Fragments of the Current Moment

I was hoping that this article would be more thorough and integrated but the topics proved a bit too many for that. I’m publishing it because I hope that it contains some valuable observations and helpful suggestions. I should note that some sections have previously appeared in Hard Crackers.


We’re faced with a grim present and we’re facing what might be an even grimmer future. For the moment, we’re facing the rolling catastrophe of the covid epidemic (measured in cases, illnesses and fatalities as well as in growing numbers of impoverished individuals and families), the quite savage realities of enduring patterns of police violence (mostly inflicted against black men), and the threat posed by the emergence of what might be called “vigilante repression” in cities and towns across the country.1

If the future remains in the hands of the rulers who have brought us to this current moment, that future will only be worse. But a simple exhortation to that effect will have little significance. Instead, if we want to fundamentally affect the course of events, we will have to come up with a comprehensive analysis of what has happened and where things stand, something of a plan for what we might do and a plausible idea of how we might actually do it. This is a modest contribution to that effort.

Not too long ago, we were surprised, astonished and encouraged by the eruption of the massive anti-police protests that swept the nation and, to some extent, the world. We took heart that such a hopeful turn could take place in the midst of the epidemic and began thinking about how that uprising might be sustained as an insurgent, anti-system movement. We still need to be pursuing that line of thought but we now have to confront the possibility that the situation might devolve into an, all but certainly miserable, armed fight that will inflict pain and suffering but not terribly much in the way of forward movement.

The us ruling class is faced with a multi-dimensional crisis that is the worst it has faced since the Civil War. The crisis involves largely uncontrolled viral spread (albeit with certain exceptions that may or may not prove durable), resulting (as I write) in more than 6 million cases across the entire country and almost 190,000 fatalities; dramatic declines in people’s material well-being (soon to be made worse by housing evictions and the inability to afford essential goods); a looming second closure of production and renewed rising rates of unemployment (because of the reduction of federal funds); continuing financial uncertainties in banks and corporations; a shattered state of the rulers’ internal coherence; perhaps unprecedented popular political disagreements resulting in pervasive distrust of normal governmental functioning, and unmoored forms of popular consciousness reflected in wild conspiracy theories. The crisis has become three-dimensional and the powers that be seem unable to move beyond “churning and flailing.”2

From the ruling class point of view, dealing with the crisis is primarily a matter of restoring enough of an acceptable state of affairs that it can return to its main tasks—of maintaining social stability without too much obvious turmoil and allowing the necessary adjustments to their economy so that profit-making across broad sectors can be resumed. For them, effective system management requires the necessity of growth; the manufacture and manipulation of messages; “acceptable” levels of illnesses and fatalities; the avoidance of any collapse of healthcare; the preservation of existing healthcare institutions (hospitals, medical supply companies, pharmaceutical companies and insurance); the continued dodging of financial breakdowns; the maintenance of law and order (including the protection of existing property relations); the reproduction of commonsensical notions regarding the norms of electoral and governmental processes; and more or less obvious counter-insurgency to deflect or defeat system-level challenges. One thing that has made all this much harder than they would prefer is the erratic presidency of Donald Trump, who clearly has a congenital predisposition to look to make a quick buck at every turn and simply cannot be counted on, by friend or foe, to play by some sort of recognized rules.

Beyond that, what makes things hard for them? Perhaps the key reason is that the world capitalist system is grounded in what has been termed “fictitious capital”—capital generated by future claims on value that has not been produced and, in all likelihood, will not be. The economy is dominated by endless speculative maneuvers in banking and the equity markets—even after those kinds of maneuvers resulted in the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Often enough, the maneuvers constitute fraud.

Before the epidemic, what was developing was almost certainly going to be another financial crisis. The masters of the universe might very well be the only people who were grateful for the outbreak of the epidemic. They got to be bailed out once again by the government and the Federal Reserve, but the reason why the bailout was needed was disguised as the virus. Looking back at the original congressional actions in response to the shutdown of companies and layoffs in the millions, it should be clear that the bills pretty much sailed through the legislative chambers because the important matter of saving the banks and Wall Street demanded attention. More recently, when that matter no longer seems so pressing, the Democrats and Republicans can go back to their usual squabbles.

From our point of view, crises create the opportunity for large numbers of people to realize that what appears to be permanent need not be so. There are choices to make about the future we want and decisions about what we should do. It is worth emphasizing, however, that often enough people’s actions themselves create the crises and thus create the circumstances for something very new to emerge.

The Epidemic and its Complexities

It is tempting to begin this section with an enumeration of all the crimes and misdemeanors committed by governmental and corporate leaders and institutions. I’ll get to that in a moment. But I begin instead with an acknowledgment that the virus has proven to be an especially devilish phenomenon and it is likely that, even if all of the institutions and individuals involved had done just about everything well, there still would have been unexpected developments resulting in viral spread and disease. I have come to think that even a well developed and well-executed plan, with cohesive mass support, will get things wrong in this kind of situation. This should suggest the need for some humility in the face of a great social-natural threat. Beyond that, however, it points to the imperative need to eliminate the conditions that are conducive to viruses “leaping” from animal populations where they remain harmless to other animal species and subsequently to humans and to reduce the frequently mindless global traffic in people and goods that accelerates the spread of viruses.3

There was an initial obliviousness to the threat that the virus posed—a classic instance of the banality of ignorance, which was subsequently raised to an art form by Trump and his supporters. As a result of that obliviousness, there was a bungled response to viral spread. There was an ineffective ban on travel from China and a delayed imposition of a ban on travel from Europe. While people were breathing easy that the viral spread had been contained in the Northwest, it was spreading like proverbial wildfire in the East, especially New York, due to viral spread from Europe. The travel bans allowed for escape hatches of sorts for us citizens with a claim that returning travelers would be screened and, if necessary, quarantined. Instead, there was lackadaisical airport screening. While the virus was rapidly making its way, politicians de Blasio and Cuomo played to their respective political supporters and all but certainly caused additional deaths.4

Once the viral spread became evident, the problems multiplied. There was no testing; protective equipment was in short supply and ventilators were nowhere to be found. Soon enough, it became clear that the shortage of essential medical supplies and equipment was placing severe limits on the quality of medical care being provided. The shortage also illuminated the ways in which healthcare institutions had been caught up in the madness of global supply chains—built on just-in-time supply models, with a small number of manufacturers concentrated in a small number of countries, resulting in lengthy transportation routes. Even well-endowed hospitals had to scramble for things that should have been abundantly available. It became clear that, fundamentally, profit was the guiding principle, even in supposedly non-profit institutions.

