by Anthony Bogues
We live in an extraordinary moment. One in which many cross currents tussle for sustained dominance. A moment when armed white supremacy groups make attempts to take over state legislative offices in states like Michigan. One in which the science of contagion is in battle with a myopic individualism in which the wearing of a mask for medical protection becomes a signifier for a political symbolic battle around hegemony. All of this occurs in a moment when there is a historic pandemic, one which should make us as human species reflect on our contemporary ways of life. A pandemic which exposed the structures of the American health system where race and class determine those who will survive and live and those who disproportionately die. In the midst of this crisis, in which lockdowns and shelter in place were every day practices, we witnessed one of the most significant global protests that the world has seen for some time. The protests upended many commentators, shattered many conventional wisdoms about politics and at least for a time punctured the everyday normal many of us had become accustomed to. So what was at the root of this upsurge? And what are its significances? And, therefore, how might we understand it?
In the epigraph to the first chapter of Black Reconstruction (1935), WEB Du Bois writes about “How black men, coming to America … became a central thread to the history of the United States, at once a challenge to its democracy and always an important part of its economic history and social development.” That challenge has historically been the touchstone for both American democracy and its civilization. Racial slavery was a cornerstone of capitalism. It is not that racial slavery laid the foundation for capitalism; rather racial slavery, the plantation slave economy, the African slave trade were themselves practices of capitalism. At the core of the inauguration of capitalism was not the factory system with its wage labor but the slave plantation, unfree labor and a network of credit and debt arrangements. In Debt: The First 5000 years (2011), David Graeber points out how the Atlantic slave trade depended upon a system of debts and credits. Within this system emerged various institutions we now associate with capitalism from bond markets to brokerage houses. There was also the emergence of major companies whose chief functions were linked to slave trade, financing plantations and other aspects of the European colonial project. Here one can refer amongst others to the Dutch West India Company, the French Société de Guinée, and of course, the Royal African Company of England. At the core of what historian Catherine Hall calls this “slavery business” was the African captive who became an enslaved person. The late African American theorist Cedric Robinson called this historical process “racial capitalism.”
The enslaved body as the Caribbean historian Elsa Goveia said was “property in person.” It was a body that produced commodities while it was commodified. The black female enslaved body reproduced this commodification process three times over, as a body producing commodity, while being a commodity and then through sexual violence a reproductive body of enslaved labor. The plantation was a site of generative violence of commodification. Capitalism was inaugurated through the various violences enacted upon the enslaved black body. Exploitation was established upon the foundation of unfree labor. That is the history of capitalism: not a stages theory of transition of societies from one mode of production to another, but rather a historical process of generative violence upon the bodies of the African enslaved. In such a history the body is not secondary, it is the source of the methods, the several ways, of practices which turn the human into an enslaved dehumanized thing. Creating such a historical process, the colonial and planter power needed to construct forms of life, ways of thinking, construct modes of being human that would at least for a time guarantee the full reproduction of a society. To put this another way: exploitation requires forms of domination and the latter requires ideas and practices which the dominant elite and others accepts. This is about the manufacturing of what Gramsci calls “commonsense,” a kind of naturalized underpinning of a society, an ideational glue which holds society together. In slave and colonial societies violence was regularized as a technique of rule because in such societies might was right. And while this was so these orders also ruled by a set of ideas and practices about who was human and who was not.
All nations we know are an “imagined community” and as such we search for what glues bind the nation together. In America, the glue that has bounded the society together is not the fiction of America as an idea, the exception of the “City on the Hill,” rather it has been anti-black racism. What Du Bois calls the “wages of whiteness” became the naturalized commonsense which structured the everyday practices of living. Anti-black racism, has a long history founded within the matrices of the generative violence of the African slave trade; elaborated in plantation slavery through a complex system of customs and legal codes. It was codified in human systems of classification promulgated by European natural historians in the 17th century, mapped by Christian doctrine whereby some human beings had souls and some not; and then, in the 19th century, recodified through the so-called scientific studies of skulls–phrenology–a pseudo-science of the study of the mind in which it was said that Africans were inferior because of the size of their skulls since the brain was located in the skull. And when science made it clear that there was no scientific basis for anti-black racism then culture became a terrain to explain the supposed inferiority of blackness.
