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You Can Vote, But You Can't Work

Grasp the Future

by VIJAY PRASHAD

In August 1964, Malcolm X spent several weeks in Egypt. While in Cairo, he wrote an essay in the Egypt Gazette entitled “Racism: the Cancer that is Destroying America.” Here, Malcolm X noted, “The common goal of 22 million Afro-Americans is respect and HUMAN RIGHTS….We can never get civil rights in America until our HUMAN RIGHTS are first restored.” The distinction is essential. Civil Rights are earned through the State form. They are historically specific to the modern world, and came onto the agenda of the modern State only because of the struggles of ordinary people to move the ideals of the early modern era into the realm of legality. These are Civil Rights.

Human Rights, Malcolm notes, are to be restored. They are innate, the essence of our species being, the way in which we as social actors want to see ourselves, and how our best instincts force us to see each other. These are innate, but they are not always enacted, for human history is as much a struggle of ordinary people for justice (civil rights) as it is the march of dehumanization. The dance between human rights, our rights as people in society, and civil rights, our rights as citizens in states, is a fundamental part of the grammar of modern politics. To believe that to win civil rights from the state is sufficient is what constitutes modern liberalism: legal provisions for equality are enough for it. That is why it celebrates the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 as its highest achievement. After that, modern liberalism sees that the task is to tinker with reality, not to fundamentally transform it.

Malcolm X looked through and beyond modern liberalism. Of course civil rights in the state are necessary, but these are not sufficient. More is required.

The great tragedy of the movement that fought for civil rights within the United States is that it won its liberal victory just when the United States economy and society were violently transformed. The structural process of globalization and the Reaganist anti-State policy combined to undermine the very institutions that had been tasked with upholding the civil rights of the newly enfranchised minorities. A weakened State and a national economy convulsed by the domination of finance would not be able to guarantee the civil rights of the people. This is what Malcolm saw, and this is why he was quick to seize on the distinction between civil rights and human rights.

It is also fitting that Malcolm made these comments in Egypt. It is a long-standing tradition in African American radical thought that over the course of a career its political intellectuals have begun with hope that justice would be attained within the American project, and then in the course of struggle come to the realization that absent an international perspective this dream is futile. The importance of Pan-Africanism is here, but Pan-Africanism is a concrete form of what is the more general affirmation, the importance of an internationalist politics. Since 1964, the liberal doctrine of multiculturalism has enabled the state to absorb a small percentage of minorities into the ranks of the elite, while at the same time the question of human rights for the majority of minorities languishes. Barack Obama and Susan Rice put a sophisticated face on contemporary imperialism, at the same time as the State enhances a regime to devastate the social world of the darker nations.

That mix of globalization and Reaganism which tragically undermined the goals of the Civil Rights victories is what constitutes neo-liberalism: opening up for profit areas of social life that had been communal, selling public assets at throwaway prices to private speculators, allowing finance to become dominant over social life, and enabling real estate and insurance to produce massive bubbles that burst in slow motion and then spectacularly in 2008. The social consequences of neo-liberalism have been grotesque. Global unemployment is at spectacularly high levels, with an “alarming” future for joblessness, according to the International Labour Organisation’s World of Work Report 2012. Young people are nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed. An estimated 6.4 million young people have given up hope of finding a job.

You can vote, but you can’t work.

High unemployment comes in a context of a collapsed state-support network, a weakened social fabric and criminally high food and fuel prices that have resulted mostly from commodity speculation in these markets. From Rome, the Food and Agriculture Agency reports that the world’s hungry will top 1.02 billion this year. Since 2008, food riots have struck Africa, Asia and Latin America, with the edges of Europe and the United States now prone to inflation protests. The Social Unrest Index shows that 57 out of 106 countries showed a risk of increased social unrest. The IMF recognized that one of the spurs for the Arab Revolt of this year was the rising bread prices as a result of the end to the “democracy of bread.”

You can vote, but you can’t eat.

It is bad enough if one is reduced to the level of bare life, but even worse if this condition is not general across the population. Rates of social inequality are at record levels for the modern era. In the US, the Occupy movement raised the issue of the 1%. We know that they control obscene amounts of social wealth. It is scandalous when you look at the wealth situation on the global level. A recent UN report shows us that the richest 1% of adults across the planet owned forty percent of global assets, and the richest 10% owned eighty-five percent of the world total.

You can vote, but you have no power.

Disparity and deprivation do not sit well with the commonplace ideas of fairness and justice. The powerful know this. The way they divide up the national budget demonstrates their values. The US national budget is given over to military and police expenditure, to prisons rather than schools, to guns rather than bread. Given the social consequences of neo-liberalism, it is far more effective and logical to build a security apparatus, to cage people into devastated cites or to hold them in congested high-security prisons. There is nothing irrational about the prison industrial complex. From a neo-liberal perspective, it is perfectly reasonable. Neo-liberalism was always purchased with the iron fist, rarely with the velvet glove (whether your example is Chile, 1973 or NYC, Guiliani time).

You could vote, but we’ve now locked you up.

But you cannot lock up Freedom.

One of the great triumphs of the past two decades has been the gradual and by now almost total demise of the legitimacy of the current phase of capitalism, in other words, neo-liberalism. The first big blow to neo-liberalism came in South America, starting with the Caracazo in 1989 and ending in the Pink Tide of elections that brought in governments that leaned Left. Over the past two years, we’ve seen massive protests in Africa and Asia, with the Arab Spring as the most dramatic, and then the southern European uprisings bookended by the Occupy experiment. These tell us that neo-liberalism is the naked Emperor. The governing ideology of the ruling class is bankrupt.

Neo-liberalism has begun to be seen as de-legitimate, but neither it nor the logic that governs beneath it, capitalism, has been dispatched for at least two reasons.

First, neo-liberalism continues to exercise institutional power through the Central Banks and the multilateral financial institutions. Inflation is their target, not jobs. There is no fiscal space, no policy space, for States or politicians to exert other dreams, other imaginations. If they do not hold their debt down and keep inflation low, they are sanctioned by a rise in the price of their borrowing. Freedom to act is constrained by the dollar-crats who hold the keys to the vaults.

Second, one of the long-term trends of the capitalist system is to the move by those who control capital to substitute machines for labor. Capitalism is a massive labor-displacing system. The problem with actual workers is that they are restive and demanding, and they are expensive. Machines are undemanding and cheaper. Machines might end up being ecologically devastating, but that’s not relevant to capitalism. Machines might also end up being socially wonderful, since they free up time for leisure, but that would only work if the fruits of mechanization were not seized by the select few who own or control the social wealth.

What we know for sure is that the time of the neoliberal security state, of the governments of the possible, is now over. Even if such states remain, its legitimacy has eroded. The time of the impossible has presented itself.

We need to fight for reforms because they are imperative to the survival of people. But the reforms themselves can never deliver more than survival. The system is simply not able to open its arms and embrace us. Love is antithetical to Profit and Property. There is nothing that we can tinker with to make this system any better. Many have already come around to the idea that they have become disposable to this system, and so they have disposed it: they have turned to the creation of alternative economies, to new collectivities, experimental forms of putting our social relations ahead of Money. Our fear, my fear, of the future holds us back from fully embracing the time of the impossible. If we want to restore our human rights, as Malcolm said, the time is now.

This essay is adapted from Prashad’s talk at the Manning Marable Conference in New York, April 26, 2012.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press. He will be one of the keynote speakers at the NATO Counter-Summit in Chicago on May 18-19, and will speak at the rally against NATO on May 20.