Amidst an ongoing anti-racist uprising of unprecedented size and militancy, the US presidential election is approaching. The rebellion and its popular support must respond by seizing the streets on their own terms. This article was first published by Section 44, a journal of Texas Marxism.
Will the BLM Summer continue through the election cycle? This is the question one way or another on the minds of millions. A new Pew Research Center survey seems to point to a 12 percentage point decline in support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, despite holding onto a majority. On the minds of thousands of activists in left-wing and progressive organisations and labour unions across the US must be, if it is not already, how the movement can defend the mandate it has won and advance further.
At least one reason that support for street action is declining is because electoral politics dominate the news cycle. But the media have made it sound like the era of BLM is over and it is time for respectable and civil discourse, and some activists have bought this bait. But November’s contest is not our last line of defence against Trump and fascism. Nor has the pandemic made organising and bold political offensives impossible. If any of this were true, the events of just the last few weeks – the athletes’ strikes, the teachers’ protests against in-person school re-openings, and the unbroken determination of activists to hold the streets in the face of continued police killings all summer – could not have taken place. What we are witnessing is not the decline of the left but a polarisation of society at the top and bottom.
It is also the case, historically, that elections have done more than take the wind out of the sails of left-wing protest movements (the anti-war movement is a case in point) – when they haven’t outright disciplined them. As long as the danger of electing an even worse candidate looms large, the Democrats will finger-wag the left into the politics of respectability. This is the central contradiction of the moment, though: the people whom the Democrats could not activate into electoral activity are the very people who are in the streets standing up to the cops and in the schools standing up to the politicians who demand that life and limb be risked in the service of the economy. This activity has the possibility of demanding more than the elections offer – and it is not a foregone conclusion who will win.
BLM is a theory of race and class set in motion. BLM has opened up a period of abolitionist rebellion in the United States and inspired activists across the world to challenge racist police authority. Alongside this development, Generation Z loudly proclaims its dispositional anti-capitalism from every corner of the globe. There is no understanding one without the other. The summer’s pitched street battles in defence of Black life are not only teaching the labour movement why it exists but an entire generation, as well, what a real revolution will require and that it will indisputably carry the abolitionist standard. No matter how just the demand or simple the reform, the agents of the state have blocked every attempt by activists to make genuine change; nothing short of a complete upending of the criminal justice system will do. The demand for preserving and protecting Black life stands now as a clearly revolutionary demand.
Black liberation is the beating heart of class struggle and all socialist potential in the US. The movement sparked by the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 gave the US labour movement its second wind, Bernie Sanders found a national audience willing to listen, and socialism went from being a curse word to a commonplace label. The explosion of Covid-19 brought the issues of race, class, police, and pandemic into clearer relation. The police are tasked with the job of enforcing social distancing (a job which they are neither qualified for nor capable of), and the consequences are that Black people and the poor are caught in a perilous position. Everywhere the epidemic of police killings continues unabated, and the pandemic strikes down people without access to testing or meaningful and adequate health care.
This year’s BLM Summer has marked another historical break. Under a Black and LGBTQ leadership, young, working-class people of all identities poured onto the streets in their tens of millions following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. They did so at personal risk during the pandemic to protest, fight the police, set fire to their precincts, and take back from the looters what was first taken from them. We can also definitively say that the rebellion in the streets has transformed the labour movement decisively and offered it a clear example with which to explore its power. Since 1 March, workers have fought back in over one thousand strikes across the United States. The labour movement has much further to go, but workers organising on their own have not stopped fighting, nor, heroically, has the heart of the rebellion stopped beating in the streets, over one hundred days and counting.
