The Horrors of the Fantasyland

Brenan Daniels

 

We are living in a deeply society steeped in fantasy, to the point where it is in many ways a nightmare, but worse as the horrors are real. It is devoid of any empathy, compassion, and we are not only destroying the society, but we are also slowly killing ourselves.

During this most recent election, two wretched candidates were fostered upon us. One that has shown their hatred for anyone who is different (different in this case meaning not an able-bodied white male), who is unintelligible, and wants to wage a class war on the poor and vulnerable, while increasing the security state.

The other candidate, while not bigoted, wanted to continue to exact same policies that led us to this current situation where the wealth divide widens more and more. She was also as much of, if not moreso, a war hawk than her Republican counterpart, actively pushing for actions that could result in a confrontation with Russia.

The policies of the current President have harmed and are going to harm a number of people, including those who voted for him. However, his supporters back these policies, under the illusion that they will somehow benefit, whether it be in the form of well paying jobs or that people who they perceive to threaten the country will be gone. What is currently being enacted, however, will aid in their own destruction, but they hold on to this idea as it is all they have left, having been victims of parasitic corporations that have gotten blood from the people and have moved on to the next prey.

The Democrats, however, are themselves under a spell that the Russians are somehow involved in Trump’s election and that is why Clinton lost, when that has been said to be untrue by a number of people and most recently those who were in the Clinton camp. Yet, each group believes they are correct and engages in dehumanization or degradation, such as calling people Trumpanzees.

Strangely enough, though, while Clinton and Trump supporters may be at each other’s throats, they both seem to hold the same idea: that if ‘their candidate’ had been elected (or now that ‘their candidate’ is in office in the case of Trump supporters), that things will be fine. Both groups see the situation mainly, if not entirely through rose-colored glasses while ignoring the reality of what is happening or very well could have happened with regards to Clinton.

Furthermore, society seems to have a massive disconnect with reality in the realm of economics. The majority of people still support capitalism, when it is that very system that has aided in their past and present suffering, as can be seen in everything from the 2008 financial crash to the ‘free trade’ agreements that are still on the table, such as the Trade In Services Agreement to the privatization of education. Many have a positive view of the economy, however, 95% of new jobs under Obama were part time or contract. On top of that, even though the country hates Congress, yet they still elect the same politicians, most of whom are millionaires and want to enact the very policies that will harm their constituents. It is here that we reach a different level of fantasy, where those in charge are living in a fantasyland. Paul Ryan and others in Congress are attempting to get Obamacare repealed even though millions would lose coverage, including those who backed Trump. At a higher level, we have the current Secretary of State who seems to be pushing for a war with North Korea when the American people themselves don’t want another war.

So why does any of this matter? Why should anyone care? This is important as it is a major sign of a society in decline. When the power structures, but more importantly the people, are disassociated from the reality of what is actually occurring to them, it means that the society may soon no longer be able to function. However, it also shows that when reality does finally set in, not just economically and politically but also environmentally, the much worse as people will be scrambling to create alternatives and generally attempt to survive. The fantasyland matters as it act as a pacifier of sorts, it is the very thing that is hindering us from radically transforming our society from a culture of narcissism and death to a culture of love and life.

George Jackson on the Psychology of Fascism

George-Jackson-web

“The shock troops of fascism on the mass political level are drawn from members of the lower-middle class who feel the upward thrust of the lower classes more acutely. These classes feel that any dislocation of the present economy resulting from the upward thrust of the masses would affect their status first. They are joined by that sector of the working class which is backward enough to be affected by nationalistic trappings and loyalty syndrome that sociologists have termed the ‘Authoritarian Personality.’ One primary aim of the fascist arrangement is to extend and develop this new pig class, to degenerate and diffuse working-class consciousness with a psycho-social appeal to man’s herd instincts. Development and exploitation of the authoritarian syndrome is at the center of ‘totalitarian’ capitalism (fascism). It feeds on a small but false sense of class consciousness and the need for community.”

– George Jackson
“Blood In My Eye: The Political Thought of Comrade George Jackson” (1972)

Here We Go Again: Socialists, Democrats, and the Future of the Left

Charles Wofford

In his article “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries,” Daniel Moraff, a self-described democratic socialist, demonstrates a thoroughly liberal and pedestrian understanding of how social change occurs. There are several errors of history and of reasoning in the article which I hope to illustrate here.

Our problems begin in the first paragraph, where Moraff conflates “winning elections” and “building power.” As a socialist, one would think Moraff would understand that power is in the People, in the mass movements and organization that takes place in communities by and for community members. The People provide the labor and do the dirty work upon which the political class maintains its privilege. If the People get angry and decide in sufficient number not to participate in the system anymore, then the basis of political privilege will teeter and possibly collapse, and those in power would generally rather give up what’s been demanded of them rather than lose their power entirely.

In the second section Moraff references Kim Moody’s article in Jacobin magazine titled, “From Realignment to Reinforcement.” Moraff writes, “One cannot argue with Moody’s contention that those currently in control of the party are rich, powerful and odious. They are also, as Moody points out, firmly determined to repel left challenges within the party. These same interests poured millions into the Hillary Clinton campaign, and pour millions more into incumbency protection every cycle.” Moraff misses however the part where Moody says, “The party structure and establishment has been fortified against its rivals, external and internal.” Moody is correct; the party structure has been fortified against its rivals. Moraff falls into an individualist fallacy when he argues that it is simply about “odious” people, as though we can simply replace the people and the whole system will work. A socialist ought to know better.

If it were merely about corrupt people, then we wouldn’t need to be anti-capitalist at all. All we would need is to make sure “progressives” got into political an corporate offices. Then we could have total, unfettered capitalism, and because those with power aren’t “odious,” we wouldn’t need to worry about exploitation, environmental destruction, war, etc.

Some basic Marxist philosophy can help to clarify the point. In “The German Ideology,” Marx writes, “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to reproduce…the nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” In other words, people are born into their circumstances, not the other way around. The structures in which people live and work have greater influence on who they are as individuals than vice versa. So we cannot simply pin the problems of the Democratic Party on the “odiousness” of its leaders. Just as we condemn capitalism as a system, so must we recognize the Democratic party is part of that system which must be condemned.

Moraff asks throughout his article what alternatives there can be to running socialists as democrats. If you assume that winning elections is the same as building power (or the only way to do so) then it’s hard to see an answer. But here are a few examples of progressive change in recent American history that I think illustrate the distinction between being in office and having power.

The first is the signing of the 1965 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson did not sign that bill into law because he was a benevolent philanthropist and really felt for the struggle of colored folk. Remember, this was the president who escalated the Vietnam War into the hideous conflict it became. Descriptions of him by those who knew him and extant audio recordings show Johnson to be possibly the most arrogant president in American history. Yet he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Why?

Because one of the main functions of the president is to preserve the nation. And as the demonstrations, boycotts, riots, strikes, and other forms of disobedience and popular organization and resistance began to take their toll on society, the power-that-were recognized the precariousness of the situation. The bottom was coming for the top, and the top had to do something. And, as stated above, those in power would sooner give up a little bit of their power than lose all of it. So in the end Johnson, as a representative of the power-that-were, was compelled to sign that act into law by virtue of the mass popular pressure applied to him.

A second example is Richard Nixon ending the Vietnam War. Anyone who thinks that Nixon was some peace-loving progressive has never opened a history book: Nixon’s name is practically synonymous with the warmongering arch-conservative. Yet he ended the Vietnam War. Why?

Exactly the same reasons as above: the resistance at home, and the resistance of the military in Vietnam which was starting to collapse. Nixon, despite his personal wishes, was compelled to end the war because of the popular pressures placed on his administration and his duty-as defined by the structure of the institution-to preserve the nation.

Those are two recent examples, but that is how social change always happens. If we continue to divert our energies into the black hole that is the Democratic Party, then socialism will never come. You cannot elect socialism: it can only come about through a revolution that will overturn the legal fiction of private property, the protection of which the U.S. government is constitutionally predicated.

The lesson is this: We need not look to the powerful; we need only remember who the powerful truly are.

The Democratic Socialists of America seems to serve two functions: one is to be a kind of transition group for those who are gradually disconnecting from liberal ideology. The other is to act as a net to catch those who might otherwise go to actual radical organizations. There are DSAers who support democrats, and there are radicals in the DSA too. But sooner or later the DSA as an organization is going to have to choose which side it is on: the capitalists, or the revolutionaries.

Rethinking the Marxist Conception of Revolution

Chris Wright

In the twenty-first century, as capitalism enters an epoch of unprecedented crisis, it is time to reconsider the Marxist theory of proletarian revolution. More precisely, it is time to critically reconsider it, to determine if it has to be revised in order to speak more directly to our own time and our own struggles. It was, after all, conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, in a political and social context very different from the present. Given the 160-year span from then to now, one might expect it to require a bit of updating. In this article I’ll argue that it does need to be revised, both for a priori reasons of consistency with the body of Marx’s thought and in order to make it more relevant to the contemporary scene. That is, I’ll argue that when Marx conceptualized revolution in terms of a fettering of the productive forces by production relations, as well as in terms of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” he was the victim of both intellectual sloppiness and a misunderstanding of his own system. Accordingly, I will purify Marx’s conception of revolution of his and his followers’ mistakes. What we’ll find is that the purification not only makes the theory more cogent but updates it for our own time, in such a way that it can teach activists strategic lessons.

In brief, I’ll conclude that in order to make Marxism consistent with itself it is necessary to abandon the statist perspective to which Marx and Engels arguably were committed, and which they transmitted to most of their successors. It is necessary to conceive of revolution in a gradualist way, not as a sudden historical “rupture” in which the working class or its representatives take over the national state and organize social reconstruction on the basis of a unitary political will (the proletarian dictatorship). According to a properly understood Marxism, even the early stages of the transition from capitalism to post-capitalism must take place over generations, and not in a planned way but unconsciously and rather “spontaneously,” in a process slightly comparable to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I will also argue that my revision can be the basis, finally, for a rapprochement between Marxists and anarchists. [1]

*

Marx has, in effect, two theories of revolution, one that applies only to the transition from capitalism to socialism and another that is more transhistorical, applying, for instance, also to the earlier transition between feudalism and capitalism. The former emerges from his analysis of capitalist economic dynamics, according to which a strong tendency toward class polarization divides society, in the long run, between a small elite of big capitalists and a huge majority of relatively immiserated workers, who finally succeed in overthrowing the capitalist state and organizing a socialist one. It is the transhistorical theory, however, that I will focus on here. Its locus classicus is the last four sentences of the following paragraph from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of th ese relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or-this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms-with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

This paragraph has inspired reams of commentary and criticism, but for our purposes a few critical remarks will suffice. First of all, it is clearly the barest of outlines, desperately in need of elaboration. Unfortunately, nowhere in Marx’s writings does he elaborate it in a rigorous way. Second, it is stated in functionalist terms. Revolution happens supposedly because the productive forces-i.e., technology, scientific knowledge, and the skills of the labor force-have evolved to such a point that production relations are no longer compatible with their socially efficient use and development. But what are the causal mechanisms that connect this functionalist concept of “fettering of the productive forces” to social revolution? As far as I know, nowhere does Marx express his theory in causal, as opposed to functionalist, terms.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that, as it is stated above, the theory verges on meaninglessness. How does one determine when production relations have started to impede the use and development of productive forces? It would seem that to some extent they are always doing so. In capitalism, for example, one can point to the following facts: (1) recurring recessions and depressions periodically make useless much of society’s productive capacity; (2) enormous amounts of resources are wasted on socially useless advertising and marketing campaigns; (3) there is a lack of incentives for capital to invest in public goods such mass transit, the provision of free education, and public parks; (4) the recent financialization of the Western economy has entailed investment not in the improvement of infrastructure but in glorified gambling that doesn’t benefit society; (5) artificial obstacles such as intellectual copyright laws hinder the development and diffusion of knowledge and technology; (6) a colossal level of expenditures is devoted to war and destructive military technology; (7) in general, capitalism distributes resources in a profoundly irrational way, such that, for example, hundreds of millions of people starve while a few become multi-billionaires. Despite all this, however, no transition to a new society has happened.

Indeed, in other respects capitalism continues to develop productive forces, as shown by recent momentous advances in information technology. It’s true that most of this technology was originally developed in the state sector;[2] nevertheless, the broader economic and social context was and is that of capitalism. It is therefore clear that a mode of production can “fetter” and “develop” productive forces at the same time, a fact Marx did not acknowledge.

In order to salvage his hypothesis quoted above, and in fact to make it quite useful, a subtle revision is necessary. We have to replace his idea of a conflict between productive forces and production relations with that of a conflict between two sets of production relations, one of which uses productive forces in a more socially rational and “un-fettering” way than the other. This change, slight as it might seem, has major consequences for the Marxist conception of revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that, in addition to making the theory logically and empirically cogent, it changes its entire orientation, from advocating a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that directs social and economic reconstruction to advocating a more grassroots-centered long-term evolution of social movements that remake the economy and society from the ground up.

My revision of the theory, then, is simply that at certain moments in history, new forces and relations of production evolve in an older economic, social, political, and cultural framework, undermining it from within. The gradual process of social revolution begins to happen when the old set of production relations fetters, or irrationally uses, productive forces in relation to the new set of widely emerging production relations . The “in relation to…” that I have added saves the Marxian theory from meaninglessness, for it indicates a definite point at which the “old” society really begins to yield to the “new” one, namely when an emergent economy has evolved to the point that it commands substantial resources and is clearly more “effective” or “powerful” in some sense than the old economy. The first time such a radical transformation ever happened was with the Neolithic Revolution (or Agricultural Revolution), which started around 12,000 years ago. As knowledge and techniques of agriculture developed that made possible sedentary populations, the hunter-gatherer mode of production withered away, as did the ways of life appropriate to it.

