As we move from the open white supremacy of Donald Trump to the opaque Neoliberal multiculturalism of Joe Biden – who asks the nation to find ‘unity’ with white supremacists – it’s more important than ever to remind ourselves that there is no normal we can return to. That the only way to have a future is to overturn the poisonous foundations of the past.
On these issues, I’m thrilled be joined by Jarrod Shanahan. Jarrod has written some of the finest articles and analysis of the George Floyd uprising and what truly revolutionary change will look like. Below please find our conversation.
Asia Art Tours: In your Brooklyn Rail Article on the George Floyd Uprising, you quote James Baldwin: “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
I’m wondering if you could provide us the other side of the question, what does American society have to gain from the Abolitionist vision and direct actions we saw in these uprisings?
Jarrod Shanahan: The most important thing to keep in mind is that by all appearances, American society is extremely conservative, top to bottom. Our labor movement, never as powerful as those in European countries, is all but vanquished. People think about themselves as individuals or small clans at war with the world, typified by the wildly popular television show The Walking Dead, which is how a critical mass of Americans imagine the present. Aspects of the movements of the 1960s were either crushed with violence or subsumed into capital, depending on whether they were friendly to business and did not challenge private property. Accordingly, the individual self-improvement paradigm and bootstraps ideology that working-class people are served here from the cradle is very powerful. There’s no shortage of people who come from working-class backgrounds and find their way to some kind of revolutionary leftism, myself included, but these folks usually don’t represent much of anybody from where they grew up, regardless of what they say.
The beauty of the abolitionist vision, to my mind, is that unlike the typical movements that push for convicting individual police of murder, or making them go to these ridiculous training classes and learn to not be mean, abolitionism recasts these issues as matters of how the public wealth is distributed.
Beneath the appearance of a defeated proletariat there is of course a strong yearning for freedom and the irrepressible movement to reject the present social order. But this is most often expressed in highly-individualistic forms like the cult of entrepreneurship, or else the kind of anti-social libertarianism that bucks mask mandates and roots for the dismantling of public health infrastructure, education, and all the rest. The US has seen some promising movement in the last few years, in particular the wave of teachers’ strikers in so-called red states, but these were isolated and quickly controlled from the top-down by their unions, which ensure the smooth reproduction of the wage relation, even if they make things a little bit harder for capital – and easier for workers – along the way. There has also been a renewed interest in wealth redistribution policies, with a lot of young people calling themselves socialists, though the practical efforts to this effect are mostly quixotic exercises in electoral politics that are sucking a whole new generation of progressives into the black hole of the Democratic Party. The George Floyd Rebellion was qualitatively different from all this. In it we saw the potential for a conception of liberation which could break the hopeless mediation of electoralism, the union contract struggle, or the predictable rituals of the professional activist set. The rebellion showed that an alternative exists to left politics as usual, and it is an alternative that is present within society right now, struggling to break out.
The beauty of the abolitionist vision, to my mind, is that unlike the typical movements that push for convicting individual police of murder, or making them go to these ridiculous training classes and learn to not be mean, abolitionism recasts these issues as matters of how the public wealth is distributed. The institutions of police and prisons have grown astronomically in tandem with the state disinvestment from reproducing working-class life, especially in black and brown communities, where often the only sign of state investment you see is a police car. The failure of the state to protect vulnerable people from Covid has brought these conditions into the open in a more spectacular way, but is only the latest chapter in a long history of exclusion that has been explicitly racialized more often than not. Abolitionism makes all of this a political issue, and provides a concrete analysis, a way forward, and actionable steps one can take to realize it. This is its primary strength, and helps to account for its success in defining the George Floyd Rebellion.
Today, I’m afraid we see the real risk of abolitionism becoming a kind of revolutionary politics devoid of revolution, dedicated to a “slow build” ideology and an emphasis on technocratic reforms that is often hard to distinguish from liberalism – except for the animating rhetoric, which is quite radical in form.