Surrounding the movement, however, are unspeakable dangers. If the uprising and its radiation worldwide are the culmination of a two-year sequence of international revolts stretching from Puerto Rico to Hong Kong, Trump’s tenure reflects a chilling, global pattern of far-right and neo-fascist success at securing state power and utilising it in brutal ways against activists. Yet the uprising has demonstrated how this pattern can be broken. The initiative and audacity of the rebellion, within weeks, split the white population and the ruling class. Trump couldn’t use the army against it. He tried, but the generals ignored him, fearing the integrity of their command structure among the multiracial rank-and-file. When he turned to federal agents and the marshals out of desperation, he was embarrassed again when popular resistance, including from ‘momtifa’ and veterans groups, rebuffed them. His re-election campaign, as a result, has been a confused sequence of desperate gambles as his familiar dose of white supremacy has done little to buoy his poll numbers (or his supporters’ boats at the bottom of Lake Travis). If Biden is hanging onto his national polling leads against Trump, he can thank the movement he’s now openly pledging to crush.
November’s ballots in and of themselves will not determine whether US society and the state turn fascist. The process is more complex. As the elections have drawn closer, they’ve cast a shadow over the summer’s momentum and the fascists are using it as an opportunity to regroup. White supremacist militias are growing, and their attacks grow bloodier and more frequent. They want a civil war, and it’s looking increasingly likely they may get one. It’s impossible to overstate the grave and immediate threat these forces pose to everything dear to the oppressed, working people and the left – including their lives. Fascists can exploit electoral victories, but they reproduce themselves primarily with the same tools that built the US state only in modern form: intense, organised violence and mass intimidation. These elements give them the potential leverage and flexibility to rule indirectly behind the scenes, or even be appointed by their opponents to rule directly. Votes are not the source of their power – it was not Hitler’s, it was not Mussolini’s; in some ways, it’s misleading to say it’s been Trump’s, who lost by two million votes in 2016 and may very well do so in 2020, all with the same and worse result. Their growing core is obscenely armed and their soft support in US society far from trivial in size, but they still remain massively outnumbered. Our advantage, however, exists only insofar as it’s demonstrated: combining the BLM Summer’s popular support with mass anti-racist, anti-sexist organisation and physical resistance in order to repel fascist attacks on demonstrations as well as everything necessary to wipe them off the streets. What Portland and Kenosha have shown the world is just how far the fascists are willing to go, and how deeply their influence runs in the various law enforcement agencies. What they have also shown is that popular antifascist resistance works.
The US state is enormous and divided on the direction it wants to go. Trump and a layer of apparatuses including the Department of Justice (commanding the marshals) and the Department of Homeland Security (controlling ICE and CBP) are interested in reorganising the state on a fascist model. Other bureaucracies and mainstays of the federal administration, as well as the army, have not yet been won to this agenda. Divisions in the state show how developed the opposition in the ruling class is to Trump’s administration, which have reaped heaping profits under his rule but have more criteria for state management – particularly the stability of its state institutions and preserving conditions for long-term accumulation in and beyond its borders. While the mainstay of Trump’s support in the ruling class has remained in manufacturing, construction, agribusiness, transportation and the energy industries, many of their leaders (save in oil and real-estate) are willing to tolerate his departure and are not fighting presently to keep him. Biden retains enthusiastic support from financial, telecommunications, health, consulting and legal industries, if not quiet support from other blocs. The Biden-Harris ticket, in turn, has behind itself a different section of the state (and a majority of the ruling class, if donors are an indicator) including: municipal governments in red states, health and human services bureaucracies, much of the foreign policy apparatus, the financial sectors of the state, and the military leadership. These bureaucratic wings are more responsible for stewarding US imperialism, directly ensuring corporate profitability, particularly abroad, and work more closely with the core of the ruling class than do the state’s fascist-trained death-squads, whose responsibilities are more removed and autonomous.