Similarly, starting around the thirteenth century in parts of Europe, an economy and society organized around manorialism and feudalism began to transform into an economy centered in the accumulation of capital. Several factors contributed to this process, among them (1) the revival of long-distance trade (after centuries of Europe’s relative isolation from the rest of the world), which stimulated the growth of merchant capitalism in the urban interstices of the feudal order; (2) mercantile support for the growth of the nation-state with a strong central authority that could dismantle feudal restrictions to trade and integrated markets; (3) the rise, particularly in England, of a class of agrarian capitalists who took advantage of new national and international markets (e.g., for wool) by investing in improved cultivation methods and enclosing formerly communal lands to use them for pasturage; (4) the partly resultant migration of masses of the peasantry to cities, where, during the centuries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth, they added greatly to the class of laborers who could be used in manufacturing; (5) the discovery of the Americas, which further stimulated commerce and the accumulation of wealth.

In short, from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, capitalist classes-agrarian, mercantile, financial, and industrial-emerged in Europe, aided by technological innovations such as the printing press and then, later on, by all the technologies that were made possible by the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. All this is just to say that in the womb of the old society, new productive forces and production relations evolved that were more dynamic and wealth-generating than earlier ones. Moreover, on the foundation of these new technologies, economic relations, and scientific discourses arose new social, political, and cultural relations and ideologies that were propagated by the most dynamic groups with the most resources, i.e., the bourgeoisie and its intellectual hangers-on. [3]

My correction of Marx’s formulation of his hypothesis in the abovementioned Preface has another advantage besides making the theory more meaningful: it also supplies a causal mechanism by which a particular mode of production’s “fettering of the productive forces” leads to revolution-indeed, tosuccessful revolution. The mechanism is that the emergent mode of production, in being less dysfunctional or more socially rational than the dominant mode, eventually (after reaching a certain visibility in the society) attracts vast numbers of adherents who participate in it and propagandize for it-especially if the social context is one of general economic stagnation and class polarization, due to the dominant mode of production’s dysfunctionality.

Moreover, this latter condition means that, after a long evolution, the emergent economic relations and their institutional partisans will have access to so many resources that they will be able to triumph economically and politically over the reactionary partisans of the old, deteriorating economy. This, of course, is what ultimately ensured the political success of the bourgeoisie in its confrontations with the feudal aristocracy. Likewise, one can predict that if capitalism continues to stagnate and experience massive crisis over the next century, a new, more cooperative mode of production that has developed in the interstices of capitalist society may eventually mount the summits of political power.

In short, my seemingly minor revision provides a condition for the success of anti-capitalist revolution, and thus helps explain why no such revolution has so far been successful in the long run (namely because the condition has been absent). Another way of seeing the implications and advantages of the revision is by contrasting it with the views of orthodox Marxists. A single sentence from Friedrich Engels sums up these views: “The proletariat seizes state power, and then transforms the means of production into state property.” [4] This statement, approved by Lenin and apparently also by Marx, encapsulates the mistaken statist perspective of the orthodox Marxist conception of proletarian revolution.

This perspective is briefly described in the Communist Manifesto, where Marx writes, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class,” and then lays out a ten-point plan of social reconstruction by means of state decrees. By the 1870s Marx had abandoned the specifics of his earlier plan, but his (qualified) statism remained, and transmitted itself to his followers. [5] It is true that orthodox Marxists expect the state, “as a state,” to somehow (inexplicably) wither away eventually, but they do have a statist point of view in relation to the early stages of revolution.

This statist vision emerges naturally from Marx’s famous passage quoted above, in that the idea of a conflict between the rational use and development of productive forces and the fettering nature of current production relations suggests that at some point a social “explosion” will occur whereby the productive forces are finally liberated from the chains of the irrational mode of production. Pressure builds up, so to speak, over many years, as the mode of production keeps fettering the socially rational use of technology and scientific knowledge; through the agency of the working class, the productive forces struggle against the shackles of economic relations; at long last they burst free, when the working class takes over the state and reorganizes the economy. These are the metaphors naturally conjured by the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

But there are logical and empirical problems with the statist view, the view according to which the substance of social revolution occurs after the seizure of state power. First of all, it is in tension with the Marxian conception of social dynamics. Briefly stated, Marx sees the economy-rightly-as the relative foundation of the rest of society, including politics, which suggests that a post-capitalist social revolution cannot be politically willed and imposed. This would seem to reverse the order of “dominant causality,” from politics to the economy rather than vice versa. Moreover, such extreme statism exalts will as determining human affairs, a notion that is quite incompatible with the dialectical spirit of Marxism.

According to “dialectics,” history really happens “behind the backs” of actors: it evolves “unconsciously,” so to speak, as Hegel understood. Social and institutional conflicts work themselves out, slowly, through the actions of large numbers of people who generally have little idea of the true historical significance of their acts. As Marx said, we should never trust the self-interpretations of historical actors. And yet apparently he suspends this injunction, and his whole dialectical method, when it comes to the so-called proletarian revolution. These historical actors are somehow supposed to have perfect understanding of themselves and their place in history, and their historical designs are supposed to work out perfectly and straightforwardly-despite the massive complexity and “dialectical contradictions” of society.

The reality is that if “the working class” or its ostensible representatives seize control of the state in a predominantly capitalist society-and if, miraculously, they are not crushed by the forces of reaction-they can expect to face overwhelming obstacles to the realization of their revolutionary plans. Some of these obstacles are straightforward: for example, divisions among the new ruling elite, divisions within the working class itself (which is not a unitary entity), popular resistance to plans to remake the economy, the necessity for brutal authoritarian methods of rule in order to force people to accept the new government’s plans, the inevitable creation of a large bureaucracy to carry out so-called reconstruction, etc. Fundamental to all these obstacles is the fact that the revolutionaries have to contend with the institutional legacies of capitalism: relations of coercion and domination condition everything the government does, and there is no way to break free of them. They cannot be magically transcended through political will. In particular, it is impossible through top-down directives to transform production relations from authoritarian to democratic: Marxism itself suggests that the state is not socially creative in this way. The hope to reorganize exploitative relations of production into liberatory, democratic relations by means of bureaucracy and the exercise of a unitary political will is utterly utopian and un-Marxist.

The record of so-called Communist revolutions in the twentieth century is instructive. While some Marxists may deny that lessons should be drawn from these revolutions, since they happened in relatively “primitive” rather than advanced capitalist countries, the experiences are at least suggestive. For what they created in their respective societies was not socialism (workers’ democratic control of production) or communism (a classless, stateless, moneyless society of anarchistic democracy) but a kind of ultra-statist state capitalism. To quote the economist Richard Wolff, “the internal organization of the vast majority of industrial enterprises [in Communist countries] remained capitalist. The productive workers continued in all cases to produce surpluses: they added more in value by their labor than what they received in return for that labor. Their surpluses were in all cases appropriated and distributed by others.” [6] Workers continued to be viciously exploited and oppressed, as in capitalism; the accumulation of capital continued to be the overriding systemic imperative, to which human needs were subordinated. While there are specific historical reasons for the way these economies developed, the general underlying condition was that it was and is impossible to transcend the capitalist framework if the political revolution takes place in a capitalist world, ultimately because the economy dominates politics more than political will can dominate the economy.

In any case, it was and is breathtakingly utopian to think that an attempted seizing of the state in an advanced and still overwhelmingly capitalist country, however crisis-ridden its economy, could ever succeed, because the ruling class has a monopoly over the most sophisticated and destructive means of violence available in the world. Even rebellions in relatively primitive countries have almost always been crushed, first because the ruling classes there had disproportionate access to means of violence, and second because the ruling classes in more advanced countries could send their even more sophisticated instruments of warfare to these countries in order to put down the revolution. But if a mass rebellion came close to overthrowing the regime of one of the core capitalist nations, as opposed to a peripheral one, the reaction of ruling classes worldwide would be nearly apocalyptic. They would likely prefer the nuclear destruction of civilization to permitting the working class or some subsection of it to take over a central capitalist state.

Thus, the only possible way-and the only Marxist way-for a transition out of capitalism to occur is that it be grounded in, and organized on the basis of, the new, gradually and widely emerging production relations themselves. This is the condition that has been absent in all attempts at revolution so far, and it explains why, aside from a few isolated pockets of momentary socialism (such as Catalonia in 1936),[7] they never managed to transcend a kind of state capitalism. They existed in a capitalist world, so they were constrained by the institutional limits of that world.

Ironically, Marx understood that this would be the case unless the revolution was international. He understood that “socialism in one country” is impossible. He knew that unless a revolution in Russia triggered or coincided with revolutions elsewhere, which on an international scale worked together, so to speak, to build a socialist mode of production, it was doomed to failure. What he did not understand was that the only way a revolution can be international is that it happen in a vaguely similar way to the centuries-long “bourgeois revolution” in Europe and North America, namely by sprouting first on the local level, the municipal level, the regional level, and expanding on that “grassroots” basis. The hope that the states and ruling classes of many nations can fall at approximately the same time to a succession of national uprisings of workers-which is the only way that Marx’s conception of revolution can come to pass-was always wildly unrealistic, again because of the nature of capitalist power relations that Marxism itself clarifies.

The alternative paradigm of revolution sketched here is not only more logically consistent and realistic; it is also the only one appropriate to the twenty-first century. For we are beginning to see the glimmers of new production relations on which a future society will have to be erected. This article is primarily theoretical, not empirical, so I will not discuss recent developments in depth. It will suffice to mention that such ideas as public banking, municipal enterprise, worker cooperatives, and participatory budgeting are becoming ever more popular, as scholar-activists like Gar Alperovitz, Richard Wolff, and Ellen Brown, and magazines such as Yes! Magazine and In These Times, publicize them.

Incipient popular movements are coalescing around anti-capitalist institutions associated with the “solidarity economy,” as this cooperative political economy has been called. For many years the World Social Forum has served as a venue to promote such non-capitalist initiatives, where activists from around the world can propose new ideas, publicize their work, connect with one another, and birth new regional or transnational organizations to spread the ethos of “cooperativism.” One can predict that as society descends into prolonged crisis-economic, political, social, and environmental crisis-worldwide activism on behalf of a more cooperative, democratic economy and politics will grow in influence, ultimately making possible, perhaps, a gradual transformation of the corporatist political economy of the present into something more socialistic, i.e., economically democratic.

It will certainly not be a peaceful process, as innumerable political clashes with oligarchical authorities will have to occur. And it will not be consummated in the short term, likely requiring well over a century to carve out even the basic infrastructure of a post-capitalist society. Nevertheless, given the unsustainability of the global corporate-capitalist regime, it would seem that the only alternative to complete social collapse and an ensuing Hobbesian state of nature is this slow transformation-proceeding on the foundation of slowly emerging anti-capitalist production relations-to a more democratic political economy.[8]

Another advantage of the revision I have made to Marx’s conception of revolution-besides providing an analytical framework to interpret the emerging solidarity economy-is that it shows a way out of the sectarian conflicts between Marxists and anarchists that have afflicted the left since Marx’s bitter fight with Bakunin. The way to transcend these old divisions is to recognize that, in its prescriptions and ideals, Marxism is not so different from certain strains of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism. Indeed, properly understood, Leninist vanguardism and elitism-or any other statist version of Marxism-is less Marxian than anarcho-syndicalism, or any school of thought committed to building the new society within the shell of the old.

“Every new social structure makes organs for itself in the body of the old organism,” the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker writes. “Without this preliminary any social evolution is unthinkable. Even revolutions can only develop and mature the germs which already exist and have made their way into the consciousness of men; they cannot themselves create these germs or generate new worlds out of nothing.” [9] The institutions around which anarcho-syndicalists hope to construct a new society are labor unions and labor councils-organized in federations and possessing somewhat different functions than they have in capitalist society-but whatever one thinks of these specific institutions as germs of the future, one can agree with the basic premise of prefigurative politics (or economics). And it is this that is, or should be seen as, quintessentially Marxist.

We may recall, in addition, that the “economism” of anarcho-syndicalism that Gramsci so deplored is reminiscent of Marxism’s materialism and economism. Both schools of thought privilege economics over politics and culture, focusing on economic struggles and such tools of working-class agency as unions and labor councils (though Marxists have generally acknowledged the potential utility of political parties as well). For both, the class struggle is paramount. For both, workers’ self-organization is the means to triumph over capitalism. James P. Cannon has a telling remark in the context of a discussion of the anarcho-syndicalist IWW: “The IWW borrowed something from Marxism; quite a bit, in fact. Its two principal weapons-the doctrine of the class struggle and the idea that the workers must accomplish their own emancipation through their own organized power-came from this mighty arsenal.” [10] The very life and work of Marx evince an unshakeable commitment to the idea of working-class initiative, “self-activity” (Selbsttätigkeit ), self-organization. The word “self-activity” evolved into the even more anarchist concept of “spontaneity” under the pen of Marx’s disciple Rosa Luxemburg, who devoted herself to elaborating and acting on the Marxist belief in workers’ dignity, rationality, and creativity. [11]

Traditionally, anarchists and Marxists had another conviction in common (aside from their shared moral critique of capitalism and vision of an ideal, stateless society)-a mistaken one, however. Namely, they both thought that a revolutionary rupture was possible and desirable. They had a millennial faith in the coming of a redemptive moment that would, so to speak, wash away humanity’s sins. By concerted action, the working class would with one fell blow, or a series of blows, overturn capitalist relations and establish socialist ones. This is the basic utopian mistake that Marxism (if purified) can prove wrong but anarchism cannot, because it lacks the theoretical equipment to do so. Even anarcho-syndicalists, despite their verbal recognition that the seeds of the new society had to be planted in the old, shared the utopian belief in a possible historical rupture, not understanding that the only feasible way to realize their “prefigurative politics” was to build up a new mode or modes of production over generations in the womb of the old regime. And the only way that would be possible is in the context of the gradual, self-inflicted deterioration of corporate capitalism, such as we are beginning to see now, in the neoliberal era.

