Police Are The Real Cancel Culture

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

You can jail a Revolutionary, but you can’t jail the Revolution.

—Fred Hampton

As much as academics, celebrities,

friends or anti-capitalists may fret about being deplatformed in various

ways — what about activists and unhoused people deplatformed of their

presence and existence by curfews and cops’ repression?

—Tranquil Enes

“getting canceled is what happend to heros like Steve Biko. Getting roasted for a Luke warm centrist/fascist take isn’t getting canceled, it’s getting cuckholded”

—Austin Sankaran

What say the millions of jailed black and brown Americans to the fret over cancel culture? If they could say anything, we would know. But the real cancellation of black lives cannot be ignored as we attempt to assert a white opinion cosmopolitanism. How many Americans are canceled because of their neighborhood or their lack of one? How many Americans have had their literal lives canceled during coronavirus because they can’t afford health care or can’t afford to not work? How many immigrants are canceled because they can’t even report this virus without being deported or caged? How many are canceled because of their record sheet or even specifically their race? Trans folks are canceled with near universality. Women don’t have to worry about their abusers being canceled, they have to worry about the opposite. When was the last time a cop was canceled for murder? When was the last time a billionaire was canceled for slavery or ecocide?

The gambit by the right wing is that by pointing to liberal, yet authoritarian ruling class cultural institutions they can claim persecution when in fact the political and economic forces under this oligarchy increasingly favor the right to the point that it is nearing hegemony. Unfortunately, some on the left buy into this corporate cultural identification and fail to prioritize the class war against people of color on the ground. People of color and their allies are being canceled by bullets. Right now. Corporations who embrace cancel culture rejoice and collaborate in this class stratification through racial violence. Corporations may say they want to cancel bigotry but they really want to cancel the radical underclass by any means necessary.

The law is a paradox and merely a reproduction of the class hierarchy in a society with massive inequality. This is why I can’t claim to be an ideologue but merely a person interested in the material consequences. The rich have too many police protecting them but not enough cops on the corporate crime beat. The opposite is true for the poor. Likewise the defunding of the police who generally police the poor through violence and jail will only work if we also find some way to hold the rich who cause poverty to be somehow held accountable. This is why we lose absolutely nothing by defunding the police. A new order will be formed. But it will be one that holds the corporate thieves accountable rather than locks up millions of black and brown folks because of the color of their skin.

The United States is a police state with mass incarceration. It has both occupying armies and slave cells to put in those who do not comply with the state. Similar use of force is used through a bloated military budget around the world. While the world is always on the verge of collapse amidst the class contractions of cruel survival for some and absurd excess for others we have the police as a force who cancels any resistance. These police aren’t on Twitter because they aren’t suppressing sketchy white twitter people. They have bigger fish to fry. A serious job of containing the underclass who doesn’t believe in any of the shit coming from either the corporate duopoly or its cultural apparatus.

Those upset about cancel culture make the mistake of believing in said corporate structure. The underclass are canceled not because of what they say but because of who they are. Blue Lives Matter and cancel culture rhetoric is a defense of jobs that do not fit with their own ideals because of these class contractions and the limitations of democratization of any institution under austerity neoliberal regimes. Black Lives Matter and the state’s repression of it deals with the barbarity of being a person of the underclass in these times.

I am willing to accept that all of the trends in our society are related to the crumbling Empire, rapidly deteriorating ecosphere and the resulting heightening of class contradictions. I am willing to accept that just as police and the military have become more militarized to suppress the expression of the people neglected by the state, the media too has become a place less tolerant of dissent.

I am also to a point willing to accept the class reductionist’s claim that co-optation in the form of liberalism is one tactic used to subdue the real class crisis. But who is this propaganda working on? Or perhaps more importantly, how many people would actually classify as leftists in any traditional sense? What we have is a new order on the ground, one that is quite frankly not concerned by cancel culture because the cancellation of real protestors is not just cultural but also material.