This makes his armed followers in and outside the state as well as Trump no less dangerous: his most visible re-election platform has been the destruction of the postal service and disorganising the election. Even if he loses, he will leave behind a constituency that is openly contemptuous of democratic institutions and grows increasingly violent. And at present, there are no sure signs that the efforts of Trump’s ruling-class opposition to discredit him via its media wings and publishing arms will be enough against the damage he’s already done. If Trump has yet to find a purpose for the militias, it is because the size of the US repressive apparatus is so massive. Trump did not need a paramilitary force to murder the anti-fascist activist, Michael Forest Reinoehl. Extra-judicial murder and state-sanctioned assassination are well within the repertoire of the US marshals and the Portland Police Bureau. There is nothing here that is not a source of alarm.
If Trump secures a second term, we can expect a vicious offensive against the left coming from the state as well as the militias. The latter will take strong encouragement from an imagined mandate and polarise against institutions (e.g. state governments, municipal authorities, some federal bureaucracies or a Democratically-controlled congress etc.) that are seen to offer any resistance to Trump’s agenda and its own. The administration’s inability to resolve any of the crises confronting the ruling class (falling rates of profit, imperialism, the pandemic, climate change) will be matched with more horrendous assaults on African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people and the wider conditions of the working class. The vagaries of Trump’s imperialist agenda nearly began the year with an unthinkably monstrous war and a second term will leave none of these ghastly possibilities behind nor his intensifying drone warfare and sabre rattling against China. However long a second term might last, it will be incredibly dangerous and volatile. Breaking such an administration will demand another round of pitched social explosions, absorbing the experience of previous ones with deeper organisation and greater participation from the labour movement in particular.
A Biden-Harris administration might understandably bring immediate sighs of relief. But it will confront the same crises and resolve them with little more success. Its approach to the pandemic will be serious and technically astute but guided fundamentally by the same principle as Trump’s: profitability. It will offer a centre-right program of austerity and repression, both within and beyond its borders, and it will by no means entail Trump’s departure from national politics (it could facilitate his return or worse); the fascist militias could polarise against the federal government, develop their collaboration with law-enforcement and continue to expand their infrastructure and membership from the crises that Biden-Harris are ill-equipped to solve. Even as the West Coast, under Democratic leadership, burns, they still refuse to champion any meaningful climate agenda. The inevitable resurgences of #MeToo and BLM will be made mortal enemies of an administration led by a sexual assaulter and a prosecutor, who have already signalled their willingness to suppress and repress activists in the streets. The social struggles that inspired us the most under Trump will face strong pressures to subordinate themselves to Democratic electoral fortunes and be slandered as a fifth column as soon as they offer an agenda of their own. In either administration, the new gains set by the BLM Summer will have to be built upon and advanced, met and surpassed.
Having torn down statues of butchers and slave holders, held autonomous territory in the heart of city centres and burned entire police precincts to the ground, the BLM movement still retains its grip on the imagination of the world and is still more popular than any candidate running for president. Those with their hearts set on a protest vote should write-in, as the closest thing we have to an independent vehicle, ‘Black Lives Matter’ as their candidate, during an election that the BLM Summer has done so much to shape and in which the ballot lines couldn’t be more opposed to its promises of universal liberation.
It’s under this movement’s banner that we must seize the streets on 4 November [the day after the Presidential election], no matter what happens through November and January. If Trump appears ascendant, the fascists and far right cannot be allowed to claim any mandate. Dozens of national organisations, veterans from the colossal Women’s March of 2017, are making preparations in this event and the Left should be positioning itself to push these further than the anti-Trump movement has ever gone, especially should the Democratic leadership begin to give up quickly or refuse to fight at all, just as they did four years ago (and once before in 2000). If electoral fortunes do turn for Biden, the fascists and far right must be immediately and physically denied the banner of democracy and any claim to being a ‘silenced majority.’ Many of the established organisations of the so-called ‘#Resistance’ will feel less compulsion to demonstrate their mandate on the streets should Biden prevail, but they must be pressured to do so to demoralise the right and, whether they like it or not, continue BLM. In this event, our side must all the same on 4 November, seize the streets in all of our numbers and on a simple principle: the fascists first, and whoever wins in November next.