“I’m claustrophobic, my stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurts, some water or something, please, please, I can’t breathe officer, don’t kill me.” These were some of the last words uttered in desperation by George Perry Floyd Jr before he was pronounced dead as officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Since then millions of people in the U.S. and around the world have poured into streets of large and small cities alike protesting racist police violence and systemic racism. Hundreds of thousands of protesters since have directly experienced the blatant disregard for their lives and rights by police and state violence targeting them. This cannot but have a profound effect on the people protesting and the millions witnessing the unfolding events. It was not long ago when many people worried the end of Sanders’s electoral campaign would lead to cynicism and withdrawal from political activism by the young who had flocked to the Senator’s campaign. Well, no more. Our hope is that a lasting critical consciousness will emerge out of the clarity that these events are bound to impart to those experiencing them directly and to those witnessing them. A critical consciousness that can see the connections between police violence, the prison-industrial complex, institutional racism, the surveillance state, class warfare, the rule of capital, ecological destruction, imperialism (because All Black Lives Matter globally), and of course a dysfunctional political system whose ruling elites are split between those who prefer responding with more state violence, feverish and unhinged talk of Antifa, anarchists, rioters and communist-led violence in the streets, and those who at best would like to co-opt the protests and offer status-quo-friendly-reforms all the while ignoring or dismissing the just demands of the protesters.
Good and Bad Lootings and Riots
Let’s not be fooled by the ruling politician’s rhetoric about the threat of Antifa, riots in the streets, how much they value peaceful protesting, and how much they care about the lives of all black people and all lives too.
In his phone call with governors, President Trump asked that state law enforcement “dominate streets” and “knock out” the “anarchists,” “terrorists,” and “radical left” protesters “so fast like they’re bowling pins.” He called for “5- or 10-year jail terms and repeatedly referred to the coordinated state suppression of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement as a model for state behavior today and said that these troublesome protesters are like or are the same ones from that movement. (And, no, Trump didn’t give credit to Obama for suppressing Occupy.) Earlier he had tweeted that he will designate Antifa as a terrorist organization.
On 4 August the Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing led by Ted Cruz entitled “The Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble: Protecting Speech by Stopping Anarchist Violence.” In the hearing, Ted Cruz accused the BLM founders of being Marxists and of instigating communist violence and the Democrats of avoiding condemnation of Antifa violence. The Democrats condemned all violence by all sides including by white supremacists but would not specifically utter the word Antifa in doing so despite repeated efforts by Cruz. Missing in the hearing was a discussion about how best to respond to the just demands of the protesters and deal with the issues stemming from institutional racism.
Be aware that when politicians insist on peaceful assembly they really have in mind ineffective forms of protest, the kind that are orderly and can be readily and routinely ignored while they go about their merry way with business as usual. Also, be aware that they are not taking a principled stance against violence and looting as such. They never have. How could they? They serve a violent imperial state. None of them adhere to non-violence philosophically. And if they do, they must routinely betray their conviction. Almost all are quite fine with massive state violence visited upon the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless, the ‘internal colonies’ of the system, and of course the darker nations in the Global South. They clearly do not care to address the heart of what has animated the streets of this nation with protest, namely, challenging a racist society that refuses to regard blacks as fully human. As they wrangle among themselves about anarchists, Antifa, and riots, blacks and other vulnerable communities are seeing bankruptcies, evictions, disproportionate COVID-19 deaths, and even more extrajudicial killings without any legal recourse.
Indeed, even on the specific issue of looting and rioting they are guilty of double standards. Here is a no doubt inconvenient bit of historical fact that the state would rather assign to the ‘memory hole’ of history: in 2003, as massive riots and looting were wracking Iraq in the aftermath of the criminal U.S. invasion, the then-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, stated that “stuff happens.” He further declared that “freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” and attributed the looting to “pent-up feelings” of oppression and said that it was “part of the price” for the liberation of Iraq. The U.S. occupying Army refused to intervene with the looting and burning down of Iraq’s national Museum and other significant cultural sites; it only protected the interior and oil ministries. Not so in the U.S. Here, the Army and Federal agents are called in to be deployed against the protesters who are frequently called thugs, outside agitators, rioters, looters, anarchists, Antifa, communist-led, and are threatened by Trump with “vicious dogs,” “ominous weapons,” a call to law enforcement to “dominate streets,” and a throwback-to-the-1967-phrase by a southern segregationist sheriff: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
So, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the ruling elites are rather selective about looting and rioting. They are not driven by matters of principle and conviction. To them, there are good and bad looters, good and bad rioters, just as there are good and bad Muslims.
Serving Wall Street and Empire
The main problem in Washington is not the partisanship that sucks all the oxygen out of the room but the bipartisanship or the consensus about serving Wall Street and empire. To an observer unschooled about the nature and logic of the political system, it may seem politics and Washington have broken down with no hope of extricating either from the abyss they have fallen into. But the truth is that the system works as designed to serve Wall Street and empire above all else.
