George Floyd and the Lumpenproletariat

Candace Owens is leading the fake news charge that George Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose rather than by police murder. There is a lot of money to be made from peddling such a narrative. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said to this audience but such a claim has already been proven false by Dr. Baker of Hennepin County through examination. Baker stated Floyd’s cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”

Liberals of course have their own ideology. The rush to call George Floyd a hero and prove his great character, while certainly preferable to Owens’ sick response to death, are also avoiding the political question. If there were drugs in Mr. Floyd’s system, even if this wasn’t the cause of death, why should the police be called at all?

Liberals paint a picture of a man who once broke the law but was on the path to an honest living in reforming his life the last few years. How sick is that? Even in murder, we judge the victim. Who are we to send a murdered man to heaven or to hell? It is just another attempt by liberals to run away from the radical nature of the George Floyd uprisings, which was not to protect his right to make an honest exploited living but rather to protect his right to exist as a human being. It was not, as liberals say, a protest in defense of the family man George Floyd, who loved his mother and reinforced conservative norms. No, it was a defense of the human being regardless.

Clearly, the potential danger posed to Mr. Floyd by drugs furthers the logic of defunding and abolishing the police, a demand now sidestepped in favor of liberal rhetoric. The fact is that in any medical crisis or mental health crisis, Black people especially will have nowhere to go as long as the police remain the responders. You are better off rolling the dice with your health crisis rather than calling a cop who will at best do nothing and at most murder you in cold blood.

Avoiding Floyd’s precarious economic situation where he was in and out of crime goes to show liberal’s own racist classist contempt. The attempt to win the war over Floyd’s character, a man publicly lynched by the state, is fundamentally the wrong battle. If Floyd took drugs, so what? Blue check liberals get behind figures like Joe Biden precisely because they can have their cake and eat it too.

With a figure like Joe Biden, you can incarcerate as many or more people and still claim to be liberal and tolerant. Justice is in the board room, not on the streets. The false belief that the system is working by locking up guilty people is only half the problem. The other problem is that we believe in this process of guilty and not guilty at all.

Abolishing the police is not a personal question but rather a political one. The Minneapolis City Council has failed the people. While nine of the 13 members claimed they wanted to defund the police, a modest reform bill only received 43% of the vote on the council. Now only three out of those nine are in the office with the rest not having the stomach to confront this urgent political question of abolishing the police.

The behavior by George Floyd in question, behavior the predatory right wing thought they could expose through extended camera footage, shows a man with far more political awareness than his city council. Tragically the extended footage shows George Floyd refusing to come with the police not because he was guilty or innocent but rather because he knew the police would kill him. George Floyd begged for his life long before the knee was on his neck. A rational society wouldn’t try to kneel on this person’s neck, it would send him the help he needed, help that didn’t threaten his life.

This sort of behavior is supposed to prove to the right wing that George Floyd was not a rational actor and that he was compromised by drugs. If anything George Floyd saw things more clearly before his death than any of us sober people have after. George Floyd knew his interaction with the police would end with death. When will we realize he was right?

The center and the right want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they claim the public is against defunding the police and that it hurts the electability of Joe Biden to have these ideas out there (no kidding). On the other hand, they use fancy rhetoric to say that defunding the police would hurt the most oppressed groups.

The scandal over city council members hiring private security after receiving death threats for calling to defund the police also missed the point. Many people saw it as hypocritical. But the real hypocrisy was not the hiring of security but rather the backtracking of said plan by these council members. Receiving death threats for wanting to defund the police proves how necessary such politics are and the explicit violence behind pro-police politics. Hiring private security may not be a privilege most have but if such a thing was necessary to pass the bill who could really be against these public officials not being killed?

With all the fear over the January 6th insurrection little is mentioned about the death threats to those wanting to defund the police. The media does not see this as a threat to democracy nor does it rush to the defense of those public officials under threat of right-wing violence. Even many on the left see the radical right as allies, rather than as the people who are most likely to murder you in cold blood. At times the left naively cheers on Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call to defund the FBI while refusing to acknowledge she is a clear white supremacist.

