What's next for the black left?

The future of a movement after Occupy and Obama

Published July 7, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Demonstrators outside the Los Angeles Hall of Justice during a preliminary hearing for 17 Black Panthers. January 6, 1970       (AP/Dick Strobel)
Demonstrators outside the Los Angeles Hall of Justice during a preliminary hearing for 17 Black Panthers. January 6, 1970 (AP/Dick Strobel)

Excerpted from "Blacks in and out of the Left"

At the beginning of this book I invoked David Scott’s rejection of the romantic narrative of black politics—a narrative tied to a period in which international black victories ranged from the independence of African and Caribbean nations to the dismantling of Jim Crow in America. Today we are mired in an era of epic tragedy, Scott wrote, in which dreams of independence morphed into the terror of today’s failed states and what Cornel West called the “black nihilism” that permeates America’s disintegrating black ghettos today. If Scott is right—and there are elements of my analysis of the effects of neoliberalism on black politics in the United States that resonate with his narrative—then what is the basis for utopian thinking?

When we start the process of imagining new worlds, “we must tell no lies, claim no easy victories,” as Amilcar Cabral succinctly put it. We must understand the conditions from which we must build. Even though much of modern public policy appears raceless, the black community is under severe attack as a result of the neoliberal political agenda. The Tea Party’s devastating attack on public sector unions is, for example, greatly increasing the amount of poverty and misery in American black communities. Steven Pitts demonstrated that public sector employment remains the foundation for black employment that it has been since before World War II. Consequently, an attack on public sector employment is an attack on the black community: “The public sector is the largest employer of Black workers; there is a greater likelihood that a Black Worker will be employed by in the public sector compared to a non-Black worker; wages earned by blacks in that industry are higher than those earned by Blacks in other sectors; and inequality within an industry is less in the public sector compared to other industries”.

Workers of all races and ethnicities are facing hard times during yet another jobless “recovery,” and building political unity among them is still a daunting task. Lani Guinier argued that the burdens of integration were distributed unfairly among the poor and working people of the country, thus further under- mining the basis for bringing those at the bottom together across racial lines. Building interracial unity was always more difficult than liberals (and in particular white leftists) imagined it would be, since white workers had an investment in whiteness that often led them to privilege race over class when making decisions about political alliances. Any new rebuilding of interracial unity has to confront how to change the white working class’s (and, to the degree possible, the white middle class’s) perceptions so that they see it as in their interest to ally with nonwhite Americans.

These are just two examples of the very large obstacles that must be overcome by any utopian project. We need a pragmatic utopianism—one that starts where we are, but imagines where we want to be. Pragmatic utopianism is not new to black radical- ism. King’s work, and that of the civil rights movement more generally, was based on the utopian imagining of a much different America—one they were repeatedly told was impossible to obtain—combined with the hardheaded political realism that generated the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve their goals. Indeed, it was the combination of utopian imagining of a better world and political realism that led King to Memphis in support of black sanitation workers. The Memphis campaign, and even more so the Poor People’s Campaign that he was about to launch, was designed to explicitly take on what Mosley called the “voracious maw of capitalism” in order to achieve economic justice for all, and in the process build the interracial unity that Guinier correctly observed has been difficult to achieve.

Dreams of a New Society?

I am no longer twenty, so I no longer know everything about how the world should be. I myself do not have anywhere near a developed utopian vision. What I do have are a few tentative suggestions about what I see as necessary to get the discussion started. My suggestions are not listed in order of priority, and this list is not exhaustive. As Mosley notes, we must all develop our own lists, share them, and argue in public about them.

1. Barbara Ehrenreich’s and Derrick Muhammad’s work on the racial realities of the economic crisis and white racial resentment reinforce the need for a conversation on the left about how to openly discuss race in such a way that Americans have to both confront the facts of race in this country and listen to each other so that they begin to understand their real interests.7 Otherwise white resentment will continue to be aimed at the wrong people (different types of white resentment have different targets). We will have to counter Fox News and its allies. We still have Glenn Beck shouting to a very large and receptive audience that universal programs such as health care are actually “stealth reparations” because they disproportionately affect people of color.

Why can we not have a truth and reconciliation discussion here? In South Africa, truth telling was transformative of both society and individuals. Progressive change necessitates a psycho- logical transformation as well as a societal one. While Meister argues that in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission became a substitute for success—it symbolized satisfaction with the democratic victory rather than full economic emancipation and full defeat of settler colonialism—he points out that if one looks to Gandhi, then one realizes that reconciliation, relent- less political struggle for justice, and eventual victory need not be incompatible. Dialogue and eventual reconciliation would be steps along the way the road to full victory, not full victory itself.

