Saturday, December 6, 2014

Marx Can't Breathe

Protests against repeated cases of white cops getting off after killing unarmed black men, and much of the media coverage about them, have cast police violence as an extension of endemic US racism against African Americans, the protesters chants, "Hand Up Don't Shoot" and more recently "I Can't Breathe," reflecting the conditions of the black victims' executions.

But residents of Albuquerque, where the city just entered a consent decree with the Justice Department because of its violent police department, may well be asking themselves how many unarmed black men, if any, have Albuquerque police killed? None that I know of. The APD's victims have been mostly Hispanic.

It's not that Albuquerque's violent police wouldn't kill black men if they could. It's that there are no black men here, virtually, blacks being an almost statistically insignificant 3.3 percent share of the population. It's possible that there's racism in Albuquerque and it just manifests itself against working class Hispanics, but there are also many instances across the country of police killing poor white people, and one of the most notorious killings in Albuquerque was of a homeless white man.

So if police killings here aren't about racism against African Americans, what are they about, and what's behind the killing of black men in other places?

Democrats, Capitalism and Police Violence 

The common denominator in all the killings is that the people the police killed were working class people. There's a racial element, to be sure, and the protests and media coverage have focused on the racial element, but as several articles at the World Socialist Web Site have pointed out, although much of police violence on its surface might be racial, it is rooted in dynamics of class -- economic class.

It's not that there isn't racism against minorities in America and in police departments. People have been happily posting examples of racist explanations of the recent events coming from the conservative media. They've re-posted comments sections of police web sites that show many police to be racist pigs delighted by the recent grand jury decisions, or who harken back to perceived glory days of the 80s and 90s when they could beat the crap out of somebody and nobody said a word.

But in the context of Capitalism and its need to maintain itself, racism is just one of the mechanisms of control Capitalism has at its disposal, one of the things that foster divisions among working people.

Police violence is another.

Earlier this year 145 US House Democrats joined 210 Republicans in voting down Progressive congressman Allan Grayson's bill that would have ended the outfitting by the federal government of local police departments with military equipment, weapons and vehicles -- the militarization of the police. Democrats don't want that. They want militarized police, so that when we get fed up in numbers that are truly threatening to the Capitalist order they can use whatever means are necessary to subdue us.

In a post on his Only In New Mexico blog this week Jim Baca laments the lack of national leadership at this historical moment and pondered which political leaders would be considered among the great thinkers. He said different people would put forth names like Jefferson or Marx, and continued;

"I would think in American History that the Roosevelts were outliers.  But, since then we really haven't seen anyone of their stature ascend the world stage, have we?  We could sure use one of those types right now who has it all.  Charisma, compassion, progressive ideals and the means to make the population understand and embrace them."

That final sentence, an excellent summary of what great thinkers and leaders have had, explains the continued popularity of people like Jefferson and Marx, who, I'd say, provided us with the "means to make the population understand and embrace" the police violence that encompasses race but doesn't exclude other critical aspects of the problem.

Marx and Capital

Marx is continually vilified in our Capitalist society and for two primary reasons. One is his association with Socialism. Capitalists, under Reaganomics, i.e. Neoliberalism, have succeeded in implementing in almost all Western countries an ideology that results in the redistribution of wealth upward. They have good reason to fear Socialist ideology and its belief in the redistribution of wealth in the opposite direction.

There was Socialism before Marx, and he disagreed about some things with most of the leading Socialists of his day, but he was involved in Socialist politics, in some of his newspaper writings, and he played a major role in forming the First International, the worldwide Socialist movement.

What's now known of as the First International, the International Workingmen's Association, was an 1864 gathering in London of Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, trade union groups and allied political parties who had in common their involvement in class struggle. The First International was the most important Socialist organization of its time and retains great symbolic importance to Socialists.

But as Capitalism successfully fought back against the rise of Socialism, the First International was eventually disbanded. A Second International was formed and lasted from 1889-1916. Then, Russian Communists, who were victorious in the 1917 Russian civil war, formed in 1919, under the auspices of the USSR, the Third International, a very hierarchical organization run by whoever was the current Soviet leader. The American Communist Party that came under continual attack by the US government during the Cold War was a member of the Third International.

Marx is probably most widely known, at least in the United States, for his association with all of that Socialist history. He helped organize and gave the opening address at the First International in 1864, and that speech, commonly called The Communist Manifesto, has been re-printed and re-printed and read by many students. It includes phrases like "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains." Some of Marx's ideas about Capitalism are condensed there in such a way as "to make the population understand and embrace them". It's Marx at his polemical finest. It's a political speech. 

The other reason Marxism is vilified and feared has to do with the broader significance of Marx's thinking and writings. Marxism is less an ideology than a way of analyzing things. His most famous work, Capital, Das Kapital in the original German, is an exhaustive analysis and explanation of how Capitalism works.