After all has been said and done, the United States is doing the worst in controlling the virus. According to a New York Times report from early August, the United States has about 4 percent of the world’s population but it has recorded over 20 percent of deaths due to the virus. In July, 1.9 million Americans tested positive; that was five times as many as in all of Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia combined. In that same month, Spain experienced an unexpected second wave of 50,000 new cases but that seems small in comparison to 300,000 new cases in Florida (especially since Florida has about half as many people as Spain).5 The reasons for the us disaster are many but the Times article highlighted a few—the initial decision not to require masks of all people and to restrict their use to healthcare personnel; the subsequent and continuing “debate” about mask requirements; more generally, the profoundly inconsistent character of messages from politicians and public health figures regarding appropriate steps, including most egregiously, the recommendation of wrong-headed treatments like hydroxychloroquine and snake-oil remedies like swallowing disinfectants. Finally, the Trump-endorsed rush to “liberate” states and “reopen the economy” (mostly on the basis of wishes and prayers) all but certainly added millions to the case total.6

Interestingly, there appears as if there was not only one sure-fire way to control the virus. What probably mattered more was a steadiness of purpose and a willingness to make modifications as indicated by unexpected developments, trends or discoveries. This was evident in New Zealand, which relied on a complete lockdown of the economy for seven weeks and completely closed borders, and South Korea, which relied on extensive and rapid drive-thru testing and did not shut down economic activity. What became clear in that nation was that test results which are mostly right most of the time are good enough for purposes of tracking potential viral spread. Both New Zealand and South Korea had the advantage of being relatively small countries—in one case, two islands and the other, with only a sole, sealed border. In both cases, there was a cohesive national response.7 In the United States, major party political conflicts deeply grounded in different geographical areas (rural/urban; the coasts/the middle of the country), along with very different trajectories of viral spread, made such cohesion hard to come by.

Throughout the course of the epidemic, governmental responses in the United States lacked a coherent strategy. In New York, state and local authorities delayed important decisions about shutting down various activities and likely caused many preventable deaths. Thomas Frieden, formerly the director of the cdc, has suggested that 80 percent of virus-related deaths in New York City could have been avoided if the shutdown had taken place just weeks earlier.8 In addition, in the early days of explosive spread in New York City, the dominant public message concerned “flattening the curve” in order to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed by cases—which meant an all but exclusive focus on individuals sheltering in place and shutting down almost all public spaces and many workplaces.9 Of course, those considered to be “essential” were expected to continue to go to work and those whose jobs allowed for it could work at home.10

Flattening didn’t work out so well at the beginning and, according to the Times article just cited, some hospitals were in fact overwhelmed. At the time, a few voices were critical because a “flattening the curve” strategy ruled out any methodical efforts to eliminate the virus—meaning to drive its transmissibility down to very low levels. Such a suppression strategy wouldn’t necessarily even require testing; what it did require was identifying all those who had been in contact with those with viral symptoms, tracking them down and arranging for their isolation. This would likely have meant that some people who were not infected would have been affected but it could have driven transmission down to insignificant levels.

As I understand it, the purposes of testing for the virus include: the identification of positive cases for accurate counts of incidence; the analysis of the characteristics of those infected (such as age or pre-existing conditions) and not infected; the plotting of the geographical distribution of positive and negative cases to target outreach efforts intended to reduce disease spread (such as contact tracing) and the identification of volunteers for clinical trials. In the United States, for many weeks, the state of testing was disastrous. There was, and still is, a general lack of purpose to testing. Debates were primarily about how many tests were being done. Over time, testing in the United States has been repaired enough to meet some of those purposes but serious problems with the turn-around time for test results remain.

What went wrong? Soon after the Chinese made available the genetic sequence of the virus, German researchers were able to develop a test which was adopted by the World Health Organization and subsequently used by most countries. The United States refused to do so and the Centers for Disease Control worked to develop its own test. That only took four days but it soon became evident that the test was flawed. Weeks of delays resulted. Eventually, the cdc acknowledged that the test had been contaminated during production. At the same time, the cdc promulgated rigid requirements for determining who should be tested and many who were infected were never able to secure a test. The sad story went on and on.

Right or wrong, necessary or not, governmental decisions produced a “stopped” society—manifested by empty streets and highways, skies without airplanes, shuttered factories and schools, and many millions simply staying at home. Eventually, this resulted in weeks without pay; endless delays in getting unemployment insurance; miserly stimulus payments; unusually generous unemployment insurance and worsening worries about paying rent and other bills. And for all too many, it meant forced labor in hospitals, meat-processing plants, supermarkets, logistics hubs (quintessentially Amazon) and delivery services (such as ups, FedEx, usps).

But not everything collapsed; there appeared to be a reasonable stability of essential supplies (food, energy and medications) once the silly preoccupation with toilet paper passed; essential sanitation (water supply and garbage removal); the more or less adequate maintenance of safety precautions; emergency healthcare; routine financial transactions; transportation. At bottom, this durability is evidence of the remarkable material wealth of the United States. It confirms that there is more than enough to go around to keep people alive—in spite of severely diminished wages.

Underlying Conditions

While the preoccupation of most public discussions about healthcare in the United States is the matter of health insurance, the extent of profound healthcare system inequities—including the number of hospitals for residents in a community, town or city, the number of icu beds, staffing levels, extent of adherence to standards of care related to matters such as infection control)—became glaringly clear. Consistently worst outcomes occurred in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities—where, as of this writing, more than 40 percent of the total recorded fatalities have taken place. In Japan by way of comparison, only 14 percent of fatalities were in eldercare facilities—even though Japan has a slightly higher percentage of people in such places. In nyc, what kind of hospital you were admitted to was literally a matter of life or death—with those admitted to the city’s elite hospitals doing much better than those admitted to various community-based institutions and public hospitals operated by the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation.11

We all became used to what doctors and other experts on the cable news shows said—people with underlying conditions are much more vulnerable to the covid-19 virus and are in much greater danger of becoming seriously ill and dying. Those underlying conditions have been identified, among others, as heart disease, diabetes, lung ailments, suppressed immune systems, and obesity (although there also appear to be some odd factors that don’t quite add up—like the greater likelihood that younger men will get infected and die more often than younger women).

