“International capitalism cannot be destroyed without the extremes of struggle. The entire colonial world is watching the blacks inside the U.S…We are on the inside. We are the only ones who can get at the monster’s heart…” — George L. Jackson
The African-American working class lives in a perpetual state of crisis as our material and social conditions continue to deteriorate to their lowest points in our history. As Black Studies scholar-activist Sundiata Cha-Jua argues, this “New Nadir” is the result of the holistic nature of racial oppression: it operates at an institutional, individual, and cultural scale. All three levels, expanded through neoliberal capital accumulation, consistently produce living standards that negate basic human needs.
Our Current Moment
As of January 2017, the black labor force participation rate stands at 62.4%; thus, over 1/3 of the African-American population eligible to work is unemployed or no longer actively seeking employment. The wage gap between blacks and whites has widened to 26.7%, its worst rate in four decades. Over 25% of African Americans live in concentrated poverty (neighborhoods or tracts where 40% or more of the residents fall below the federal poverty threshold of $24,000 a year for a family of four), while many other blacks that average between $25,000 and $35,000 a year attempt to survive under similar economic constraints.
The 2007-2008 housing bubble resulted in black household net worth decreasing between 53% and 61%, with future generations facing very little chance of recovery. As public education embraces for-profit policies through charter school expansion, tuition inflation, and slashing programs, working-class people continue to be priced out of education unless they obtain devastating debt.
Socially sanctioned anti-black violence occurs at a higher frequency than lynchings during the first Nadir in the 1890s. Working-class black people and those that have fallen out of the class structure (lumpenproletariat) continue to be disproportionately surveilled, incarcerated, and murdered by state and private forces. We comprise 40% of the U.S. carceral state and over 33% of the civilians killed by police. This is where we are at the current moment.
Reactionary Robots: The Function of Liberal Reformism
Unfortunately, liberal reformists and pseudo-leftists promote identity politics to subdue criticisms of this apartheid structure. As a result, the dominant narrative of struggle in the United States follows five consistent strands: 1) devoid of criticism of the political economy, 2) hierarchal in approach to oppressed groups, 3) opposed to militant resistance tactics (urban rebellion, labor strikes, armed self-defense), 4) possesses no legitimate ties to international working class struggles against war and imperialism, and 5) is dedicated solely to electoral politics, symbolic protests, and capital investment as the solutions to social ills.
As scholar Adolph Reed Jr. argues, identity politics is inherently counterproductive to revolutionary principles, because it disguises objectively right-wing, neoliberal ideology with superficially “progressive” politics centered on social constructs like race, gender, and sexuality, rather than on material conditions and structuralism. This is not a condemnation of current movements for social equality; instead, I argue that liberal interpretations of the social realities of the oppressed actively suppress the role of the structure (i.e. capital accumulation) in creating and maintaining these social constructs. Race, gender, and sexual discrimination must be analyzed in a genuine intersectional manner, as inextricably linked to the material conditions of which they are constituted.
Liberal reformists also exonerate Barack Obama’s neoliberal agenda by propagandizing him as a symbolic icon for being the first black president. Although the United States has acted as the heart for neoliberal imperialism for decades, Obama played a pivotal role in expanding this dominance in the financialization of the global economy and the transoceanic exploitation and destruction of black and brown communities. As writer Joseph Kishore argues, Obama’s legacy is war and repression. He swelled George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to grotesque levels, unleashed bombing in Libya, bloodied Syria, supported Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, and issued drone strikes that killed over 3,000 people, with 80% of the murdered being untargeted civilians. Obama’s military forces were deployed in 138 nations, or 70% of the world!
Obama’s legacy must also include his contradictory stance on democratic rights. He often spoke favorably for democracy, but also stated that he had the authority to assassinate anyone, including U.S. citizens, without due process. He publicly criticized torture, but rewarded Bush torture proponents with positions in his regime. He prosecuted and imprisoned more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined, including Edward Snowden, who exposed the unconstitutional NSA spying program.
Obama recognized racial problems in policing, yet he expanded police militarization, upheld police brutality in court, and publicly demonized black rebels and activists as “criminals” for the 2015 Baltimore Rebellion. Lastly, Obama deepened class warfare through policies that extended both the power of the capitalist class and hardships for the working class.
Following the Great Recession, Obama refused to assist struggling homeowners; instead, he restored the wealth of the financial aristocracy by bailing out banks and corporations. Over his presidency, Obama oversaw a rise in aggregate corporate profits from $671 billion at the end of 2008 to $1.63 trillion in 2016 and in the wealth of the 400 richest Americans from $1.57 trillion to $2.4 trillion. Concurrently, the Obama administration replaced 95% of livable-wage, skilled, working-class jobs lost during the Recession with semi-skilled, part-time jobs. This results in workers falling out of the proletarian class and swelling the sub-working class, where wages are not enough to match rising costs of living. Finally, Obama’s Affordable Care Act provided substandard health services that people could not afford, shifted costs to individuals, and secured higher profits for insurance companies.
Consequently, these policies, alongside the Democratic Party’s alienation of black and white working class voters, and white supremacist Stephen K. Bannon’s populist, economic nationalism discourse, contributed heavily to the presidential election of fascist Donald Trump.
The Extremes of Struggle
The black masses at the heart of this monster must transition towards “the extremes of struggle.” In this new moment unseen in history, it is imperative that we develop a concise, working-class perspective and socialist principles to oppose not only Trump, but the system that produced him, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. We must treat the Trump regime not as an evil aberration in an otherwise democratic society, but instead as the outcome of widening socioeconomic inequality and repression under decades of Democrat and Republican rule. To transform the system, we must link anti-discrimination activism to the fight for equal living standards and the fight against exploitation, war, poverty, and state-sponsored violence. At the intellectual level, it is our responsibility to write and teach political education that emphasizes a critique of structure, capital accumulation, and the social constructs that protect capital. At the grassroots level, we must develop agency-laden institutions: spaces in the community that house organizational and cultural resources for collective action. Local leaders must utilize these institutions to train residents for survival programs, such as meal services, carpools, community banking, amenities-sharing programs, freedom schools, and self-defense. Within these workspaces, kinship networks develop between individuals, resulting in a natural inclination to build collectivity and generate ideas of self-emancipation.
Our pressing task is to abandon liberal reformist demands for recognition within the current system. We can no longer organize alongside factions like the Democratic Party whose interests clash directly with our interests. We must invest our time and resources in alternative political organizations and media that publicize our actual material realities. As Frantz Fanon stated, we, the masses, have to truly believe that everything depends on us, because there is no famous individual that will take responsibility; the ultimate goal is complete self-determination for us all.