when contradictions, conflicts, and thereby actual or potential sites of struggles become much more visible than before by virtue of a malfunction in the reproduction of the system. Capitalism has been in deep crisis for too long now and the rise of neoliberal, global, financialized regime of accumulation since the 1970s abjectly failed to save the system. Instead of solving the problem of accumulation, neoliberalism has generated the financial crisis of 2008 and intensified ‘non-economic’ crises in all domains of social life encompassing ecology, politics, ideology, social reproduction, and geopolitics. The commodification of the basic requirements of life (education, healthcare, housing, etc.), the intensification of geopolitical rivalries best exemplified by the ‘proxy wars’ of ‘Western imperialism’ and the ‘sub-imperialism’ of Iran and Turkey in the Middle East, and the expropriation of labourers across the world are all processes through which the ‘hidden hand’ of the market attempts to resolve the crisis with the ‘iron fist’ of the state. As Rosa Luxemburg rightly observed in the early 20th century, once the motor of accumulation dies down, capital would have a recourse to violence and ‘extra-economic’ measures in order to accumulate ‘by other means’. It is alongside these practices that we are witnessing the increasing intensification of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and of the subjugation of women globally. The class war launched by the holly alliance of the state and capital to ‘resolve’ the crisis often takes the form of intensifying social differentiations and stratifying social classes based on their race, gender, and sexuality mediated by class relations. As the old motto goes – and without being deterministic or reductive – all wars are class wars. 

Specifically in the United States, and insofar as ‘resolving’ the crisis through racism is concerned, what is known as the ‘prison industrial complex’ has been one of the most important moments of class war against African-American communities since the era began with Raegan. Millions of black people were rendered unemployed ‘surplus-population’, deprived of social welfares, made into an ‘other’ via criminalization, prisoned, and finally, the state and private prison companies gained huge profits from them by putting them to super-exploited works in prison. As often pointed out by many non-white militants and critics, the number of prisoners has been increasingly grown during the past 40 years of neoliberalism. While “in 1970 there were 300,000 prisoners in the US […] by 2001 that had expanded to 2.1 million — the majority black, brown and poor”2. Almost every African-American man or woman knows a family member or a friend who is or was under the supervision of the criminal justice system:

“The United States is only 5 percent of the global population, but it holds 25 percent of the prisoners worldwide in its criminal justice system. Forty-four percent of those incarcerated are African American, although African Americans are only 12 percent of the nation’s population”3.

Numbers and statistics per se are generally confusing and reductive but it is important to ask why and under what conditions in the United States “7 MILLION people – one in every 32 adults –are behind bars”4?

The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ launched by Reagan in the mid-1980s is one clear answer. When George Floyd was filmed slowly dying while a white police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes, another officer said to the crowd: “Don’t do drugs, guys”5. By this statement, the officer was implying that the racist killing taking place before our eyes is ‘legitimate’ because Floyd supposedly committed the crime of drugs, and thus justified by the ‘fight’ of the police against those who break the law.  The war on drugs, from the standpoint of black communities, has never been about drugs, in the same way that the war on terror, from the standpoint of the Global South, has never been about terrorism. Rather, it has always been a war on the dispossessed, the poor, particularly urban African-American men and women who were mostly lost their jobs through the process of ‘de-industrialization’, i.e., the relocating of industries to the Global South where the labour is cheap and the environmental, health, and safety standards are low. The war on drugs is ‘simply’ the ideological cover for managing ‘surplus population’ and de-politicizing them, nothing but the state control of those who are not of use for capital, not even worthy of surplus extraction. The African-American black communities compose a large part of surplus population in the United States as they are excluded from society, their voice suffocated, and deprived of any basic rights. The intensification of racism towards the black people, justified through the pretext of drugs, is not only necessary for managing surplus populations in times of crisis but also, if possible, for making a profit out of them. The war on drugs provides the ‘raw material’ for prison industrial complex by arresting the already criminalized and unemployed African-Americans. The production process in prisons operates based on quasi-new-slavery whereby there is no union organization, no strikes, and no unemployment insurance, and the wages are not even sufficient for really basic requirements of a prisoner – such as calling from the prison to her family. Once labour had no rights whatsoever, capital can do whatever it wants to labour, especially in the prisons running by multi-national companies, although the struggles of prisoners constantly put a barrier to capital’s desire for ‘endless accumulation’. To sum up, the system resolves its own crisis, first, by launching a racist war on the poor, then criminalizing them, and finally gaining profit from their punishment under the conditions of new slavery.  