Relatively early on, a stark and frightening addition was added to that more or less routine pronouncement. Being African-American was added to the list of underlying conditions. To understand what they were talking about, let’s look at Chicago—which, at one point, was considered the center of the explosive rates of African-American infections and deaths.

Block Club Chicago reported that: “Auburn Gresham’s 60620 zip code now has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases of any Chicago zip code, with 359 cases, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Neighboring communities to the south and east also have high numbers, with the 60619 zip code at 306 cases and 60628 at 288.”

The Block Club Chicago journalist offered an all too familiar explanation for the dismal realities: “Officials have pointed to a wide range of reasons for the high number of cases in African-American communities, from historic disinvestment that’s led to wide healthcare disparities for generations to higher numbers of residents working essential jobs that don’t allow for working from home.”12

For all practical purposes, the reasons cited by the journalist appear to have become simple facts of nature and there is little to be done other than to pray. But it was not supposed to be that way. In the years since the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement (from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s), those inequities were supposed to be understood as fundamentally not natural but social and, therefore, gradually to be sure, eliminated.

The underlying conditions destroying the lives of African-Americans in Chicago and elsewhere are much more than the specific diseases that make them ill and vulnerable. They are the concentrated totality of their life circumstances—bad housing, lousy schools, rotten healthcare, intense policing, more or less constant imprisonment for many, frequent unemployment, low-paid and life-threatening jobs, no sick leave, very limited access to high-quality foods, high levels of air pollution, and probably more. Those circumstances are the real underlying conditions that place them at risk. And then they get sick—a condition that’s much worse than it needs to be in “normal” times and, more or less, catastrophic in these times.

The underlying conditions, as all too many seem to assume, are not their identities as African-Americans. There are many African-Americans, even in Chicago, who are at little risk because their life circumstances have all but nothing in common with the working-class communities of places like Far Southeast Chicago.13 At the same time, they may well be the victims of careless inattentiveness, if not malpractice, in healthcare settings. In spite of Barack Obama, the social contempt for African-Americans is not yet extinguished.

American healthcare institutions are characterized by an extraordinary level of carelessness about following protocols of care and routinely place patients in worse danger than they would face if they were not hospitalized. Each year, about 700,000 patients acquire a preventable infection while they are hospitalized; about 70,000 of them die. I have no grand explanation for the tendency to be careless. It may well be that it’s most often in evidence when the patients involved are not considered to be worth all that much—see, for example, this video about a woman’s death in an Emergency Room at Kings County Hospital, a public hospital in Brooklyn.

Science and its Discontents

Throughout the epidemic, there has been a superficial elevation of medicine and science—most clearly evident in the designation of acceptable experts and acceptable views, usually associated with Ivy League institutions. The understandable skepticism of ordinary people, reflected in a wide variety of more or less sensible views, remained largely unaddressed.

I know that science is not held in much high regard but I think that we need to challenge that tendency. In the same way that the arguments of anti-vaccine advocates have accumulated believers by shredding scientific evidence to argue that vaccines endanger kids, rather than protect them, people have come to rely on anecdotes and legends about all sorts of things. An outstanding book on this and related topics is Eula Biss’s On Immunity, published by Graywolf Press in 2015.

Science is a way of thinking designed to avoid magical explanations or conspiratorial fantasies.14 For all practical purposes, for many, science does not exist. To the extent that people have a view of science, they probably would say something about the Scientific Method taught in high school. But science has little to do with that formula; science is achieved by work, usually work among many individuals in collaboration. Within the last few decades, that collaboration has been internationalized and researchers in many different countries are up to date with what is being done elsewhere and contributing their own findings and interpretations. This development makes the routine claims that the health professionals in the United States are the best in the world a hollow pr stunt.

It bears repetition that capitalist science, meaning the priorities that are set for research activities and the uses that are made of research conclusions, is fundamentally distorted by the demands of profit seeking. Scientific knowledge needs to be rescued from that hole and re-established as a common universal knowledge for humanity, with no private claims on it. The starting point of science is that what appears to be self-evident at the level of everyday experience is mistaken—the earth is round, not flat; the sun doesn’t really rise and set; profit is not the result of investment.15

Beyond that, scientific knowledge needs to be made understandable to many millions of people. That will never happen so long as that knowledge is organized in numerous special fields which are only really comprehensible to individuals in those fields. What’s needed is a general framework for scientific thinking that can be applied broadly, with some differentiations, to understanding both natural and social phenomena. And beyond that, what’s needed is a sustained effort to produce understandable interpretations of that knowledge, written in accessible language, without resorting to simplifications. One aspect of the language issue is to familiarize people with the practice that common words have different meanings in everyday conversations and in scientific discussions—a “virus” in everyday talk is not the same as a “virus” in science talk.

A brief observation about the science of society—many would insist that science is not appropriate for thinking about and understanding society. The separation of natural science (biology, chemistry and physics) and social science (the study of society) does not serve us very well. Think, for instance, about this current epidemic or pandemic:

  1. it is increasingly clear that its origins go back to the spread of industrial agriculture into previously natural forests and the disruption of the more or less normal processes that would have prevented the spread of disease,
  2. the spread of the virus around the world has been accelerated by global trade and travel, and
  3. its spread within countries has a great deal to do with pre-existing inequalities and dysfunctional public health systems.

The line where biology ends and society begins is mostly an invisible one.