The left can avoid getting stuck in a series of meta-narratives by simply saying cancel culture may be unfortunate but it is part of a broader problem of cancellation done by the state not because of political correctness but because of political necessity. The only way to satisfy the racist Republican base is law and order and the only way for Democrats to join in with the politics of austerity and war is to also join in with the law and order of suppressing their own base. This is why Democrats simply don’t care that black and Latino people can’t vote in this country. If they could the Republican Party would be toast and the Democrats would have to answer for what they do.

Why are people in cancel culture canceled? For some famous people it’s because they did something racist or sexually harassed somebody. For some like Adolph Reed or Meghan Murphy it is because they aren’t part of the consensus but clearly are part of the left we should have solidarity with even in disagreement. While we don’t always give these people a fair trial it is also true that unless someone from the ground exposes them the corporate state doesn’t really want to cancel them. Has cancel culture hurt our intellectual culture? Sure it has but doesn’t it relate to a larger problem of solving problems through punishment and isn’t cherry-picking the petty liberal cancellations buying into the right-wing narrative that liberalism is itself a repressive cultural apparatus that it is the cause for our problems? Isn’t all of this shifting attention away from a non-ideological corporate oligarchy that doesn’t believe in anything precisely because its language is force?

Real resistance is met with a real authoritarian state. We have seen this recently. Black people have always been the leaders of the struggle against the last protectors of the corporate state. Many black folks get it more right than white folks because there is no democracy for them to believe in precisely because they were never included in it.

Let’s be honest about it. A black radical who can organize is killed in this country. That’s just the facts. Sure we may want an open discourse in society but it never has existed. If you’re serious about taking on Empire and the corporations it protects, they’ll kill you if they need to. The deadly force used against protesters recently is part of this tradition.

So the question to me isn’t so much about free speech because even in this so-called free country the language of freedom itself has never been permitted. Bigotry may be canceled but the genocide of black people isn’t. If such a contradiction exists how much can we even value the pure discourse? This is not to underestimate the power of true pedagogy and education. But this teaching is so much more than freedom of speech. It’s about citizenship and critical thinking.

If we simply want a variety of opinions to be respected I again have to ask isn’t this just a reproduction of the supposedly hegemonic liberalism that accepts diversity but never deals with class inequality? Because if we want the New York Times to add a left face and a right face to their multitudes of centrist ones isn’t that just more diversity?

What we need is to organize first and accept debate and disagreement as part of a healthy left. Whether or not we agree hardly matters and therefore putting it as our primary right seems to be wrong. What we need to do is find other people who share our same goals and get together with them to achieve them.

This idea that everyone gets their own opinion is fine but it’s more or less a reproduction of the individualism of neoliberalism. When Fred Hampton was murdered it wasn’t because he was a contrarian. It was because he organized people together under a common interest.

We have to be careful not to diminish the variety of ways human beings express themselves and how important art and music and literature is to any movement or any free life. However, if politics is a form of this aesthetic rather than the product of it then we have it backward. Art should inform our politics. Politics shouldn’t be our art.

Politics at the end of the day is about community coming together to assert its class interest in the face of oppression. It involves putting yourself second. Anything less than that leaves a movement divided and weak. Part of the left project must be convincing people that the project of emancipation is bigger than any one of us.

Cancel culture may be a threat to this solidarity but it is only a product of a larger apparatus of repression of dissent. Resistance then is far more than resisting the hegemonic values embedded in corporate political correctness. It involves resisting the hegemonic corporate power expressed in material politics. Discourse alienated from the struggle on the ground is only used as a distraction from or apology for the brutality of the state.

The work on the frontlines then is this resistance to the police and the austerity politics they defend. Getting a word in may be possible down the line but until we address the true hegemony of Empire and corporatism upon the working poor and the environment I see the free speech debate as a distraction from the fundamental economic forces driving the repression of not only white voices in the left press but black bodies in the street. This is why I say give up the ideology and do the political work and we will see what real cancel culture looks like.

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