“We have a duty to fight for our freedom. We have a duty to win.”
– Assata Shakur
Watching the endless footage of police murders of black and brown people can take a tremendous psychic toll. Already traumatized by the carnage, people of color and anti-racists risk slipping further into despair with each shattered body that flashes across their screens. That feeling of hopelessness—the sense that racism is inevitable, that we are doomed to spend our lives in the clutches of white supremacy—has political implications, as well. Among other things, such a perspective can cause would-be activists to lose faith in the possibilities of meaningful social change.
One function of state violence under racial capitalism is to suppress the most exploited and potentially rebellious elements of society. And few instruments of suppression are as effective as mass despair. Police, the violent arm of the ruling apparatus, exist mainly to insulate the dominant order. (“Law enforcement,” in the strictest sense of the phrase, is an almost ancillary task.) Thus it is necessary for police to both intimidate and demoralize surplus populations, or those people that capitalism has deemed disposable.
This is why Black Lives Matter and other grassroots movements have encountered such intense repression. The tanks, the semiautomatic weapons, the riot gear—all the trappings of authoritarianism arrayed against protesters testify to the deep fear of popular dissent on the part of governing elites. What is especially terrifying to the establishment is the sheer élan of street action. The spirit of revolt is contagious. And the growing audacity of Black Lives Matter demonstrations threatens to spread to other oppressed groups, precipitating a mass rising—a general strike—that exposes once and for all the cowardice and vulnerability of the organized defense of capital.
The problem for the forces of repression in this country is the same problem faced by all colonialist occupiers throughout history; the more inhabitants of the native quarter they maim and kill, the more unruly the subjugated population becomes. Each new attempt to instill fear (with fists, batons, tear gas, bullets) elicits greater defiance. If enough people become sufficiently alienated from the status quo, while confidence in the capacity of the masses to force change from below grows, then something remarkable happens: the inevitability of the reigning order melts away and a potentially revolutionary situation takes hold.
No one knows whether such circumstances will emerge in the U.S. But there are promising signs. Long-festering resentment against corporate greed and massive inequality is generating popular resistance, from the “Fight for 15” minimum wage crusade to the recent Verizon strike. These and other campaigns must be understood as part of a growing call for a new social contract, rather than as isolated battles for incremental gains. The grassroots Bernie Sanders movement is another manifestation of this underlying discontent. Though Sanders appears to have capitulated to the neoliberal machinery of the Democratic Party, a large swath of his supporters refuse to do so. They remain a galvanized mass, estranged from the duopoly of American electoral politics and hungry for alternatives.
A glance beyond the continental U.S. offers more evidence that a potentially transformative shift is underway. Taken collectively, sovereignty battles in Puerto Rico, educational and social justice movements in Oaxaca and South Africa, and anti-austerity revolts in France and other parts of Europe may signal the coming of a new age of rebellion. Though racism and xenophobia furnished much of the impetus for Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, both projects draw on populist rage against oligarchy and its relentless assault on the economic security of the working class. Ironically, rapacious globalization is the source of both the refugee crisis and many of the social anxieties of nativist workers.
Let’s be clear. What we are witnessing are insurgencies on the right and the left—a rising tide of racism as well as a groundswell of anger against predatory capitalism. Far too often, the two seem to overlap. But there is cause for optimism. Ordinary people are being politicized. They are proving far more intractable than their rulers assumed them to be. They are refusing to remain within the bounds of permissible politics. Some are developing an awareness of themselves as historical actors. As their consciousness awakens, they will likely intensify demands for a reorganization of modern life.
What is the role of the radical thinker in such restless times? First, we must seek analytical clarity. In the U.S., for example, we must reject the notion that a choice between neo-fascism (Trump) and multicultural neoliberalism (Hillary) constitutes an acceptable range of democratic possibilities. At the very least, democracy requires the dismantling of a system that degrades black and brown life, punishes workers, and defiles the planet. Second, we must keep the faith. While we need sober assessment of reality, we must continue to believe that another world is possible and that popular self-activity can lead to transformation.
Finally, we need revolutionary optimism. As our grassroots movements mature, and as we attempt to deepen their antisystemic elements, we must combat resignation and nihilism. Perhaps we have not yet entered a revolutionary moment. The struggle is no less exhilarating. Let us not be paralyzed by hopelessness. Let us not squander this momentum. If the old order remains intact, at least “Global 2016” has already offered a collective defense of the radical imagination.