But scientific knowledge is not enough. It needs to be combined with the good sense of many millions of people—people who know how to talk with their co-workers and neighbors, who know how to get things done in an emergency (like what happens in the aftermath of hurricanes or earthquakes), who know how to fight for what they need. I’m reminded of what happened during the aids epidemic. Against all odds, activists in groups like act-up (aids Coalition to Unleash Power) organized themselves to become scientific experts about the disease and how to fight it. Often enough, they were ahead of the medical profession. Ultimately, the doctors, nurses and activists needed each other and they stopped the carnage, at least in places like the United States.16

The George Floyd Uprisings

Several months ago, during the early days of the epidemic, I wrote: “My best guess is that people might come to think differently after they act differently.” Subsequently, there was a good deal of speculation about what people might be thinking about during the strange period of forced isolation and inactivity. Some dreamed that people were planning on actions to be taken once it was possible. But no one in their wildest imagination saw mass demonstrations around the proverbial corner. There is something fundamentally unpredictable about the moment when great numbers of people act on long-held convictions that they have had enough. What more than 100,000 deaths due to the virus could not provoke over a couple of months, the brutal murder of George Floyd, captured on video, managed to accomplish overnight. The stories of what occurred on the streets of this country and elsewhere need to be told well so that we might understand better what led to what.

The last months have witnessed an extraordinary explosion of protests, of just about every imaginable variety, by who knows how many people across the United States and the world in an ever-changing flow of innovation and improvisation. Protesters have been willing to: be bold, confront police forces, refuse to obey or back down, engage in widespread breaking of laws (including arson) and to be arrested. As a result, they have often met unrestrained attacks by the local police and other mobilized forces—with tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades, low-flying helicopters, baton swinging, and rushing and pushing. Rather than thinking about these tactics as evidence only of out-of-control cops (of whom there are many), it would be better to see them as elements of, perhaps haphazardly implemented, intentional tactics of suppression. Otherwise, why would the cops have all these weapons ready to use?

I am pretty confident that participation in the protests has often been exhilarating (maybe even providing a new sense of being alive) and has expanded participants’ sense of the possibilities of how they can act and enhanced their appreciation of the power they have. As one Instagram poster, who had attempted to publicize every protest in New York City, wrote:

One of my favorite parts about running this account over the last two weeks has been watching so many of you find your place as a leader in this movement, most of you unexpectedly.

Some of you have had experience organizing but never commanded crowds so large, while others were newbies just eager to bring the conversation to their own neighborhoods. Some found themselves leading a chant for the first time, while others, for the first time, chanted back. Some of you were speakers sharing your truths in front of strangers, while others sat and taught us how to listen. Sometimes you were in the middle of the dance circle, and sometimes you were on the sidelines handing out food, water, masks, and first aid. And don’t forget those behind the scenes connecting interpreters and solo protesters. All of you experimenting with little to no precedent. All of you different races and ages.

It has been my greatest honor to watch you all grow as leaders in your own right. To hear how it has changed you. To share with you in that pride, vulnerability, and personal strength as you inspire everyone watching to hope and to dream and to fight so that maybe this time it will be different. Hold onto that and don’t ever forget how much you are all needed here. Now and later.

Some people are referring to this as a “leaderless movement.” But I don’t see a leaderless anything, do you?

The geographic dispersion across cities, suburbs and rural areas was nothing less than astonishing. In the cases of the suburbs and rural areas, as well as the cities, the actions suggest that many white people are ready for something beyond “going along to get along” lives. The “culture” (to use an admittedly inadequate word) of many social “blocks” (more or less cohesive groups that think and act alike, with or without direct personal connections) that has sustained the existing state of affairs in white communities, has started to break apart. This would include: nascar’s decision to ban the Confederate flag at its races; the statement by the National Football League (nfl) Commissioner that the league should have listened earlier to its black players and that it now believes that Black Lives “Do” Matter; the toppling of Confederate statues all over the place (without waiting for legislative approval). Once they lose the flag, nascar, the monuments, what do they have left? More recently, in the wake of the police assault of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, the startling scenes of rapid-fire strikes by professional athletes in basketball, football, baseball and hockey (especially baseball and hockey) confirmed that something quite fundamental is underway.17

Police departments and their traditional supporters have been divided and, hopefully, weakened. But, predictably enough, the cop unions are mobilizing their defenses—with full support from Trump—who has received their endorsements. And, remarkably, in the midst of everything going on, police departments and mayors do not seem able to stop police killings. There’s way too much to say about this than I can incorporate at this time but I would note that I think that explaining police shootings by a phrase as vague as “systemic racism” does not seem adequate. To the best of my knowledge, there is no town or city government and no police department in the United States that approves or endorses police killings of unarmed black men. And beyond that, there is certainly no government or police agency that endorses the kind of brutal savagery that is evident in putting a knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes or shooting Jacob Blake in the back seven times. There’s something much more wrong with the police than can be cured by better laws, policies or trainings on implicit bias. I may be overdoing it but I’d suggest the serious possibility of a social psychosis among the cops—they can’t stop themselves and they will not be reformed out of their behavior.

Within the last few weeks, events have once again taken a dramatic turn with the emergence of vigilante repression across the country. The most extreme instance of this occurred in Kenosha where a rag-tag assortment of armed militia types rushed to volunteer their services to the police forces to “protect property.” The police welcomed them and offered them water bottles. In the midst of a more or less chaotic scene, seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse killed two anti-police protesters and seriously wounded another. What was most remarkable it that he calmly walked past a convoy of police vehicles with his hands raised and they simply let him pass. He managed to get home safely in a nearby Illinois town and to sleep in his own bed before he was finally arrested the next morning.

A few days later, a truck caravan of armed Patriot Prayer Trump supporters descended on Portland, Oregon, and attacked protesters on the streets with an assortment of weapons such as paintball guns. During the ensuing free-for-all, Michael Reineohl, an anti-fascist activist, shot and killed Aaron Danielson, a Patriot Prayer member. Reineohl got away and a few days later recorded an interview that appeared on Vice News during which he insisted that he had acted in self-defense.18 The next day, he was killed in a barrage of shots from members of various police agencies. Details are still obscure.

In any case, though, the situation on the ground has turned deadly serious and could relatively easily get much worse.

