Friday, July 12, 2013

Is the (Black) Left Fighting Today's War of Austerity and Neoliberalism With Yesterday's Political Weapons and Tactics?

The election of Barack Obama represents the nadir of Black Politics and the Black Freedom Struggle. A black man may be President of the United States, but the symbolic meaning of his tenure is dwarfed by his practical inability (and unwillingness) to advance policies which serve the unique and specific challenges faced by people of color--economically, socially, and politically--in the United States.

Ultimately, democracy is driven by what elected officials can get for their constituents. "Bring home the bacon" is just another way of saying "what have you done for me lately?"

To point. Black politics in the Age of Obama are broken: an enthusiastic group of constituents are given little if anything of material substance for their support of the country's first Black President. Yet, this same group of constituents continues to vote for and support said (now twice elected) official.

In an era of cruelty, surveillance, and Austerity/hyper-conservatism the Black Left is obsolescent at best, mostly irrelevant, and stillborn at worst.

Michael Dawson, one of the United States' most senior black political scientists, had an excerpt from Blacks in and out of the Left featured by the website earlier this week which speaks to these questions.

The Salon piece, as well as the book, are worth reading:
One area that desperately needs the type of innovation and experimentation generated by pragmatic utopian thinking is the institutional arrangements that govern the functioning of modern civil society, the state, and the relationship between the two. 
In his book Democracy Realized, Roberto Unger argued that to achieve truly democratic societies we must concentrate on institutional innovations and experimentation that put into place a robust and humane democracy. For this type of innovation to be designed and implemented, Unger suggested, a “transformative and solidaristic” political project is necessary. That transformative political process in turn requires that “we speak in the two languages of interest calculation and political prophecy,” what I have called the language of pragmatic utopianism.  
One might disagree with Unger’s specific institutional proposals, but he was right in stating that institutions shape our perceptions of our interests as well as our ideological predispositions, and that when designing institutions we must remain flexible so as to be able to adapt to new situations, adopt good ideas from elsewhere, and correct mistakes. 
In short, given the central role that institutions play in shaping our lives, economics, and politics, we can no longer allow them to become rigid and inflexible, unable to serve the needs of society’s citizens. Not only must the institutions themselves remain flexible, but we must be willing to constantly innovate, to tinker, to experiment.  
Only through this type of flexibility and willingness to experiment will it be possible to discover the type of educational institutions Berlant described. Badiou characterized this process as “combining intellectual constructs, which are always global and universal, with experiments of fragments of truth, which are local and singular, yet universally transmittable.”
Where do we go from here?

The language used to discuss "The Black Freedom Struggle" and "Black Politics" which includes terms and phrases such as "counter-insurgency", "resistance", and "People's movements" borrows heavily from military science.

For example, the website Small Wars Journal recently featured an essay on military strategy and tactics which paralleled many of the existential questions that those who are trying to stand against the Right and the neoliberal order should meditate on.

I have highlighted what I believe are some particularly resonant passages.

From Carl Castellano's The Infantryman's Half-Kilometer Reconsidered:
Time and again in warfighting history, it is good use of terrain for observation, cover, concealment, channeling, and effective fires that has given weaker opponents an edge.  WWI was highlighted for its use of man made terrain to mitigate the effects of direct/indirect fire, and use of man made concealment afforded by well-coordinated rolling artillery barrages and smoke screens in support of attacks.  Fast forward to Afghanistan, and the trenches have translated to well-built houses and mountainous terrain.  Concealment depends upon excellent uses of vegetation in some areas, cave networks, and uses of natural micro-terrain.   
By the end of WWI forward trenches would be lightly defended in order to further mitigate the effects of devastating artillery. In Afghanistan, the enemy mitigates the effects of supporting arms with time, by understanding approximately how much time they have in an engagement before they need to break contact.  In WWI, the rifleman mitigated the effects of direct fire while observing in the defense through use of periscopes. 
In Afghanistan, the direct fire “half kilometer” supposed strengths of the Western riflemen are mitigated by long-range precision small arms and machine gun fire.  In WWI the rifleman utilized mines to degrade the mobility of attacking adversaries, with pressure-plate IEDs being the Afghan counterpart.   
This does not represent a revolution or even much of an evolution in military affairs; it is business as usual adapting to the tactical situation. 
The evolution is the increasing degree to which the enemy exploits the moral and political terrain.  Third world enemies have learned that they can significantly degrade the chances of supporting arms being utilized against them if they are in proximity to civilians.  They learned that collateral civilian deaths could be exploited for greater local support for their operations. They learned that even when they feel the effects of supporting arms, that they can fabricate reporting to suggest civilians were casualties. They learned how to set conditions so that the Western squad/section they faced would possibly be without external support for the duration of the contact.  They learned that they could move around the battle space, and as long as they weren’t observed to be armed in between they wouldn’t be readily engaged.  
They learned that as a SOF raid force entered their house, they could keep their rifle away from them in the corner and be captured alive as long as there was no resistance. 
They learned that despite the extent of their offenses, corruption in the judicial system could be exploited for their release.
Is the Left irrelevant in the United States? What would Black Politics look like on the ground if it were able to adapt in the post civil rights era to the realities of colorblind racism, Austerity, and neoliberalism? 


