The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter (Jacobin)

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The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter (Jacobin)

The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter (Jacobin)

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Contrary to the popular view of the fifties as an era of mass quiescence, labor unrest continued through the decade, but the expansion of the consumer society and the growth of suburbia weakened progressive unionism. The hearts and minds of many American workers were won over to capitalist growth imperatives through the promise of rising wages, spacious tract housing, the personal mobility of automobile culture, and the enlarged leisure industries reflected in television, drive-in theaters, and shopping malls. The pastoral and technological comforts of suburbia reminded Americans of capitalism’s virtues, while active state repression prescribed clear social consequences to those who dared openly criticize the system’s contradictions and faults. Huzzah, finished a book! Been a minute since that happened. Anyway, for starters - the book was definitely a bit over my head and a bit bland to read. I’m sure for some this is riveting all the way through, because at times it was for me, but it was just a bit too intellectual for me, I hate to say. Cedric Johnson posits an answer to this question in his latest book- “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now”

We asked Cedric if he would be willing to extend his argument for New Politics and he graciously agreed to do so. We then asked three scholars and activists (Jay Arena, Touré Reed, and Mia White) to comment on the significant political issues he has raised, though they do so without having seen Johnson’s new essay. Johnson, Cedric, “Epilogue: Baltimore, the Policing Crisis and the End of the Obama Era,” James DeFilippis, ed. Urban Policy in the Time of Obama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Rhonda Levine, Class Struggle and the New Deal: Industrial Labor, Industrial Capital and the State (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1988). A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: A Summary (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1967).Such ambitious statements may score points in the seminar room or basement study group, but this rhetoric, however well-intentioned, has little to do with the internal workings of political life, how people perceive their immediate interests and priorities in real time and space — union drives, city council campaigns, class-action lawsuits against polluters, parent-teacher meetings about pending state tests, and the like — contexts where race and class are not always the chief preoccupations or animating logics among citizens that left activists and academics suppose them to be. Oddly enough, Lowndes’s account of the misadventures of populism does not mention the pervasive power of Cold War red-baiting and witch hunts against Communists and leftist trade unionists. This domestic trench warfare against the Left played out in the televised hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, FBI interrogation rooms, police raids, death threats, imprisonment, the financial ruin of accused reds, and disappearances and assassinations, and it would have a lasting impact on the American left, dividing the laboring classes against themselves and defeating more progressive-to-radical left political possibilities. It would seem that this grim episode would be central to any intellectual appreciation of the difficulty of building a viable left populism. Patrice Marie Cullors-Brignac, “ We Didn’t Start a Movement. We Started a Network,” Medium, February 22, 2016.

I don't disagree with Johnson's main point in a general sense, but he does an absolutely terrible job articulating it. The critiques presented of Johnson's initial essays are valid, while his rebuttal is unsatisfactory. Johnson seems to deny the existence of racism as a structural force. Race is indeed a superstructure that only exists to introduce more hierarchical division into society by warping class into something more arbitrary, but it is also true that race is the lens through which most Americans have been forced to interpret oppression and hierarchy, which DOES give it real power. Samb’s performance is an homage that evokes Newton’s notion of revolutionary suicide — the true show of radical commitment is the willingness to dedicate one’s full energy and time, and potentially one’s life, to revolutionary struggle. The performance title and Newton’s radical pledge are both in keeping with the Panther quip, “The only good pig is a dead one.” If the police constituted an “occupying army,” then liberating the ghetto from their grip would require an equal magnitude of force and sacrifice. Following the weathered playbook of GOP strategists, Trump’s approach to campaigning and governing pits the deserving American middle class against the relative surplus population of welfare dependents, the unemployed and unemployables, undocumented migrant workers, and low-wage workers in China and other countries. Surplus population, or the industrial reserve army, is understood here as those persons not currently employed who might be pressed into service to the advantage of capital. Relative surplus population in any given historical context exerts downward pressure on wages. As a reservoir of low-wage, fragmented, and disempowered labor, they are employed as competitors to the relatively more secure segments of the workforce and as such can be used to foment division within the working class.Smith continues, “It portends a vicious reaction against minorities, the working class, homeless people, the unemployed, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants.”