Asia Art Tours: Then, if I may ask, how did you arrive at Abolition as a major component of your personal philosophy? And in addition to recommending thinkers (though feel free to do that as well) could you emphasize the situations, life-ways, practices or major events that led you to Abolition?
Jarrod Shanahan: I have spoken about the strengths of abolitionism, now I am obligated to point out its weaknesses. I came out of the George Floyd Rebellion alarmed by the distance between US abolitionism and the kind of insurrectionary class struggle we saw in many US cities. The current US abolitionist movement was born out of the Black and Brown Power movements and was oriented toward an explicitly revolutionary horizon. Angela Davis is the quintessential figure in this regard, as she bridges the past to the present and has provided much of the theory that animates contemporary abolitionism. As the original movement was repressed and otherwise crested, and the long years of Reaganism set in, abolitionists became increasingly invested in so-called non-reformist reforms, which amounts to fighting a war of position within the state, discrediting and weakening its repressive functions by piecemeal measures, the same way you wear down a foe when you can’t outright defeat them. This insight seems wise, especially in a low movement period, and is what attracted me to the movement.
Today, I’m afraid we see the real risk of abolitionism becoming a kind of revolutionary politics devoid of revolution, dedicated to a “slow build” ideology and an emphasis on technocratic reforms that is often hard to distinguish from liberalism – except for the animating rhetoric, which is quite radical in form. This has a lot to do with the overdetermination of US abolition by its home in the non-profit sector and university, both of which are pillars on which US capitalism rests and produce people as likely to seek out individual power and fame as they are collective social transformation. The abolitionist scholar Joy James recently noted this, putting it quite succinctly: “Before abolition, there was revolutionary struggle.”
Let’s just say some people were rushing to speak truth to power and enact piecemeal reforms in City Hall, while others were trying to burn police stations down
As Zhana Kurti and I wrote in “Prelude to a Hot American Summer,” it is often difficult to distinguish US abolitionism from left Keynesianism, which advocates social welfare investment as a means of promoting a healthy and equitable capitalist society. You hear a lot of abolitionists talking about funding schools and social welfare as if these are politically-neutral and not important institutions for reproducing capitalist social relations. The George Floyd Rebellion provided the opportunity for everyone in the US left to show what their politics really amount to in practice. And let’s just say some people were rushing to speak truth to power and enact piecemeal reforms in City Hall, while others were trying to burn police stations down. Now, would the slow and peaceful enactment of social democratic policies make life better for the US working class? Probably, but you don’t need to invoke the rhetoric of proletarian revolution to discuss Keynesianism.
Asia Art Tours: A $15 minimum wage, Bernie or Universal Health Care does not abolish for the White Supremacy at America’s core, but I am utterly exhausted from the sheer violence of American capitalism and I imagine this exhaustion is shared by many Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor Americans in this time of mass viral death.
Jarrod Shanahan: I understand this line of thinking but find it to present a false dichotomy because it assumes that social democracy is possible in the United States. We can set aside consideration about the decades-long fall in the rate of profit (outside my pay grade), which might actually prove neoliberals correct when they say that the US can’t afford social democracy. We can also set aside the stubborn fact that European social democracies are crumbling, or else adopting hardline anti-migration or reactionary measures like Brexit, at the exact moment Americans are pointing to them as alternatives to US neoliberalism. We can assume here that it’s technically possible to build a comfortable life for everyone in the US under capitalism. Now, I love Bernie Sanders, more than I probably should, given his closed-borders, pro-cop, and imperialist policy positions. Maybe it’s the mittens. Anyway I went to see him speak, gave him money, and even did some door knocking on the South Side of Chicago with some flyers his campaign gave me that were covered in photos of Bernie hanging out with black people. But he never had a chance.
And I don’t just mean a chance of getting the nomination, but we know of course the dirty business that all these ghoulish Democrats and reporters pulled to defeat him twice in a row, and he didn’t even get a cabinet position in the Biden Administration. I mean that there was no chance he could have delivered on most of his promises, had he even made it into office. President Bernie getting anything done would require the House and Senate, and the cooperation of the media, to push through, which given that they’re a bunch of pigs, is not likely. In fact, the best way to defeat social democracy in the US would have been to let Bernie win and go down in flames.