Political theorist Wendy Brown was skeptical of claims of reparations, apologies, and calls for remembrance and reconciliation, basing her point of view on a critique of identity politics very different from the one found in Rorty, Gitlin, and Brubaker and Cooper. Brown argued that identity politics is a form of politics based on weakness and thus has limited possibilities for generating progressive change. Its investment in the past and in suffering all but forecloses the chance that such a movement could become the basis for a democratic future:

What are the particular constituents—specific to our time yet roughly generic for a diverse spectrum of identities—of identity’s desire for recognition that seem often to breed a politics of recrimination and rancor, of culturally dispersed paralysis and suffering, a tendency to reproach power rather than aspire to it, to disdain freedom rather than practice it? In short, where do the historically and culturally specific elements of politicized identity’s investments in itself, and especially in its own history of suffering come into conflict with the need to give up these investments, to engage in something of a Nietzschean “forgetting” of this history, in the pursuit of an emancipatory democratic project?

She added that “politicized identity” leads to, as Nietzsche predicted, “impotence . . . incapacity, powerlessness, and rejection.” Identity, according to this view, becomes a substitute for action, though Brown agreed that these characteristics do not describe the civil rights movement . She was skeptical about the current reparations movement, which she saw as based on weakness, rancor, and perhaps a sense of impotence, and she worried, “Once guilt is established and a measure of victimization secured by an apology or by material compensation, is the historical event presumed to be concluded, sealed as past, ‘healed,’ or brought to ‘closure’?”

The current reparations movement need not be based on a politics of rancor (although it has generated plenty of rancor on the part of those who feel their privilege and comfort threatened). Redistributive justice and political power are at the center of the demands this movement has advanced, as is the desire for freedom. Reparations are not about the triumph of the weak; rather, they are a demand for a conversation about justice and the way that racial oppression in the past is linked to black disadvantage today and to the continued existence of an unjust racial order. Indeed, the demand for reparations is frequently associated with the demand for self-determination. Self-determination is not about revenge, and definitely not about victimhood. The crux of self- determination—the key demand of the politicized nationalist and leftist wings of the black power movement—was the collective ability to choose the future that has the highest likelihood of being just; depending on one’s ideology, this was a future that was often seen to be egalitarian and sometimes nonpatriarchal, one where blacks would be able to govern themselves. This was a politics more consistent with Marx than Nietzsche. The demand for a discussion of reparations, like the best of the truth and reconciliation movements, is an invitation to discuss how to build a system free from domination, racial and otherwise. I partly agree with Brown’s argument that

making a historical event or formation contemporary, making it “an outrage to the present” and thus exploding or reworking both the way in which it has been remembered and the way in which it is positioned in historical consciousness as “past,” is precisely the opposite of bringing that phenomena to “closure” through reparation or apology (our most ubiquitous form of historical political thinking today). The former demands that we redeem the past through a specific and contemporary practice of justice; the latter gazes impotently at the past even as it attempts to establish history a irrelevant to the present or, at best, as a reproachful claim or grievance in the present.

We must begin the process of “making a historical event . . . ‘an outrage to the present.’” Yet there is no inherent contradiction that prevents a reparations movement or truth and reconciliation movement from taking on this role. There is no inherent reason that such movements need wallow impotently in the past. How reparations and truth and reconciliation movements unfold is a product of the political contestation that takes place within these movements—of the politics that govern their development. I do energetically agree that Brown’s critique well describes much of post-black-power-era black politics, a politics that by and large embraces the values and constraints of neoliberalism, including an emaciated understanding of the politically allowable and feasible. A process of truth and reconciliation, as messy and undoubtedly rancorous as it would be, could help us move beyond the current degenerate state of American politics to a politics that is more truly democratic.

2. The black public sphere, what I have called the black counterpublic, must be rebuilt from the bottom up, and quickly. We need to learn from some of the more technologically innovative forces within the progressive movement to use technology as a way to help people in neighborhoods meet and talk face-to-face,
have these smaller groups link to each other’s discussion, and give people at the local level an online set of tools to help them organize themselves. The black public sphere has historically been central to the multiple social movements that have emerged out of black civil society, movements that in turn transformed America for the better. The black public sphere, as King and many others have said, has also been the site of trenchant, effective and influential critiques of democracy in America, as well as the instrument through which African Americans have been able, sometimes effectively, to influence political debate within the country as a whole. That is why it must be rebuilt.