Towards the Future

If I had completed this essay a month ago, I would have emphasized that the developments related to the upsurge in rebellious actions were very encouraging. I remain convinced that that is the case. That assessment needs to be tempered by a recognition of the dangers posed by various forms of repression. Let me turn, though, first back to the optimistic moment because it should not be lost.

I thought then that it was time to ask, as Paul Gilroy had put it in a recently recorded conversation, if the “mobilization can become a movement” and to think about what we might do to make that more likely. Gilroy suggests that there is, for the first time in a long time, the possibility of a different future than the one we thought. He and his partner in the conversation, Ruth Gilmore, suggest that the moment creates an opportunity for reinvigorating the notion of universalism—of humans across the globe seeking liberation in common. They also suggest that an embrace of universalism might very well be essential for the mobilization to become a movement.19 clr James once wrote that Marxism was the “theoretical basis of scientific humanism”—a humanism that would sweep away all the archaic and modern notions of the witches’ brew of divisions that plague our world—races, castes, particularistic religions, and nations.20

Some time ago, Gilroy modified that insight with a call for a planetary humanism, one that would incorporate the future life of the planet as being all but inseparable from the liberation of humanity. In their recent talk, Gilmore suggested that the “livingness of the planet” is imperiled; the “livingness of the planet” is a wonderful phrase. Let’s hold on to it. It might come in handy. Both Gilroy and Gilmore endorse the likelihood that the path forward will not be straightforward—there will be “detours, loops, new roads.” They see in the present signs of a “rehearsal for the future”—allowing for new relationships, new expectations, new desires, new organizational forms. Gilroy argues for the development of a “different conception of democracy” while Gilmore, building on the ideas of the English writer, Raymond Williams, suggests that we may be on the verge of seeing new “structures of feeling” crystallizing that will come to define the emerging era.

The Vision of a New World

We should insist that we want a new world! Not a somewhat improved version of this world! Let’s call it socialism. Over hundreds of years, the vision of a new society has been named: “Jerusalem” by the poet William Blake, “a free association” or a “union of free individuals” by Karl Marx, a “Gemeinwesen” (or community) by Frederick Engels, a “universal republic” by the Paris Communards, a “beloved community” by the American Civil Rights activists, or a “good life” by clr James. In his book titled Modern Politics, James described what he meant by the phrase:

An American woman told me once that she forgot herself and told an audience of white women in the United States—she was a Negro woman—speaking to them she said, “When I look at you all, I am sorry for you because although whites are oppressing us and giving us trouble, I am actively on the move; every morning I am doing something, but you all are just sitting down there watching.” It is not the complete truth, but it is a great part of the truth. It is some idea of what I mean by the good life—the individual in relation to society. It is not, it never has been, merely a question of what the vulgarians call “raising the standard of living.” Men are not pigs to be fattened.21

It is beyond doubt that the continued rule of capital will only make the current situation worse and provides no basis for thinking that whatever measures capitalist states introduce could be better enough. It is also reasonable to conclude that there is an inevitability of more crises—economic, health, educational, environmental—crashing on top of each other. The possibility of a future requires a profound social revolution.

So, let’s talk about a revolution and what it could lead to. I take for granted the provision of essential goods and services to all; the abolition of private property in the means of production; the elimination of the various manifestations of militarism (standing armies and navies, weapons of destruction, military bases); the dismantling of the organs of repression (the police, jails and prisons); an end to the routine violence enforced by bosses and bureaucrats; the end of mindless production and the destruction of the natural environment by the dumping of wastes in the ground, the air, the lakes, rivers and oceans and the burning of fossil fuels.

But we need to imagine much more than that. As a small start towards the recovery of the utopian, I’d suggest a few fundamental socialist principles: the abolition of the wages system and the elimination of the social relations of surplus value; no use of the existing state machinery (instead, the direct democracy of something like the Paris Commune); the maximization of free time for all through the greatest possible reduction of required work time; the cultivation of “social individuals,” prepared for active participation in a wide range of intellectual, technical, athletic and artistic activities, as well as collective responses needed when challenges arise.

It appears evident to me that it is simply out of the question for us to continue the current mode of globalized production and distribution if we have any real interest in preserving the planet and creating the circumstances for individuals to become able to shape their lives in fundamental ways. As much as humanly and technically possible, we need to imagine ways of bringing decisions regarding the complexities of modern social life as close as possible to where people live—in communities that are intentionally designed, especially with regard to size, to enable mutual understandings and real self-government. In that context, it would be especially valuable and important to recognize the need for an incorporation of traditional anarchist perspectives on decentralization into any socialist vision worthy of the name.

Strategies and tactics based on that vision

In April of this year, in the midst of the covid epidemic, a member of the Angry Workers of the World group in London responded to a blog post, by a member of another friendly organization, regarding the centrality of insurrection to revolutionary politics:

When it comes to moments of social struggle this dependency on the state as a social organiser of socially necessary labour becomes important. Limits for struggle are not mechanically set by ‘repression > or < struggle.’ I would dare to say that in a situation such as in Egypt 2011, where nearly 70 percent of staple food has to be imported from abroad through state foreign trade relations and subsidies the limit of the movement (also in the consciousness of the people) is not primarily determined by the violence of the state or the ‘lack of will to struggle,’ but by the fact the struggle, the working class hasn’t developed the practical relations to deal with a shortage of food once state-mediated foreign trade collapses. At some point this limit might be even in the ‘back of the mind of people’ and work as an unconscious force that decides how far people go. The same is true for the complex social structure of vital ‘public services.’ It would be fruitful to perhaps focus on the main line of argument: is the main hurdle for the working class the state and capital as repressive or divisive forces (trust etc.) or as forces that gain their power by coordinating our essential social labour and thereby turning it into a seemingly independent power. Is it more difficult to imagine ‘insurrection’ or a revolutionary transition that not only smashes state power but guarantees the material survival of 7 billion people?

