Are We The Baddies?
Over a month has passed since the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin; an on-duty member of the Minneapolis Police Department, and the fallout of the incident continues to play out in the form of civil unrest and a cultural realignment that promises to rumble on indefinitely. On the micro level, real, tangible victories have been won by a Black Lives Matter movement that has been resurgent in recent weeks; emerging from the obscurity it had fallen into since the end of the Barack Obama presidency in 2016. Mr Floyd’s killer and his law enforcement accomplices will be tried to the fullest extent of the law, moreover, popular attention has been re-focused on the brutality and incompetence of police forces in the U.S and elsewhere; the tragic and bizarre murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the sickening death of Elijah McClain in Denver have, amongst others, emerged in the popular consciousness as examples of the arbitrary spasms of excessive and deadly force that black Americans frequently suffer at the hands of their police. However, it has rapidly become apparent that these achievements represent the total sum of the the positively productive work that can be done by this movement as it exists today. The surplus effects have already been completely subsumed by those with no interest in improving the lives of the people they claim to represent, or ‘ally’ with, and have been invested in the pursuit of openly and unashamedly reactionary measures.
This has occurred largely as a result of the perfect storm of the current moment we occupy, but age-old patterns of human behaviour have facilitated the speed in which the movement has been able to ossify into a force that is actively operating against the interests of working people. The first domineering and oppressive institution of the day is, of course, capital. The history of the last 50 years can be reduced in its essence to the gradual yet violent defeat of labour at the hands of capital. It is difficult to examine a single point of confrontation, particularly in the U.K and U.S, upon which capital hasn’t crushed labour; the trade unions have been reduced to empty shells that serve little to no purpose to their dwindling memberships. The industrial workforces that made up the backbone of the once-effective unions have been decimated, their jobs shifted overseas to developing nations, the populations of whom capital has treated as semi-serfs in a revamped edition of the colonial economic model of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, except this time free of the costs that accompanied the traditional version of the enterprise; i.e. a strong, state-funded military presence to ensure business always carried on as usual, and an obligation to pay back into the societies at home that fostered them, as the public institutions of the West have been systematically stripped away or sold off, usually to the most lecherous enemy of labour the state could get hold of that day. This has left a meteor-sized hole in the Left side of politics in the Anglophone West. Labour has been destroyed at the effective-political level, the unions no longer have any jobs to represent, the institutions they still cling to focus around largely petit-bourgeois professions (excluding teaching), nothing screams class-struggle less than a Hollywood writers strike. The hyper-exploitation of developing world workers who have been forced to act as the engine for Western capitalism, has facilitated inequality to a level never-before seen in organised human existence. The factors have combined to entrench capital to an almost unassailable position of strength; it now provides us with the vast majority of our services such as healthcare, water and power, as well as those which seemed to creep up on us, but now constitute essential elements of our existence (e.g. Amazon). It seems in many cases to be literally impossible to do-away with these institutions, as no matter how terribly they are run and how evil the people who run them are, they are essential to our daily lives. The Left is left with no space in which to operate except in those defined by capital, which of course will pose no threat to their hegemonic position.
Labour’s defeat has been confounded by the technological developments that have occurred over the course of the last 30 years. The notion that the rise of the internet, the invention of the smartphone and the general trend of globalisation have broadened the horizons of the people of the world should be rejected outright. This effect has only been unconditionally enjoyed by capital. For labour, these developments have unquestionably had an overall negative effect on the common person.
The ability for working people to travel regularly and at an affordable price is undoubtedly a good thing. It is fantastic that the common person can jet off to Barcelona on a week’s notice for less than £200, but it is important to remember that this is a compromise on capital’s behalf. The reason international travel is so accessible and the world is so interconnected is so corporations can maintain their razor thin just-in-time supply lines, and deliver the goods they manufacture to their consumers faster and more frequently. Once again, all of this entrenches capital at the overall expense of labour.
In addition to the now limitless bounds available for exploration by capital that I have already touched upon, globalisation and technological enhancement have annexed the realm of the private life from working people. Smartphones have achieved a symbiotic relationship with their owners, and in exchange for granting them with easy access to almost all the information ever produced, their developers have turned them into bespoke billboards, ever present in the lives of their owners, encouraging and facilitating the unending consumption that lines the pockets of the bourgeoise, as well as fuelling the seemingly inevitable collapse of the environment that is rumbling over the crest of a not-so-distant hill. Furthermore, as is asserted by Mark Fisher, this hyper-exposure to consumption and largely meaningless information has had a very real and extremely detrimental effect on the collective Western psyche. The term used by Fisher to describe this effect is ‘Depressive Hedonia’, and can be defined not as an inability to attain pleasure, but instead an inability to do nothing but pursue pleasure, much of which, thanks to the ever-present existence of capital in our daily lives, is often meaningless and centred around consumption. This effect is amplified by the liquidation of social life that has taken place over the course of the last 50 years, and the increasing confinement of ordinary people to their homes, not by necessity, but by convenience, as more and more services are provided to your doorstep, the workplace shifts from the communal space to the home, and public institutions that existed formerly as strictly social enterprises, such as the local pub or (in the U.K especially) professional football, are run-down, underfunded and/or commodified.
These public spaces have given way to the gigantic tech companies that now dominate the online world. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter in particular have found themselves in a unique position, acting as privately owned and run organisations responsible for managing the largest communication forums in human history. In order to support their massive weights, these companies have to make money; in doing so, they have appealed to the narcissistic and egoistic elements that reside in every one of us. It is common knowledge now that the reception of social media notifications triggers a dopamine hit in the brain. Human beings are social animals, and notifications almost always denote a successful social interaction. The more dopamine you receive, the more likely you are to revisit the site, and so goes the addictive cycle. This clever exploitation of human evolutionary behaviour does however bring us all the way around to my original point.
