Beyoncé’s “Formation” and the Boutique Activism of the Left

Beyoncé’s “Formation” attracted much attention following her Super Bowl performance last February. It was embraced by Black Lives Matter activists and writers as a “radical black power anthem” at the same time it received rebuke from reactionary politicians, police chiefs, and Trump-supporting internet racists. While the buzz has settled, the implications of these reactions from both the left and the right, and the positions embedded in them, will remain a central thread in the political climate surrounding contemporary activist movements and November’s elections. For those who see themselves working in the traditions of the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, and other socialist groups looking beyond the limits of the capitalist imagination, negation and radical critique will remain as important and necessary as ever.

What activists and political commentators on the left overwhelmingly fail to engage in their analyses supporting Beyoncé’s song and performance is the type of New Left intersectional and structuralist critique that always wedded a spotlight on racial injustice to a much more encompassing spotlight illuminating the oppressive force of capitalism. Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis were black activists who understood that racial injustice is more often than not a product and a constituent of the broader injustices produced by capital — a force whose very existence depends on privileging the few and oppressing the many. As MLK said in 1968: “We are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.”

In the absence of MLK, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers’ radical racial-economic politics, we have identity politics. The politics that brought millions of African Americans and leftists to the polls in support of a black presidential candidate whose economic policies and allegiances are as disjointed from working class interests as Hillary Clinton’s embrace of NAFTA is from Bernie Sanders’ censure. Beyoncé’s “Formation” isn’t a unique brand of economically-void political intervention; it is a synecdoche for a broader trend in leftist politics.

It is boutique activism, to borrow Chris Hedge’s term: an activist position that leads working class organizers and writers to laud a song and a Super Bowl performance that substitutes multiculturalism and an African-American identity for a real progressive political position, just as the glam of self-described “pantsuit aficionado” Hillary Clinton commands the attention of so many voters who “want to see a woman in the white house.” The example par excellence is Beyoncé’s chorus:

I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)

I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces

My daddy Alabama, ma Louisiana

You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma

I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros

I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils

Earned all this money but they never take the country out me

Here, in a chorus where Beyoncé proudly sports the bourgeoisie emblem of Givenchy — as millions of Louisianans struggle to pay for food, housing, education, and basic human needs — what matters is not how much wealth you have (at least $250 million) or the moral question such a concentration of capital poses, but the fact that you still “have the country in you.” A detail that probably matters very little to the homeless population (over a third African American) that was herded like cattle and relocated by Mayor Ed Lee before Beyoncé and the big show arrived in Santa Clara. It’s the same immaterial politics encompassed in the response Jay Z gave to his critics, after donating a mere $6,041 dollars to his own charity the same year he made $63 million: “My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope.”

A similar example of Beyoncé’s politics is the following three lines, which exemplify the core thematic underlying “Formation”:

I like cornbread and collared greens, bitch

I got hot sauce in my bag

Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper

As rapper and activist Immortal Technique said in his song “Beef and Broccoli,” being a vegetarian doesn’t make you a revolutionary. Similarly, eating a southern dish doesn’t have anything to do with politics or activism. It also doesn’t mean you represent the interests of the people whose meager livelihoods are intertwined, at a structural level, with your egregious wealth. To say “Beyoncé returns as a fully-formed Black Panther” is like saying “Charlie Sheen returns as an icon of the 1960s left” because he admitted to banging seven gram rocks like Nixon-critic Hunter S. Thompson. In the realm of identity politics abstracted from political-economy, the surface image is the meme of the hour, whether we’re talking about recent trends in student activism or the well-crafted “I’m with Her” political slogan of the Clinton campaign.

The imagery of the Black Panthers appropriated by Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance is another example of a signifier without a signified. An image in place of the radical politics the image is supposed to stand for. While Beyoncé and her spouse have over the past few years — following Harry Belafonte’s public disapproval of their lack of social responsibility — contributed money and presence to various causes including Black Lives Matter, their activism never associates with any critique of the economic system on which both their wealth, and the widespread racial and economic inequality in America, depend. Socio-Capitalism, “the capitalism for millennials” as billionaire Mark Cuban puts it, is more interested in infusing brand images with social awareness to corner millennial markets than posing any serious question about private enterprise and the free market.