On the other hand, there is real value in overcoming right-wing racist stereotypes about the wayward life of marginalized groups. This much should be acknowledged. The political problem that liberalism runs into however is this attempt to universalize human rights under capitalism rather than accept what Todd McGowan calls a universal non-belonging.

There was this radical attempt to identity with George Floyd’s struggle but only on certain terms. McGowan argues as a counter to the liberal slogan “no one is illegal” we should be chanting “no one is legal”. We must accept a place outside of social norms. This is a necessary step for those interested in radical change. We do not belong nor should we want to.

If we care too much about what other people think we simply aren’t useful in transforming society. We will fall victim to the same pressure as the Minneapolis City Council who followed the wind one way, and then followed it the opposite direction the next. Why not identify with all of George Floyd’s life, not as a symbol of political martyrdom that reinforces liberal values and the Democratic Party, but rather as a human being who cannot be free in a society like ours?

By claiming George Floyd was on a path to reform from lawbreaking we only justify and reinforce the system of law. Our goal is to abolish such a system. What is the law to us? Why should we care if it is followed? Does the murder of George Floyd not prove that the law is arbitrary and following it leads to death as certain as breaking it? Does it not prove that the real law is that the powerful get away with murder and the weak get away with nothing?

The law, like everything else, is not good or bad, it is only unfair. It is there to control some and make others safe. If it was applied universally it could be judged on its own merits, with questions of right and wrong factoring in. As it stands now it exists only as an ideological draping to the fate that would happen regardless. It is used retroactively to justify punishment.

This sort of class hatred even on the left goes back to Karl Marx’s slur “Lumpenproletariat” where Marx sees those outside of the law as necessarily reactionary and without class consciousness. This was a view taken to task by the Black Panther Party who saw these people as leaders of the revolutionary movement, not as snitches or co-conspirators as Marxists often claim. Malcolm X perhaps is the leading example of someone who lived a partially lumpen life like George Floyd had and this gave him the social skills to radicalize the masses and the courage to do so. In Malcolm’s case a radical education, at least informally, also seems necessary.

The left in this way echoes liberals when it claims that George Floyd was redeemable because he was getting his life together and making an honest living under capitalist relations. But is there such a thing? Must the left be so prudish as to not see that the violence in society does not come from the criminal but rather from those in charge of production who can destroy the entire planet legally and with a hefty payday?

It remains to be proven that the law-abiding worker is even any more moral than the criminal. By following the law one only reinforces it and justifies it. A person who gets up every day and makes a quiet living under capitalism is someone who is useful to the system and its exploitation. Marx may have seen these people as naturally honest but to act out this subservient role is to turn away from class consciousness.

It seems particularly counterintuitive that Marx sees the lumpen as more susceptible to bribes when a wage is nothing more than a bribe. A wage is simply something a worker receives in exchange for expanding a capitalist’s production and profit. By accepting such a wage one is accepting a bribe to further this power of the capitalist. This is necessary for survival certainly but a person who refuses or is unable to make such an exchange be riper for revolutionary action than one who relies on these bribes not only for survival but also by the necessity for identification, often identification against such Lumpenproletariat.

The debate over Lumpenproletariat has sparked up on the left recently with attempts to identify the Trump base. Again the left misidentifies the Trump base as an underclass, whether or not they see this as a good thing or a bad thing is unclear. But the Trump base, in comparison to the rest of the population, is doing well economically and supports law and order politics because of this.

It again begs the question of racial politics on the left being a roadblock to solidarity. Why does parts of those who claim to be on the left read Trumpist bourgeois white supremacist violence as something to be in solidarity with? Why are we accepting Marx’s line that it is the proletariat who submit to social norms and are coded as white, western, and civilized should be the ones leading said revolution?

Why does the left retreat into reactionary right-wing politics by looking at the latest murder in Memphis by the police as proof that so-called identity politics don’t work? How can the people of color not have identity politics when even the establishment left codes the leaders of the revolution as white? Why not use the murder in Memphis to further the straightforward demand to abolish the police rather than use it opportunistically to decry Black professionals?

