We Can’t Cancel Class

Lately, I have faced many rejections and I wondered if it was time to cancel myself to save others the time and trouble. However I could think of no other place more interested in trouble and no place that I would even have interest in writing to, and seeing I would write no matter what, even if I shared it with no one, I decided it wouldn’t do much harm to send it to Counterpunch too. Provoked I was by the recent debate over cancel culture, particularly in regards to the pragmatic anti-essentialist Adolph Reed. Reed was likely canceled in part because of his race but he knows that the expectations of black men in our society are woven into a materialist history. The need to create sincere relationships with people who are different than us has never been greater.

Just like Reed, I feel like my writing is misunderstood. However, unless we want to talk to ourselves the burden always is on the speaker to make themselves more clear. This will be my attempt to reclaim the universal class dimension and leave behind the essentialism embedded in ideology. The most important project for the left—more than any political objective—is to build the movement and get past what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. This is why I’m saddened by the class vs. race debate going on right now. At no moment has it been clearer that we can, should, and must link all elements of oppression together.

It is much more complicated than an abstract claim to intersectionality. Intersectionality is key but it must be an organizing through line meant to build compassion between willing subjects. In fact the danger we face in our present society is precisely this abstraction. Trump’s America is an abstraction. Trump’s nationalism is purely an identity and is not reflected in any of his policies. It is consistent with what Glen Ford calls the White Man’s Party (Republicans) however Trump has ignited this party’s base into a more militant and enthused coalition. Free of the contradictions embedded in civilization and Empire, the current Republican Party has embraced freedom to destroy.

In such an apparatus the only viable institutions are those that control the poor, women and people of color with force. The call for law and order in America is a reflection of a failed state who has no way to create order except through the law. A hungry person, a homeless person, an abused person, a sick person, a young person, an old person, a pregnant person, a person with a mental illness, an unemployed person, a disabled person, a person who looks suspicious to the power structure solely because of the color of their skin, these people are all increasingly dealt with by the only part of the state that is funded: the police. The mass incarceration of black people in the United States is fascism and it is a duopoly project.

It is here where we have to say that the current predicament we are in is no accident structurally. In a state that has been defunded, in a state where protections for the environment, schools, women and immigrants are under attack the only “protection” the state can offer is force. Let’s go to the present, and the real demands. Glen Ford, always crystal clear, points out that the current crisis of COVID-19 will amount to massive budget cuts to all departments. This is what he calls the politics of austerity and war in both corporate parties.

The challenge always is not what to tear down but what to replace it with. Let’s again be clear: this is not a criticism but merely a point that we are going in the right direction. The goal is always how do we keep the foot on the pedal and not let up.

Now here we are going to say the most controversial thing is the piece but it must be said, and if it results in a skirmish, so be it. What won’t be mentioned in the corporate media is that the necessity is building investment into black, brown and poor communities, not just to abstract the problem into a negative abyss. Take for example this awful polticitization of murder rates rising after George Floyd, which ruling class conservative media calls the Black Lives Matter effect. The true absurdity of this claim hardly needs to be debunked but the more troubling question is where is the liberal-left response? A politically correct fetish around race takes priority over black lives.

It is here where I want to lean in to the need to continue to build alternative organizations to the police and military in order to avoid this false political trap. This is why we must not linger in a moment but create a long-lasting movement. Because the challenge is for communities who are poisoned, abandoned by the state, left to alternative economies and police occupation, well the challenge is truly monumental. Let’s draw an international comparison. Sanctions. Left governments are sanctioned for their disobedience to Empire. Without an organized alternative the consequences of the sanctions can make the original oppressor a legitimate political intervention. Hence our endless wars we cannot leave because it supposedly will create chaos. The state and the racist enforcers in blue will do this too just as easily they will go to war in these neighborhoods.

This is the political challenge that will have state propaganda on its side. This is the challenge behind a centralized globalized militarized power. Local communities will always be punished for disobedience and the temptation will always be for the white savior state to fix the mess of its own creation. Communities, whether that be based in work, identity, common interest or pure political goal must be built to provide an alternative to pure militarism to control the real problem that poverty creates.

Because this is how the liberal-left can lose. I am arguing for a winning strategy. We can absolutely lose if we fail to build this alternative to militarism and identity-based nationalism. Politics is a question of power. It is not purely an abstract negation but an answer to life’s problems. I see this politically correct cancel culture growing in a last ditch effort to save race theory but I also see a concrete political alternative led by Black Lives Matter. A call to love black lives because they are lives. This is truly threatening to power and truly inspiring to the heart.

The truth is that most race fetishizing whites do in fact use race the idea for a substitution of race the reality. Here we don’t even need to get into so-called class reductionism and risk cancellation by this power hungry apparatus. The anti-racists, and I say this from tragic life altering violence I have been witness and even complicit to are with black folks until the question becomes materialistic rather than cultural. The moment class becomes involved in the question of black lives actually mattering white liberals join white conservatives. As soon as there is a concrete threat of material equality whites are devastated for they become the very people their life was set on saving. So therefore we can say without contradiction that anti-racism is not only a substitution for concrete class reforms for people of color but a substitution for ending material white supremacy in all its intersections.