Historian Cedric Johnson’s essay “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” published in 2017 in the new socialist journal Catalyst , generated a lot of discussion and won the Daniel Singer Memorial Prize.Despite all of the demands made by movements challenging racism, there’s very little tangible, long-lasting progress that resulted from it. Why is that? The hegemony of identitarianism has reshaped the terms of left political debate and action in at least three detrimental ways. First, it has engendered popular confusion about political life, leading many to falsely equate social identity with political interests. Second, it has distorted how we understand the work of building alliances not on identity as such, but on shared values and demonstrated commitment. Third, the practice of relying on racial or other identities as a means of authorizing speakers has had a corrupting effect on left political struggles. The result is a degraded public sphere where all manner of landmines prohibit honest discussion and impose limits on political constituency and left imagination, such as notions of “epistemic deference,” “mansplaining,” arbitrary stipulations about “being an ally,” and so forth. Leaving room for scholars to respectfully disagree, Johnson makes his case with citations of key points in American history. Daring to push against the contemporary orthodoxy of anti-racist scholarship, Johnson also makes a cogent argument advocating the necessity of reviving the labor movement.

Moreover, the liberal anti-racist frame reduces what are in fact common class conditions felt more widely across racial and ethnic populations to matters of racism and racial disparity. To emphasize the need to centralize anti-racism, Lowndes closes out by praising the militant protests that erupted in the Bay Area following the killing of Oscar Grant by transit police, the battles against ICE deportations, and other struggles he sees as “opening out onto broader vistas with populist dimensions.” Those vistas could be broader still, especially when we take seriously the actual patterns of police abuse, which defy liberal anti-racist canards. The focus on racial disparity gets much of the Katrina story wrong, however, because it substitutes metanarratives of racial oppression for a more critical and rigorous analysis of the city as a totality, the place-specific institutional and social roots of the disaster, the balance of class forces on the ground, and the power of actual constituencies in shaping disaster preparation and recovery policies in New Orleans, none of which is simply reducible to the legacies of Jim Crow segregation or the hubris of the Bush administration alone. A more critical post-Katrina literature and cinema has situated the governmental failures of disaster evacuation and relief, and the highly uneven politics of reconstruction, within the volatile and crisis-laden processes of urban neoliberalization. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 114–120. The roots of this dilemma lie in the Cold War liberal turn away from public works and redistributive public policy and toward civil society and cultural solutions to urban poverty. Moreover, the ramping up of the War on Drugs during the Reagan-Bush years coincided with an intensifying class war and the aggressive removal of the poor from the urban center, where the policing strategy of pacification was central to the postindustrial growth model driven by the financial, insurance, and real-estate industry and the tourism-entertainment sector. The late geographer Neil Smith characterized this process in terms of the “ revanchist city.” While I did enjoy the points and sentiments presented within this book which I haven’t seen fully fleshed out until now, there are still a few problems I have with this publication.As is common nowadays, Lowndes offers the obligatory criticism of the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “vision shored up producerist ideology,” Lowndes writes, “a strictly gendered division of labor, and, through the distinction between ‘entitlements’ and ‘relief,’ a sharp divide between the deserving and undeserving poor.” This is certainly true, but there is more to the story. The New Deal coalition under Roosevelt’s leadership shored up a consumerist ideology as well. Indeed, he saw raising the vast consumer capacity of Americans as a remedy for the problems of overproduction that in part precipitated the Great Depression. Likewise, as a consequence of labor shortages and mass activist pressure during World War II, Roosevelt’s administration was compelled to momentarily break down racial and gendered divisions of labor through integration of the defense industries. This historical development is significant and prefigures the postwar civil rights movement and the birth of second-wave feminism, but such facts get in the way of the kind of criticism of left populism Lowndes wants to craft. Cedric Johnson, “Afterword: Baltimore, the Policing Crisis and the End of the Obama Era,” in Urban Policy in the Time of Obama, edited by James DeFilippis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 302–21. Kent B. Germany, New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship and the Search for the Great Society (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 15–16. Throughout the text, Haider offers pithy statements about the centrality of race and anti-racism to revitalizing the left. “As long as racial solidarity among whites is more powerful than class solidarity across races,” he writes, “both capitalism and whiteness will continue to exist.” “In the context of American history,” Haider continues, “the rhetoric of the ‘white working class’ and positivist arguments that class matters more than race reinforce one of the main obstacles to building socialism.”

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