Institutionalized racism has never been structurally removed by the abolition of slavery within the U.S. legal-juridical system in 1865 but rather gained a new life, an afterlife, creating new slaves in America, the antecedents of African slaves. For the capitalism that came into being with and through slavery, the racialized police violence against George Floyd is nothing new. In fact, the current uprisings have brought into the light the history of slavery and its legacy within the present, particularly manifesting itself in tearing down the bronze statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, which was thrown into a river in Bristol (UK). The suffering of previous generations of the current new slaves and their struggles have become once again visible and recognizable at the present, from the 1992 LA riots and the Black Panthers in since the 1960s onwards to the history of slave rebellions and slavery in the southern parts of the United States. Forming a constellation between the present and the past is the task of every revolutionary movement, as Walter Benjamin might have said. ‘True’ class struggles not only act upon the present but also they change our relation to the past in order to create a new future. The murder of George Floyd cannot be fully rendered intelligible, and thus be fought against it, without the history of capitalist slavery written with the “letters of blood and fire”, as Marx asserts in Capital6. Historicizing capitalism enables us to understand how capital employs pre-existing social relations, including racism and patriarchy, and subsume them to the requirements of accumulation. It helps us understand that capital did not begin the world from the beginning and did not come into being ex nihilo, nor did it fall from the sky but rather “from within and in antithesis to the pre-existing social forms”, as Marx notes7. With the so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492, capital took up racism and slavery as the social hierarchies that had long existed before the advent of capitalism but totally reconfigured them as capitalist slavery and capitalist racism. Before the rise of capitalism, we need to recall, slaves were not totally dehumanized beings deprived of any dignity and social skills. On the contrary, they used to play highly significant social roles in pre-capitalist societies – for instance, they were the main consultants of the Emperor/Sultan and the commanders of the army8. The capitalist slavery, akin to capitalist patriarchy, is radically different from the patriarchy and slavery existing in the pre-capitalist modes of production. Capitalist slavery is the monstrous and extremely violent form of domination unprecedented in human history. For the imperative of accumulation is super-imposed on ‘pre-capitalist’ personal forms of exploitation such as slavery. As Marx notes of capitalist slavery in Capital, “the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery”9. The personal domination of the master is subsumed to the impersonal domination of the market. The slave-driver’s lash by the white master functioned as adjusting the productivity and temporality of slaves to the temporality imposed by the value-form on the world market. The same thing happened to patriarchy by being radically re-shaped by capital as part of the reproduction of labour-power. The exhaustion of male labour-power in a factory requires the subjugation of women in the domain of ‘social factory’: at home, in the kitchen, and in the bed to take care of the reproduction of male labour-power (cooking, cleaning, washing the dishes, affective and sexual labour, etc.) and raise the future labour-powers for the system. Two centuries of witch-hunting in Europe and its colonies, the way in which witches were systematically criminalized, tortured, and burned at the stake, for a figure like Silvia Federici are indicative of the rise of a new regime of patriarchy as an integral part of the extra-economic condition of the emerging capitalist world-system10. This is how racism and patriarchy have been historically constitutive for the reproduction of capitalism, via its re-functionalization at the service of accumulation. With respect to slavery, racism towards the Africans has been ‘constitutive’ because it is hard to imagine the formation and development of capitalism without, for instance, the slaves of the Antebellum South, especially in the cotton industry producing the main raw materials of British industrialization, without the slave trades of the Dutch Empire, and without the sugar slave plantations in the Caribbean Islands, especially Jamaica and Saint-Domingue (what is now Haiti), running by British and French Empires. 

 While there are 500 years of the systematic racist violence against the blacks, starting off with slavery in 1492 and continuing with the war on drugs in the neoliberal era, white supremacists like Trump are accusing the U.S. protesters of being ‘violent’. The corporate media and the rest of the ideological apparatuses are misrepresenting U.S. riots as pure ‘anarchy’ and blind ‘chaos’. Just to have a taste, George. W. Bush has recently responded to the riots by stating that “looting is not liberation and destruction is not progress”11, adding that “lasting justice will only come by peaceful means”. It is very ironic for someone who launched the War on Terror, brought misery to millions of people in the Middle East, to speak of justice and peace. Of what justice is he talking about? In the topsy-turvy and inversed reality of capitalism, the impunity of the police to beat, harass, arrest, and murder the African-Americans on a daily basis is called ‘justice’. In April 1992, when the African-Americans in Los Angeles rebelled against poverty and systematic racism, a black man in his interview with LA Times said something that is still relevant for the current uprising: “Our people are in pain […] why should we draw a line against violence? The judicial system doesn’t”12. The famous slogan of ‘no justice, no peace’, originally formed during the Black Panthers and other militant groups’ anti-racist struggles in the late 1960s, responds very well to the empty rhetoric of liberalism on the issue of ‘non-violence’: when there is no real justice, socially as well as legally within the juridical order, then do not expect us to be ‘non-violent’. When the Black Panthers took up arms in the ’60s to defend themselves against the everyday police brutalities in their neighbourhoods, they were following Malcolm X’s famous idea that “we are non-violent with people who are nonviolent with us”13. They understood very well that the only adequate response to violence is violence itself.  