It is neoliberalism that has carried to their global consummation the destructive tendencies of capitalism, viz., privatization, marketization, the commodification of everything, suppression of workers’ power, class polarization, integration of the world under the aegis of capitalist relations of production, ever-increasing capital mobility, and consequent despoliation of the natural environment. It is neoliberalism, therefore, that, in bringing about the climax of the capitalist era-sharpening the system’s contradictions to the breaking point-will end up precipitating its demise and making possible the rise of something new.

All these speculations and conceptual revisions require a more extended treatment, which I have attempted in my above-cited book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States . Much more, for example, needs to be said about the relation between anarchism and a purified, updated Marxism. Much more can be said about the historical logic of how a gradualist global revolution will proceed, and why progressive sectors of the ruling class-not understanding the long-term revolutionary potential of local experiments in cooperativism and new types of socialism-will support it and sponsor it (as, indeed, they are already doing in the U.S. with respect to worker cooperatives). [12]Hopefully the foregoing has at least suggested fruitful avenues of research and activism, and has shown how Marxism may be made relevant-rather than antagonistic-to cooperativism, interstitial/decentralized socialism, and the solidarity economy in general. Whatever logical and political mistakes Marxists have made in the past, these (for now) “interstitial” phenomena-which of course must be supported by popular movements and constant pressure on political authorities, including all forms of “direct action”-should be seen as quintessentially Marxist, and in fact as being a key component of any viable path to a post-capitalist order.
Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and Notes of an Underground Humanist. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.
Notes

 

[1] This essay is a distillation of some of the ideas in Chris Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (Bradenton, FL: Booklocker, 2014).

[2] See, for example, Arthur L. Norberg and Judy E. O’Neill, Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 1962-1986 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[3] Among many others, see Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review I/104, July-August 1977, 25-92; Rodney Hilton, ed., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1976); T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986); Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (New York: Verso, 1994); and Robert Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[4] Quoted in Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 15.

[5] See, e.g., ibid., 51, 52. Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France, written in 1871, expresses an attitude close to anarchism, but it is not clear that this essay is a direct statement of his considered views. To a great extent it had to be a eulogy for the Commune and a defense of it against its bourgeois critics, not just a neutral discussion of what it did right and wrong. Elsewhere, Marx is critical of the Commune.

[6] Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 109.

[7] See Sam Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 (New York: Black Rose Books, 1974).

[8] On the social and political logic of such a gradual transformation, see chapter four of my Worker Cooperatives and Revolution. On the anti-capitalist institutions and initiatives mentioned above, see Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013); John Restakis, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital (British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2010); José Corrêa Leite, The World Social Forum: Strategies of Resistance (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005); Carmen Diana Deere and Frederick S. Royce, eds., Rural Social Movements in Latin America: Organizing for Sustainable Livelihoods (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009); Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (New York: Verso, 2010); Ellen Brown, “Banking for California’s Future,” Yes! Magazine, September 14, 2011; David Dayen, “A Bank Even a Socialist Could Love,” In These Times, April 17, 2017.

[9] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), 58.

[10] James P. Cannon, “The I.W.W.” (1955), available at http://www.marxists.org.

[11] See, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” and “Leninism or Marxism?” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961/2000).

[12] See Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, 68, 69, 115.

The Pedagogy of Hip Hop: Underground Soundtracks for Dissecting and Confronting the Power Structure

Colin Jenkins

Disclaimer: The language expressed in this article is an uncensored reflection of the views of the artists as they so chose to speak and express themselves. Censoring their words would do injustice to the freedom of expression and political content this article intends to explore. Therefore, some of the language appearing below may be offensive to personal, cultural, or political sensibilities.

On the 16th track of Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary, Volume 2, Mumia Abu-Jamal theorizes on the inherent contradictions between the lived reality of many Americans and the notion of homeland [in]security. In doing so, he explains how the musical phenomenon of hip hop captures these contradictions by displaying “gritty roots” that are bound up in systemic injustice and deep feelings of fear and hatred. These feelings, according to Mumia, engulf entire generations of children who have been betrayed by systems of capitalism and white supremacy, and their intricately constructed school-to-prison pipeline:

“To think about the origins of hip hop in this culture, and also about homeland security, is to see that there are at the very least two worlds in America. One of the well-to-do and another of the struggling. For if ever there was the absence of homeland security, it is seen in the gritty roots of hip hop. For the music arises from a generation that feels, with some justice, that they have been betrayed by those who came before them. That they are at best tolerated in schools, feared on the streets, and almost inevitably destined for the hell holes of prison. They grew up hungry, hated, and unloved. And this is the psychic fuel that generates the anger that seems endemic in much of the music and poetry. One senses very little hope above the personal goals of wealth to climb above the pit of poverty. In the broader society, the opposite is true. For here, more than any other place on earth, wealth is more widespread and so bountiful, that what passes for the middle class in America could pass for the upper class in most of the rest of the world. Their very opulent and relative wealth makes them insecure. And homeland security is a governmental phrase that is as oxymoronic, as crazy as saying military intelligence, or the U.S Department of Justice. They’re just words that have very little relationship to reality. And do you feel safer now? Do you think you will anytime soon? Do you think duct tape and Kleenex and color codes will make you safe?”

In his short commentary, Mumia refers specifically to the Black community in the US – a community that has been ravaged from every angle through America’s relatively short history: two and a half centuries of chattel slavery followed by various forms of legalized systems of servitude and second-class citizenship, including sharecropping , convict leasing , Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. A history consumed with betrayal after betrayal, complex layers of institutional racism carried out under the guise of legality, and a systematic ghettoization supported by both ” white flight” and widespread discriminatory housing and employment practices. Mumia juxtaposes this unique experience to the “broader society,” one that is riddled with insecurities stemming from “opulent and relative” wealth, to expose the irony of “homeland security,” a term that he views as oxymoronic.

Mumia is correct in characterizing the reactionary temperament of both the American middle and upper classes – sects that both determine and maintain dominant culture. Broader society is molded by this temperament, which is buoyed by small pockets of socioeconomic comfort floating in a vast sea of instability that not only plagues the Black community in its never-ending struggle against both white supremacy and capitalism, but also poor and working-class white communities that have been similarly doomed by their forced reliance on wage labor. Despite what he describes as “bountiful wealth,” American society has always been propped up on this hidden base of despair, felt by a majority of the population that exists below the façade. Since the 1980s, this façade has been slowly chiseled away as neoliberalism has successfully funneled wealth to the few at the top while creating a race to the bottom for everyone else, including those once deemed “middle class.”

This race to the bottom has exposed the underbelly of instability through its attack on a fast-eroding, mostly-white middle class that now finds itself desperately seeking reasons for its newfound despair. While those of us at the bottom may welcome the company, in hopes that it will bring the critical mass needed to finally confront and bring down the capitalist system, it also signals trying times ahead. In being consistent with similar erosions of “relative and bountiful wealth” throughout history, the American demise brings with it a fairly high probability of a fascist tide. In fact, this tide has already begun to form, largely through millions of white tears dropping from the Tea Party, its Reaganite forerunners, the “alt-right,” a surge of neo-Nazism and white nationalism, and Donald Trump’s pied piper-like rhetoric that has pooled it all together.

While middle-class America comes crashing down along with the empire, the Black community remains steadfast in its centuries-long defensive posture. Despite facing an acute, structural oppression that is unparalleled in any other modern “industrialized” setting, and in spite of Mumia’s sobering analysis, the Black community has in many ways survived and thrived like no other. This survival in the face of intense hatred has been expressed through many musical forms , from the early roots of rock n roll, Blues, and American Jazz to the hip-hop phenomenon that Mumia speaks of. This collective survival is perfectly captured in Tupac’s poem,The Rose that Grew from Concrete, which tells the story of

…the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete
Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned how to walk without havin feet
Funny it seems but by keepin its dreams
It learned to breathe fresh air
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
When no one else even cared.

In explaining the meaning of the poem, Pac summed up much of the African-American experience, as well as the reactionary temperament often directed at it from those in more privileged positions:

“You try to plant somethin in the concrete. If it grows, and the rose petal got all kind of scratches and marks, you not gonna say, “Damn, look at all the scratches and marks on the rose that grew from concrete.” You gonna be like, “Damn! A rose grew from the concrete?!” Same thing with me… I grew out of all of this. Instead of sayin, “Damn, he did this, he did this,” just be like, “Damn! He grew out of that? He came out of that?” That’s what they should say… All the trouble to survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty, unbelievable lifestyle they gave me. I’m just tryin to make somethin.”

Pac’s story also describes that of the entire American working class, as a collection of former slaves, indentured servants, peasants, and poor immigrants set up for failure by a capitalist system designed to exploit us all, collectively. The working-class struggle is tightly intertwined with the Black struggle. The Communist Party knew this long ago. The Industrial Workers of the World did as well. The original Black Panther Party also knew this, as did all those coming from the Black Radical Tradition in America: W.E.B. DuBois, the African Blood Brotherhood, Harry Haywood, the Revolutionary Action Movement, Frances M. Beal, Angela Davis, C.L.R. James, the Combahee River Collective, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Congress of African People, and so many others.

As this struggle commences and intensifies during what appear to be the end days of American Empire, underground hip hop provides us with a soundtrack that is laced with historical context, deep analysis, and valuable knowledge – all of which should be applied while moving forward. The “psychic fuel” that Mumia points to in his brief commentary, which “generates the anger that seems endemic in much of the music and poetry” is far from misguided, and extends far beyond cathartic release. While in the mainstream, the Black Radical Tradition continues to be tragically mocked by identity politics , activist-celebrity tweeters pimping corporate brands , black liberation-themed credit cards , high-dollar-plate events, non-profit organizations, and the Democratic Party, its torch remains lit through the lyrics burning on underground hip-hop tracks. And this underground reflects the pulse of the streets, where tens of millions experience daily life in the underbelly of instability – not on Twitter, Facebook, or fundraising dinners at the Marriott.

 

Structural Oppression Under Capitalism

As resistance movements gain momentum in the days of Trump, an understanding of the disastrous effects of capitalism is necessary. Party politics are, as John Dewey once explained, the “shadow cast on society by big business (capitalism).” Politicians from both parties work within this shadow, delivering rhetoric to the masses before and after taking orders from their donors, sponsors, and corporate overlords. Regardless of who is in the highest office, whether it’s an eloquent black President or a blustering billionaire, “the attenuation does not change the substance.” As a popular Internet meme recently noted, the ‘hood under Trump is the same as the ‘hood under Obama, which was the same as the ‘hood under Bush, which was the same as the ‘hood under Clinton. Sadly, this sentiment could go on for as long as Presidents have occupied the white house. Politicians and presidents come and go, and nothing changes for most of us; because, quite frankly, it is not supposed to. Politics serve capitalism; and capitalism does not serve us.