Capital, the series of volumes, was informed by Marx's philosophical beliefs. Marx studied philosophy in college and graduated from the University of Frankfurt with a degree in it. Most of his writings are about philosophy and he has a legitimate position in the history of the field.

In his books and papers Marx was taking a side in an argument that has been going on since at least Plato and Aristotle -- Is there an objective reality, or is reality subjective?

Another way of phrasing the question is: Can you prove that the world you perceive with your senses actually exits?

You see a chair. You feel a chair. You can even hear one if it's moved around. But it's your senses perceiving the chair. What you're seeing and feeling and hearing is actually in your imagination. Your mind creates an imaginary chair out of the input your senses send to your brain. Can you then say that you have proof that the chair exists? Do you have objective proof? Or a subjective supposition?

That's the basis of the question of whether reality is objective or subjective. If it's subjective, it's just your own personal reality, and no one else has the exact same reality, and there is no outside "objective" reality, as far as we know. But if there is an actual reality out there that exists apart from our personal reality, that would be an objective reality.

This question has many implications that play out in many different areas. In politics, a form of it is used by Liberals and Conservatives to argue their ideologies. Liberals don't ever explicitly state it or in most cases realize its philosophical basis, but part of their belief system is that policies must take into account all of our subjective realities, for example, when they argue for policies based on the fact that poor black people face a reality that middle class whites don't. Conservatives argue that both groups face the same reality, an objective reality, and therefore both have the same opportunities to better themselves. They probably aren't aware of the philosophical basis for their argument either, but they use the idea of an objective reality to argue against giving anyone a hand up, and both arguments can be traced back to their roots in philosophy.

The age old "nature-nurture" question -- are we all just the products of what our genetic material dictates, or are we a product of our environment, is another form of the question about an objective or subjective reality.  How you think about that question usually determines what you think should be done about societal problems. Again, Liberals argue that poor people live in an environment, one that they don't control, that forms them and affects them in certain ways that have to be taken into account. Conservatives say, No, that's hogwash. A poor person is just as able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as anyone else.

Marx of course argued that reality is subjective, and that we are products of our environment, and specifically that since the time Capitalism became the economic form we live under, Capitalism forms our reality. Marx is often referred to as a Materisalist. Materialism is a version of the "nurture" side of the nature-nurture argument. Marx said that Capitalism creates the "material conditions" of our existence. A little thinking about what you see on TV, what you buy, how your town has developed, lends credence to his belief.

Marxism Today

Marx wrote about questions like these in ways that have had tremendous influence on academics and philosophers and consequently his ideas in one form or another have spread through the education system, and "Marxist" ways of thinking, and a Marxist analysis, often one that's been fleshed out and perhaps modified by subsequent thinkers, is an element in a great deal of academic thinking, and is part of our politics, and part of our individual thinking about many things.

All that is in place whether Marx himself remains vilified or not, and whether Socialism ever gains widespread popularity again or not. It's something that could be part of the "material conditions" under which Socialism can re-emerge, if people become consciously aware of it being there. You'll often hear Socialists talk about "consciousness raising." They mean making people aware of not just Marxism but of ho it lets people see their commonality, in economic class terms. "Class consciousness" is another term you hear from Socialists. When many people begin to realize they have most of their basic economic interests in common they can begin to be aware of their potential power as a class.

Conservatives, one one level or another, are aware of this potential, so you see them not only continually vilifying Marx and Socialism but endowing university professorships, or "chairs." It why college campuses have (somewhat accurately) been called hotbeds of Marxism, and why the university system is under attack, why it's being privatized and turned into an arm of corporate America.

As I've written about earlier, the state, i.e. government in the ongoing, permanent sense, which serves Capitalism, has a monopoly on violence. No one else can legally commit violence. Only the state can, and it does it with the police, the prison system and the military.

When in the early 20th century presidents and governors were sending the national guard to break strikes and murder workers, that was about economics, about Capitalism, not race, not gender, not anything else, and the state sponsored violence we see today has to be seen according to the same Marxist analysis.

So far, the protestors aren't pulling it all together, aren't seeing that their struggle is part of a bigger one, aren't unifying as they might if they could see things through a Marxist lens. Neither are feminists in their struggle, or gays, or most other advocacy groups. A few individuals do, but not on a large scale. We're splintered, divided, often fighting each other.

But the potential for us to unite is always there, and that's why, Marx would surely say, the police are being militarized, and why police can commit crimes with impunity. They are one and the same thing. State violence is being jealously guarded, violence that is directed at the working class, always. There's racism, and racism in police departments, but it comes with the territory of having armed, uneducated people protecting the status quo with violence, Capitalist violence.

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