Vic78 said...

That's easy. Study an interest group like AIPAC or NRA and do the same things that they do. American Blacks have the affluence to keep such a group afloat. The thing is people have to be about power. What I normally see is people marching whenever someone gets his ass beaten. When you think in terms of power it makes you proactive.

I know someone can ask me 'why haven't you done anything?' People let me know they were not interested a long time ago. I'm not the first to experience this disappointment. Obama tried something similar with the churches before he went to law school. It didn't work out too well for him. I know why white folks haven't given that kind of advice. The question is why haven't our 'black leaders' said anything? Another question is why aren't the Black interest groups out there doing anything like I just described? They've been around before my grandparents were born. You might not like the answers.

Vic78 said...

One thing I've noticed that upsets me is when I come across talk of "politics of failure." As if we're supposed to accept losing. "It's okay, God'll take care of it." From the bottom of my heart, fuck that. Let's get it.

chauncey devega said...

I agree on the first. But, I am not sure that black Americans could use interest group politics in the same way because we would be looked at with immediate suspicion as our "interests" are viewed as illegitimate by the system, the State, and the white polity except within a very, very narrow terrain.

Now, could we get a bunch of money together, actually have black millionaires and billionaires form a group to advance some set of interests using very race neutral language? Sure.

But, to the foundational question, why even bother with electoral politics and institutional politics as a means of black and brown uplift at this point. Black folks for many good reasons love to hold onto the franchise and to see the State as a guardian and means of uplift and advancement. That which we/they are holding onto now is a dying and obsolete model. When Austerity and the neoliberals--including folks like Obama--are alternating between drowning the baby in the bathtub or just suffocating it for a slow death, do black folks really want to be in that crib?

Vic78 said...

I meant what you were saying in the second paragraph. You'll need your 9 to 5 types chipping in as well.

As for your last paragraph, I was saying that around the late 90s. People told me I was part of the problem. You can imagine my frustration when people were talking that vote or die to me. I've learned to accept alienation as my normal condition. If one is going to maintain involvement with the State, then it's time to grow up and realize that voting is kindergarten in the grand scheme. It's past time for the GRE.

If you're tired of the American Way, there aren't any solutions outside of economics. We've got a lot of PhDs that can't get hired. There's a need for a few of them outside of the U.S. Economic solutions on a big group level are going to be difficult to implement. It's going to require high levels of cooperation.

As for the Democratic Party, they are a special bunch. They allowed themselves to be treated any kind of way with overwhelming majorities. They could have at least stood with him a little more during those first two years. And would someone tell the Clintons to stay their asses home? It's time to move on from their glory days of suicides and blowjobs.

Vic78 said...

I also have to add that I don't believe that Black issues are illegitimate. We want the same things everyone else wants. We want quality education, clean environment, safety, fairness, quality food, etc. You can build around those issues. I say take them and have opponents looking stupid.

Miles_Ellison said...

These are all legitimate issues until it looks like black people might actually benefit. Then it becomes socialist anti-white policy advanced by the Kenyan-Alinsky Muslim Cabal to Destroy America.

Vic78 said...

Nothing you can do about that. Limbaugh recently said exercise was part of the liberal agenda. Those people are gone. Fuck 'em.

Miles_Ellison said...

If only Obama had governed that way.

chauncey devega said...

