You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future
Not a future that will be but one that might be
This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one
—Run the Jewels, Thieves (2016)
We are living amid intimations of end times. Everywhere we look disaster capitalism is on full display. As the calendar turned to autumn 2020, over a million people worldwide lay dead of the Covid-19 pandemic. Infernos swept Indonesia, Brazil, and the western United States, as blazing fires destroyed millions of acres of forest and hurled noxious smoke clouds across continents. Global job loss, eviction, and hunger wreaked havoc on the lives of more people than could reasonably be counted. And as the poor and the displaced pushed back, they were greeted with bullets, tear gas, and the murderous violence of police and border guards.
Still, in the face of violence and disaster, the people resisted. Then, on May 25, 2020, millions in the United States erupted into the streets.
We all saw it. A long eight minutes and forty-six seconds, on a viral video loop: the murder of George Floyd at the hand of Minn- eapolis police sparked four months of uprisings, at once a last resort and a new beginning for tens of millions taking the streets. A threshold had been crossed. Not even in the 1960s and early ’70s did we see a movement so militant, so confrontational, so large, so multiracial, and so geographically extensive as this one.
By early July, as white supremacist monuments toppled and police stations burned, writers at the New York Times proclaimed the uprising “the largest movement in U.S. history.” Polls at the time suggested that as many as 26 million people in about 2,500 cities and towns had taken action in defense of Black Lives. Considerable evidence also suggests that the courage and solidarity of millions in the streets emboldened workers to undertake strikes and disruptive action in workplaces. Indeed, while police violence has been at the core of the upheaval, the movement has targeted all forms of violence against the exploited and oppressed. This “is not ‘our’ city and has never been meant for us,” one BLM group defiantly declared. “Over the past few months, too many people—disproportionately Black and Brown—have lost their jobs, lost their income, lost their homes, and lost their lives as the city has done nothing and the elite have profited.” Within this Black-led, multiracial uprising against racist police violence there has pulsated an abiding hostility to capitalism as a system.
Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the rallying of hundreds of thousands around the demand to defund the police. The result of decades of work by police and prison abolitionists, this demand challenges policing as a capitalist form of rule. It calls not for reform but for the dismantling of this frontline institution of racial and class domination.
Equally inspiring, the insurgency has been global, with mass solidarity protests radiating out from France to Japan, from South Africa to Palestine. As we moved through the summer, momentous popular upheavals shook Belarus, where mass strikes had emerged, and Thailand, where protests ignited by students targeted the monarchy. And in Colombia, which was rocked by mass strikes in 2019, September protests against police brutality sparked yet another general strike by unions. We find ourselves in the thick of an increasingly global uprising that is nurturing powerfully internationalist sensibilities.
Count us among those inspired and uplifted by the antiracist rebellion in the United States and the resurgence of struggles abroad. Count us too among those who are aware of the ominous risks we confront.
Capitalism is the Virus
But capital not only lives upon labour. Like a master, at once distinguished and barbarous, it drags with it into its grave the corpses of its slaves, whole hecatombs of workers, who perish in the crises.
Wage Labour and Capital (1847)
The US governments disastrously mishandled response to the Covid-19 pandemic exemplifies the utter inadequacy of bourgeois institutions where human life is concerned. While corpses mounted in New York City, the ruling class response, buttressed by the death-cult movement to “reopen,” transformed the United States into the world’s deadliest Covid hotspot. The reopeners—sections of the capitalist class with the petty bourgeoisie as its public face—redefined essential workers from “workers essential to collective survival” to “workers essential to profit.” But since all wage labor is necessary to the system, the essential/nonessential worker divide has morphed into a divide between “workers who have to be onsite to make us money” and “workers who can make us money from home.” The reopeners then have the audacity to mask their machinations as concern for the working class: “What about parents who can’t work with children at home? What about service industry workers?” they ask. We’re expected to believe bosses who deny parental leave are suddenly concerned about the emotional burdens of social reproduction. We’re expected to believe restauranteurs and retail conglomerates suddenly care about the wellbeing of a workforce they don’t even think deserves health insurance or paid time off. Instead of supporting paid time off for parents and demanding universal internet access, they pit working parents against teachers. Instead of instituting a Covid wage and a moratorium on rents and evictions, they press service workers to choose between their housing and their health. This is why we must demand pro-social rather than profit-based solutions.
Nations that put the entire onus on workers to reopen their economies rather than pursuing policies to defeat the virus (for example, US, Brazil, and Sweden) have the highest deaths per capita in the world. This clearly fits with a reopening narrative that is inherently eugenicist. Reopeners often claim that “only” 0.2 percent of children will die; that “only” people with pre-existing conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes will die; and that “only” the elderly will die. Reducing Covid-19’s harm to a death count is another way of saying, “suck it up and get back to work.” Moreover, there is no such thing as working class solidarity without workers who aren’t in so-called “perfect health,” without the elderly, and without hundreds of thousands of working people’s children.