In all seriousness, the US has developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome regarding the cops who brutally enforce the capitalist social order, thanks in large part to decades of Hollywood copaganda.
The last time I saw him speak he was talking about enacting all kinds of amazing social democratic policies that would help guarantee a dignified life for everyone. I supported the movement because he was raising peoples’ expectations for what they could get out of life, which in the US are abysmally low, and telling people they had to unite and fight together to get a better life. I still get teary-eyed thinking about him telling a massive crowd in Queens: “When you are willing to fight for someone you don’t know and have never met as much as you are willing to fight for yourself then we will win.” I can’t imagine myself or anyone I know, given the chance to address that many people, saying something more powerful.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Given how entrenched the US ruling class has become, it would take nothing short of a national insurrection, that would make the George Floyd Rebellion look like a walk in the park, to get the pigs in charge of this country to cede half of what Bernie was talking about. Look how hard it has been to get these pitiful one-time checks into people’s hands for Covid relief! A few politicians giving feel-good speeches in D.C. stands no chance of doing anything besides introducing people to a palatable version of leftist ideas, and has led more than a few good organizers into what Mike Davis once called “a barren marriage” with the Democratic Party (he was talking about US labor unions, but the analogy holds).
As for the DSA, I have nothing bad to say about them. They’re a great entry point into left politics for the young petty bourgeois who would have disappeared into the middle ranks of the US workforce before 2008, but are now calling themselves socialists, organizing rent strikes, and pummeling the credibility of these rotten neoliberal Democrats. There’s also a comical disconnect between the old guard democratic socialists and the new folks who joined after the Bernie movement went mainstream. Some younger comrades in New York were part of a college DSA chapter where the leader brought some progressive Democrat to their meeting to give his corny stump speech. To his chagrin, they peppered him with questions about whether he supported capitalism and how he planned to get communism! The DSA is a resting place for people waiting to have an articulate left politics. It’s not a coherent social force.
Asia Art Tours: Something that’s bothered me (and this could be completely wrong, so I defer to your reporting) is that the overlap between antifascists (ANTIFA) and those who participated in the George Floyd Uprising seems thin in terms of ‘on the ground’ or digital solidarity between the two movements. Which is not to say what ANTIFA does is not important. Just that I found this to be confusing.
Jarrod Shanahan: In the US, antifa has become a meaningless political category. It has basically come to be synonymous with white leftist, though of course we know there’s plenty of non-white antifascists, or else anyone who takes direct action. Now, there are dedicated antifascists who fight against US rightists by doxing them, disrupting their events, mobilizing against their demonstrations, and so forth. But this is just one aspect of revolutionary strategy, and most people I know who do antifascist work balance it with all kinds of other positive work of building a viable movement. If your only political issue is being against rightism, you’re probably a liberal, whether you realize it or not. So “antifa” was active in the George Floyd Rebellion, to the extent that the same people who defeated the alt-right, risk their necks in the streets against armed Nazis, and otherwise make it difficult to be a US rightist, are also many of the people who hit the streets against the racist social order last summer.
“antifa” was active in the George Floyd Rebellion, to the extent that the same people who defeated the alt-right, risk their necks in the streets against armed Nazis, and otherwise make it difficult to be a US rightist, are also many of the people who hit the streets against the racist social order last summer.
Asia Art Tours: I would go so far as to say that for Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor and unhoused Americans the fascists have been here for a long, long time and they wear blue. If so, is it fair to ask ANTFA to fight against (or primarily against) the police, in addition to (or instead of ) their battles with groups like the Proud Boys? Or is this a ‘BOTH/AND’ situation in terms of our fight?