The easiest way to achieve a successful social interaction is to operate within the bounds of behaviour that is generally accepted as ‘good’, and in this sentence lies the entire issue with the mainstream response of decent people to the killing of George Floyd; in the current environment, the common person has no control of the definition of what ‘good’ is.
At the political level, true Left politics simply does not exist as a force that can be taken seriously. In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn and his radical Labour manifesto was rejected completely by the British electorate. In the U.S Bernie Sanders failed miserably in a Democratic primary campaign, that saw his ‘Democratic Socialist’ agenda defeated by a senile serial political loser weighed down by the baggage of a historic rape allegation and several recorded incidents of inappropriate behaviour with young girls. Both of these candidates lost their battles primarily due to their inability to win over working-class voters, be they the former Labour Party stalwarts of Northern England, or the black majority populations of states such South Carolina. The initial reaction of many so-called Socialists (myself included) was to denigrate these people for their stupidity, but this is a cheap, reactionary response that guarantees only further failure in future.
At the discursive level, the Left appears to many working people to be nothing more than an agent of capital — this may not be expressed in as many words, but voting patterns across the West make this fact abundantly clear, herein lies the problem of the definition of ‘good’. The Left’s unyielding assurance that it is operating in the name of goodness associates it with the political project of capital that defines the term, and controls all of the organs of public life in which the discourse surrounding it takes place.
The grassroots Black Lives Matter movement has failed to evolve into anything more than an angry reflex at the U.S police’s failure to accept the a priori fact that black lives do indeed matter, and has thus lost any revolutionary potential it may have carried. The only ‘concrete’ demand that has emerged from it is the ridiculous and tokenistic ‘abolish the police’ slogan. A demand that, in a capitalist system, merely translates to ‘privatise the police’. The economic forces that give rise to the type of crime that is part-and-parcel of life in many of America’s inner cities will not go away if police officers are replaced with social workers — the only difference to life in these places will be that security will be outsourced to private firms, made available only to the bourgeoise that can afford them. A glance at the situation that has emerged in a country like Brazil will tell you all you need to know about just how undesirable that outcome would be.
The abduction of the narrative by capital was the point at which the Black Lives Matter movement transformed from disappointingly ineffectual to dangerously reactionary. The speed at which it occurred was frightening, and the effects are already making themselves felt throughout society. As has already been mentioned, capital’s total control over the discourse places it in a uniquely hegemonic position, and a routine analysis of its reaction to the murder of George Floyd demonstrates why it has walked in lockstep with the protestors on the streets. The Clinton/Blair educational project of the 1990s led to a gross inflation in the number of students attending university. This not only had the effect of cheapening the institution of university education, but also created a swollen class of petit-bourgeois prospectives, all of whom competing for a limited number of professional jobs. This battle was further intensified by the skyrocketing costs of higher education, lumbering graduates with mountains of debt, and the increasingly undesirable nature of workplace conditions for the proletariat, with the normalisation of zero-hour contracts, low pay and insecure incomes. To this class, Black Lives Matter has become a corporate employment filter. A willingness to abide by the dictates of professional idiots such as Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) will soon become a prerequisite to maintaining a well-paid professional career. In the meantime, the egoistic and material rewards one receives for exhibiting their virtue within these newly defined confines of ‘good’ behaviour will take place in the realm of capital; successful social interactions online, and material wealth as provided by a stable, professional career.
We should all take a moment to think about who the ‘allies’ of this movement are. Amazon, Facebook, the NFL and Apple are a few corporations who will have no qualms about introducing the kinds of reforms being proposed by the new commandeers of the Black Lives Matter movement, and HR shake-ups that may or may not award some managerial roles to people with more melanin in their skin do not a revolution make. Aside from the absolute dregs of society, there are very few people who would not agree with the statement that Black Lives Matter, and toeing the line of capital on the matter does not in any way enhance your credentials as a friend of labour. It is inherently reactionary, and will in time present a tangible material and physical danger to working people if it continues.
This essay is not intended to be a moralistic lecture about a world of good vs. bad. Capital acts in the way it does because its purpose is to generate more capital, this by definition must come at the expense of labour. Moreover, I am not absolving myself of complicity in this system. I use Amazon Prime almost every time I want to order a book, despite living less than 20 minutes away from a number of fine independent book shops. My foremost allegiance in this world is to a football club owned by an authoritarian prince who’s wealth derives from oil money and slave labour and who keeps his people in line with medieval religious fundamentalism. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do less than work for Uber Eats. I tweet incessantly. It is however important to climb down from the moral high-ground we on the Left have decided we now occupy. Instead of attempting to construct Bentham’s panopticon on Twitter by bullying and cajoling people we deem to be inferiorly educated, we should adopt the pursuit of a common sense tolerance. One that encourages people not to misgender trans people based on the fact that it is a mean thing to do, and not to immediately launch into a deranged rant about ‘cis-heteronormativity’. We should consider that most people do not hate others based on their ethnicity, and treat non-white people as adult human beings and not ‘BIPOC’ (a meaningless and offensive term), and reiterate the fact that the vast majority of us have shared interests and a shared enemy. The refusal to occupy this space leaves it open to the reactionary and racist right, who for all their utter contempt for the common person, will at least have the decency to stand in front of them when they slap them in the face. As I have already mentioned, as a species we are evolutionarily crafted to get along. If the Left wants to turn this fact into a successful political force, it needs to stop licking the boots of those who would pit us against one another.