Now I have called the effective tactics used by some riots. I have called them riots against white supremacy. Why this gets so much scolding from whites, I don’t know. I think the real reason people want to water down the effective political action here is that left-liberals like to make the fetish of the twice as good negro.

Well I’m sorry but there is nothing wrong with a riot. In fact I have argued this was not only effective but just and non-violent. What is violent is to disinvest from black communities and devalue black labor. This kills. The true poverty and environmental destruction of Africa is widely accepted. A riot is exactly what we need and we shouldn’t whitewash it by saying it was all outsiders or that it caused no harm or whatever. Wrong. It cost the powers that be a whole lot of money. It caused a lot of damage and this is why it was taken seriously. We should attack the economic structures just like the bus boycott did. It is never violent for a poor person who needs something to take from a person who has more than they need. Never. This is morality. Elimination of suffering.

In the age of Trump we see something fascinating happening. As Trump unites conservative ideology we see the left and liberals merging together. Pre-Trump we had a real division here that for better or worse can’t be afforded anymore. Leftists dug into the class fetish and liberals embraced identity. Now we see Trump showing how these dynamics work together against us and how to counter it we must unite no matter our differences. Whether this will consume the true anti-corporate struggle or this will mainstream it seems to be a false question. We should not fear growth in a movement. This is a good problem to have.

Now we have to ask a question about cancel culture. Who gets canceled and why? It is usually those who assert a universal in the face of division. Bernie Sanders was canceled by the ruling class because his universal health care program didn’t help one specific identity group. Adolph Reed points to the black elites and their “allies” (and many heady ideologues) canceling his movement for not having a especially black dimension. I would add two things, because we have to hold the white people (including my past self who wanted to impress white male leftists more than I loved black people, sadly). Two specific white dimensions. Universal programs are opposed by “anti-racist” whites precisely because of the knowledge that they are more likely to actually help people of color precisely because these programs are more likely to be accepted by racist whites. This universal threatens those left-liberals who flex their white savior muscles because it eliminates racial difference and therefore the white identity that relies on subversion of people of color for its identity. Furthermore, it is in this tradition that abstract theory can be used as a weapon against concrete movement building by both corporate media and alienated ideologues who are more connected to their own theory than to said communal movement. On the flip side a universal program will always be opposed by many sincere racists because of this same equality dimension.

Of course concrete identity politics must be embraced. But it must be specific in its own relation to power as a class. Rather than eliminate sexism (a sincere and perhaps inevitable alienation between those on unequal footing in society) we should say as Dworkin did: let’s just end rape and see what happens. Similarly defund the police is a specific demand made by Black Lives Matter while systematic racism says nothing but gestures wokeness. We must eliminate inequality materially because we are unequal not from our natural differences but because of our concrete history. Recognizing this creates the potential for a common goal before actual equality is achieved precisely because it demystifies the difference that bombards us in corporate media.

In the age of Trump a fascinating unity has emerged. The project for the poor people of the world is to organize. The potential for this society is enormous. Tremendous gains both materially and ideologically have been made through acts of solidarity and a commitment to community, generosity, courage and understanding. A worldwide health crisis completely failed to be met by the neoliberal world order. The challenge ahead is not just what to cancel but what to replace it with. Ultimately no one gets it more right than the black leftist Cedric Johnson who sees our challenge as inequality. The time is now to love poor communities. For Cornel West, justice is what love looks like in public.

We hate the right things now. We hate killer cops, big corporations and heartless politicians. Let’s cancel our neoliberal society. We now must take up the challenge of love. We love by making politics real. Politics becomes real through real action, organizing and the complicated mess of loving people in our messy world. We build, with all our disagreements, all our various identities. We build because we have a common economic interest and common quest for dignity. Nothing is more encouraging than the collapse of left and liberal ideologies into a united front with a multifarious identity. The elites figured out a long time ago that their common class interest far outweighed their differences. The only way to defeat them is to do the same.

Globalization may have created a consolidated elite and a disorganized and precarious underclass but it also has successfully created the potential for a unity against said class between a variety of people no longer rooted to any particular. Xenophobic nationalism and other forms of identity nihilism has a militarized political backing from individual states in order to give a privileged few a legitimate alternative to this looming potential universalism. However, as institutions other than these collapse a universal alienation emerges and solidarity is formed as real human connections begin to take the place of individual opportunism within the shrinking middle class. The question is not whether we can convince the corporations and the fascists who back them. The question is if we can provide a viable alternative that forces their hand. This will be built not through ideology but through political work and the transformation of alienated individuals into a diverse community with a common interest.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com