“It’s like an open-air prison and it remained packed”

Hip hop serves as historiography in this sense, documenting the conditions of neighborhoods throughout the US for the past four decades, examining the histories behind multi-generational poverty, and seeking ways to address the dire situations many find themselves in. Ironically, the rise of hip hop paralleled the rise of the neoliberal era, a period that has been marked by an intensification of the capitalist system. During this time, things for most have at best remained stagnant, and at worst become increasingly disastrous. The hook in Erykah Badu’s The Cell (2008) captures this lived experience in sobering fashion:

We’re not well
We’re not well
We can’t tell

Brenda done died with no name
Nickel bag coke to the brain
Will they ever find the vaccine?
Shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang
Rich man got the double barrel
Po’ man got his back to the door
Code white stands for trouble
Shots from the po-po (blah blah)

Jean Grae’s Block Party , the 4th track on her 2002 album Attack of the Attacking Things, provides an intimate glimpse into the state of Black communities during this time:

I don’t wanna preach or come off bitter, this is a commentary auditory
Editorial, about the state of things, state of mind and state of being
What the fuck is goin on? How the fuck we gonna make it out?
It’s hectic, from asbestos filled classrooms
To the stench of death that’s still in New York
The air is thick with it, but it reaches further
Like the world murder rate

While illustrating the chronic conditions found in many communities, Grae immediately offers insight into possible solutions rooted in consciousness. Without actually saying it, her lyrics brilliantly dip into a structural analysis that calls for abandoning capitalist culture and realizing the tragic ironies in seeking individual materialistic goals. In doing so, there is an underlying theme to escape values that have been implanted into not only predominantly Black communities, but also working-class communities as a whole:

We need to globalize, further spread on this earth
To appreciate the full value of individual worth
To realize how ridiculous the thought of ownership is
And protectin your turf – that’s bullshit man
That’s how we got colonized
Missionaries create foreign schools and change the native way & thinkin
So in ten years, we can have a foreign Columbine
In some small village in the Amazon, c’mon man

Grae’s second verse masterfully ties together a narrative based in seeking a collective consciousness while avoiding a house-slave mentality that aims to, as she puts it, “chill with rich white folks.” Again, while directed toward members of the Black community, Grae’s commentary is undeniably relative to the working-class struggle in its entirety, especially in terms of how the “rags-to-riches,” so-called “American Dream” is framed strictly within individual pursuits of wealth and hyper-consumerism. Ultimately, as Grae suggests, this mentality must be shed through deeper calls for knowledge, community, and shared struggle:

It’s every man for himself
That’s why the black community is lackin in wealth, there’s no unity
We soon to be chillin with rich white folk
And that means that we made it
Let our kids go hungry before our wardrobe is outdated

…If the system’s corrupt, then change it
Fought for the right to vote, don’t even use it
Forget electoral winnin
The way the world’s goin, we in the ninth inning
Heh, and we still aren’t up to bat
Niggas is happy just to have the rights to sit on the bench
Like floor seats is alright, and that’s as far as we reach
Materialistic values, not morals, that’s what we teach
I see it in the youth, hungry for fame and money
Not for knowledge and pursuit of the truth
Pick up a book or a newspaper
Take a free class in politics or human behavior

Talib Kweli and Rapsody’s Every Ghetto , the 2nd track on Kweli’s 2015 album Indie 500, echoes Grae’s track in addressing the systematic ghettoization of the Black community under the intertwined tandem of capitalism and white supremacy. Crucially, the track challenges the often-mistaken attempt to characterize ghetto life as a monolithic existence, seemingly warning against the fetishization of the black struggle while reflecting Pac’s poem of the concrete rose and highlighting the unique struggle and persistence of the Black working class. Kweli’s bridge builds on Grae’s Block Party narrative, celebrating the communal potential of struggling communities:

I’m good walkin’ in every ghetto around the world
The hood often embrace ya when you profound with words
I say the shit they relate to, I keep it down to Earth
Other rappers sound like they hate you, them niggas sound absurd
So when they walk through the ghetto they get their chain snatched
They gotta talk to the ghetto to get their chain back
It’s like an open-air prison and it remain packed
Nothin’ but straight facts

Kweli’s initial verse jumps directly into a layered analysis, with the first bar alone touching on chronic malnourishment, poor education, smothering crime, gentrification, and a culture of anti-consciousness:

Every ghetto, every city, like Ms. Hill
They way too used to the missed meals
Hard to concentrate, hard to sit still
Murder rate permanent place in the top 10
We live here, these hipsters drop in
You hear them barrels cockin’
They say consciousness mean a nigga ain’t rugged
Until they get beat within an inch of it

Rapsody closes the track with a powerful verse, filled with structural and cultural critiques all tied to capitalism and white supremacy. Her verse is laced with innuendo in a masterful play on words as she illustrates the lived reality of generations of Black Americans who have been systematically targeted by America’s settler-colonial project, pointing to everything from police terror and the destruction of the Black family unit to the false promises of individualized pursuits of wealth.

Indie 5, for the people by the people
Ya-ya, giddy up, who got the juice now?
Snatch it out your kiddies cups
The shit you gave us watered down
This one’s for Basquiat
They be brushin’ with death, uh
Is this The Art Of War for cops?
We double-dutchin’ duckin’ shots
Every home ain’t got a Pops
Every man ain’t sellin’ rocks
A different will to win here
Different from switchin’ cars
They pray that we switch our bars
To a fiend from a metaphor
Worldstar, Worldstar
Lotta love and this life hard
Keep us prayin’ like “oh God”
Illegally thievery think us peelin’ off easily
Frustrated we hate it
That’s why we scream out “nigga we made it”
It’s an odd future they ain’t know we was all some creators
Somethin’ from nothin’ was told Kings walk and man you frontin’
For the people and by the people but them over money
I’m on my Viola Davis here, workin’ for justice
How you get away with murder? Be a cop and just kill us
How we supposed to not catch feelings?
Innocent lives, boy we got kids in these buildings
I’m on my Viola Davis, it’s what you call a defense
For all the drama they gave us I’m spittin’ Shonda Rhimes wit
Too high for you like ganja, that’s what Shonda rhyme with
I holla back in the Hamptons, you still black if you rich
Spread love ain’t just the Brooklyn way, it’s universal
360 and the nine lives, whoa, what a circle

 

“Keep it movin’ on”

While systemic oppression has plagued many generations of working-class Americans, especially non-white (as noted by Grae, Kweli and Rapsody), the middle class has only begun to feel the pressure of the capitalist system. The American middle class is an anomaly in history. Its formation defied the internal mechanics of capitalism, a system that is designed to favor the privileged few who have access to enough capital to own the means of production. This anomaly was beneficial for America’s capitalist class, in that it allowed for a slick rebranding of capitalism as a system of “freedom” and “liberty.” For decades, the American middle class was held up as the ultimate advertisement for a system that we were told allowed for social mobility through “hard work.” These fables became so strong that an entire century was spent trying to shape a benevolent form of capitalism through government intervention (Keynesianism) and a robust Welfare State. Because of its relative success, mainly due to US imperial endeavors abroad, the capitalist system was not only propped up, but it was even sold to the masses as “the only alternative.” The era of neoliberalism ended all of that. As capitalism’s internal mechanics were unleashed during this period, so too were its natural consequences – capital accumulation for the elites, and mass dispossession for the people.

While mainstream media outlets continue to push a tired narrative, hip hop has shed some light on the real effects of capitalism. Vinnie Paz’s 2010 track Keep Movin’ On provides insight into these effects, and especially how they relate to the American worker. The first verse informs us in two ways. First, Paz illustrates the workers’ role in the capitalist system, which is merely to serve as a tool to be used and exploited until no longer needed. In this role, we are not considered as human beings with families, needs, and inherent rights; we are only valuable as long as we provide owners with an avenue of extracting surplus labor from us for their profit. Second, the verse specifically describes the plight of the American manufacturing worker and the demise of middle-class jobs over the past 40 years due to globalization, corporate offshoring, and free trade agreements – all elements of the proliferation of capitalism in the neoliberal era:

I lost my job at the factory and that’s disastrous
They said it’s due to regulation and higher taxes
They ain’t give me no notice. They knocked me off my axis
I can’t pay the electric bill. It’s total blackness
I suggested some incentives for innovation
But that was met with resistance like it’s a sin of Satan
I’m losing my patience over here. I’m sick of waiting
And I ain’t never expect to be in this situation
And the manufacturing jobs are fading fast (Damn)
Can’t do nothing else. I should’ve stayed in class
I have to wait till summertime to cut the blades of grass
I have this little bit of money. Have to make it last
I have children to feed. I have a loving wife
I had a hard time coming that was nothing nice
I keep asking myself what am I doing wrong
And they just look at me and tell me “Keep it movin’ on”

 

“Kill my landlord”

Along with massive unemployment and underemployment, the working class is also constantly faced with insecure housing situations. Landlordism is a natural byproduct of a capitalist system which seeks to commodify basic human needs such as food, clothing, housing, and healthcare for profit. Under this system, the few who can afford to own multiple properties are allowed to exploit the many who can barely afford basic shelter for themselves and their families. Because of this, many of us go our entire lives without ever establishing a stable home environment.

As of 2017, this natural housing crisis has reached a point where it’s being labeled an epidemic even by mainstream sources. As rent continues to soar , so do evictions. ” As of 2015 , more than 20 million renters-more than half of all renters in the U.S.-were cost burdened, meaning they spent at least at least 30 percent of their income on rent. That’s up from almost 15 million in 2001. And while rents have risen 66 percent since 2000, household incomes have only risen 35 percent.” In 2015, an estimated 2.7 million Americans faced eviction. Median rent has increased by more than 70% since 1995, while wages have stagnated for almost 30 years, and jobs that pay a living wage have disappeared during this same period. Landlords will go to great lengths to throw families and children out in the streets, sometimes even for falling behind one month on rent. “A landlord can evict tenants through a formal court process,” explains Matthew Desmond , “or they can choose cheaper and quicker ways” to boot the families, such as “paying them a couple of hundred dollars to vacate by the end of the week” or even by removing the front door of the home. In order to protect this for-profit housing system from total collapse, the federal government uses numerous programs to assist people, including public housing, rental assistance, and even massive tax subsidies for homeowners. Despite this, many families are cold-heartedly exploited and discarded by landlords who want nothing more than to profit off this forced, human desperation. After living such an existence, The Coup’s 1993 track Kill My Landlord , which featured the less-known rap duo Elements of Change, is surely to serve as a long-standing anthem for many:

Overlord of the concrete jungle but I’m humble
As I witness my opponent crumble
Like the shack that I live in the house that I rent from him
Roach infested I’m sure that the rats are nesting
The heat doesn’t work he still hasn’t checked it
Disrespected me for the last time
I loaded up the nine stepping double time
Bullseye, Another point scored
Right between the eyes of my landlord

All who have relied on rental property to live can certainly relate to the undignified relationship between landlord and tenant. Like bosses, landlords exploit us as resources. And the capitalist system not only allows them the power to do this on mass scale, it actually supports their rights with force if necessary. Our collective desperation is their individual gain. And our forced dependency on them leaves us with no leverage against their power. The second verse of The Coup’s classic track reflects on this slave-like existence brought on by capitalism and landlordism:

So me I’m chilling at the table with my family
Hypothetically trying hard to keep my mind off the economy
Yeah I know the reason I find it hard to pass the test
Call me a victim cause I’m another brother jobless
Every day it seems like I’m moving closer to the streets
PG&E repo’ed the lights and my fucking heat
The situation’s getting hard for me to handle
Had to trade my Nike’s to the store to buy some candles
Last to first and I’m a-hunted and a ho I know
The man is going to come and throw me in the cold
Tears in my eye as I’m thinking of place to stay
While I’m staring at the freebie cheese up in my plate
I heard a bang bang bang knocking at my door
I looked up it was my motherfucking landlord, let him in quick
Followed by the sheriff deputy trying to come in
Every po on my property, staring me down
Mugging hard up in my family’s face
While they’re sitting at the table trying to say grace
But before I make this one my last meal
Any moves, yeah I’m looking for the damn kill
I said it twice in case he didn’t hear me though
Sucker made a move evidently when he hit the floor
So now I’m in cuffs for the crimes I’ve committed
Maybe I’ll go to jail, heh, or maybe I’ll get acquitted
But the fact still stands I killed my landlord dead
Now I’ve got three meals and a roof over my head

In the third verse, Boots Riley connects the inherent injustices of landlordism to not only capitalism, but also to European conquest and the process of primitive accumulation that allowed settler-colonists to create wealth from the Atlantic Slave Trade and Indigenous holocaust. There is an overt racial component to this process, as descendants of former slaves are still forced to depend on descendants of former slave-owners for basic needs. Recognizing the injustices and illegitimacy of this system, and seeking revolutionary change, is crucial. Boots delivers knowledge:

Cash is made in lump sums as street bums eat crumbs
So I defeat scum as I beat drums
Rum-tiddy-tum like the little drummer boy song
Here comes the landlord at the door, ding dong
Is it wrong that my momma sticks a fat-ass thong
Up his anal cavity cause he causes gravity to my family
Says we gotta pay a fee so we can stay and eat
In a house with light and heat
The bastard could get beat, stole the land from Chief Littlefeet
House is built on deceit, got no rent receipt
So I’m living in the street and I’m down now
Don’t you know to not fuck with the Mau Mau?
Notice of eviction, four knuckle dental affliction
Friction, oh did I mention
You’ll be finger licking as I handicap your diction
And you say you’re not a criminal like Tricky Dick Nixon?
While we’re fixing to impose rent control
We didn’t vote on it, this land wasn’t bought or sold
It was stole by your great granddaddy’s ganking
Osagyefo said they call it primitive accumulation
Plantations, TV stations wealth is very stationary
I learned the game and I became a revolutionary
Scaring the corporate asses cause the masses are a loaded gun
Killing the world banking and international monetary fund
I’m done, we’re done with what you’ve done
For twenty-five score we’ve got a battle cry
Kill my, kill my, kill my, kill my
Kill my, kill my, kill my, kill my landlord

While representing a main staple of capitalism, landlordism also mimics the dynamics of settler societies in that settlers gain a disproportionate amount of land ownership at the expense of the mass dispossession of native populations. In many ways, modern landlords in the US represent the traditional colonizer, often buying up property in “foreign” communities for the sole purpose of exploiting masses of renters through dispossession and forced reliance. As in the process of gentrification, landlords dispossess thousands of poor and working-class people in their never-ending pursuit for more and more property to commodify. E-Roc finishes the track strong, calling on a figurative Mau Mau rebellion to “kill” the modern version of colonizers.

