Imagining Extremism, Realizing Solidarity

I have long thought the imagination an important and central site of our politics. We can harken back to the “new world is possible” slogan of 1960s radicals, but the point goes deeper than this. In a time when politics have become completely aestheticized, our imaginations are clearly targeted by forces hoping to manipulate them into a state of manufacture dissent and fracture. Think of a prison yard. Well, first of all, resist the urge to imagine this as portrayed in fetishized form by Hollywood. But even there, even in most of the most farcical productions, the racial segregation of the institution is portrayed with some degree of accuracy (there are a few exceptions of course that do a better job at representing reality, Shot Caller is likely the best example here or Blood In, Blood Out). It is a disciplinary practice by the institution to encourage this racial segregation, for this grouping allows for easier control overall. The more engaged people control themselves, the easier it is for the institution to run.

This practice goes back at least as far as the U.S. Army empowering Nazi officers to discipline the ranks of POWs under American control, for the more they were internally disciplined, the less arduous or dangerous the situation was for American guards to manage (incidentally, this is also the origin of the Bush administration’s favored ‘disarmed enemy combatant’ categorization to evade Geneva convention prohibitions on torture). Even further back, think of the dirty deal offered to impoverished whites to become overseers, or mediating authorities between wealthy gentry and enslaved black folks. The same thing occurs writ large in the U.S. prison industrial complex today. KRS-One is absolutely correct and puts it in starker terms than nearly any abolitionist scholar thus far, when he alliterates “overseer, overseer, over-see-er, off-i-cer, officer” and demonstrates many of the continuities between these positions of power. Though this dynamic obviously manifests and operates differently at different facilities, the racial split amongst the incarcerated population is consistent across the board. Why? Is it that incarcerated people are simply more racist than the outside population? Of course not. It is because the more they battle each other, the less they can even hope to battle the actual, mutual enemy of the carceral authority.

Now, in an almost Foucauldian fashion, expand this to the general population. When we imagine ourselves in society to be enemies with our political or ideological others, who does this serve? Are we really serving our collective needs, are we really protecting ourselves against state power when we are in constant battle amongst ourselves? Not to flatten the extremes of the prison system, but many of its practices do indeed demonstrate a microcosm of our macro society. We too have guns pointed at us at all times. We too are subject to the tyrannical, seemingly limitless authority of men in uniform. We too have our meals, slave wages, and healthcare dictated from above in non-negotiable terms.

Despite the various gangs, clicks, and groupings based in race on the prison yard, whenever conflict occurs between the incarcerated population and the corrections officers, things shift. It is immediately obvious then what fucking side everyone is on, who the fuck everyone’s enemy is, and it’s not any convicted person. We things pop off, in other words, the truth of the authoritarian structure is revealed, and the false façade of petty internal strife is discarded. This is also why there have been moments of beautiful racial solidarity when prisoners in Attica and Walpole overturned the carceral authorities there and ran the facilities themselves. Let us pose this question: Have we reached a similar place in our society, a similar riotous moment when our divisions can be discarded for the greater goal of throwing off our jailers? Forgiveness is step one, and solidarity is the necessary next step. We can decide to keep fighting internally, poor person/group against poor person/group, or we can all unite against the guards. Can we put past beefs aside, forgiving those we view as our ideological ‘others’ and political ‘enemies’ to form a true solidarity against corporate state power? I argue that we must choose not only this unification when facing state agents with their weaponry aimed at us, we must first allow ourselves to even imagine it.

It is often more comfortable to convince ourselves of the righteousness of our ‘side’ and to demonize the ‘extremism’ of the ‘other side.’ Fair enough, there are dangerous extremists out there, and they are not limited to any one set of beliefs. However, if we can truly build solidarity, we can begin to recognize and combat the true, and ruling, extremism prevalent in our society, the extremist corporate-state power. Corporate wealth controls not only the overwhelming majority of our resources and labor power, but also quite clearly owns the military, prison, academic, medical, media, and cultural industrial complexes. A small portion of not even the operational cost, but merely the propaganda cost of any one of these complexes could feed, house, and cloth the entire population of the U.S. quite easily. The cost of a single presidential election could do the same. The denial of basic, humane existence (not to mention the robbery of our potential for thriving) is real, practiced extremism. In other words, we are already living under a radical regime of extremist corporatism.

Here is the true extremism that rules in the U.S.:

1) Millions of people are locked in cages, some for the rest of their lives. Every family in America has been hurt or destroyed by addiction, mental health crisis, and/or incarceration.

2) Over half a million people live without housing at all. Millions live without secure, safe housing.

3) Every city in America is occupied by a militarized police force.

4) The U.S. military has nearly 1,000 bases of operation, including in over seventy countries in the world.

5) Water, air, soil, and food are being poisoned at an unprecedented rate, causing a rapid decline in the health of biosphere, climate, and all animal (including human) life over the last century.

6) Workers are told they are ‘lucky’ to be exploited, and most have to work multiple jobs merely to exist (in many locations, necessitated by the fact that they must spend >70% of their wages on housing alone).

7) People die every day from preventable causes because they cannot afford health care.

8) Children, adults, and humans are tortured, experimented upon, devalued, and discarded every day in the service of wealth.

9) Algorithmic control of thought is ever tightening perspectives and imaginations, obscuring power and inspiring inter-group violence.

10) For the first time in history, future generations are expected to live shorter, more miserable, and more deprived lives than their parents.

…and so much more.

The system is rigged in extreme ways folks, a fact we have all known for a long time, and it is rigged for the benefit of power and fortunes most of us will never see or comprehend. To build a real solidarity, one that has any hope of addressing the extremes of the hegemonic system seems to only be possible if we are able to set aside our petty differences, recognize the guns pointed at all of us, and unite against oppressive power rather than performative politics. Even in embracing forgiveness, I still can’t stop being a hater. But that’s ok, let’s just all try to channel that hater energy towards the oppressive power that actually deserves it.

Let’s fuck the system for real.