The cold-blooded police killing of George Floyd has provoked outrage across America and across the world. Everyone knows that this is the latest in a long line of police murders in which black people and immigrants have been the main victims. Not only in the US, but in the UK, in France and other ‘democratic’ states. In the US, in March, police gunned down Breonna Taylor in her own home. In France, Adama Traoré was asphyxiated in police custody in 2016. In Britain, in 2017, Darren Cumberbatch was beaten to death by police. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
And in responding to the protests that first broke out in the US, the police have shown that they are already a militarised force of terror, with or without the assistance of the army. The brutal repression of the demonstrators – 10,000 arrests in the US – shows that the police in the US as in other “democratic” countries act in the same manner as the police in openly dictatorial regimes like Russia or China.
The anger at all this is real, and it has been shared by white people as well as black, by Latinos, Asians, and among the young in particular. But we live in a society which is dominated materially and ideologically by a ruling class, the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. And anger in itself, however justified, is not enough to challenge the system that lies behind police violence, or to avoid the many traps laid by the bourgeoisie. The protests were not started by the ruling class. But it has already succeeded in pulling them onto their own bourgeois political terrain.
Riots and peaceful marches for “justice”: both are dead ends
In the first outburst of anger in the US, there was a tendency for the protests to take the form of riots: supermarkets were looted, symbolic buildings burned down. The provocative actions of the police certainly contributed to the violence of the early days of the protests. Some of the demonstrators justified the riots by referring to Martin Luther King, who said that “the riot is the voice of the unheard”. And that is true: they are an expression of impotence and despair. They lead strictly nowhere except to more repression by a capitalist state which will always come out on top against disorganised, fragmented actions on the streets.
But the alternative put forward by official activist organisations like Black Lives Matter – peaceful marches demanding justice and equality – are no less a dead end, and in some ways are even more insidious, because they play directly into the hands of the political forces of capital. Take for example the call to defund the police, even to abolish the police altogether. On the one hand, it is completely unrealistic inside this society: it is akin to the capitalist state voluntarily dissolving itself. On the other hand, it spreads illusions in the possibility of reforming the existing state in the interest of the exploited and the oppressed – when its very function is to keep them under control in the interests of the dominant class.
The fact that the ruling class is comfortable with such radical-seeming demands is shown by the fact that within days of the first protests, capitalist media and politicians– mainly but not only those on the left – “took the knee” literally or figuratively in fervent condemnation of the killing of George Floyd and in enthusiastic support of the protests. The example of leading politicians in the Democratic Party machine in the US is the most obvious, but they were soon joined by their counterparts across the world, including the most articulate representatives of the police. This is the bourgeois recuperation of legitimate anger.
We can have no illusions: the dynamic of this movement cannot be transformed into a weapon of the exploited and the oppressed, because it has already become an instrument in the hands of the ruling class. The present mobilisations are not a 'first step' towards a genuine class struggle but are being used to block its development and maturation.
“Anti-racism”: a false alternative to racism
Capitalism could not have become the global system it is today without the slave trade and the colonial subjugation of the indigenous populations of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Racism is thus imprinted in its genes. From its inception, it has used racial and other differences to set the exploited against each other, to prevent them uniting against their real enemy – the minority that exploits them. But it has also made ample use of the ideology of “anti-racism”: the idea that you can fight racism by uniting not on class lines, but around this or that oppressed community. But organising on the basis of your racial or national “community” becomes yet another means of blurring the class divide that underlies this system: thus, there is no “black community” as such because there are black capitalists as well as black workers, and they have no common interest. Let’s simply recall the massacre of striking black miners in Marikana in 2012 by the “post- apartheid” South African state.
The murder of George Floyd was not the result of a deliberate plan by the bourgeoisie. But it has made it possible for the ruling class to focus all attention on the question of race when the capitalist system as a whole has been revealing its utter bankruptcy.
Faced with the decay of capitalism, the class struggle is the only alternative
Capitalist society is in a profound state of decay. The barbaric massacres that continue to spread across Africa and the Middle East, the incessant gang wars in Latin America – all of which are forcing millions to become refugees - are a clear symptom of this, and so is the current Covid-19 pandemic, a by-product of capitalism’s devastation of the planet’s ecology. At the same time, the system is mired in an insoluble economic crisis. Following the crash of 2008, capitalist states launched a brutal strategy of austerity, aimed at making the exploited pay for the crisis. The resulting decimation of health services is one of the main reasons why the pandemic has had such a catastrophic impact. In turn, the world-wide lock down has plunged the system into an even deeper economic crisis, certainly comparable to the depression of the 1930s.
This new descent in the economic crisis is already causing widespread impoverishment, homelessness and hunger, not least in the USA which provides its workers with such minimal social back-up in the face of unemployment or illness. There is no doubt that the resulting material misery has fuelled the anger of the protests. But faced with the historic obsolescence of an entire mode of production there is only one force that can unify against it and offer the perspective of a different society: the international working class.
The working class is not immune from the rotting of capitalist society: it suffers from all the national, racial and religious divisions which are being sharpened by the sinister progress of social decomposition, most evidently in the spread of populist ideologies. But this does not change the fundamental reality: the exploited of all countries, of all colours, have the same interest in defending themselves against the deepening attacks on their living conditions, against wage cuts, unemployment, evictions, reduction in pensions and social benefits – and against the violence of the capitalist state. This struggle alone is the basis for overcoming all the divisions that benefit our exploiters, and for resisting racist attacks and pogroms in all their forms. And when the working class does organise itself to unite its forces, it also shows that it has the capacity to organise society on a new basis. The workers’ councils that emerged across the world in the wake of the revolution in Russia in 1917, the inter-factory strike committees that arose in the Polish mass strike of 1980 – these are the proof that the struggle of the working class on its own terrain offers the perspective of creating a new proletarian power on the ruins of the capitalist state, and of reorganising production for the needs of humanity.
For several decades at least the working class has been losing the sense of itself as a class opposed to capital, the result both of vast ideological campaigns (like the “death of communism” onslaught that followed the collapse of the Stalinist form of capitalism) and sweeping material changes (like the dismantling of traditional centres of working class struggle in the most industrialised countries). But just before the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world, the strikes in the public sector in France had begun to show us that the working class is not dead and buried. The arrival of the pandemic and the global lock-down blocked the immediate potential for an extension of this movement. But even then, in the first phase of the lock down, there were very militant reactions by the working class in many countries against being treated like “lambs to the slaughter”, against being forced to work without adequate safety equipment simply to protect the profits of the bourgeoisie. These struggles – again not least in the USA – already cut across racial and national divisions. At the same time, the lock-down has laid bare the fact that the functioning of this system is entirely dependent on the “essential” labour of the class it exploits so ruthlessly.
The central question for the future of humanity is here: can the capitalist minority continue to divide the exploited majority along the lines of race, religion or nation, and thus drag it behind its march towards the abyss. Or will the working class, in all the countries of the world, recognise itself for what it is – the class that, in Marx’s terms, is “revolutionary or it is nothing”.