Hyper-rationalist eugenicists are aligning with irrationalist anti-vaxxers and fueling the far right, already emboldened by the Trump years. Old antisemitic conspiracy theories are gaining ground. As white supremacism merges with eugenicist Covid-denial, we are reminded again that our collective survival depends on the abolition of this ruinous system. Never have Marxist analyses been more critical. Rarely have Marxist politics been more crucial.
In fact, the rise of an increasingly murderous far right should focus our attention on the urgent necessity of building a fighting left. There is little agreement on the left about the re-emergence of neofascist movements and the social forces they represent. But two things are clear. First, that white supremacist groups are increasingly a threat to our movements. And, second, that they are a regular outgrowth of US capitalism. Right-wing violence is as old as the United States and as long-lasting. Elders in our midst can remember the executions of Civil Rights workers or the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that took the lives of four Black children.
It is true, however, that the Trump years fueled a growth in the extreme right and in their use of violence against antiracist protesters. More than any other president in recent memory, Trump has repeatedly wielded the authority of the state to openly instigate right-wing extremists. When he hinted at not accepting the democratic mandate of the November elections, we should all have gone onto high alert. Whatever disagreements the left has over characterizing the Trump era or the American state under Trump, we should agree on two things: that bourgeois democrats are the least effective defenders of liberal democracy when challenged by the right; and that the most effective counter to right-wing assaults on electoral rights is popular uprisings on the streets and in our places of work.
But none of this will be possible without a radical left whose compass is set on antiracism. This should be self-evident in a country like the United States. Alas, it bears repeating. Spectre stands uncompromisingly for an anticapitalist left. But this cannot be an abstraction where actually existing capitalism is founded upon racism, misogyny, and heterosexism. As we put it in the editorial statement in the first issue of Spectre, “Anti-oppression struggles are not alternatives or even supplements to class struggle but constitute key elements of the class struggle in the present era.”
Building the Left We Need
At the time of writing (September 2020), we do not yet know the victor of the November electoral contest. But we do know a great deal about what we can expect from the White House in the coming years, regardless of which establishment party holds office. The president will face growing crises related to the Covid-19 pandemic, burgeoning unemployment and houselessness, disastrous climate change, and racist police brutality, among countless other catastrophes. And the politicians’ responses will draw from one and the same play book. While Trump certainly tried to extend presidential powers in authoritarian directions, both candidates dismissed BLM’s demand to defund and abolish police departments, and sought to outdo one another in their calls to prosecute “anarchists” and even to increase police funding, which already accounts for an astronomically high percentage of most municipal budgets.
The message is clear: while there is some disagreement among the rulers about how to move forward, the US capitalist class as a whole will make few concessions to working class and oppressed people. The neoliberal slashing of social spending will continue. Inevitably, this will spark dissatisfaction, unrest, and resistance—especially as the Covid-19 disaster has revealed the depth of the bourgeoisie’s incompetence to lead. For this, the American ruling class as a whole has an answer: more police. It is especially dismal that the best their class can offer is the promise of a return to the status quo prior to Donald Trump—as though for most of us that were not a threat but a promise.
After the election, the socialist left will face a number of challenges. In the event that Trump and his minions refuse to acknowledge the possible election of Biden, the right will try to claim the streets. Should Trump be re-elected, they will do so with a sense of triumph. In each case, the left will have to use its power in numbers—the sort of numbers we witnessed in the uprising after the murder of George Floyd. We cannot afford to rely on the courts and other constitutional mechanisms that Democrats will push to defend the vote. As the saying goes, no one is coming to save us. The right can be defeated only by our own mass struggles—in streets, workplaces, and communities. Crucially, we will need to renew our struggles across the board: for safe reopenings of workplaces (where rank-and-file teachers in NYC are setting an example for us all) and for expanded unemployment benefits; against evictions and foreclosures; against violent arms of the state, such as ICE and the police (including getting cops out of the schools); and against the revitalized armed far right gangs that are an existential threat to all attempts to resist capital. In every one of these struggles, the socialist left needs to promote enduring independent, grassroots and member-controlled organizations that can carry on during both the high and low points of mass activism.
None of this is a pipedream. The energy, courage, and determination exhibited in the upheaval that followed the execution of George Floyd are the stuff out of which revolutionary movements and organizations can be built. Millions of people are being radicalized as a result of their confrontations with racist police forces. As one Howard University student put it:
I was out here fighting for peace, asking people not to be aggressive, saying, “Don’t do anything,” and then I got shot at by rubber bullets. Then I got tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed…so now I feel like it’s well within our rights to fight back as hard as we can. People might say I’ve been radicalized, but you know what? I have absolutely been radicalized—and it’s the government’s fault.
In the coming months and years, millions more can be radicalized in the fight for safety at work, against evictions, for cops out of schools, for defense of a woman’s right to choose, for medicare for all. And out of that radicalization, a new socialist left can grow.
To be sure, amid the multiple crises of disaster capitalism, there will be difficult moments in the struggles ahead. But the growing resistances around us are grounds for hope.