Over the last few nights, cities around America have been overtaken by protests, riots, looting, and a generally heightened level of violence between ordinary people and state authorities. People have been shot and otherwise injured, livelihoods have been destroyed, and individuals involved will no doubt have to deal with the full brunt of the state even after the violence has subsided.
These events have caused significant confusion and consternation on the left, and how the socialist movement–such as it exists–should respond to the riots is an open question.
The emotive rationale for an unqualified defense of the riots is obvious. Anyone who holds the light of human freedom in their heart cannot help but to feel sickened and angry at the regular administration of police brutality in this country. The case of George Floyd, the proximate cause for the riots, is particularly egregious. It is no exaggeration to say that he was murdered in cold blood by someone who had no regard for him as a human. Cases of violence like this have no place in a society that considers itself to be just, and were a bystander to have successfully intervened it would be clearly justified on the grounds of the immediate defense of human life.
The reactions to the murder have been extremely scattershot, including vigils, protests, rioting, and looting. None of these hold the organizational potential to significantly transform that which they seek to respond to. The left needs to clearly articulate why these are the reactions that appear as immediate options, and work to build a movement that can respond to the ordinary and wanton violence of American police forces in a more productive way–so that one day, we won’t have to.
However, our observations within DSA indicate that, in spite of the almost certain futility of the actions, the open questions have been almost exclusively related to how we “support” the protests in the immediate, like buying supplies, sending people, and contributing bail funds. These are all perfectly acceptable reactions for private citizens with an interest in justice, but why do they appear as the only matter of importance for DSA members and chapters in this moment? It is because the left is beset by a pathology that sees immediate, unceasing, and unreflective action as the only option for the truly radical, and looks suspiciously upon critical thought in any moment that presents itself as a crisis. Theodor Adorno called this tendency “actionism”, which
is the mark of a praxis that, having become its own fetish, becomes a barricade to its own goal. The dialectic is hopeless: that through praxis alone is it possible to escape the captivating spell praxis imposes on people, but that meanwhile as praxis it compulsively contributes to reinforcing the spell, obtuse, narrow-minded, at the farthest remove from spirit.(Adorno 1963)
Since actionism leaves so little time for creative and critical thinking about any event that appears as a crisis, it tends to be the case that various left factions try to claim that the crisis is an expression of whatever their demands are. Insurrectionary socialists claim that the riots are evidence of an impending revolution, or a movement arising due to the failure of electoral socialists and progressives. Socialists more inclined towards constitutionalist approaches to revolution attempt to offer explanations for the violence that place all of the agency on the police officers in charge of managing the riots. Democrats imagine that the political unrest is reflective of a hatred of Trump and idly hope that the moment will be channeled towards their favorite candidates’ electoral fortunes. The right is beset by this issue too; various forms of identitarians imagine the riots to be either the beginning or an expression of an apocalyptic ethnic conflict.
In reality, the riots are of course not an expression of any of these things. We can leave the democrats and republicans to imagine their future electoral victories and the conservatives among them to giddily contemplate the reaction. Socialists, however, can’t afford to engage in this kind of wish fulfillment.
First, we must assess in objective terms what’s going on.
Although the proximal cause of the protests, riots, and looting is the police murder of Floyd, it would be unwise not to situate this in the larger American–and indeed global–context. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is known to have taken over one hundred thousand lives in America alone. For over two months, the population has been exposed to the constant apocalyptic drumbeat of sensational media coverage of said pandemic. At the same time the world economy has undergone one of the most sudden and violent convulsions in industrial history. Equities and Commodities have swung dramatically, but nothing compares to the slaughter in the labor market, the most important one for workers. In late March, the St. Louis Federal Reserve predicted that somewhere around 47 million Americans would lose their jobs. As of writing, 40.8 million have applied for unemployment, suggesting an unemployment rate well above 25%. Among young people–who are also the people most likely to be inclined to brave police violence and protest–the rate is likely much higher than that. Unemployment isn’t just another statistic for working people: it is a dire threat to us and our families. Those who do have jobs that can’t be executed from the isolation of home are meanwhile forced into work where their employers pay little to no attention to the requirements of health and safety.
The response of the state to the global pandemic has been what one would expect from the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. Very little relief or security has been offered to workers; unemployment insurance takes weeks of effort to even apply for, rent and mortgage payments continue to be required, and with schools closed down children continue to need to be fed and looked after. At the same time, state and local governments have executed a large-scale stripping of civil liberties, generally without the consultation of legislative bodies or any other pretensions of democracy. It appears that we have been granted the worst of all responses: authoritarian, but inept. In according fashion, the state response to the protests has been authoritarian and inept as well: there are curfews instituted in at least 15 cities, setting up the police to extend their dispensation of arbitrary violence.
This is all to say that the level of stress in society for ordinary people is near an all-time high. Add in a particularly brutal case of police violence in a country marked by policing and carceral practices meant to stand guard over a desperate reserve army of labor (Johnson 2015) and an explosive combination arises. People may have nothing to gain from rioting–except perhaps a single TV or computer–but they don’t have much to lose either. It is against this backdrop that people have been brought out into the streets in a direct confrontation with police. And like Americans have been trained to expect, the police have been more than willing to play dirty. However, it would be dishonest to place all of the responsibility for violence directly at the feet of the cops. There are other factors at play.
Why riots occur
It is at this point cliché to reference Dr. King’s famous point on riots being “the language of the unheard” (Jr. 1968). However, King’s speech covers substantially more ground than the people who use this quote pretend that it does. Far from simply advocating for “listening” to “voices”, King makes a broad condemnation of the economic conditions in the “Other America” for which the speech is named:
In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions… Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education…. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. Probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. There are so many other people in the other America who can never make ends meet because their incomes are far too low if they have incomes, and their jobs are so devoid of quality. And so in this other America, unemployment is a reality and under-employment is a reality.