I need six hundred dollars by the end of the week
My body is cold, dirty socks on my feet
Not a black sheep, but who’s the creep
Trying to put me on the street while I’m trying to sleep?
I wanna kill my landlord, murder in the first degree
If there’s something wrong he wants to blame me
Wants to be a threat so he carries a gun
Well I pack a 9 cause I can’t trust 911
Son of a gun, I’m the one who cuts the grass
Wash the windows and he still wants me to kiss his ass
But I laugh cause America’s not my home
My landlord took me away from where I belong
But it’s a sad song so I face reality now
Pick up the phone and now here comes the Mau Mau
To the rescue, down with The Coup
Yo landlord, I’ve got a little message for you
I’m going cuckoo, fuck a machete or sword
E-Roc is on a mission to kill my landlord

 

How the Capitalist/Imperialist War Machine Works Against Us

On Track 7 of Immortal Technique’s 2005 Bin Laden remix album, Mumia Abu-Jamal once again spits knowledge, this time providing brilliantly poetic commentary framing capitalism and imperialism as ” a war versus us all “:

“The war against us all
This war in Iraq isn’t the end; it’s the beginning of Wars to come
All around the world at the whim of the Neo-Cons in the White House
This is the Bush Doctrine come to life; War, war and more war!
War brought to you by the big corporate-masters who run the show
This isn’t just a War on Iraqis or Afghanis or Arabs, or even Muslims
It is ultimately a War on us all.
That’s because the billions and billions that are being spent on this War
The cost of tanks, rocketry, bullets and yes even salaries
For the 125, 000 plus troops, is money that will never be spent on;
Education, on healthcare, on the reconstruction of crumbling public housing
Or to train and place the millions of workers
Who have lost manufacturing jobs in the past three years alone
The War in Iraq is in reality; a war against the nations’ workers and the poor
Who are getting less and less
While the big Defense industries and making a killing, literally.
What’s next Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela?
We’ve already seen the corporate media
Play megaphone to the White House, to build and promote a War based on lies
War is utilized by the imperialists first and foremost, to crush internal enemies
We’re seeing the truth of its insight
When we see the sad state of American education
The rush of seniors to buy affordable medications from the Canadians
Because American drugs are just too expensive
The threat of privatization of Social Security
And the wave of repression that comes with an increasing Militarized Police;
This is a War on all of us
And the struggle against War is really a struggle for a better life
For the millions of folks who are in need here in this country!
The fight against the War is really to fight for your own interest
Not the false interests of the Defense Industry
Or the corporate media or the White House
Down with the Wars for empire.”

Immortal Technique’s subsequent track, Bin Laden , is a masterful critique of US imperialism and the corollary effects of government control on American citizens. Written during the W. Bush administration and the Iraq War, the track touches on the fear-mongering that led to the Patriot Act, the hypocrisy of American politicians, and the CIA’s dealings in the Middle East during the 1980s, which created and strengthened groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Tech begins by contrasting the lived realities of most American citizens with the artificial realities disseminated from the power structure and its calls for blind patriotic loyalty:

I pledge no allegiance, fuck the President’s speeches!
I’m baptized by America and covered in leeches.
The dirty water that bleaches your soul, and your facial features.
Drowning you in propaganda that they spit through the speakers.
And if you speak about the evil that the government does.
The Patriot Act will track you to the type of your blood.
They try to frame you and say you was trying sell drugs.
And throw a federal indictment on niggas to show you love.
This shit is run by fake Christians, fake politicians.
Look at they mansions, then look at the conditions you live in.

He wraps up the first verse by summarizing US foreign policy during the 1980s, specifically referring to the substantial financial and military aid provided to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during their prolonged war against the Soviet Union. During this time, Osama Bin Laden was a US ally who was a beneficiary of much of this aid, as was Saddam.

All they talk about is terrorism on television.
They tell you to listen.
But they don’t really tell you they mission.
They funded al-Qaeda.
And now they blame the Muslim religion.
Even though Bin Laden was a CIA tactician.
They gave him billions of dollars and they funded his purpose.
Fahrenheit 9/11? That’s just scratching the surface!

…And of course Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons.
We sold him that shit after Ronald Reagan’s election.
Mercenary contractors fighting in a new era
Corporate military banking off the war on terror.

The fact that the US government once supported and funded Bin Laden, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein is not the main point in Tech’s lyrical thesis, but rather the context that leads us into deeper analysis on US foreign policy, the military industrial complex, and the rise of Islamophobia and the War on Terror. By showing how loyalties easily sway, Tech is showing us how the purpose of US interventions abroad are not really about “protecting freedom” or “defending us.” Rather, US foreign policy is a chess game played by the capitalist ruling class for the purpose of engineering and maintaining the US Empire , which in essence is serving as the forerunner and protector of the global capitalist system. So-called terrorism and “Muslim extremism” are nothing more than a manufactured fears designed to scare a sizable portion of the American public into supporting these destructive efforts abroad. Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book Clash of Civilizations is often looked to as the main driver in this farce of a cultural/religious global war. In supporting Tech’s message, Noam Chomsky talks about the obvious contradictions of Huntington’s thesis here , as Edward Said further discredits ithere . A simple search of stock reports for major weapons manufacturers over the past decade shows how profitable the “war on terror” has been. Understanding geopolitics is often as easy as following the money.

Part of Tech’s second verse includes a brilliant critique of state nationalism and patriotism, illustrating how and why government and capitalist interests are not the same as the peoples’ interests, despite being advertised as such. While these wars spread and intensify, most of us continue to struggle.

They say the rebels in Iraq still fight for Saddam
But that’s bullshit, I’ll show you why it’s totally wrong
‘Cause if another country invaded the hood tonight
It’d be warfare through Harlem and Washington Heights
I wouldn’t be fighting for Bush or White America’s dream
I’d be fighting for my people’s survival and self-esteem
I wouldn’t fight for racist churches from the South, my nigga
I’d be fighting to keep the occupation out, my nigga

…. ‘Cause innocent people get murdered in the struggle daily
And poor people never get shit and struggle daily

In a remixed version of this track that includes hip-hop vets Chuck D and KRS-One, Tech tweaks the lyrics to this verse in order to show how the “clash of religions” narrative, as highlighted by Chomsky and Said, is falsely perpetrated:

They say that terrorism revolves around the Qur’an
But that’s stupid, I’ll show you why it’s totally wrong
Cause if this country was invaded and crumbled
I’d turn Harlem into a Columbian jungle
And I wouldn’t be fighting for a Christian nation
I’d be fighting for survival from extermination
I wouldn’t fight for Fox News, them racist niggas
I’d be fighting for the hood, for the faceless niggas

Tech also addresses the hypocrisy of America’s fundamentalist Christian sect, which strongly supports the Republican Party, the clash of civilizations/religion narrative, the Israeli Apartheid state, and military interventions abroad. Christian fundamentalism in the US plays an important role as a conduit to white supremacy and class warfare, as seen in its common stance against the interests of both the Black community and the immigrant community, as well as the poor and working-class communities altogether. This conduit has shown itself in the Republican Party’s four-decade-long Southern Strategyand the rise of Donald Trump’s presidency, which has brought with it overt elements of white supremacy, or as Tech puts it, “devils that run America like ‘Birth of a Nation,’ a popular white-supremacist propaganda film from 1915:

Government front religious, but their heart is empty
Like a televangelist preaching out of his Bentley
Calling abortion murder in a medical building
But don’t give a fuck about bombing Iraqi children
Talking like units in the fucking libretto
Look at their mansions and look at your suburban ghetto
The gulag, the new hood where they send us to live
Cause they don’t give a fuck about none of our kids
That’s why Blacks and Latinos get the worst education
While devils run America like “Birth of a Nation”
Affirmative action ain’t reverse discrimination
That shit is a pathetic excuse for reparations

 

Fake News, Structural Misinformation, and How the Ruling Class Control Politics

The notion of “fake news” has become a prominent theme in American politics due to Donald Trump’s constant use of the term to explain what he views as his unfair treatment and misinterpretation by some media outlets. Ironically, the term is also being used by liberal opponents of Trump to claim that Russia had influenced the Presidential election in Trump’s favor. The Washington Post even went as far as publishing a report citing “anonymous groups” to list dozens of online news sources that allegedly served as “instruments of Russian propaganda” during the 2016 Presidential race. Despite some backpedaling on the initial article (to include an editor’s note and the removal of some websites from the list), liberal-leaning media outlets like the Washington Post and MSNBC have persisted with this seemingly hysterical and bizarre Russophobic angle to attempt to discredit Trump’s presidency. As if Trump’s personal history, business dealings, fascist rhetoric, narcissism, constant lies, and hyper-capitalist policy platform are not bad enough.

There are some very interesting points to take from this liberal narrative. One is regarding the corporate media itself, which has both perpetuated the allegations of “fake news” and been accused of delivering it. Ironically, Trump is correct in referring to these news sources as fake. But they are not fake for the reasons he claims they are fake – which is only regarding how they portray things related to him. They are fake because they ceased being news agencies decades ago. They are now part of the entertainment industry. They are concerned with ratings and advertising profit, not with delivering information to the public. Information does not sell, sensationalism does. Fox News knows this just as much as MSNBC and CNN know this. To earn profit, you need ratings. To get ratings, you need people to tune into your channel. To get people to tune into your channel, you need drama, controversy, fear, sex, shock, sensationalism; in other words, entertainment.

Another point is regarding corporate news as a de facto fourth branch of government. Often referred to throughout history as the fourth estate, media and press journalism have long been relied on to provide a valuable fourth branch of checks and balances in the US. However, as time has gone on, rather than uncovering conflicts of interest, exposing backroom deals, and delivering investigative journalism, the media in the US has become both complicit and indifferent in and to government corruption. This was never more evident than in the months leading up to the Iraq War, which according to Australian journalist John Pilger , may have never happened if journalists had done their job of uncovering truths in the face of, and in spite of, power:

“…had journalists done their job, had they questioned and investigated the propaganda instead of amplifying it, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children might be alive today; and millions might not have fled their homes; the sectarian war between Sunni and Shia might not have ignited, and the infamous Islamic State might not now exist.”

Media collusion with the power structure has been a central theme to the work of Pilger, who has consistently tied the media’s full institutional compliance to what is properly referred to as “the deep state” or “invisible government” through the proliferation of propaganda . This was also the main theme of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, as well as the subsequent 1992 documentary by the same name. According to Chomsky and Herman, mass media in the US “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship , and without overt coercion.” Which is to say that profit-driven news not only seeks to appease popular narratives, but also will toe the government line in return for continued access or exclusive scoops, all of which are determined by government officials.

Immortal Technique’s 2003 track, The 4th Branch , fortifies the work of Pilger, Chomsky, and Herman by illustrating how the media and its propaganda serve the ruling-class narrative. Released in the aftermath of 9-11 and during the beginnings of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tech weaves multiple theses into a central theme of propaganda versus reality. The hook sums up the track:

It’s like MK-ULTRA, controllin’ your brain
Suggestive thinking, causing your perspective to change
They wanna rearrange the whole point of view of the ghetto
The fourth branch of the government, want us to settle
A bandanna full of glittering, generality
Fightin’ for freedom and fightin’ terror, but what’s reality
Read about the history of the place that we live in
And stop letting corporate news tell lies to your children

The opening verse introduces us once again to Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations narrative and the role of Evangelical Christians in pushing forth this narrative. Tech focuses on the moral bankruptcy of Christian fundamentalism in the US and how US foreign policy is continuously designed on a base of hypocrisy and misinformation, carried out by agents of the capitalist class:

The voice of racism preachin’ the gospel is devilish
A fake church called the prophet Muhammad a terrorist
Forgetting God is not a religion, but a spiritual bond
And Jesus is the most quoted prophet in the Qu’ran
They bombed innocent people, tryin’ to murder Saddam
When you gave him those chemical weapons to go to war with Iran
This is the information that they hold back from Peter Jennings
Cause Condoleezza Rice is just a new age Sally Hemings

The remainder of the first verse continues the critique on conservative ideology and Christian fundamentalism, tying them into the ultimate hypocrisies perpetrated in the founding of the United States. The miseducation that most of us are subjected to through years of formal education interplay with Tech’s exposure of the public misinformation that disseminates from media sources, all of which combine to produce a hidden history of the US that is a perfectly pliable tool firmly in the hands of the ruling class:

I break it down with critical language and spiritual anguish
The Judas I hang with, the guilt of betraying Christ
You murdered and stole his religion, and painting him white
Translated in psychologically tainted philosophy
Conservative political right wing, ideology
Glued together sloppily, the blasphemy of a nation
Got my back to the wall, cause I’m facin’ assassination
Guantanamo Bay, federal incarceration
How could this be, the land of the free, home of the brave
Indigenous holocaust and the home of the slaves
Corporate America, dancin’ offbeat to the rhythm
You really think this country, never sponsored terrorism
Human rights violations, we continue the saga
El Savador and the contras in Nicaragua
And on top of that, you still wanna take me to prison
Just cause I won’t trade humanity for patriotism

Returning to Vinnie Paz’s track, Keep Movin’ On, we see the experiences and views of an American soldier, handpicked from the working class to serve in illegal and immoral wars and occupations abroad. The verse touches on everything from the recruitment process and the brainwashing effects of patriotism to the gruesome effects of serving as tools of war for the capitalist ruling class :

I signed up cause they promised me some college money
I ain’t the smartest motherfucker but I’m not a dummy
They told me I would be stationed in places hot and sunny
I had a lot of pride. Motherfuckers got it from me
These people over here innocent. They never harmed me
My sergeant tried to convince me that they would try to bomb me
I feel like an outsider stuck inside this army
Everybody brainwashed. American zombies
I ain’t realized how much it set me back
Until I lost my leg and then they sent me back
I don’t have anything now. I’m left with scraps
From a government who created AIDS, invented crack
People told me not to join. I tried to prove ’em wrong
Now I’m homeless and I’m cold without no food thas’ warm
I keep asking myself, “What did I do that’s wrong?”
And the government telling me, “Keep it movin’ on”

Tech’s closing comments on the 4th Branch summarizes the class-component that shapes the military industrial complex, a system designed to create, maintain, and protect private profit. Echoing Paz’s verse on the experience of soldiers, Tech illustrates our role in this system while touching on the constant propaganda we are bombarded with, which pushes this narrative of “we,” as if “we” have anything in common with the American ruling/capitalist class and their servants in mass media.