A new report shows that the U.S. billionaires have added a staggering $700+ billion to their wealth since the pandemic shutdown began, while $6.5 trillion in household wealth disappeared and more than 50 million workers filed for unemployment. Another report tells us that Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, added a record $13 billion to his net worth in one day, reaching a $189 billion and staying on track to become the first trillionaire in the U.S. by 2026. While the billionaires made their astronomical wealth off of people suffering, the political class squabbles over $1,200 checks and who qualifies. As of this writing the Democrats and Republicans are stymied on negotiations over the latest coronavirus stimulus bill and fights to revive the lapsed $600 weekly unemployment benefit through January with Democrats in favor and Republicans wanting to slash it to about $200. How much more pitiful can this get?
Not forgetting empire, here is what the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, tweeted in response to a report that President Trump has had second thoughts about his decision to recognize the fascist Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and that he is open to meeting with president Nicolas Maduro: “Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolas Maduro. As President, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.” Here we have the range of policy differences on an important foreign policy issue between the two sides: it runs from strangling the Venezuelan people and backing an unelected fascist to power to even more enthusiastically strangling the Venezuelan people and backing an unelected fascist to power. Can it get more pathetic than this?
It serves us well to remember that a crucial function of the political system is to ensure a smooth process of accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of corporate capital and the state that serves it, at home and abroad. That’s why the ‘pitiful’ and the ‘pathetic’ are part and parcel of the very DNA of the system. Liberation regarding these matters requires overcoming capitalism and empire.
Another Kind of U.S. Exceptionalism
The one sure way in which the political class in the U.S. is exceptional even in comparison with other ruling classes elsewhere is in its mad resistance to any plans for universal health care. Heck, even Rwanda is working on a national health policy. In the U.S., however, there is scarce any positive or pro-universal health care commentary from anyone that matters in the political class, excepting Senator Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And that, astonishingly, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic during which millions have lost their jobs and their healthcare, since the latter is often linked to employment, and while the U.S. economy has dropped by 32.9% in the second quarter, the worst plunge on record. You might think the establishment democrats may find this particular moment ripe to demonstrate that they care about a most significant concern of their constituency, namely Medicare for All. But just last week the Party’s National Committee panel voted overwhelmingly against an amendment to include Medicare for All as part of its 2020 platform. The DNC panel further rejected an expansion of Medicare to cover children and of dropping the Medicare eligibility from 65 currently to 55.
Remember never to underestimate the subservience of the political class to the tiny sliver of financial oligarchs who control the health “industry” (and much else) in the U.S. and globally. Of course, they refuse a universal health care plan because it would deprive this oligarchy of a massive source of windfall profits while boosting, if you will, the virus of empathy and solidarity among the general population. Long ago the capitalist order identified such sentiments as having deleterious effects on the rule of capital and at the outset of the 20th century established a massive public relations industry dedicated to extricating such sentiments from the hearts and minds of the public. In this, they have not succeeded, as the public by far remains in favor of a universal plan. Instead, what we have is a policy-making process largely insulated from the public and a state captured by the ruling oligarchs.
A Great Unlearning
As Bad as the present dystopian moment is with the advent of coronavirus pandemic, it will compare far more favorably to what is surely coming as a result of climate disruption, unless we act now to prevent it. We’re getting a glimpse of how ill-equipped the profit-above-all-else societies are in dealing with grim scenarios such as a pandemic crisis. Imagine how much exponentially more ill-equipped these same societies will be in confronting the nightmarish scenarios of ecological degradation and climate disruption that they themselves are generating. The latter, unlike the coronavirus, are propelling the planet towards ecocide from which there is no escape. And that’s one crucial difference between the pandemic now and the coming ecocide. Furthermore, unlike the pandemic, there will be no clear guidelines of “social distancing,” “sheltering-at-home,” and wearing of masks, and so on until we defeat the scourge. Ecocide will be final; only ruinous chaos will remain.
What is required now is a kind of Great Unlearning (in contrast to the oft-repeated hope that maybe this pandemic crisis will be a period of great learning) where millions of people will come to reject long cherished orthodoxies about politics, economics, human nature, and how the world works. Of course, learning from the pandemic is important, but we must ask: how much valuable learning can take place if our minds remain burdened by the dead weight of dangerous orthodoxies? So, if you find yourself asking “When can we get back to normal?” know that you have suspended your critical faculties. The pre-pandemic era is that which gave us the present moment of a sociopath in the White House, batshit-crazy Republicans, hypocritical establishment Democrats, a dysfunctional politics, racist policing and institutions, a criminally poor public health response to a pandemic, militarism, and an imperial state. We should be asking instead ‘How can we move forward and build a saner society post-coronavirus?’