Remember the NAACP or black self-help organizations are actually anti-white reverse racist groups if Fox news and the Right-wing media are to be believed.

Vic78 said...

Wait until the current mayor of San Antonio runs for president. His mom started La Raza. If the right wing are still crazy by then, just laugh at them.

Adam H said...

It seems like there are 2 approaches to this problem.

1.) The institutional one: form some kind of a lobbying group (such as AIPAC or the much less popular NRA), and attempt to influence politics in back rooms and through financial clout. To your point chauncey devega and Vic78 the success of these group depends often times not on the fact that these things are an alternative to electoral politics, but to the fact that they directly engage in electoral politics. It would be like us giving all of our money to, instead of Obama for America, to an organizing committee which makes that money contingent upon electoral promises (or agreements which ensure a likewise effective amount of money is used against an opponent). Among other complications are that the interest group must be narrow enough in its interests to align itself with the kind of broad coalition of interest groups necessary to get anyone elected in a 2 party system anyway.

Alternatively one could form extra-state institutions which self-sufficiently provide support to Black Freedom struggle interests.

2.) The non-institutional approach. This seems like very new terrain, and there is an interesting talk I would recommend on the impending death of "The institution" as a framework for collaboration ( It's hard to imagine this approach going any different than (1) above, as far as the strategy is concerned, however I imagine a successful use of a non-institutional approach would need to have some fundamental differences in how it engaged (or didn't) in electoral politics.

csm said...

I for one no longer hold out much hope for success through the traditional tactics and strategies of the black left, of organizing around voting and elections, because of the fact of what we've gotten for our vote. By the time Obama is done in 2016, since 1992, we will have had 16 years of democratic rule, and I challenge anyone to name some legislation that directly benefited the working classes and the poor, not to mention black folk. And I mean where people can point to tangible changes and say, yes, things are better for me.

That is because government has been captured, lock, stock and barrel by wealthy interests, for which the it now works exclusively. No legislation is passed that is not to he benefit of this cohort.

When the sequester was about to impact air travel, the congress acted with quickness, and fixed that problem. Conversely, when it came time to address the doubling of student loan interest rates, well, nothing. There was not the sense of urgency to do something to help students.

What people don't like to point out, but its the truth, is by definition we now live in a fascist society. "Business" and government are so intertwined, and government only acts for business. As we see, voting doesn't change that fact, as nothing changes even under democratic administrations. that's because, sadly, votes are no longer where the leverage is.

What we are going to have to do is hit them where they really understand, and that's money. The supreme court said that "money is speech" when it comes to the electoral process. Well, we need to speak in that language as well.

We need to vote with our economic resources, as well as with our constitutionally given political vote. Black Left organizations should be tracking these companies that lobby the government and politicians, laying millions on them to support legislation that go against the needs of the people. We all should stop patronizing these businesses, because when we do, our dollars go directly to some politician who we may have even voted for, to go against our own interests. ("Upon further reflection, I decided to...") We need to let these corporations know, there will be an economic impact for your actions, and when they change their tune, the money driven "representatives" in congress will be told, by them, to change theirs. They don't listen to us, but they will listen to them.

csm said...

As for Obama, we see the limits of symbolism. As blacks, symbols that represent black aspirations and achievement have always been held high. Far too many of us really believed that with a "black President" in office, we now have someone who represents us. Symbolically, yes. Substantially and materially, no. And this is where, I believe, for many blacks, they aren't fools. They know that the presidency is little more than symbolism. So they hold on to that, and to hell with the rest. In part, its the thought that, "we don't need to do anything else because a brother is president." But black folk, just as the larger 99% of the electorate have been conditioned to lower expectations away from tangibles, and we hold fast to our symbols. It is what it is.

For all the talk of "change" I don't think even Obama was prepared for the scripted aspect of the presidency, and the degree to which one cannot act outside of that, regardless of how sincere and passionate one might be. Would I liked to have seen Obama be more forceful and passionate? Damn straight. But I also know that the Presidency has also been captured, and the office itself no longer represents, in real terms, what the Founders had envisioned it would. Not just blacks, but Americans need to wake up to that fact.

PrettyFootWoman said...

Who is the Black Left and what have they done for me lately?

csm said...

Yeah, my sentiments exactly.