Jarrod Shanahan: As for the fascists who wear blue, I think one of the most positive developments of the George Floyd Rebellion was the erosion of the cult of cop worship in the US — which, to be clear, is down but not out. Based on my extensive research on Tinder, where many profiles proclaim “acab” or “no cops,” it seems very difficult for the police to find a date right now! In all seriousness, the US has developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome regarding the cops who brutally enforce the capitalist social order, thanks in large part to decades of Hollywood copaganda. The explicitly anti-police nature of the rebellion represents a promising turn, though one that is presently undercut by the liberals’ love affair with the cops and FBI agents arresting Capitol rioters. It’s nice to them to tell us what they think of “traitors” though, lest we forget that they’d happily throw us all in jail under a president they voted for.
You are correct that the US police have wreaked a whole lot more havoc in the lives of non-white Americans than the ideological white supremacists – which is even more complicated by the fact that some of the most brutal police departments in the US, like New York and LA, are remarkably diverse, and in Joe Biden’s words, “look like America.” I think this emphasizes the point that it is great to be against fringe rightists, but the real enemy is the capitalist state and those who will lay down their lives to defend it. This is tension that will have to be worked through in identity-based political movements, which are almost always cross-class alliances to begin with.
Asia Art Tours: Let’s just say the Biden Administration creates a domestic terrorism framework that does not just target the petite bourgeoisie of fascists who stormed the capital (the ‘QANON Shamans of the the world) but the ‘big’ bourgeoisie who helped organize, platform and arm these fascists (The Koch, Mercer and Davos Family klans as just a few examples) with materials, media and funding.
Could you explain (as you see it) what role the ‘Big’ Bourgeoisie had in ‘arming’ the white supremacists who stormed the capital? Was this merely arming them with rhetoric and media outlets for their inchoate white supremacist, patriarchal fantasies? Or should we see the storming of the U.S Capital as explicitly connected to the actions and funding of klans like the Kochs or Mercers?
Jarrod Shanahan: I only know as much about the Capitol siege as you can find in the bourgeois press. I’m sure there were all kinds of conspiracies, but I’m not terribly interested in them. I watched too many organic intellectuals destroy their minds on 9/11 truth theories, and it makes me sick to think Capitol trutherism will be the next fad. As the American philosopher Oprah Winfrey would say, “the big secret in life is there’s no secret.” The interesting story was right in front of our faces: a resurgent militant right, willing to throw down with the cops and otherwise break the law. Now, did right-wing foundations provide aid to groups involved? Probably. Foundation money is always flying around in activist circles, right and left. Many in the 1960s Black Power movement became experts at getting Great Society funding to organize for revolution. Does that mean Lyndon Johnson was secretly a communist leading urban rebellions, as the John Birch Society insisted? If you follow US right-wing news today, they’re always finding some leftist group or firebrand that receives foundation money or state funds. It doesn’t mean George Soros is in charge of the US left. There’s a running joke here among veteran activists: “Where’s my Soros check?!” And regardless of who they funded, there’s no chance Biden will attack the big bourgeoisie – his comrades! – but a strong possibility whatever laws get passed against “extremism” will be used to entrap and convict leftists. But this is a point being made widely, and I don’t need to rehash it here.
But our primary foes remain the capitalist state and all who uphold it, including institutions often considered politically neutral like the school system. This is the “three-way fight.
As for the question of where our energy is best spent right now, there’s no shortage of foes to vanquish. The rightists will have a boon in recruitment the same as they did under Obama (and Clinton) at the same time that the Trump movement is finally rid of Trump and able to develop its own brand of reactionary politics, or more likely a number of different tendencies of rightism, instead of being tethered to the whims of a psychotic con man. But our primary foes remain the capitalist state and all who uphold it, including institutions often considered politically neutral like the school system. This is the “three-way fight.” Fighting the capitalist state will be more difficult for us under Biden and Harris, because the liberals who were taking the streets against Trump are mostly satisfied now that he’s gone, and the Bernie movement polarized the Democratic Party to such an extent that many liberals openly hate leftists. How the Democrats handle Covid will be revealing of the terrain of struggle to come. On Biden’s first full day in office, he told a reporter “Give me a break” when pushed about not making enough vaccines quickly enough. Everyone wants to go back to “normal,” but whatever “normal” means in the months and years ahead will be determined by struggle. We’ll see if the liberals who were scrutinizing the structural violence of the state under Trump feel similarly inclined to take on Biden. But otherwise, the new laws are the same as the old ones: keep the fascists down, weaken and discredit the liberals and the imperialist capitalist state they love, and build for dual power.