Many on the left are just fine with this framing of supposed class resentment of identity politics but this was always the danger of anti-Semitism and increasingly anti-Asian sentiment in the United States and it should not be replicated. Is such a critique really any different from anti-immigrant sentiment where it is framed as they are stealing our jobs, masking a racist critique in class identification?

The left has a complicated relationship with Black Lives Matter. Unfortunately, many leftists see it as a sort of regression from “class politics” (white politics?) of Occupy Wall St., Bernie Sanders and the like. Much is made of a few corrupt people which happens in every organization and does not discredit the movement. This prejudice goes back to Marx himself and ignores the history of resistance in the United States and where it really comes from. The proletariat should certainly not be excluded from revolutionary politics nor should they be dismissed.

But the leadership of the revolution is most likely to come from the Lumpenproletariat and when they are killed by the state we should not use it to further mythologize the working class. Just because Kanye West or Candace Owens may see drug use as a reason to be murdered does not mean we should let this dictate our politics. No one is a good or moral person under capitalism. All of us are complicit in systematic destruction until it is abolished. All of us are criminals and if there is a just judge out we would all be put on trial. We would learn that the Lumpenproletariat were a step ahead of us in seeing that the rule of law is not our friend.

Books are not banned from universities or workplaces. They are banned from prison. It is rightly assumed that if one is trying to better their material future under traditional capitalist relations you won’t be very useful to the revolution anyways. By gatekeeping the Lumpenproletariat we assume the rule followers are those most likely to break the rules. A lot of books for not a lot of logic.

It remains unclear what the left is safeguarding against in its contempt for the Lumpenproletariat. Many link the expansion of social benefits for the poor as an expansion of state capitalism which is just another way of calling these folks a drain on society as a Bill Clinton might. Putting theoretical politics before the well-being of the most vulnerable merely exposes the biases of the intellectual class against what it claims to stand for. Others have an economic determinist view that prevents them from going to prisons, homeless shelters or refugee camps. This snobbish view is that only the trained, the educated, those fit to discipline themselves in expanding the powers of capitalist business are the ones who will overthrow such relations.

The left sides with authoritarian governments attempting to accelerate production at the expense of the Lumpenproletariat and the environment. We identify not with the people but with their oppressors who we see as capable of providing an alternative. We say Nicholas Maduro is a revolutionary and his seven million refugees are not useful to our cause.

We smear Marxists who resist authoritarianism in their own land if we identify their leaders as socialists ignoring the step that socialism is only global socialism or it is no socialism at all. We ignore Africa because it is mostly unemployed and therefore must only inhabit backward people who are not interested in our ambitious goal of creating more efficient jobs and organization of society as such. We claim that work makes a man only because we work and work has ruined us.

We necessarily resent the Lumpenproletariat because they do not submit to authority as we do in the workplace. We fetishize unions to negotiate with capitalism but we cancel those who refuse to negotiate with capitalists. We ignore that it is our complicit work that expands capitalist power not those who rely on the government for help.

We are no less crude than the guy who yells at the homeless man to get a job. We are paranoid that the Lumpenproletariat will take the side of the oppressors in a revolution because we have not taken their side. We are blind to the fact that many are in and out of these categories and that life is not a straight path for most people.

We continue to insist that people just need a Marxist education, the correct propaganda when most who receive this education use it to distinguish themselves as leaders rather than identify with the underclass. We have not learned that the aspiration to be a worker is a double-edged sword. It does identify you with one side of the class dynamic but it furthers your desire to be on the other side. To imagine yourself as exploited means you must also desire to one day exploit.

Only when we break free of these resentments of the bourgeois and our aspiration to be them will we succeed. Only when we become confident of who we are like the Lumpenproletariat rather than define ourselves by our usefulness to capital will we ever be useful to building a real alternative.

Marxism sees capitalism as progress and aims to fulfill its ideals. Instead, we should see capitalism as a regression and we should look not to universalize the bourgeois subject for the bourgeois subject exists only in relation to the lumpen who it negates. The bourgeois are necessarily defined by its anxiety towards those left out of its class and therefore the attempt to universalize this class is futile.