The fourth branch of the government AKA the media
Seems to now have a retirement plan for ex-military officials
As if their opinion was at all unbiased
A machine shouldn’t speak for men
So shut the fuck up you mindless drone
And you know it’s serious
When these same media outfits are spending millions of dollars on a PR campaign
To try to convince you they’re fair and balanced
When they’re some of the most ignorant, and racist people
Giving that type of mentality a safe haven
We act like we share in the spoils of war that they do
We die in wars, we don’t get the contracts to make money off ’em afterwards
We don’t get weapons contracts, nigga
We don’t get cheap labor for our companies, nigga
We are cheap labor, nigga
Turn off the news and read, nigga
Read… read… read

Tech’s final verse is powerfully connected to liberation movements of the past, echoing among other the great Irish socialist, James Connolly, and his call for international, working-class solidarity during the beginnings of World War I. In his A Continental Revolution (1914) , Connolly sums up the profit motive and class-basis of war:

“… [in war] the working class are to be sacrificed that a small clique of rulers and armament makers may sate their lust for power and their greed for wealth. Nations are to be obliterated, progress stopped, and international hatreds erected into deities to be worshipped.

… against the patriotism of capitalism – the patriotism which makes the interest of the capitalist class the supreme test of duty and right – I place the patriotism of the working class, the patriotism which judges every public act by its effect upon the fortunes of those who toil.

To me, therefore, the socialist of another country is a fellow-patriot, as the capitalist of my own country is a natural enemy.”

“Fake news” is simply propaganda constructed through ruling-class channels to boost systems and cultures that support the power structure. In other words, it is the status quo. It is nothing new. It happens rather naturally, flowing from concentrations of money and power. Regarding the newfound liberal version of “fake news,” the final point to consider relates to the idea of an outside influence on American politics. Long before the Russia hysteria surfaced, the American political system had been bought and sold numerous times over. To suggest that politicians from either major party ever represented the interests of American people is incredibly naïve. Campaign financing and corporate lobbying determine who wins political races and which legislation is introduced and passed in Congress. Long before Russia was accused of influencing elections, Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms were proven to influence elections. Long before Trump supposedly got a boost from Putin, official US policy had been directly shaped by Israeli interests in the Middle East.

Access to oil has always determined foreign policy, access to capital for big business has always determined economic policy, and the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision has ensured that the Kochs’, Soros’, Gates’, and Buffetts’ of the world will always hold more political weight within the electoral system than 100 million voters combined, if they so choose. Whether it’s Goldman Sachs, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Koch brothers, George Soros, or Putin, the American people have never had a say in what the political machine does or doesn’t do. This fact renders the Trump-Russia hysteria as moot. Any real sense of US national interests has long been replaced by the global capitalist order, if they ever truly existed at all. In terms of political empowerment and self-determination for the working-class majority within the US, a foreign president is no different than any number of nameless American millionaire hedge-fund donors.

 

The Seamless Political Machine and the Failures of Identity Politics: From Reagan to Trump

Within electoral politics, lesser-evilism has become the dominant stance for at least half of the American population. For individual voters, the 2-party duopoly has been mostly abandoned as identifications with either party have reached near-historic lows . As of 2015, nearly half of registered voters identify as something other than Republican or Democrat. However, despite this overwhelming rejection of the 2-party system, many of these voters continue to choose what they view as the “lesser evil” in voting for candidates from one of the two major parties.

Since the Reagan administration and introduction of a seamless political machine based in neoliberalism (an intensification of capitalism), presidential administrations regardless of party have been almost indistinguishable. Despite this seamless identity that’s emerged, many voters still insist on claiming differences between the two corporate parties, even if it means choosing what they view as the lesser-evil. The fact that some public radical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis have proposed lesser-evilism lends this direction some undue credence. However, when we step back and analyze the big picture, away from the emotions that often emerge in the heat of electoral moments, it is easy to see that lesser-evilism, as an electoral tactic embraced by the Left, has pushed the entire political system to the right over the past 40 years. Clear evidence of this shift can be seen in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, which carried forth Reagan-esque economic policy, while also gutting welfare (Clinton), facilitating mass incarceration of the Black community (Clinton), escalating US bombing campaigns (Obama), pushing historical levels of deportation of immigrants (Obama), and maintaining the attack on civil liberties that began under W. Bush (Obama). Even more evidence is the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a candidate who is viewed as being an outlier of the Democratic Party, despite an ideological identity that is consistent with run-of-the-mill liberalism of old. Yet, when compared to a Democratic Party that has clearly shifted rightward, toward more hard-line capitalist-friendly policies that have characterized the neoliberal era started by Reagan, as well as highly-destructive imperialist missions abroad, Sanders looks like a radical.

Killer Mike’s 2012 track, Reagan, brings us to the start of the neoliberal era. In a social context, specifically regarding the treatment of Black communities throughout the country, the Reagan era merely picked up on hundreds of years of oppression. By implementing an official “war on drugs,” this era provided the basis for what Michelle Alexander termed The New Jim Crow , in her book with the same title. It also created a new wing of the military industrial complex through the construction of an extensive for-profit prison system and widespread militarization of domestic police forces. Mike’s second verse introduces us to the Reagan environment, as experienced by the Black community:

The end of the Reagan Era, I’m like ‘leven, twelve, or
Old enough to understand the shit’ll change forever
They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror
But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
But mostly black boys, but they would call us “niggers”
And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers
They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and money, as they pick our pockets
I guess that that’s the privilege of policing for some profit

The intensification of American policing in poor communities of color served a bigger purpose. As Mike explains in the same verse, it bolstered the cornerstone of US economics and capitalism: free labor. As per the 13th amendment of the US Constitution , “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In other words, the forced free labor of convicts in the US prison system is still legal. And the “war on drugs” helped to create nearly 1.3 million free laborers for mainstream corporations , as the prison population in the US grew from roughly 300,000 in 1980 to over 1.5 million in 2015 . Killer Mike touches on this:

But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits
Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics
Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That’s why they giving drug offenders time in double digits

Mike closes the track by moving the focus from Reagan to the system, telling us that Presidents (and most politicians, for that matter) are nothing more than “employees of the country’s real masters,” serving capitalist interests rather than the masses of people:

Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor
Just an employee of the country’s real masters
Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama
Just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters
If you don’t believe the theory, then argue with this logic
Why did Reagan and Obama both go after Gaddafi
We invaded sovereign soil, going after oil
Taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby
Same as in Iraq, and Afghanistan
And Ahmadinejad say they coming for Iran
They only love the rich, and how they loathe the poor
If I say any more they might be at my door
(Shh..) Who the fuck is that staring in my window
Doing that surveillance on Mr. Michael Render
I’m dropping off the grid before they pump the lead
I leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead

Reagan the man may be dead, but his spirit has survived in symbolic terms through the perpetuation of neoliberalism’s capitalist/imperialist order. The actions of our last President, Obama, who may appear to be the polar opposite of Reagan in any superficial analysis, confirms this perpetuation. The 2015 remix, Obamanation 4 , hammers this truth home in magnificent fashion. Opening with excerpts of speeches from Malcolm X, the track sets up a premise of systemic analysis as Malcolm rails against the “international Western power structure (capitalism),” calling upon “anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change the miserable conditions on this earth.”

Echoing Killer Mike’s track, M-1 (from Dead Prez) uses his verse in Obamanation 4 to expose the systemic nature of our political system, illustrating how not only the Democratic Party, but also the first Black President, equal nothing more than cogs in an imperialist machine. His analysis begins by disregarding the propaganda stemming from right-wing sources like Fox News and syndicated radio, all of which claimed Obama represented a diversion from politics-as-usual by having some mythological “radical-left-wing agenda.” In reality, Obama’s administration continued, and even escalated in some cases, America’s imperialist endeavors abroad. M-1 flips this “right-wing propaganda” and puts it back on progressives, rhetorically asking “who you gonna blame” now that the man in charge is no longer a white Republican named Bush:

After you divorce yourself from the right wing propaganda campaign, it’s all simple and plain.
America customed the game.
Your President got an African name, now who you gonna blame?
When they drop them bombs out of them planes.
Using depleted uranium, babies looking like two-headed aliens.
Follow the money trail, it leads to the criminal.
Ain’t nothing subliminal to it, that’s how they do it.

Continuing on this theme, M-1 pinpoints Obama as the new head of the US’ global imperialist agenda, even touching on the irony of a Black man carrying out neo-colonialism with white-supremacist underpinnings. M-1’s verse is not only insightful in its blanket condemnation of the 2-party machine, but also in its inherent warning about the dangers of a brand of identity politics that seeks to plug folks from historically marginalized groups into the power structure. Ultimately, to M-1, as to all radicals and revolutionaries, it’s the system that drives our injustices, not the figureheads chosen to facilitate the system:

See they game they run.
Give a fuck if he’s cunning, articulate, and handsome.
Afghanistan held for ransom.
By the hand of this black man, neo-colonial puppet.
White power with a black face, he said fuck it I’ll do it.
…. Last stage of imperialism, I ain’t kiddin.
In the immortal words of Marvin Gaye ‘This ain’t living.’

On the same track, Black the Ripper picks up on M-1’s analysis, keeping the focus on Obama as nothing more than a figurehead of a system that must be opposed. This particular verse includes a harsh critique, deploying the house-slave mentality in describing Black figures in power, as well as their accomplices:

See it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.
He’s sitting in the White House, so who cares if he’s black?
And why’s there still soldiers out there in Iraq?
Natural resources ain’t yours, it’s theirs, give it back!
You’re just another puppet, but I’m not surprised
Look at Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
They didn’t change shit, house nigga’s fresh off the slave ship.

The Obamanation remix includes a verse from Lupe Fiasco’s track, Words I Never Said. The verse fits the overall narrative perfectly, keeping focus on systemic operations. Lupe takes the analysis even further, touching on various social aspects stemming from capitalism and imperialism, most notably those which keep the American public in line, agreeable, and ignorant through a process of devalued education, fear-mongering, and mind-numbing celebrity gossip. All of this, Lupe suggests, leads to what Chomsky has referred to as “manufactured consent,” which he strongly rejects:

I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit.
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets.
How much money does it take to really make a full clip?
9/11, building 7, did they really pull it?
Uh, and a bunch of other coverups.
Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts.
If you think that hurts, then wait, here comes the uppercut.
The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up.
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the upper crust.
You get it, then they move it, so you never keeping up enough.
If you turn on TV, all you see’s a bunch of “what the fucks.”
Dude is dating so and so, blabbering ’bout such and such.
And that ain’t Jersey Shore, homey, that’s the news.
And these the same people supposedly telling us the truth.
Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist.
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit.
That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either.
I’m a part of the problem, my problem is I’m peaceful.
And I believe in the people.

Lowkey concludes the remix with a strong verse on American imperialism, an agenda that has become indistinguishable between various Presidents and both corporate parties. He points to specific missions carried out under the Obama administration, seemingly calling to attention those who continue to portray Obama as a separation from the Bush administration. The verse serves as a prophetic warning about Syria, and nails home M-1’s earlier reduction of Obama as just another “neo-colonial puppet” doing the job that every American President is called upon to do, including bombing an African country (Libya) and disposing of a leader (Gaddafi) known for promoting pan-Africanism throughout the continent:

Was the bigger threat from Osama or from Obama?
Military bases from Chagos to Okinawa.
I say things that other rappers won’t say.
Cause my mind never closed like Guantanamo Bay.
Hope you didn’t build a statue or tattoo your arm.
Cause the drones are still flying over Pashtunistan.
Did he defend the war? No! He extended more.
He even had the time to attempt a coup in Ecuador.
Morales and Chavez, the state’s are on a hunt for ya.
Military now stationed on bases in Columbia.
Take a trip to the past and tell em I was right.
Ask Ali Abunimah or Jeremiah Wright.
Drones over Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya.
Is Obama the bomber getting ready for Syria?
First black president, the masses were hungry.
But the same president just bombed an African country.

The false hopes placed in the first Black President highlight the failures and pitfalls of identity politics, a political approach that is grounded in assimilation. This approach to social justice attempts to mold a multicultural, multi-sex, non-gender-descript power elite by simply placing individuals who identify with these hyper-marginalized groups into the existing power structure. Thus, the ultimate goal is more Black bankers, more gay landlords, more transgender politicians, more women Senators, and so on. This approach has led to the creation of what the left-wing publication Black Agenda Report (BAR) has deemed the black misleadership class in the US. Obama was the ultimate product of this class, but not the totality of it. For as long as identity politics seek to assimilate into the power structure, this class will persist, as will the formation of other such classes: the gay misleadership class, the transgender misleadership class, the women’s misleadership class (Hillary), etc…, because, ultimately, the power structure does not exist to serve the people, no matter how diverse it is. Nas touches on this in his 1999 track, I Want to Talk to You , which addresses the frustrations of living under a government that does not represent:

Step up to the White House, let me in
What’s my reason for being, I’m ya next of kin
And we built this motherfucker
You wanna kill me because my hunger?
Mr. America, young black niggas want ya
I wanna talk to the man, understand?
Understand this motherfuckin G-pack in my hand
Look what happened to San Fran
Young girl hit by policeman
Twelve shots up in her dome, damn
….Dissin us, discrimination different races
Tax payers pay for more jail for Black Latin faces

Coming full circle, Nas closes the track by delivering a prophetic warning against identity politics, characterizing BAR’s “black misleadership class” as nothing more than “fake black leaders [who] are puppets, always talking ’bout the city budget (rather than addressing problems that plague their communities).”