It is the task of leftists today to help create the political forms that can bridge questions of immediate personal survival with loftier notions of social transformation through collective struggle.
Asia Art Tours: To conclude with the Baldwin quote from the start of our conversation, I think there is a false impression that most of the participants in the George Floyd uprising were people with nothing to lose. From personal contacts I know, to reporting on some of those targeted by the state, many participants had a great deal to lose in terms of their wealth, class or status, and they participated anyway.
Jarrod Shanahan: This is a great point, and we didn’t mean to be glib. The immiseration hypothesis often attributed to Marx is most often not how rebellion and revolutions work; Marcuse loved to point out that the Americans who populated the 1960s social movements were the most affluent generation in world history. However there is an aspect of immiseration at play in the radicalization of Americans (in both the leftward and rightward direction), perhaps especially the entry of masses of white Americans into movements like Black Lives Matter.
There is an aspect of immiseration at play in the radicalization of Americans (in both the leftward and rightward direction), perhaps especially the entry of masses of white Americans into movements like Black Lives Matter.
A critical mass of the so-called boomers, and especially the white ones, were bought off with living wage jobs, little boxes to live in, gas guzzling cars, fast food, and endless mass-produced plastic shit to consume and destroy the planet with. In terms of race, this was the racial bribe, to use W.E.B. DuBois’s formulation, that kept white Americans from finding solidarity with black Americans. Of course there was also a small black middle class created in this period that has proven similarly disinterested in equality with poor and working-class black people; just watch the films Black Panther or Us to learn how this class fraction views the word. In both cases, home “ownership” – most people have mortgages, so the bank actually owns their house – is probably the most important aspect of this bribe, and much of the racial antagonism that marks interpersonal relations in US society can be traced back to white resistance to desegregation in areas where white people own houses.
Today we see much of this falling away, as the standards of living continue to plummet and there’s no much proverbial carrot left for the ruling class to offer would-be class traitors. Americans can lose their freedom, their status as non-felons, and their lives, but the short-lived path to comfortable life seen in the postwar period – the America Trump promised to make great again – is for many Americans a thing of the past. It was in fact an aberration in US history, and it’s already been over for longer than it lasted. That said, I fear there’s a long way to go for most Americans to come around to collective politics. When I spoke above about bootstraps ideology, I did not mean to say its adherents were foolish or had been tricked. Instead, this is the reality of peoples’ lives. There’s not much on offer in terms of collective struggle, and in the lives of most people it remains an abstract idea, not a serious option that one can choose instead of bootstraps ideology. They adopt this ideology because it’s what they need to believe to survive.
It is the task of leftists today to help create the political forms that can bridge questions of immediate personal survival with loftier notions of social transformation through collective struggle. Unions offer this in an emaciated form that’s ultimately pro-capitalist in their promotion of class harmony, austerity, and no-strike agreements. Bernie offered it in terms of voting for an individual as an individual, perhaps the most alienated form of political participation possible. The George Floyd Rebellion offered a wild and chaotic expression of rejection, but did not find a positive articulation outside the technocratic schemes of tweaking city budgets. The practices of mutual aid that have arisen around Covid have some promise, but most are simply charity, which tends not to empower anyone except for middle-class social workers, which the US left has far too many and is really a subject position that needs to be abolished. Movements of the future will have to do better. The one thing that’s for sure is the United States is finally getting politics that reflect the chaos of our daily lives. I can’t see things getting any less turbulent any time soon.
(All photos for this interview are creative commons issued and sourced from Wikipedia. Author photo provided by Jarrod Shanahan)