In particular in the current situation of a ‘health crisis’ I propose to see the state also in its function to organise an essential social division of labour, e.g. in the form of health provision, transport, communication etc., and to organise essential ‘central coordination and administration.’ A revolutionary critique would be to demonstrate that given its peculiar contradictions (having to defend a class interest, relying on capitalist profits, being hierarchical etc.), the state is incapable to organise these essential social tasks in the ‘general interest’—we can see that e.g. mass hospitals and elderly care homes become the real death-traps. Starting from a critique of the capitalist social division of labour would also re-focus what ‘revolution’ would primarily mean: the ‘insurrection’ would be placed into a pragmatic relation to the take-over and transformation of the productive apparatus.22

I believe that we should try to contribute to the development of a self-sustaining movement committed to social transformation—which incorporates and goes beyond insurrectionary acts.

What’s really important is the need to develop organizational forms that can be real alternatives to the forms of activity engaged in by non-profit membership organizations (such as Make the Road New York, the Restaurant Opportunity Center and the Laundry Workers Center here in New York) and electoral campaigns or, on the other hand, the miserable slog of Leninist pre-party groupings.23 We need organizations that can enable individuals to become directly involved in organizational decision-making; promote extensive participation in self-education and, most importantly, make people feel like they’re getting somewhere in the development of their own personalities and interests. Put simply, we need to build organizations that don’t manipulate, humiliate, exhaust or drive people away.

Against Trump

It appears as if it’s all but too late to take a campaign against the reactionary character of the Trump phenomenon into the communities from where it draws its strongest support (as I had once imagined). Such a campaign, intentionally provocative and confrontational and making every effort to split apart family members, friends and neighbors, no longer seems realistic when armed Trump supporters are driving around in truck caravans and Trump-friendly militia members are offering themselves up as auxiliary cops.

Something that still retains some potential would be undertaking such a campaign in workplaces with efforts to initiate strikes against one or more of Trump’s misdeeds. Imagine what might happen—in many workplaces, there will of course be Trump supporters and they will find themselves faced with a direct challenge from people they work side by side with everyday. What might they do? Will they join the strike? This argument is grounded in a conviction that what people say does not represent a full accounting of who they are and who they might become. What they think is often different from what they say and what they do is often enough different from what they think.

Against Trump’s Opponents

I suggest that we need to focus attention on the virtuous opponents of the Trump policy—the liberal politicians and advocates who dominate the cable tv talk shows, the newspapers and opinion journals and the wide array of policy and advocacy organizations.

I think it helps to look at voting as a form of symbolic speech. It is not especially about doing anything. Indeed, talking seldom convinces anyone of anything. On the other hand, activity has a way of confronting individuals and either scaring them off (as apparently happened with the various elements of the alt-right in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations a year ago) or startling them into doing something they never thought possible. As has been said often enough, it’s easier to imagine someone changing his mind after he starts acting differently than to imagine that he’ll start acting differently after he changes his mind.

Simply voting in the privacy of a voting booth against legislators who support Trump will represent a very dim protest indeed. Furthermore, given the inevitable pressures of campaigns, Biden will consistently oppose any actions considered to be too extreme—lest they jeopardize the possibility of electoral victory. Just when we need more to be done, we will be advised to do less. That is a great peril for as one principled thinker once proclaimed: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Liberals can always move left—mostly because they’re starting from so far to the right. I’d like to do a quick review of what I remember of the last challenge to the dominance of liberal views from the left in the United States.

Let’s start in 1964. During that year, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (mfdp) organized a massive grassroots campaign to form an alternative to the segregationist Democratic Party in that state. Although blacks constituted 40 percent of the state’s population, blacks were denied the right in the Party’s primaries, which effectively meant that they had no vote because the Party was in secure control of the white electorate—whoever won the Democratic primary would win the general election. The mfdp signed up 80,000 members who sent 2,500 delegates to a state convention, which picked 68 delegates to attend the national convention in Atlantic City. Their goal was to remove the state’s segregationist delegation and replace it with their own. The mfdp had been counting on liberal support but Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded jfk in November of 1963, recruited Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, who would subsequently be rewarded with the nomination for vice president, to kill the challenge. The Credentials Committee held a hearing to consider the mfdp’s case. The somewhat legendary activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, gave a stirring speech. But the Committee responded with a dumb compromise that would have seated two mfdp members as observers alongside the regular party. mfdp refused and mounted protests inside and outside the convention hall. But the party had been shaken by the betrayal.

Johnson was, of course, nominated and presented himself as the peace candidate as opposed to the bomb-crazy Barry Goldwater. sds proceeded to embrace him with its “Part of the Way with lbj” slogan—to distinguish itself from those who were “All the Way with lbj.” Of course, Johnson would go on to escalate the war against Viet Nam to increasingly horrifying levels and what would eventually become a mass anti-war movement quickly began to take shape.24 The next several years would be characterized by the growth of a millions-strong anti-war movement—with a wide array of strategies and tactics—draft-card burnings; flights to Canada; refusing induction; massive marches; sabotage of various kinds; eventually, the emergence of opposition within the armed forces (including the killing of officers—called “fragging”). At the same time, there were numerous debates within the movement on which slogan to adopt. Would it be “End the Bombing” or “Bring the Boys Home” or “Immediate Withdrawal” or “Victory to the nlf”?

Opposition to the war was not the only major story in the mid to late ’60s. Riots became an increasingly common way for people to express their outrage (usually at police violence) and their demands for justice. In 1964, a riot in Harlem lasted for six days and spread to Brooklyn; in 1965, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded; in 1966, it was Chicago’s turn; in 1967, riots (or rebellions) took place in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit. Johnson and the powers that be were concerned enough that he appointed a Commission, led by Governor Kerner from Illinois and Mayor Lindsay from New York City. They issued a report in February of 1968. The big headline was that America was a divided nation.

Faced with challenges to his re-nomination in 1968 by Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Johnson unexpectedly announced in March that he would not run again. Faithful Hubert Humphrey stepped into his shoes. Other dramatic events would come fast afterwards—the assassination of Martin Luther King provoked riots in more than a hundred cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. Humphrey walked forward to his date with destiny at the August Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. As has often been told, the demonstrations on the streets led to bloody battles with the police and lots of quarrels inside the convention. Humphrey’s nomination looked more like a funeral than a coronation. The contrast between what might be considered the radical and liberal positions for the election was embodied in the Peace and Freedom Party. In the fall of 1968, I attended a lecture by the veteran social democrat, Michael Harrington, who argued that it was essential for the left to support Humphrey and not waste their votes on a fringe party. As I have written elsewhere, I was torn about the debate—not that it mattered much what I thought. For me, however, it is illuminating about the various forms that journeys to radicalization take. For many people, it begins with more or less well-developed liberal convictions. What I am clear about, in retrospect, is that a radical politics had to represent a stark alternative to liberalism and not merely a move a few degrees to the left or it simply would not have the same kind of potential.