What y’all waitin for the world to blow up
Before you hear this rewind this 4 minutes before we timeless
Let y’all niggas bang my shit before Saddam hits
Let Nastradamus tell us what time it is
They try to buy us with doe
Fake black leaders are puppets, always talking ’bout the city budget
The news got it all confused lyin to the public
They eyes watchin stay wise move above it
Water floods predicted, hurricanes, twisters
Its all signs of the Armageddon, three sixes
People reverse the system, politics vs. religion
Holy war, Muslim vs. Christians
Niggas in high places, they don’t got the balls for this
People in power sit back and watch them slaughter us
Mr. President I assume it was negligence
The streets upside down, I’m here to represent this

 

Confronting the Power Structure

Modern working-class resistance is still rooted in Marx’s class war analysis, whereas the proletariat (those of us who are forced to depend on our labor to survive) finds itself fighting for its collective life against the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) and the layered power structure created by this economic realtionship. It is also crucially intertwined in the fights against other forms of structural oppression, including white supremacy, patriarchy, and misogyny; because, quite frankly, all forms of oppression that splinter the working class must be effectively destroyed if the working class has any hopes of overcoming the capitalist system.

In echoing Malcolm X’s famous “the ballot or the bullet” speech from 1964, working-class resistance must include “action on all fronts by whatever means necessary.” Since the police represent the front lines of a criminal justice system inherently designed to enforce class oppression, as well as structural white supremacy, working-class resistance must include a firm stance against not only police brutality and mass incarceration, but also against the very foundation of modern policing, which is rooted in “slave-catching” and strike-breaking. This means standing in blanket opposition to policing as an institution designed to “serve and protect” capitalist property and enforce laws created by a capitalist ruling class with capitalist interests in mind. Reflecting on the Black community’s especially intense history of oppression at the hands of police, hip hop has delivered a proper analysis and call to action. From NWA’s seminal track Fuck tha Police (1988) to David Banner and Tito Lo’s Black Fist (2016), the armed extension of the capitalist state is consistently exposed, as it has left countless Black lives lying in its tracks with no signs of slowing. Banner and Lo’s track captures the sheer anger and frustration stemming from this reality:

[Banner]

These crackers got drones. They are flying their saucers
Keep your white jesus, don’t pray to your crosses
They are burning our churches, K.R.I.T. pass me the UZI
I know how to work it; I know how to Squirt it
No Martin, No Luther, No King, No Marching No choirs don’t sing
The same christian lovers that raped our GrandMothers and hung our GrandFathers from trees
They are enemies!
Blood on the leaves, blood on the streets, blood on our feet
I’m sick of walking, I’m sick of dogs getting sicced on us, I’m sick of barking
I’m sick of spitting written sentences listeners don’t get
Don’t get, don’t get, don’t get!
Because they got Chains on their brains and that is not a diss

[Lo]

… I’m staying religious, cause we stay in the trenches
And gotta play where they lynch us, done came to my senses
I bet them crackas never came through my fences
Ya burn up ya cross, and I’ll burn up ya corpse
Then I turn and bang and do the same to the witness
Hang ’em and dangle ’em in the street looking up at his feet
So you never forget this we did this for Martin and Malcolm, even Mandela
Jimmie Lee Jackson and then Medgar Evers
For Clyde Kennard, hard labor slaving in the yard
For Huey, for Hampton, for Bobby we GODLY
For Jordan Davis we gon’ play this, for Sandra Bland we gon’ stand
I’m still out here stomping, for Janaya Thompson, from the Coast to Compton

The video for Black Fist shows a series of events that encapsulate what working-class justice would look like outside the parameters of capitalism and white supremacy. This includes a people’s arrest, people’s trial, and subsequent execution of a police officer who was acquitted of murdering a Black teenager. The fact that this hypothetical scenario could be remotely controversial illustrates how strong we’ve been conditioned to equate our current system with any real sense of justice, of which there is very little if any. The environment of injustice that is bred under so-called legalities is masterfully summed up in Lauryn Hill’s Mystery of Iniquity (2002):

Ya’ll can’t handle the truth in a courtroom of lies
Perjures the jurors
Witness despised
Crooked lawyers
False Indictments publicized
Its entertainment the arraignments
The subpoenas
High profile gladiators in bloodthirsty arenas
Enter the Dragon
Black-robe crooked-balance
Souls bought and sold and paroled for thirty talents
Court reporter catch the surface on the paper
File it in the system not acknowledged by the Maker
Swearing by the bible blatantly blasphemous
Publicly perpetrating that “In God We Trust”
Cross-examined by a master manipulator
The faster intimidator
Receiving the judge’s favor
Deceiving sabers doing injury to they neighbors
For status, gratis, apparatus and legal waivers
See the bailiff
Representing security
Holding the word of God soliciting perjury
The prosecution
Political prostitution
The more money you pay.. the further away solution

…Blind leading the blind
Guilty never defined
Filthy as swine
A generation purin it’s own mind
Legal extortion
Blown out of proportion
In vein deceit
The truth is obsolete
Only two positions:
Victimizer or Victim
Both end up in destruction trusting this crooked system

Running hand in hand with capitalism’s version of “justice” is the underlying dominance of white supremacy. In the formation of the United States as a nation, as well as the customs, cultures, and systems we’ve become accustomed to during this process, white supremacy has played a formidable role. It has created an all-powerful wedge among the working class, rendering its potential limited. Its divisive message is often hidden in powerfully emotional rhetoric regarding “American values” and patriotism, all of which secretly (or not so secretly in the era of Trump) call for protecting the Eurocentrism that has systematically devalued black skin in dominant American culture. In an old-school track from 1991, Ice Cube uses brilliant analogy and powerful lyrics while condemning America’s history of white supremacy and challenging the toxicity of patriotic rhetoric, concluding with the need to ” kill Sam“:

I wanna kill him, cause he tried to play me like the trick
But you see, I’m the wrong nigga to fuck with
I got the A to the motherfuckin K, and it’s ready to rip
Slapped in my banana clip
And I’m lookin.. (lookin..)
Is he in watts, oakland, philly or brooklyn?
It seems like he got the whole country behind him
So it’s sort of hard to find him
But when I do, gotta put my gat in his mouth
Pump seventeen rounds make his brains hang out
Cause the shit he did was uncalled for
Tried to fuck a brother up the ass like a small whore
And that shit ain’t fly
So now I’m settin up, the ultimate drive-by
And when you hear this shit
It make the world say “damn! I wanna kill sam”

…Here’s why I wanna kill the punk
Cause he tried to take a motherfuckin chunk of the funk
He came to my house, I let ’em bail in
Cause he said he was down with the l.m
He gave up a little dap
Then turned around, and pulled out a gat
I knew it was a caper
I said, “please don’t kill my mother, ” so he raped her
Tied me up, took me outside
And I was thrown in a big truck
And it was packed like sardines
Full of niggas, who fell for the same scheme
Took us to a place and made us work
All day and we couldn’t have shit to say
Broke up the families forever
And to this day black folks can’t stick together
And it’s odd..
Broke us down, made us pray – to his god
And when I think about it
It make me say “damn! I wanna kill sam”

…Now in ninety-one, he wanna tax me
I remember, the son of a bitch used to axe me
And hang me by a rope til my neck snapped
Now the sneaky motherfucker wanna ban rap
And put me under dirt or concrete
But god, can see through a white sheet
Cause you the devil in drag
You can burn your cross well I’ll burn your flag
Try to give me the h-I-v
So I can stop makin babies like me
And you’re givin dope to my people chump
Just wait til we get over that hump
Cause yo’ ass is grass cause I’mma blast
Can’t bury rap, like you buried jazz
Cause we stopped bein whores, stop doin floors
So bitch you can fight your own wars
So if you see a man in red white and blue
Gettin chased by the lench mob crew
It’s a man who deserves to buckle
I wanna kill sam cause he ain’t my motherfuckin uncle!

Ultimately, resistance in the 21st century must focus on the inherent inequities created by the capitalist system and the corrollary social hierarchies that support these inequities. There simply is no choice but to destroy and replace this system. Gang Starr’s 1998 track Robbin’ Hood Theory hammers this home, urging us to “squeeze the juice out of all the suckers with power, and pour some back out so as to water the flowers.” Just as reparations are needed to begin to address the history of Black enslavement in America, so too is mass working-class expropriation of the capitalist class. In realizingthe illegitimacies of the wealth accumulated under this system , we must formulate bold moves toward recuperating it for all of society. Guru preaches, leaving us with our battle cry:

Now that we’re getting somewhere, you know we got to give back
For the youth is the future no doubt that’s right and exact
Squeeze the juice out, of all the suckers with power
And pour some back out, so as to water the flowers
This world is ours, that’s why the demons are leery
It’s our inheritance; this is my Robin Hood Theory… Robin Hood Theory

They innocent, they know not what they face
While politicians save face genius minds lay to waste
If I wasn’t kickin rhymes I’d be kickin down doors
Creatin social change and defendin the poor
The God’s always been militant, and ready for war
We’re gonna snatch up the ringleaders send em home in they drawers
But first where’s the safe at? Let’s make em show us
And tell em hurry up, give up the loot that they owe us
We bringin it back, around the way to our peeps
Cause times are way too deep, we know the
Code of the Streets
Meet your defeat; this is my Robin Hood Theory… my Robin Hood Theory

…Necessary by all means, sort of like Malcolm
Before it’s too late; I create, the best outcome
So I take this opportunity, yes to ruin the
Devilish forces fucking up my black community
And we ain’t doing no more interviews
Til we get paid out the frame, like motherfucking Donahue
We’re taking over radio, and wack media
Cause systematically they getting greedier and greedier
Conquering turfs with my ill organization
Takin out the man while we scan the information
You wanna rhyme you best await son
You can’t even come near, if you ain’t got our share
You front on us this year, consider yourself blown out of here
Yeah… by my Robin Hood Theory

 

What’s Wrong With the “Right to Work”: A Marxist Critique

J. Richard Marra

At this writing, 28 US states have instituted “Right to Work” laws (RTWLs). These laws prevent labor unions from excluding non-union workers from receiving improved wages and benefits gained through union negotiations with employers, as well as worker-empowering services such as grievance assistance. These laws also bar unions from requiring non-union employees to pay a fee to unions to offset the costs of union work and services. This legislation extends established Federal law that protects a worker’s right not to join a union, and the Taft-Hartley Act, which requires that unions exclusively represent all employees regardless of union membership status.

Neo-liberals dislike unions and wish to diminish their ability to organize and advantageously negotiate contracts with employers. They disparage union demands that all employees who the receive benefits of union work pay their fair share. Neo-liberals cast these complaints in legal language rights, which resonates among Americans. In 2014, GALLUP found that 71% of those polled approve of RTWLs because they agree with proponents that no American “should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will.” RTWL advocates such as The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation remind workers that the Foundation defends the workers’ right to personally bargain with employers, and celebrates the right of every American to employment without the government compelling them to join a union.

For Neo-liberals, workers’ labor power is their exclusive private property and the law should insure its unrestricted sale to employers. In contrast, Marxists argue that appeals to a right to sell labor power rest upon an established a capitalist conception of private property, which is a structural basis of the capitalist wage system. Marx argues that capitalist law invests workers with an exclusive ownership and control over their labor power. However, upon exchanging that labor power (as a commodity) for money (wages), it becomes the private property of the employer. It is upon these dimensions of ownership rights that Marx’s bases his class explanation of the exploitive and alienating capitalist economic system.

These rights obtain meaning and scope within a capitalist legal superstructure, described by Gerald Allen Cohen as “a set of non-economic institutions, notably the legal system and the state.” (p. 216) This legal order defines rights within the capitalist economic structure (the forces and social relations of production), and institutionalizes private property rights and production relations in legal terms. The legal superstructure enshrines rights in way that insure the best “fit” between capitalist social relations and the prevailing forces of production to maximize the effectiveness of the prevailing productive forces.

It is indispensible to capital that workers freely sell their labor power. The superstructure sanctions this right because capitalists wish to legally expedite a “free circulation of labor,” which facilitates the centralization of sufficient labor power to maximally exploit the prevailing productive forces. Concerning the growing scale of agriculture and, with it, the end of “settlement laws” in Medieval Europe, Cohen explains:

The productive forces demanded “large scale production on modern lines” with larger aggregation of labor, and therefore new material relations of production. These in turn required “free circulation of labor,” the right to move, which was then denied. Since the law forbade movement, it was broken, ignored, and finally scrapped, new social production relations forming on its ruins. (p. 167)

The legal superstructure determines the power relations of private property. It enables the good working order of the prevailing economic structure through legal means by establishing rights over the ownership and sale of labor power. RTWLs institutionalize a power asymmetry between employers and unions; financially encumbering unions and diminishing their ability to organize effectively and negotiate for improved wages and benefits from a position of financial strength.