In contrast to a message of organizing to change the existing political institutions and economic relations responsible for much of the heartache Bobby Jindal and the right unleashed on “Formation’s” post-Katrina Louisiana, Beyoncé’s listeners are left with the capitalist idea: encouragement to carve out their own place in the upper echelons of the system. An echo of Hillary Clinton and slumlord Warren Buffett’s America in which capitalism “works for everybody who’s willing to work,” Beyoncé encourages the millions of African Americans watching her Super Bowl performance to “dream” and “work hard” because they too “might just be a black Bill Gates in the making,” as a spectacle of luminous lights and high-priced pyrotechnics, reminiscent of The Hunger Games’ capital, flare up behind her.

Unlike “Fight the Power’s” Panther-inspired message to organize and take to the streets as a collective force, the ultimate message of “Formation,” exemplified in the last line of the song, is that in the end “the best revenge is your paper.” Revenge reified as personal wealth: an ABC Shark Tank message much different than the collective idea, whether we call it socialism, communism, unified action, or Sanders’ campaign to organize a political revolution. This message, regardless of what left or rightwing garb and mediaspeak it dons, continues to threaten progressive politics and solidarity.

Even Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s reaction, while addressing Beyoncé’s “celebration of capitalism” in a passing sentence, recreates the kind of identity politics which characterizes the song and responses to it. “For me it’s clear Beyoncé sees herself as a part of the movement for black lives. . . How do I know? Because in a little under five minutes, Bey told us who her people are, how that makes her who she is. . . She told us to forget the haters, because the best revenge is being successful; that she likes her men black, with the nostrils to match; that she’s rich, but don’t think for one second that she ain’t country, too.” For Garza, the “economic system that is largely killing black people” is worthy of as much attention in her review of important critiques of Beyoncé’s work as another half-sentence noting the role of queer and trans traditions in the song.

Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford’s interference during Bernie Sanders’ speech on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid represents a similar current in black activism and the BLM horizon. Including the response of Ta-Nehisi Coates to Cedric Johnson, this kind of engagement with race and oppression invites black activists and the left to “miss the much more dramatic disparity between the wealthiest and everyone else.” The problematic is not that Coates’ attention to disparities between poor blacks and poor whites, and incarcerated people of color and incarcerated white people, is not a justifiable critique of the racial brunt of socio-economic inequality. It’s that, as Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains using a similar set of statistics, it “does not say much about who benefits from the inequality of our society.” A question that the Clintons, the Republican Party, and “Formation”-like interventions remain silent about.

Ultimately, “Formation” extends much of Beyoncé’s work in celebrating black identity, black femininity, and black culture in ways that help to challenge and complicate an American society which still centralizes heterosexuality and whiteness while marginalizing, in various ways, everything else. Through her music video, which includes soundbites from Messy Mya and Big Freedia, Beyoncé gives voice to “a broader southern blackness that is frequently obscured and unseen in national discourses, save for as (dying, lynched, grotesque, excessive) spectacle” as well as the importance of a coalition politics that embraces genderqueer identities found at the margins of blackness. In addition, Beyoncé brings prominent attention to the Black Panther Party (as Dave Zirin observes), as well as the state violence African Americans and people of color are routinely subjected to. Individuals who identify as members of these groups often do not hear their stories told by musicians with Beyoncé’s influence and mass appeal, and for this reason and others “Formation” has, rightfully, not been received as pop culture per usual. Notwithstanding the questionable political blueprint distilled from its lyrics and imagery — “the celebration of the margins … black bodies in motion, women’s voices centered, black queer voices centered … is what ultimately vanquishes the state” — “Formation” does, in the end, embody the meaningful intervention that identity politics can stage. It is, for many black Americans, empowering.

Yet, “Formation” nonetheless turns Panther activism into a diffused and defused aesthetic at a historical moment when the left is in dire need of the radical critique and socialist intervention the Black Panther movement embodied. In its absence we get a singer who performs radicalism for a millennial generation interested in social change, before changing outfits to have lunch with Barack Obama, or proudly endorsing the reactionary progressivism of Hillary Clinton. This kind of response resides itself to the level of individualism, identity, sublimated progressive politics, and the limits of the neoliberal imagination, without ever extending into the realm of revolutionary politics, much less collective action, which is exactly what the survival of BLM, the working class, and the left will depend on.

Adam Szetela is a scholar and a poet who teaches courses in English and cultural studies at Kansas State University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the peer-reviewed journals: Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society; Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics; and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.