So blackness as visual marker produces within the dominant commonsense the death of the black person. Black life becomes disposable, is a lack, has no interiority, it is locked upon itself. As a visual marker, the black body has no escape. Its public presence is an affront, it must be tamed, put back in its place. It must be not allowed to breathe, because breath is life and for the black body to breathe means it has life. This is not primarily an American phenomenon. The history of racial slavery in America, the inauguration of Jim Crow and formal segregation, given the imperial power of America on the world stage created the illusion that there was a special American race problem. Of course, all societies have their own historical specificities, but anti-black racism was not an American feature alone. What Du Bois called the “color line” was embedded in the world because racial slavery and colonialism were parts of a global system which ruled much of the world from the 15th century Columbian voyages onwards. The anti-black racism of European colonial powers drew from racial theories created in America, the Caribbean, the historical encounters between Europe and Africa. South African apartheid drew some of its resources from the structures and practices of American Jim Crow. In all this the black body was the disposable surplus; not the other but the irremediable non-other, that which could not be fully included into the body politic of the given nation. Such an irremediable body, always on the outside, challenges the very meaning of democracy itself. It is why struggles around anti-black racism shake the society, indeed call Western civilization into question.
If we agree historically that the foundation of the capitalist West was racial slavery and colonialism and the accompanying genocide and attempted genocide of the indigenous populations, then what we are witnessing today are the challenges to this foundation. Capitalism is not just an abstract economic system as Marx made clear long ago when he noted that economic relationships are always between people. To rule, to be able to reproduce itself, any social system creates ways of living, modes of being human as it is then understood. Historically and in the present, anti-black racism and the creation of whiteness, of white supremacy was both a way of life and a signifier of being human. It is not just an ideological belief but rather a naturalized commonsense which in many ways functions like a fantasy, one which has material life and consequences. Commonsense as well in part is constructed by the historical understandings of a society about itself. We are, as humans, historical beings that make sense of ourselves through memories of the past. We take from that past to make the self. In societies where the past has been a historical catastrophe, where regularized violence operated as “power in the flesh” making the “human superfluous,” that past becomes a critical way to establish the grounds for inhumane ways of life. America’s unwillingness to confront the fact that it was a slave society since its founding as a British colony; that practices of settler colonialism wreaked havoc on the indigenous population; Europe’s unwillingness to confront its own history as multiple colonial powers now provides a dominant commonsense which structures the present. Yet as the poet and thinker Aimé Césaire noted in 1955: “Between the colonizer and the colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops … no human contact, but relations of domination and submission.” This history is elided by European countries. It is a history made visible through the various pacification campaigns, the genocide of the Herero people in Namibia and regular cutting off of the hands of the Congolese people. A history codified through forms of rule which created the African subject into a native and turned various African social and political formations into tribes. However, history lives in the present and becomes memorialized into the public landscapes of monuments. Monuments are an encoded system of public signs which enact meanings in the public domain. So when the Black Lives Matter Movement and those activated by it demand the removal of monuments, they are engaged in a move of symbolic insurgency to get rid of the public landscapes of the everyday historical monumentalization in the present. This happens in America, in South Africa, the UK. And continental Europe cannot escape the fire this time.
So here we are. For over a month there has been in America the single largest protests in America’s history. These protests were ignited by the public lynching of George Floyd who cried out “I can’t breathe,” before being murdered and then died with the words “Mama” on his lips. In that modern lynching scene, for nearly 9 minutes we witnessed the meaning of anti-black racism. Yes, it was the police man who kneeled down on his back and neck. Yes, the American police force were operating like modern day slave catchers. But there was something else and that something else was the casual nonchalance, the non-recognition that Floyd was human. It was the nonchalance that Floyd was just another disposable black body. The daily confrontation between black men and increasingly black women with the police is the nodal point where anti-black racism is most visible. In this nodal point there is no pretense. State authority expresses itself, that might be right, that black life does not matter. This is so in Brazil, in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, America or indeed in parts of Africa. Here ordinary black life does not matter.
After the death of Trayvon Martin, in 2013, a group of black feminists, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, formed the organization which became known as “Black Lives Matter.” Today the name of the organization has become a political banner igniting the political imagination of both black and white around the world. There is a rich historical current in which black revolts / uprisings have catalyzed various struggles around the world. In the 19th century the dual Haitian revolution inspired Greek anti-colonial figures fighting against the Ottoman Empire when some of them wrote to the Haitian government requesting arms and political support. We recall how what was then called “Negro Revolt”, the black uprisings in the 1960’s, influenced feminist and the anti-war movements around the world. In all this the African American spiritual “We shall overcome” became a clarion political message of many movements. So why, might we ask, does Black Lives Matter at this moment become transformed into a catalytic political banner, one which has engaged the political imagination of thousands? I return to Du Bois.