3. People do have to hit the streets. Franklin Delano Roosevelt told progressive members of Congress that he agreed with them and they needed to force him to do what they all wanted. The people best following that advice today are right-wing, racist, but strategic fanatics who have already hijacked political discourse and are on the verge of winning a series of policy and political victories that would be truly devastating. I do not understand why broad sections of the liberal and progressive movements still believe that bringing about serious change, let alone the revolution dreamed of by those such as King, is like a dinner party. It is not. Making change entails being willing to fight. This country needs a social democratic movement with teeth, not one that exhibits better manners than those found at most academic dinner parties. We need a real grassroots movement, not the ersatz one foisted on us by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, as Berlant incisively argues—one that transforms, not just tweaks, the system. If, as Berlant suggested, “the beast of civil society stirs from [a] long sleep,” then it is black radicals’ task to once again organize so that the beast awakes—once again shaking the pillars of heaven. It is past time—Albo and his colleagues were absolutely correct when they bluntly reminded us, “The [financial] crisis has shown . . . neoliberal claims to be ideological rubbish”.

For some, the Occupy movement, which began to spread during 2011 and focused intense political attention on various forms of economic injustice and inequality, potentially represented such a movement, but in many regions it grew largely without organized participation from black radicals.

We saw this process begin in Wisconsin as public workers there and across the nation, along with their supporters, began to massively mobilize against the state’s right-wing governor, Scott Walker, and his successful attempts to destroy state workers’ unions (which were followed by parallel initiatives in other states). As gratifying as the countermobilizations in Wisconsin and elsewhere were, they were entirely defensive in nature. People have to hit the street offensively, not to try to gain back what has been taken away (although that too) but to make demands for action that will improve people’s lives, not just barely maintain them at a desperate level of survival.

We must heed Marta Harnecker when she argues, “it is a huge mistake to try to lead grassroots movements by ordering them around, by coming to them with already-worked-out plans”. As she continued to explain, progressives must involve everyone at some level. We need to work to ensure that people can participate at the level they are able, while finding venues through which as many as possible have a stake in progressive social movements.

4. We have to renew our commitment to the value of meaningful work that can actually support oneself and one’s loved ones, and to education for all that not only makes it possible to acquire meaningful and rewarding work but allows each person to dis- cover for themselves what it means to flourish while contributing to society. Berlant put it well:

Optimism for the present would require the Left to focus on rethinking the structure of labor or work in relation to being- with. . . . There is so little work now, the sense of value might as well be reinvented. There is so little commitment to public education now, its purposes might as well be reimagined from the bottom up—but not its people, for education has to be the ground for the popular. Not the education that preunderstands a vocation, but education as the inculcated relation to work whose value is not just ends-oriented apprenticeship or putting in time but diffused, risky, and a bit random not just about tasks but about making worlds.

5. 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.”

6. We must also reclaim the proud black radical anti-imperialist tradition that began in the nineteenth century and has continued into the twenty-first century. As I have shown in other work, grassroots African Americans generally continue to be against the use of the American military abroad. Further, blacks, unlike a majority of whites in the first years of the twenty-first century, also believed that protesting what one thought was an unjust war was perfectly patriotic. Yet now, for the first time in over a century, black elites are often silent when it comes to commenting on U.S. involvement in foreign wars, particularly those in the Middle East. An anti-imperialist analysis of the mass protest from the streets of Egypt and Tunisia to those of an increasingly leftist Latin America is also conspicuously missing from the black public sphere. One of the central reasons for quickly rebuilding a strong black counterpublic is to enable the type of foreign policy debates that have been missing from black discourse for much of the last dozen years. We should learn from the moral and analytical failures of the first two periods of black leftist insurgency and eschew any blind faith in foreign models. We have to engage in the hard task of trying to understand the currents at work in this world and embrace those that are most promising for increasing democracy and the well-being of humanity, even if they are in opposition to current American foreign policy.

7. Finally, we have to become comfortable with trying to effect change without knowing all the answers in advance. This is the only possible route to the dismantling of oppressive hierarchies of power such as those based on gender, class, and race and their protean intersections. Traditional Marxism is like game theory— both are based on precise analysis of the world but have built into those analyses assumptions that make analysis tractable. Both ultimately recoil from and then ignore the inherent messiness of mass human behavior and politics. In the end our teleologies are shackles. We should not fly blind, but we no longer can afford the certainty that has proved to be a deadly illusion.