I am not too keen on "black left" as a label, as "left" tends to depict the so-called "progressive" movement, dominated by whites. Not to put a racial designation on it, but simply as a means of description. There are differences in interests and priorities. Black left implies that there is a black version of the progressive movement, but black politics don't fit neatly into the "left" definition, as our interests are shaped by the unique circumstances of the history of racism and discrimination.

What I would assume they mean by black left, are groups like the NAACP, Urban League, SCLC and traditional civil rights type organizations. But even a cursory examination of these groups, their tactics and their histories expose differences that distinguish them from the various left/progressive groups.

IMO, its not just Obama symbolism that has placated the black left to the extent we do not have the level of advocacy we should. Its more part of the trajectory the black left has been on for the last two decades, of declining passion and standing on principle, a distaste for taking on the big issues, and being more in a reactionary mode when some unfortunate crises, like the killing of an unarmed/innocent black person occurs. For that reason, there really is little impetus for them to stand up now that, even though we do have a "black president" and I put that in quotes because I think the more apt description in this case is a "president who happens to be black."

PrettyFootWoman said...

~ but black politics don't fit neatly into the "left" definition, as our interests are shaped by the unique circumstances of the history of racism and discrimination~
agree with you on this...and that is why we tend to be Organizers instead of Activists..

Miles_Ellison said...

The problem here is that "the Left" has failed to realize that this is an asymmetrical, high intensity war that is being fought on multiple fronts; in the media, in Congress, in the courts, and at the state level.
The lines of attack here are consistent and clear.

Neutralize the Democrats' advantages in mobilizing and registering voters by gutting the Voting Rights Act through Supreme Court fiat and paving the way for voter ID laws that will suppress the votes of non-whites and stave off the Demographic Electoral Apocalypse.

Use "education reform" as a weapon to destroy teacher unions, destroy public education, and make college financially inaccessible to a large swath of the population, thus insuring an almost universal lack of critical thinking and intelligence about politics and making critical voting blocs even more receptive to obviously racist and retrograde policy.

Use Congress as a roadblock to prevent the passage of any legislation that might actually help people that aren't billionaires.

Use the statehouses to nullify laws already on the books that are either currently helping people or have the potential to help them going forward (the resistance to the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act is a good example of this).

Flood the news cycle with all kinds of nonsensical criticism of any statement made by the President, and provide airtime to all kinds of insane and debunked untruths about Obama's citizenship.

As Olivia Pope says on Scandal, "Handled."

chauncey devega said...

"What I would assume they mean by black left, are groups like the NAACP, Urban League, SCLC and traditional civil rights type organizations. But even a cursory examination of these groups, their tactics and their histories expose differences that distinguish them from the various left/progressive groups."

The NAACP is not a Left organization. Sad but true. Blacks as part of the bargain and our struggle that brought us into the franchise are remarkable centrist in terms of post-1960s politics. But, we can look across a range of issues and see that black folks are also very progressive on some and conservative on others.

Part of figuring out the relationship between the black left and the public sphere more generally must taken into account how black leftist organizations were destroyed by cointelpro, misrepresented in the public imagination (see the Blaxsploitation caricatures) and bought off from the 1970s Black Political Conventions and rise of Black Studies through the 1980s.

Liberal was a word that was demonized by the Right in the 1980s and 1970s. I wonder how many people of color proudly wear that label, or have they sold out to the more likeable and palatable "progressive" moniker, a title which I am not sure really means anything save for a slightly more left leaning very centrist politics.

chauncey devega said...

Thus my military analogy. They ain't fighting right war with the right tactics. Thus, they are losing. Best wake up.

chauncey devega said...


chauncey devega said...

On one hand people of color, the poor, working class, and other marginalized groups have looked to the State for redress and protection. In the U.S. this has been a long haul, but one that has largely worked in the modern era. Now, how do we break that happy--or at the least hold that front--when the enemy is working in another battle space? We are thinking in terms of horizontal warfare, when they have already moved onto vertical envelopment. That is why the (black) Left is failed(ing).

Vic78 said...

You know Chauncey, since people like borrowing from you then showing up on tv, they should borrow from this post. You know they aren't going to. I know they're full of shit. All they can do is protest and and get attention. I remember that niggerization line that was conveniently lifted from your work by the groupie boy. Damn, you got me talking like Mayweather.