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The Necessity of Rebellion

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As protests over police violence continue around the nation, cause and effect are being defined through the political goals of those with official voices. Protesters were calm until the choice to be calm was no longer an option. For decades rising corporate and state repression have merged with declining economic circumstances to produce a claustrophobia of the soul for the ‘lesser’ ninety or so percent of us. The so-called land-of-the-free has the largest police-prison industrial complex in the world to assure that those who tire of quiet desperation remain docile and compliant no matter the provocation.

The morality tales being peddled are of small battles in larger struggles. Official power is always and everywhere invisible or benign. The police are proclaimed to be self-generated; volunteer heroes who serve the public by acting against the deserving poor for the benefit of the rich and their agents. The thin blue line is what keeps bank accounts unmolested— except by bankers, and renters paying the rent. The serial crises of capitalism are facts of nature while opposition to capitalism is the whim of malcontents whose poetic aversion to the property of others is the productivity zapping folly of the coddled and indigent. It’s no secret who is writing this script.

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Graph: The pandemic is being treated as an exogenous (outside) event even though the fragility of the capitalist economy was engineered to benefit shareholders and corporate executives. How does average job tenure of 4.2 years get reconciled with 21.1 years to pay off student debt and 30 year mortgages? The answer: through the soft violence of perpetual economic desperation. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

This isn’t to suggest that condemnation of the protesters and protests is the ‘official’ position— not yet at any rate. The woke wokeness of the woke has the enemies of everything good and holy for the past four decades shouting that racism is bad, without having quite so much to say about redistributing political and economic power to offset its lesser inclinations. Democrats are in the unenviable position of promoting Joe ‘Super-Predator’ Biden, a key architect of mass incarceration, the militarization of the police, immunity for killer cops and writer of key portions of both the 1994 Crime Bill and the Patriot Act, as the solution to his own life’s work.

Furthermore, the thesis that revolutionaries cause revolutions confuses cause with effect. This is undoubtedly an unpopular and occasionally dubious read of history. However, as it relates to current circumstances, incredulity is on the side of why rebellion took so long? As it happens, capitalism has done what it does, it raised incomes and wealth quite extravagantly for about 1% of the population, raised them significantly for the next 9%, and then went on vacation for four decades. To the question of who gets to clean up the mess it left behind; I boldly predict that it won’t be the rich.

As de-romanticized as this revolutionary-by-necessity thesis is, and as unflattering to its actors it might seem, revolution is the assertion of life against its graduated demise. The portrayal of protesters as the poor and unwashed ruining a good thing for everyone else is a step or two ahead of the institutionalization of key accomplishments. A sure sign that counter-revolutionary forces are at work is the broad reiteration of core social justice principles. Oligarchs and corporate titans have had a good run. If by no other means than capacity, it is they who created and fertilized the seeds of revolt.

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Graph: explanations for mass incarceration tend to be technical rather than political. But the details of laws, sentencing and policing just don’t aggregate to the ‘freest’ nation in the world having the largest and most intrusive prison system. To the extent that institutions define nations, mass incarceration makes the U.S. is a totalitarian hellhole. This may not be the way that it ‘feels’ to liberals, because higher up the economic stratum people live largely unaffected by intrusive and repressive policing. But the same has been true of repressive regimes throughout history. This division makes mass incarceration a tool of class warfare. Source: prisonpolicy.org.

The state of play is that political and economic power has been concentrated to the point where the interests of the rich are all that politicians know. Kente cloth and Kaepernick kneels— symbolic gestures that keep various constituencies mollified in times when power is more widely distributed, are but insult added to injury when the rich and powerful have it all in their own pockets. Congressional Democrats are but office managers stumbling forward with forced smiles to ‘explain’ how the ninth pay cut in a year will benefit workers. Oligarchs and executives aren’t giving anything up, so the politicians have nothing to offer.

More dangerous and debilitating by design is the effort to direct protesters and protests into official channels. The Democratic Party has long been known as ‘the graveyard of social movements,’ while Republicans quite like the occasional seig heil as long as the interests of capital are kept in clear focus. This symmetry in asymmetry— with Ds, the left losses, with Rs, the right wins, has a lot to do with resources. Capitalism commodifies power— it creates and distributes its political currency as currency. Competing political schemes either earn this currency through service to it or they don’t compete, hence the term ‘revolution.’