Racial slavery was the foundation of America and, I would argue, of the making of the modern world. As a form of domination its very core was the double and triple commodification process I addressed earlier. It was about making non-human another human being. As a generative historical process, it lasted for centuries. That is a special form of domination which not only required violence but creating another kind of human being, one who would be surplus and disposable. It also created the conditions for Black struggle to be catalytic, a point the Caribbean historian and radical thinker CLR James made in 1948, when living underground in the USA in the 1940’s he noted in a seminal essay “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States that “this independent Negro Movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation.” Black Lives Matter became a political banner because it challenges continued racial domination, its deep rooted legacies and consequences. It says we are human. It demands that as human the society should be transformed to create new ways of living. It not only therefore exposes police brutality but calls to order the entire historical foundation on which Western civilization rests, which is why getting rid of the historical monuments which venerate the West has become so crucial. While being part of a historic black liberation tradition, BLM political organizational methods have enacted critiques about Black masculinity. Given all this, Black Lives Matter as a political banner is world historic. And here the reader might pause and wonder why? Let us return to the making of the modern world; to the ways in which anti-black racism continues in the after-lives of racial slavery to dominate black life and has done so for centuries. So when there are sustained protests against the institutional and everyday forms of anti- black racism and this happens on the global stage. Is this not world historic? The current global protests are world historic because they confront the entire panoply and edifice that built the modern world. They are also world historic because they posit different methods of political organizing which breaks from previous forms of radical black movements. When the movement demands that monuments which invoke the past that undergirds the present must fall, it draws from the earlier struggles of South African students and the Rhodes Must Fall Movement. It demands abolition, making the word capacious, creating a new political language not just about abolishing prisons but demanding the opening of a new space, invoking the radical imagination to think of new ways of life. If many social and political radical movements have paid attention only to the state and the economy as structures of the present, Black Lives Matter is attentive to the history of the structures and their underlying assumptions and commonsense.
We are indeed in a new moment. Some say this moment feels different in part because the world wide protests have been multiracial, as the image of a lone white woman sitting on the sidewalk in a rural American town with a sign which reads “Black Lives Matter” illuminates. But perhaps what is most different about this moment is that for the first time in a world governed by neoliberalism, one in which as Stuart Hall and Alan O’ Shea put it, there is a neo-liberal commonsense, we are witnessing an uprising which challenges a foundational element of that commonsense. A commonsense in which anti-black racism has been a glue for the American body politic. This is an uprising of the radical imagination which demands abolishing the reproductive structures of the making of the modern world. However, as Stuart Hall makes clear in his work, commonsense is a contested terrain, In every major uprising where elements of the dominant order have been challenged, power when it cannot defeat immediately or ignore the uprising attempts to coopt, to integrate signs and symbols of the upsurge into the dominant thereby gutting them. So the response of many American corporations has been to proclaim support for Black Lives Matter, not the movement but to appropriate the banner turning it into a slogan. So when Amazon proclaimed on its website at the height of the protests that Black Lives Matter it was responding to a popular upsurge it could not ignore. Amazon’s practice was one of appropriation. One of the remarkable features of American power is its ability to quickly gobble up what begins outside of the body politic and then rework it into a hegemony without fundamental changes occurring. This is one aspect of the present moment.
We end where we began, with Du Bois and Black Reconstruction.
In 1935, Du Bois identified in Black Reconstruction a form of politics he called “abolition democracy.” It was, he argued, the necessary radical political framework if the transformation of America was going to occur after the civil war. For Du Bois, “abolition democracy” in his words “pushed towards the dictatorship of Labor”. By then Du Bois in the most radical phase of his intellectual / activist life. Eighty-five years later the black radical imagination has reworked abolition into a demand for new ways of life dismantling the structures which inaugurated the modern world. Fundamental change may not come and at the time of writing this piece, things can be said to be in flux and for sure a revolution is not around the corner. But historically, fundamental change requires the work of the radical imagination, the thinking that a new form of human life is possible. The global Black Lives Matter protests have opened that space. That is its remarkable significance for the current moment.
Anthony Bogues is Asa Messer Professor of Humanities at Brown university where he is the inaugural director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. He is also a curator.