Humphrey went on to defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon and radical politics, on and off campuses, seemed to be on an upswing. But, within a year, sds was in a shambles, characterized by a degeneration into sectarian stupidity. Soon afterwards, a turn to the working class by veterans of the student movements was accompanied by a retreat from confrontation, especially on the question of white supremacy. Most groups adopted traditional left positions on the strategy of “Unite and Fight.”25

A few years ago, Loren Goldner and I synthesized our views about the echoes of the ’60s in an Insurgent Notes editorial:

… small groups do not shape consciousness, events do. Events for the 1960s were the later years of the southern civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the radicalization of black people after the civil rights movement hit a wall, and the rank-and-file and wildcat upsurge in the United States working class. By the late 1960s, some many thousands of young people coming out of the New Left and the Black Liberation Movement had declared for revolution, and many joined groups organizing for it. It did not end well, for reasons that we cannot do justice to here. For the most part, the emerging revolutionary movement was dominated by either Stalinist/Maoist/Trotskyist sects or by groups well on the way to embracing an all-purpose, and hardly anti-capitalist, “progressive” politics. A not insignificant part of the black left turned towards nationalism. And a small part of what might be considered the middle-class white left was drawn into the substitution of terrorist violence for politics. Little of consequence is left of all of it although, to be fair, Sanders’ current vision has more than a little in common with the above-cited progressive politics.26

As I look back at the period, what seems evident is that the eventual turn to the working class by a good number of ex–student radicals as the potential driver of revolution was not accompanied by an equally serious turn to the work needed to understand exactly what capitalism was up to.

As has been noted often enough, the Civil Rights movement had given rise to the student, anti-war and black liberation movements and, in turn, to the emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation movements and had a deep and broad influence on music and popular culture. In other words, something quite significant had occurred because of the impulse of a black freedom movement. The song seems to be playing again.

Progressives and Social Democracy

While there is a great deal to be encouraged by in the recent increase of popular interest in and support for socialism (specifically in the form of the remarkable growth of Democratic Socialists of America or dsa), the limits of what might be considered the main currents of the new socialist imaginary seem to be clear—they imagine a society measurably better and fairer than the one we have now. One observer wrote that it would mean “state ownership of certain industries, worker councils and economic cooperatives, sovereign wealth funds.” The same writer argued that the program outlined in the original Communist Manifesto reveals the extensive common ground between modern liberalism and socialism. Marx and Engels seem to have become aware of that possibility as a problem and, in 1872, when they issued a new German edition of the Manifesto in 1872, they wrote:

However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated.27

In the backdrop of this “new socialism” is what might be considered the domestication of the left that was left behind by the ’60s. Part of that domestication was the result of what David Graeber has termed a “grand bargain” wherein ex-radicals were granted significant autonomy within their professional niches, especially the academy, substantial material benefits (including early entry into the developing gentry economy in the context of re-shaped urban environments and consistently appreciating real estate values), and an inside track of sorts when it came to the education of their children into the next generation of those who could afford to be altruistic.28

Socialism came to be understood as a reformed capitalism—a society more equal and more solicitous of human needs but not fundamentally a different kind of human community. At the same time, this notion was accompanied by a growing conviction that any explicit articulations of radical views would not be met favorably by ordinary workers, especially ordinary white workers—which, in turn, led to a hesitation in confronting workplace practices that advantaged white workers.

This assemblage of notions, combined with appreciation for the folk songs of people like Pete Seeger and the “progressive” politics of the handful of unions still led by cp-influenced folks, produced a “left common sense” that saturated the emerging left scene outside the campuses.

Then, there was a slow drift backward into liberalism, electoralism and lesser evilism. Eventually, it culminated in the Clinton debacle of 2016. Spearheaded by Bill Clinton, the Democrats, with many “progressive” supporters had become Republicanism with a new face. Many thought that redemption would come through Obama. But the reality of his rule should have been clear from the start. Truth be known, it was to some. Within days of the 2008 election, the great radical Bob Fitch gave a talk to a group of tenant activists and he christened Obama as “the man from fire” (finance, insurance and real estate). The result of “hope and change” was a bizarre healthcare system, the further enrichment of the rich, and steadily worsening conditions of life for workers and the poor—manifested in shortened life spans, an opioid crisis, and renewed police violence.

Fortunately, the possibilities of dsa’s ongoing development do not seem to be limited by such concerns. Instead, the organization has been quite willing to support the development of a grassroots branch model, with those branches enjoying considerable autonomy about their activities and the development of various organized tendencies within the larger organization—such as the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (lsc).29 Much more needs to be understood about dsa and its potentials.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t really have a conclusion so I’ll settle for some concluding thoughts:

  • These have proven to be very challenging times (albeit ones that still possess extraordinary possibilities) and we need to think long and hard about how we should navigate through them. The emerging possibility of serious armed conflicts in the context of extraordinarily volatile political cross-currents demands no less. I am not confident that any lessons from the past will prove to be especially powerful. To that extent, we are on our own.
  • A couple of months ago, Kristian Williams was interviewed by Hard Crackers. When he was asked to talk about undercover infiltration of movement groups, he responded by emphasizing how important it was to “remember that the purpose of good security is to preserve our capacity to act. And so security is about managing and mitigating risk, not eliminating it. Resisting power is inherently risky.”30 The matter of security has only increased in importance and it deserves serious political discussion well before it becomes an immediate concern; security should not be reduced to simply technical decisions about what to do and who should do it.
  • We need to work to deprive armed far-right groups of political support. More than anything, that means to continue efforts to break apart the “white block.” It may well be that we’re in a better position to do so after the months of anti-police violence protests attracted the active participation of hundreds of thousands of mostly young white people. Presumably, many of those who protested came to understand that what needed to be attacked were the systems and structures that maintain white supremacy and black subordination. Better by far for our efforts to remain focused on those systems and structures than to be sidetracked in the perpetual activity of self-flagellation for individuals’ thoughts and motivations that’s promoted by the shameless promoters of white “privilege” and white “fragility.”
  • No matter the temptations when it comes to fighting against the far-right, we should refuse to work politically with the state. We should try to become completely realistic about the dangers we may face and methodically work through the strategies and tactics that we’ll pursue without any assumption of assistance from the authorities. I do not believe that this precludes the possibility/necessity of individuals calling for the police in extreme circumstances.
  • Once again, no matter the temptations, we should refuse to support Biden and the Democrats. On the other hand, we should be consistent in our support for all efforts to defeat voter suppression. Although I may be mistaken, I think that we should be able to articulate a revolutionary rationale for the defense of the democratic rights of speech, assembly and voting. In that regard, we might find it helpful to read some of Karl Marx’s writings on democracy from his pre-communist phase in the 1840s as well what he had to say about the relationship between “pure democracy” and communism.
  • While the demands of battles on the streets often suggest that we do otherwise, we should deepen our commitments to solidarity and human emancipation. The forces on the side of reaction will all but always be prepared to engage in all sorts of violence. They have no reason not to. But we have many reasons to judge what we do by the standards of the dreams we have for a free society.

  1. The phrase “vigilante repression” was coined by Matthew Lyons in an essay titled “Trump, the far right, and the return of vigilante repression.”↩︎
  2. David Ranney used this phrase in his book, New World Disorder, to capture the profound inability of capitalist legislative bodies to seriously grapple with any of enduring important issues.↩︎
  3. For more on this, I recommend reading some of what evolutionary biologist, Rob Wallace has written. See, for examples, “Capitalist Agriculture and covid-19: A Deadly Combination,” and “covid-19 and Circuits of Capital.”↩︎
  4. See the especially detailed report in The New Yorker: “Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not.↩︎
  5. See “The Unique US Failure to Control the Virus.”↩︎
  6. Ibid. The author of an entry in the usually rather reserved New England Journal of Medicine, wrote: “Reopening state economies without the precision provided by analysis of rigorously reported testing data seems a particularly American form of madness.” Downloaded from on August 26, 2020.↩︎
  7. See “Successful Elimination of covid-19 Transmission in New Zealand,” and “South Korea’s Health Minister on How His Country Is Beating Coronavirus Without a Lockdown.”↩︎
  8. See “How Delays and Unheeded Warnings Hindered New York’s Virus Fight.”↩︎
  9. What was left unsaid during the extensive promotion of the “flattening” strategy was that it took for granted that many would still become infected.↩︎
  10. I think that there’s a problem with the category of “essential” workers—as distinct from all necessary workers (those whose labor is required for the satisfaction of material and non-material needs of the great majority of people) and as distinct from workers who perform useless tasks (as in finance, real estate, advertising, and much of the commercial newsmedia). On the other hand, it is clear that those who went to work when others did not have to—to care for the sick, to grow and prepare food, to deliver supplies, to keep systems running, and more—deserve special recognition and gratitude from their fellow workers—not just now, but for a good deal of time to come. I’d welcome other perspectives on this.↩︎
  11. See “Why Surviving the Virus Might Come Down to Which Hospital Admits You.”↩︎
  12. See “With City’s Largest Coronavirus Cluster Now On South Side, Aldermen Beg Residents To Stay Home.”↩︎
  13. An incisive and penetrating analysis of these issues, “The Black Plague,” was published by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in The New Yorker on April 16. If anything, in these days of information and analysis overload, deserves to be considered indispensable, this article should be.↩︎
  14. I’d suggest that the most significant anti-scientific force in American society is tv advertising. The ads are filled with people facing serious illnesses who, when given the recommended medications, turn out to be completely happy characters doing all sorts of apparently quite wonderful things. But the most important thing is that the ads present a way of understanding the world that is incredibly convincing. Otherwise, the companies doing the ads wouldn’t be wasting their money.↩︎
  15. The great German poet, Goethe, was also a very accomplished student of plant life; he called his method a “delicate empiricism.” I think that what he meant by that phrase was that he would be patient, careful and consistent in his observations of specific forms of plant life—he would not rush to premature conclusions. It sounds like a good idea.↩︎
  16. For a history of act-up, go to their archive.↩︎
  17. Still more evidence—on August 31, Nick Saban, the all-but-legendary University of Alabama head football coach, led a march of current team members and other athletes to the infamous doorway where, in 1963, George Wallace defied a federal order to desegregate that University. See “Nick Saban, Alabama Players Hold Protest March on Campus.”↩︎
  18. See “Man Linked to Killing at a Portland Protest Says He Acted in Self-Defense.”↩︎
  19. See “In conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore.”↩︎
  20. “Education, Propaganda, Agitation,” in Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organization, edited by Martin Glaberman. University Press of Mississippi: 1999, p. 33.↩︎
  21. C.L.R. James, Modern Politics. PM Press: 2013, p. 110.↩︎
  22. Both the original post and the comment are at “What is the world coming to? (Episode one).”↩︎
  23. See “The New Worker Organizing.”↩︎
  24. The folk singer, Tom Paxton captured the emerging view of the president in his performance of “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” (1965).↩︎
  25. See “White Blindspot” by Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen.↩︎
  26. See “Editorial: us Party Elites Hemorrhage at the Edges.”↩︎
  27. See the 1872 preface to the Communist Manifesto.↩︎
  28. As I was finishing this essay, I learned of the death of David Graeber (at the age of 59), a remarkable thinker and activist. Andrej Grubacic has written a fine obituary.↩︎
  29. For an interesting glimpse into the internal life of the lsc, take a look at this reading list for a study circle in Baltimore on Left Wing and Council Communism. They made excellent choices.↩︎
  30. See “‘Preserving Our Capacity to Act’: An Interview with Kristian Williams.”↩︎

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