King was far from the only one making the point that the background conditions of society are what make riots possible. Two years before the Other America speech, Bayard Rustin penned an essay criticizing the McCone Report, the government assessment of the Watts riots. The report, in fashion similar to the Moynihan Report, took a “bold departure from the standard government paper on social problems… discuss[ing], somewhat sympathetically, the real problems of the Watts community”. (Rustin 1966)
Rustin painstakingly draws out the fact that riots, far from being simply outbursts of destruction, occur because poor people in America, in the specific case of Watts poor black people, are caught up in a brutal set of contradictions that render a shift in attitudes, either by or towards the immediate authorities, meaningless:
even if every policeman in every black ghetto behaved like an angel and were trained in the most progressive of police academies, the conflict would still exist. This is so because the ghetto is a place where Negroes do not want to be and are fighting to get out of.
And why are they fighting to get out? Because of the same dispossession that King described. By approaching the situation from a material perspective, we can see that these orgies of destruction and violence derive directly from the conditions of deprivation and stress that are endemic within the American working and sub-working classes.
One does not condemn a man for convulsing when he has been electrocuted, and as such socialists should refuse to unilaterally condemn the riots as aggregate social phenomena. However, this doesn’t mean that we should encourage even a single person to engage in violence or destruction for any reason aside from self defense. King’s remark that “a riot merely intensifies the fears” of the rest of the community rings true today.
We have left out the most important reason that socialists should look past the riot as a mode of social action. The fact is that riots don’t just arise from dispossession, they require an additional ingredient: hopelessness, despair, and political nihilism. When Rustin interviewed people after the Watts riots they repeatedly “claimed that violence was the only way they could get these officials to listen to them,” saying: “We won because we made the whole world pay attention to us. The police chief never came here before; the mayor always stayed uptown. We made them come.” These are King’s “voices of the unheard”, and they will continue to be unheard until they involve themselves in politics. Over the ensuing decades after the Watts riots the situation in cities measurably worsened as deindustrialization hollowed out city centers and government housing policies and crime encouraged the well-to-do to move to the suburbs, compounding the problem of economic destruction, a declining tax base and loss of services. Socialists must make sure that all current unrest is not similarly in vain, and to do that, ordinary people need to build institutions that allow them to participate in a collective effort of self governance.
The paths not forward
Luckily for socialists, a collective project of democratic self governance is exactly what we already claim to be building. The occasion of these protests serves as a reminder that we must think hard, clarify our strategy, and execute it with diligence and tenacity.
But this is where the left finds itself in difficulty. To return to Adorno:
What since then has been called the problem of praxis and today culminates in the question of the relation between theory and praxis coincides with the loss of experience caused by the rationality of the eternally same. Where experience is blocked or altogether absent, praxis is damaged and therefore longed for, distorted, and desperately overvalued. Thus what is called the problem of praxis is interwoven with the problem of knowledge.
This was written in 1963. Socialists in The United States–and indeed around the world–have gone so long without serious organization that they have lost the ability to think strategically, and have thus lost the ability to act in any way that doesn’t multiply their lack of experience. This dialectic continues in its vicious logic until people can see no path available but immediate and uncritical action. In this way the demand that we must immediately do everything that we can to support the protests is born from the same place that births the riots: despair. It was mentioned earlier that those DSA chapters that have taken any action at all have generally moved to “support” the protests through various–but relatively trivial–efforts. Again, though the protests are extremely admirable and DSA members are of course welcome as free individual citizens to involve themselves, the protestors do not at this point have clear concrete goals beyond the most minimal demands for immediate justice nor do they point to a form of organization or structure that would even allow them to collectively decide on goals.
There are those who would argue that we must “join in solidarity with the protesters”, and then publish as many accounts of our involvement as possible to prove that we’re in fact displaying this otherwise abstract solidarity. This is despite the fact that a sober analysis does not reveal the protests to have the potential for the type of politics that we want. The typical justifications are that the protesters will then be more likely to trust us and join us in our struggles later. Adorno again:
Solidarity with a cause whose ineluctable failure is discernible may yield up some exquisite narcissistic gain; in itself the solidarity is as delusional as the praxis of which one comfortably awaits approbation, which most likely will be recanted in the next moment because no sacrifice of intellect is ever enough for the insatiable claims of inanity.
The idea that the protesters need to trust us for us to be able to build the socialist movement infantilizes the very workers that need to organize. We shouldn’t be trying to convince workers to make us leaders of any movement, nor should we pretend to other workers that a set of more-or-less unplanned protests hold the potential to produce the kind of durable organizational forms that we need.
Socialists should keep their focus and push ahead with their (hopefully) preexisting efforts to build the kind of democratic institutions that we’ll need to allow the entire working class to mold itself into the kind of organized subject that could one day transcend not only the expressive politics of protest but also eventually capitalism itself.
Adorno, Theodor W. 1963. Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by H. W. Pickford and L. Goehr. European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism. Columbia University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=vt_TO462-9IC.
Johnson, Cedric. 2015. “Working the Reserve Army: Proletarianization in Revanchist New Orleans.” Nonsite.org, no. 17 (September). https://nonsite.org/article/working-the-reserve-army.
King Jr., Martin Luther. 1968. “The Other America.” March 14, 1968. http://gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/.
Rustin, Bayard. 1966. “The Watts.” March 1966. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/bayard-rustin-2/the-watts/.