Rather if we universalize those outside of capitalism we may indeed have the utopia we are looking for. Marxism is simply a moderate position that attempts to universalize the positive and cleanse the world of its necessary criminal element rather than universalizing the negative as a way to overcome the oppression of the law itself.

Critiques of Marxism in this way are dismissed out of hand as bourgeois themselves. Foucault’s intervention where he sides with the underclass and examines how power is totalized is seen as a distraction as it moves away from the real power in society which comes from the workers.

Malcolm X brings into question said identification with job or school status: “I’m the only Negro out here.” “I’m the only one on my job.” “I’m the only one in this school.” You’re nothing but a house Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, “Let’s separate,” you say the same thing that the house Negro said on the plantation. “What you mean, separate? From America? This good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?” I mean, this is what you say. “I ain’t left nothing in Africa,” that’s what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa.”

In this way we can see that capitalist relations can give some of us everything if we play by the rules. It can give us everything but our minds, who we are as human beings. Marxist politics are more complicated than this because it does involve this universalism of the false positive. A universalism of the oppressor class where we all share in the ownership of violent production rather than sit on other sides of it.

But in the modern day are these categories not mixed? Is not the point of work of a proletariat to buy stocks and be an owner of part of a company? Is it not to buy a home to through selling of your labor to a capitalist who owns a company? Is it not this very dream of a mixed reality that lies in the ambition of the proletariat subject? Isn’t it very possible in developed capitalist countries to sell your labor in order to own a part of another person?

This is not true of all or most of the proletariat class but this makes such positive identification with the condition even worse. The less this false promise is achieved the worse off most people are but it does not necessarily stop the false identification. Attempts to liberate Marxism from this contradiction and its dependence on capitalism to better the means of production is met with scorn. People wonder where this revolution could come from. Clearly, those people do not see the revolution in the minds and souls of the people but rather in their usefulness to capitalism.

Attempting to provide a competitive alternative to capitalism can only end as capitalism for capitalism is the ideology of competition. Such an ideology necessarily scapegoats those on the outside. These people are not properly propagandized to guide the alternative mode of production that will be utopia. But isn’t the free mind who stands tall against any expediency to revolutionize production the one who should be leading our society? Should our goal really be to fulfill the bourgeois ideal? Isn’t it exactly this ambition that has created the impossibility of freedom where the person minding their own business is now necessarily eliminated because they are in the way?

The homeless, those living on land ripe for exploitation of resources, those attempting to survive outside said the system of extraction, and those living in regions of climate catastrophe and war, all must necessarily be eliminated to continue production extraction in peace. We are left to fight over the pie we get out of this and we do not look at what is done in order to achieve our goals. We merely see those standing in the way as naive because we like our aspirational unfulfilled bourgeois ideal. We have fooled ourselves that we can rule material reality by strengthening material production.

Malcolm X asked us to universalize our identification with the underclass, with the negation of capitalist relations, while Marx asked us to universally identify with the bourgeois, the affirmation of said relations. One road leads to universal negativity and resistance the other to a continued aspiration to achieve the goals of our oppressors and identify with them. Marxism’s contradictions must be overcome.

Capitalism has no contraction. It exploits and devours. Marxism has the contraction of universalizing said exploitation, allowing the exploited to become exploiters. Such a move is possible under capitalism just not very often. It will continue to be attempted as long as we believe in it. Capitalism’s false promise must be negated and not universalized. By refusing to universalize it we can begin its negation.

The common refrain from Marxists is that if Malcolm wasn’t a Marxist and it is “not yet” he was on his way to higher learning. Assume this is true shouldn’t we all be in a stage of “not yet”. Hasn’t every attempt to evolve society resulted in devolution and the further cementing of absolute power? Our challenge is to say no, to do less, to refuse the bourgeois aspiration to throw the lumpen under the bus in the name of moving the bus forward, no matter which way the seats are arranged on it.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at