A central problem for Marxists who wish to explain RTWLs with reference to class dynamics is to recognize and avoid the biased preconceptions of capitalist rights talk. As Cohen suggests, “The problem…is to (i) formulate a non-legal interpretation of the legal terms in Marx’s characterization of production relations, in such a way that (ii) we can coherently represent property relations as distinct from, and explained by, production relations .” (p. 219) [Author’s italics]

To do this, Cohen develops a “rights free” semantic that renders rights as “powers.” Powers are just the ability of persons to do A, regardless of whether A is normatively a legal or moral act. A revealing way to explore how laws reflect capitalist power relations is to consider Cohen’s three “dimensions of subordinate status.” Cohen defines the working class as comprising people who (p. 69):

1) Produce for others [superiors] who do not produce for them

2) Within the production process,…are commonly subjected to the authority of the [superiors]

3) In so far as their livelihoods depend on their relations to their superiors,…tend to be poorer than [their superiors]

To transform these dimensions in to talk of power, we simply replace the word “right” with a matching “power.” Then, in order to divorce rights talk from powers, we also require that the:

Possession of powers does not entail possession of the rights they match [nor vice versa]…Only the possession of a legitimate power entails the possession of the right it matches, and only the possession of an effective right entails the possession of its matching power. (p. 219)

Considered in this way, the workers’ right to sell their labor becomes the power to produce for their superiors, acquiesce to the authority of employers and managers, and generally be poorer than their superiors. Cohen makes clear the relevance of this perspective to class struggle:

No superior has rights over his [the worker’s] labor power. His subordination ensues because, lacking means of production, he can ensure his survival only by contracting with a capitalist whose bargaining position enables him to impose terms which effect the worker’s subordination. Through unionization proletarians improve their bargaining position and their consequent lot in all three dimensions of subordination. When the reduction of subordination is substantial, we may also speak of a reduction of proletarian status. (p. 70)

For unions to break free of the dimensions of capitalist subordination, organizing and worker solidarity are crucial. Cohen argues that workers can establish “a self-aware” group consciousness whose political dispositions reflect the Marxist critique (p. 77), one that views union membership outside of the Neo-liberal narrative of rights that dominates the American culture . This consciousness would realize that the right to private property remains a Neo-liberal legal construct whose function is to institutionalize beneficial social relations for the capitalist.

The Economic Policy Institute reported on the benefits non-RTW states offer to workers and their unions.

No matter how you slice the data, wages in RTW states are lower, on average, than wages in non-RTW states. As shown in great detail in Gould and Shierholz (2011), these results do not just apply to union members, but to all employees in a state. Where unions are strong, compensation increases even for workers not covered by any union contract, as nonunion employers face competitive pressure to match union standards. Likewise, when unions are weakened by RTW laws, all of a state’s workers feel the impact

If socialism intends to replace the economic structure of capitalism, these data suggest that opposing RTWLs leads to significant economic and political gains for workers. Socialist activists and union organizers struggling against the enactment of RTWLs can bolster their advocacy by illuminating that Neo-liberal semantic of rights that conceals the subordinating power relations of capitalism.

J. Richard Marra lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. He is also a contributing writer for the Secular Buddhist Association. He is a member of the Socialist Party – USA, and has served as the Convener of the Editorial Board and Managing Editor of The Socialist. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA’s Eugene V. Debs Award.

Marxism, Psychiatry, and Capitalism: An Interview with Dr. Bruce M. Z. Cohen

Brenan Daniels

 

This is the transcript of a recent email interview I did with Dr. Bruce M. Z. Cohen, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland and author of “Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), where we discuss capitalism and psychiatry, and view psychiatry under a Marxist lens.

What made you want to apply a specifically Marxist view to psychiatry and psychology?​ Are you personally a Marxist and how did you come to be one?

That’s a good question. I didn’t expect to ever be writing such a book, but thanks to my students I realised that someone had to take responsibility for filling a current gap in the literature. I run a postgraduate course on the Sociology of Mental Health, in which my students complete project essays on topics of their own choosing. As it is a sociology course, they are obviously required to apply different theoretical approaches to their chosen issue. I always encourage the students to consider the wide range of theoretical approaches available to them including structural functionalism, labeling, social constructionism, Foucauldian, critical feminist and race theory, as well as Marxist scholarship. Regarding the later, my students complained that they couldn’t find anything much out there. As a lecturer, I am always a little skeptical of such claims, but -hats off to my students!- they were correct on this occasion. With all the literature on mental health and illness currently in circulation, I found it astounding that there was no standard Marxist account available. Hence, the main reason for writing Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness.

To answer the second part of your question, yes I am a Marxist! Though I grew up in a very conservative -large as well as small ‘c’- part of England in the 1980s, my parents were members of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain). (In fact, my mother became the first communist parish councilor in the area, kicking out a Tory in the process). So I was politically conscious and politically active from a young age thanks to my family, imbued with a strong sense of social justice, and particularly incensed by Thatcher’s attacks on the trade unions and the working classes at the time (which most people in my area thought was just fantastic!). But I think being a sociologist has really made me a fully committed Marxist; whichever area you are studying or working in, be it religion, education, health, crime, the family, or whatever, it doesn’t take long to uncover evidence that the needs of capital determine the priorities of these institutions- they reproduce inequalities, oppress the majority of the population, and produce surplus value for a privileged minority. Is this a kind of society that, in good conscience, I or any sociologist can accept or support? Of course not! That’s why I’m a Marxist. Human beings can do better.
Please discuss the connection between psychiatry, psychology, education, and capitalism and how the former institutions have been influenced by the latter, historically speaking.

Following my point above, the mental health system (I use this as an umbrella term here to bring together psychiatry, psychology, and the various support professions and agencies working in the area of mental health including therapists, counselors, psychiatric nurses, and social workers) and the education system in their contemporary forms are both products of industrial capitalism. Briefly, compulsory schooling developed across western societies in the nineteenth century due to the needs of capital for higher skilled workers as well as to socially control working class youth (through, for example, socializing them into the norms and values of capitalism as the only “correct” way to think and understand the world). As I discuss in my book, the mental health system develops during the same period as another institution of social control: the asylums separate the able from the non-able bodied, it pathologises and confines problematic populations (primarily working class groups).

In neoliberal society, I argue that the connections between the mental health system and the education system (as well as many other areas of public and private life) have become much stronger and more explicit. For example, my socio-historical case study of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the book demonstrates that the origins of the diagnosis began with psychologists’ concern for deviant working class youth who failed to “adapt” to the demands of compulsory schooling. A hundred years later, we can still see in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that the symptoms of ADHD have nothing to do with having a mental illness but rather denote the requirements for more productive and efficient students and workers (for instance, forgetting or losing homework, failing to complete assigned tasks, poor time-management, and so on). As the demands on young people to stay on at school and go further in education have increased, so we have seen an increase in mental health experts in this area, and thus the increasing medicalization of “at risk” (I would argue, non-conforming) children. The expansion in the use of diagnoses such as autism and “oppositional defiant disorder” by psychiatry can also be theorized as serving a similar purpose here.
In what way does capitalism utilize psychiatry and psychology to demonize and ridicule those who have politics that don’t fit with the status quo? (This has been talked about somewhat before and I would be interested in hearing you expand upon it.)

I devote a chapter to this issue in my book, but to be honest I think a whole monograph is required on the subject. It’s a fascinating (and, as you do the research, shocking) issue. I can follow many other scholars by reiterating that the mental health system is highly effective in neutralizing threats through pathologising political and social dissent. I think it’s more effective than say the criminal justice system because the courts are usually questioning the legality of the person’s actions alone, rather than the rationality or sanity on those actions. Imprisonment of a protester, for instance, does not fundamentally undermine his or her actions or beliefs in the same way as being labeled as mentally sick does.

There are many examples of this process in operation. In the late nineteenth century, the suffragette movement was a frequent target for the “hysteria” label. During the civil rights movement in the US, there was a significant increase in the labeling of young Black men with “schizophrenia” (psychiatrists sometimes referred to this as “the protest psychosis”). Similarly, young African-Caribbean protesters in the deprived inner cities of 1980s Britain were theorized by psychiatrists as prone to “cannabis psychosis.” As I mention in the book, I think an increasingly popular diagnosis which the mental health system is utilizing to pathologize those involved in civil disobedience or political violence today is antisocial personality disorder (APD): post-9/11, you can see that psychiatry is taking a much greater interest in medicalising any behavior which breaks the legal or moral status quo within capitalist society, particularly acts which involve perceived or actual violence.
How is psychiatry not an actual science in some ways? May people assume it is just by virtue of its utilization of ‘experts’ and ‘quantitative studies’?

This is really at the heart of the matter. To be considered as a valid branch of medicine, psychiatry has to reach the medical “gold standard,” which is to observe and identify real pathology on the body. And, though they’re tried repeatedly to do this, so far psychiatry has failed in this fundamental goal. Most recently, for example, the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) DSM committee (which was responsible for producing the DSM-5) came to the following conclusion: the causation of mental disease remains unknown (for example, there is no useful biological marker or genetic test that has been identified) and psychiatrists still cannot distinguish between mentally healthy and mentally sick people. And of course without accurate identification of disease, a medical discipline cannot claim proof of causation or evidence of successful treatment, and they certainly cannot predict future cases of that disease.

So, to answer your question, no psychiatry is not a valid medical science. However, I argue in the book that progressing knowledge on madness (if such a thing is even possible) was not the reason for the establishment of the psychiatric profession or the continuation and expansion of the mental health system today. Rather, it’s a discipline that has supported capitalism, both in the pursuit of surplus value as well as being an institution of ideological control, responsible for reinforcing the norms and values of this society and punishing deviations from them.

In what ways does this massive increase in the labeling of people having psychological disorders affect us on a personal, familial, and community level? How does this increase the alienation from ourselves and our larger communities that has been going on for some time now?

The biggest issue is that it individualizes what are fundamentally social and political issues in this society. This obviously suits capitalism, it follows a neoliberal ideology that you need to work on yourself and look nowhere else for solutions to your problems. As I argue in the book, this is why the psychiatric discourse has been allowed to become all-encompassing (effectively “hegemonic”) over the last few decades; it has become highly useful in de-politicizing the oppressive reality of our lives. The involvement of the mental health system here is only one factor in the bigger issue though, which is of course the way the neoliberal project has attempted to destroy the social and the collective.
What are the negative aspects of self-diagnosing and how does that reinforce the status quo?

As with Marx’s famous comments on religion as the opium of the people, I think we can understand self-labeling and people desiring to have such a label as a way of coping with the alienating tendencies of capitalism. It’s no solution to the fundamental issues they have, but it can be a means of survival and maybe a limited form of “emancipation” at times. For example, the parents of a child who is underperforming in school may desire a mental illness diagnosis so that they can claim extra funding for study assistance, or someone who doesn’t enjoy socializing in large groups may seek a psychiatric diagnosis so that they can legitimately take antidepressants which dull their inhibitions.

There are a number of significant problems with self-labeling: most obviously, you cannot solve the social and political problems of capitalism with a mental illness label or by being subjected to talk therapy, drugs, or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It can obviously be dangerous to your health (for example, long-term users of antidepressants tend to die at a considerably younger age than non-users), and it can be stigmatizing. Further, it falsely legitimates the mental health system as a valid medical enterprise.
How do you see the working class overcoming this system?

Ultimately it’s a case of abolishing the mental health system and all its supporting apparatus. As with the criminal justice system, this is not an institution that has ever functioned in the interests of the working classes. At the end of my book I suggest a few practical things that can be done immediately to challenge and weaken the power of the mental health experts, these include: campaigning to remove psychiatry’s compulsory powers to confine and drug people against their will, withdrawing their prescription rights, and outlawing ECT. I also think it is crucial to form closer alliances between academics, left wing activists, community groups, and progressive psychiatric survivor organizations to build a strong abolitionist alliance against the psychiatric system.
Tell us about your upcoming book and where you and others argue that “the best form of treatment for mental disorder is no treatment at all, and the causation of mental illness itself has yet to be established.” It would be great to hear about those last two parts in-depth.

Well, I’ve hopefully addressed those two specific issues previously in this interview – what passes for “treatment” at the hands of the mental health system is, ironically, very bad for your physical and emotional health. Perhaps that is unsurprising given that mental disorders are fabrications produced by psychiatry without real evidence for their existence.

The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health (due out later this year) is an edited collection of original contributions from colleagues in the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, which systematically problematizes the practices, priorities, and knowledge base of the western system of mental health. Basically, I have constructed a comprehensive resource manual which offers a variety of ways in which to theorize the business of mental health as a social, economic, political, and cultural project. So, for instance, the book provides updates on critical theories of mental health such as labeling, social constructionism, antipsychiatry, Foucauldian, Marxist, critical feminist, race and queer theory, critical realism, critical cultural theory, and mad studies. But it also demonstrates the application of such theoretical ideas and scholarship to key topics such as medicalization and pharmaceuticalisation, the DSM, global psychiatry, critical histories of mental health, and talk therapy. I’m very pleased at how it has turned out.
Is there a way to bring back a form of alternative psychiatry or psychology at all?

Some scholars are positive about the development of a post-revolutionary “Marxist psychology” or similar. I don’t think that’s possible, and I worry about giving these professions any sort of way out. My analysis points to these professions as agents of social control; they have always been responsible for policing the population not for emancipating them. So my answer to that question is an emphatic “no!”
Bruce M.Z. Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His other books include Mental Health User Narratives: New Perspectives on Illness and Recovery(Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and Being Cultural(Pearson, 2012).