Marx despised utopian thinking, but I argue that since we can no longer pretend the social world works in a Newtonian manner, with deterministic laws and a predestined end, we must utilize utopian thinking. We can still be realists, pragmatists if we must, but at least we must not limit ourselves in imagining what could be better futures. We can argue about what these would entail and how they could be realized. But dream we must. Those dreams must be debated and eventually transformed into political programs aimed at transformative change.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Pragmatic utopianism demands not just the critically important step of beginning to imagine a just and good society but action. Movements must be organized to build that society, test competing visions, and fight off the forces of reaction and privilege that profit from the degradation of the great majority of humanity and the very earth itself. King understood that the answer to his question “Where do we go from here?” demanded a program of action. It demanded mobilization and education. It demanded that black radicals of all stripes—feminist, social democratic, Marxist, and nationalist—step “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

When it comes to the struggle for a just society, for a good life for the majority of humanity, for the end of an ever-mutating but oppressive racial order, stepping unto the breach necessitates that the lessons of the two key periods of twentieth-century black radicalism and the lessons of the sundering be applied and adapted for this century. Independent radical organizations dedicated to fighting for justice and equality for blacks, for an end to the deadly racial order, must be rebuilt. Organizations of black leftists, feminists, egalitarian liberals, and nationalists must be rebuilt or strengthened to take on the issues of economic inequality, the continuing disadvantage that faces blacks and especially black children, gender disadvantage, and the incarceration state. They must stand with the majority of humanity and against the new imperialist land grabs and division of the world by this era’s great powers. These powerful forces are no less interested in dominating markets, extracting natural resources (including energy and increasingly food resources), and exploiting cheap overseas labor than the imperialists that black radicals fought in the past. Organizations of black radicals must once again embrace a radical domestic agenda that is tied to a worldview that demands justice for all of humanity, not just those who live in rich and privileged countries. These organizations need to hold elected officials, corporate executives, public intellectuals, and scholars accountable to the communities they purport to represent, exploit, speak for, and study.

The black radical organizations I describe here do bear some similarities to the third-path organizations discussed in the previous chapters. There must be some changes in addition to the ones already specified. First, black radical organizations need to be nimble, innovative, willing to experiment, and flexible—traits often missing from the organizations that have attracted black radicals in the past. Being nimble and innovative means being willing to change organizational forms as needed, even being open to experimenting with different forms simultaneously. This means that there will be a mix of small collectives, medium-sized organizations, and perhaps some of regional scope. There will be black radical organizations, and multiracial organizations to which black radicals belong; some black radicals may belong to both types. These organizations are also more likely to be able to respond to and use the vast amount of information that is the hallmark of the digital age. Large, rigidly structured organization in fields of endeavor from business to government have failed due to their inability to work with and within the ever-growing infosphere. The black public sphere, which we must strengthen and rebuild, already exists partially in cyberspace.

Black radical organizations also need to be far less hierarchical than in the past. This will help them avoid penetration by hostile forces and attempts to silence a small and easily identifiable leadership. But it will also help them avoid a pitfall for black radical organizations of both past periods: being far too undemocratic. We must move from the patriarchal and antidemocratic leadership of past black radical organizations and adopt styles and principles of leadership from the black feminist wing of black radicalism.

Black organizations of different types must once again be willing to test their ideas in theory and practice against those of other forces, but unlike in the past—unless we want to relive the sundering before we have even rebuilt the movement—we must also learn to work with each other despite our differences. Black movements are at their strongest when several different types of organizations with multiple points of views are working within black communities. The united fronts of the past, both the black and multiracial varieties, are desperately needed to confront a system of inequality that viciously attacks democratic movements wherever they appear.

And we must do this now. We must remember one of the positive lessons that black Maoist movements understood a generation ago: “[Maoism] challenged the idea that the march to socialism must take place in stages or that one must wait patiently for the proper objective conditions to move ahead” . Crisis after crisis is devastating peoples and nations; the environment and entire economies are held hostage so that the bankers of the most powerful countries can continue to derive extraordinary profits while gaming the system so that there exists nothing like either a free market or a level playing field. Black radical movements are once again needed to take their place in the growing worldwide struggles against multiple forms of radical inequality and injustice. The example of Hubert Harrison and all of his black radical comrades with all of their human flaws should inspire us to build movements that can in the twenty-first century fight racism, class oppression, patriarchy, and homophobia. We may no longer take the classic third path, but it still has much to teach us.

Excerpted from "Blacks in and out of the Left" by Michael C. Dawson, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

By Michael C. Dawson

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago and the founding and current Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the university.

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