One of the great achievements of the current uprising in the United States, so far, has been making a clear distinction between the systematic, racist violence of the police and the spontaneous violence of the proletarians employed to defend themselves. The latter is utilized to force the state and the ruling classes to abolish the prison industrial complex, and to end both racism and its economic coercion of poverty and inequality. The riot and its concomitant ‘violence’, far from being ‘blind’ and ‘irrationally destructive’, express the voice of the voiceless. The protestors in the United States put things on fire in order to be heard in the same way that the proletarians in France wear yellow-vest jackets in order to become visible. More importantly, the form of riot is the medium through which the poor and the dispossessed become radicalized and politicized, as remarked by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:

“For once in their lives, many of the participants can be seen, heard, and felt in public. People are pulled from the margins into a powerful force that can no longer be ignored, beaten, or easily discarded. Offering the first tastes of real freedom, when the police are for once afraid of the crowd, the riot can be destructive, unruly, violent, and unpredictable. But within that contradictory tangle emerge demands and aspirations for a society different from the one we in which we live”.14

While the social unrest in America might have been sparked by the racist killing of George Floyd and by the particular demand for justice, the flame that keeps this movement ignited goes much deeper than that particular racist killing. It pertains, indeed, to reconstructing “a society different from the one we in which we live”, targeting the whole status quo which has increasingly become suffocating for the majority of the global population, especially after the COVID-19 crisis. As opposed to this global inability to breathe, there have emerged massive social movements, revolutions, and uprisings since 2008 onwards that were ‘radical’ enough in the sense that they sought for the roots of things and the subversion of the established order. The recent U.S. uprising must also be located alongside the recent global social unrests. 

The recent experiences of social movements in places like France, where the Gillet-Jaune have been protesting for more than a year (from October 2018 to the outbreak of the Covid-19 in March 2020), show that the state and the ruling classes slowly exhaust social movements through harsh but gradual police repression. The latter makes the protesters think that ‘resistance’ is ultimately useless and leads nowhere, thus decreasing the number of participants in the course of time. The whole challenge before the U.S. proletarians is to find and invent the methods, strategies, and tactics through which they would be able to maintain consistency and continuity by becoming more organized and disciplined. This can only be achieved through the collective reasoning of the proletarians themselves, their ‘general intellect’, and learning from the practices they materialize through political actions at the present and their previous generations in history. As Brother Mouzone, the fictional character in the Wire tv-series puts it: “the most dangerous thing in America is […] nigger with a library card!”. And, finally, it must be noted that the word crisis in the Chinese language means both crisis and opportunity at the same time. Capitalism at the moment is in deep crisis and there is no better opportunity for the U.S. proletariat to take off the emergency brake and stop the system structurally reproducing itself through exploitation, domination, racism, patriarchy, and the subjugation of nature. 

 

1. See Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ‘How Do We Change America’: https://aas.princeton.edu/news/opinion-how-do-we-change-america?fbclid=IwAR35YzTQk5j52EqLbas2yDMBMHRSUc0XPReWkrsGJ5CYm4IMy3YSWClvGZI

2. Clive Lewis, ‘George Floyd was Lynched’, Open Democracy, 6 June: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/george-floyd-was-lynched/

3.  See Gregory L. Caldwell and Keisha L. Green, ‘African Americans and the U.S. Prison-Industrial Complex’ in Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era (New York: Peter Lang Inc, 2012). 

4.  Of those, “2.2 million are in jail; more than 4.1 million are on probation; and almost 1 million are on parole”. See  Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, The Prison-Industrial Complex and the Global Economy (Oakland: Press Pamphlet Series, 2009), p. 4. 

5. Max Daly, ‘How the War on Drugs Enables Police Brutality Against Black People’: https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/3azbek/how-war-on-drugs-enables-police-brutality

6. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (London: Penguin, 2004 [1867]), p. 875.

7. Karl Marx, the Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973 [1857-58]), p. 278

8. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu, How the West Came To Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

9. Marx, Capital, p. 345. 

10. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).

11. Asad Haider, ‘No Justice, No Peace’, Viewpoint Magazine, June 4, 2020: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2020/06/04/no-justice-no-peace/

12. Cited from Taylor, ‘How Do We Change America’.

13. See his famous speech on the non-violent here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXo0lgcOHhg

14. Taylor, ‘How Do We Change America’.

12 Jun, 2020