The farther down the neoliberal rabbit hole the U.S. has gone, the less amenable that power has become to compromise. With respect to so-called public goods like healthcare, education, and infrastructure, distribution mirrors income and wealth. The rich live in substantively different worlds than other classes. This distance makes it easier for the rich to imagine the not-rich being deserving of their lot. But it also makes it easier for the poor and working class to imagine oligarchs and corporate executives with heads cleanly detached from their bodies.

In an earlier era, the baby boom generation couldn’t escape political indoctrination through war movies that pitted ragtag teams of ‘ordinary’ men against variously deceitful, pathologically well-organized and / or cartoon evil villains. This narrative form presented global geopolitics as a series of smaller struggles in which personal attributes like bravery, valor, and resourcefulness led to the victory of virtue over malevolence. This individuation of the political, whether conscious or from rote, now defines the ‘American’ way of understanding social struggle.

This isn’t a complaint so much as a potentially useful observation. Capitalism and democracy are explained as systems of economic and political freedom that result both from and in the aggregation of individual actions. ‘Victory’ in both is personal first, and social second. That in history both have been imposed before being ‘freely chosen’ produces the paradox that these systems of individual choice didn’t result from individual choice. Adding to the analytical clutter is that through this process, history is reduced to a spectator sport where Great Wo/Men determine political outcomes.

George Floyd’s murder was a systemic outcome— three people a day are killed by the police in the U.S. To the extent that representative democracy is intended to represent the interests of citizens, class differences include the dependence of politicians on rich patrons. This limits the range of potential actions they might take to those that don’t alienate their patrons. This ties back to the Ds win, the left losses formulation where burning down the system is made the only alternative to being subsumed in the political wasteland of party politics.

In the rhetorical back-and-forth over the variously described rebellions, riots and looting of recent protests, concepts like private property and political legitimacy have been treated categorically— black or white owned businesses and peaceful versus violent protests, to the detriment of broader analyses of how ‘we’ got here. Creating and destroying property is what the U.S. does. Through foreclosures, banks ‘passively’ destroyed large sections of the same cities that protesters have been active in. The gun violence the police allegedly exist to limit overlaps quite precisely with the neighborhoods destroyed by foreclosures in the mid-late 2000s.

The ultimate consequences of this foreclosure process were well understood as it was underway. The Federal government chose to bail out banks and bankers rather than the neighborhoods that predatory lenders targeted. The banking system was quickly restored while the social carnage that bankers created was left to fester. Opportunistic politicians allowed capitalists to destroy neighborhoods, towns, and cities through targeted economic policies and then claimed the need for extraordinary measures like militarized police to manage the social consequences.

The rhetorical form at work is to claim that ‘passive’ violence is the result of natural processes (e.g. urban decay), while the active violence that is its product is caused by malevolent actors (e.g. ‘super-predators’). This distinction between active and passive destruction— in the current case between political rebellion and an economic system that has left vast swaths of the U.S. in ruins, has analog in ye olde war films. By locating the physical destruction of businesses and neighborhoods in local struggles between ‘crime’ and the police, its true sources are kept hidden and the economic beneficiaries of social carnage are kept in power.

Arguments against defunding and / or repurposing the police accept their current role as the only viable method of providing public safety. The tired claim that poor people want the police in their neighborhoods can reasonably be restated as: poor people want freedom from the threat of violence and security in their possessions. As the class distribution of police violence suggests, the police are a major source of violence in poor neighborhoods. And power is the currency of capitalist social relations. Poor neighborhoods are plantations where rents are harvested, and poverty wages paid. Why aren’t the police arresting slumlords and otherwise abusive landlords if protection from economic predators is what poor people want?

While American history explains how the police evolved, there is no reason why less militarized methods wouldn’t be more socially productive. Additionally, the view that ‘crime’ is a natural, rather than social, phenomenon has pass-through essentialist premises. If it is natural, then why aren’t the police busy arresting rich people? Furthermore, so-called ‘black-on-black’ violence proceeds from the view that committing violence is a personal moral failure rather than a power relation. Black-on-black violence is premised on vulnerability— those victimized are victimized because they are vulnerable. There are plenty of ways to address this vulnerability that don’t require the police.

Everywhere one turns, the equitable redistribution of political and economic power is the solution to what powerful interests now claim to support. So why is old-school Democrat Bernie Sanders sheep-dogging for lunchbucket Joe instead of the other way around? Until the rich and powerful have given up their wealth and power— either voluntarily or voluntarily-lite, to join the rest of us in the human condition, divide and conquer strategies like race will be their preferred tool. Setting poor and working people against one another takes the focus off of more deserving targets.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.