Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

[Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago IL: Haymarket Books, 2016.]

If you are on the left, you have probably encountered some version of what has become a pretty standard account of the history between the end of the Second World War and the present. It follows the social democratic compromise between capital and labour after the war, the rise of the welfare state in conjunction with unprecedented (if nowhere close to evenly distributed) prosperity in Western countries over the subsequent two decades, the capitalist crisis of the early 1970s, and then the rise of the neoliberal assault on all of those gains that continues today.

It's a useful history. It captures a lot about what matters, a lot about what has changed, and a lot about the growing precarity and violence organized into people's lives over the last few decades. But this fairly standard marxist approach leaves a lot out as well, along a lot of different axes. For instance, it often fails to capture how the uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s were a reaction to multiple forms of exclusion from access to the growing wellbeing of the post-war years. Or you can read Vijay Prashad's The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations as a re-engagement with that history centering the nations of the Global South during the heady promise of the end of formal colonization and subsequent reimposition of obedience via the neoliberal model. Or there was an observation I saw just the other day on Twitter from Vancouver-based migrant justice organizer Harsha Walia noting how conventional accounts of neoliberlism so often ignore how the weakening of the state's ability to redistribute and regulate is integrally tied to strengthening carceral and punitive state power.

Which brings me to this book: It's not the book's explicit goal, but some of it can be read as a re-telling of bits of that history in a way that centres African Americans. The whole book is an exploration in the US context of the intertiwining of white supremacy (particularly anti-Blackness) and capitalism, with lots of attention to how both racial oppression and Black resistance shifted over that time. So during the uprisings of the 1960s, Black struggle, in all of its militant diversity, "pushed mainstream politics to the left" (45) and opened space for thinking about poverty, racism, and anti-Black oppression in terms of systemic injustice rather than in the racist terms of personal and cultural inferiority. In the 1970s, the fading of street-level militance and the elite counter-offensive closed this space in the white-dominated mainstream, amplified law-and-order politics, and reconfigured white supremacy around the colourblind logic that dominates in North America today. In particular, Taylor explores the profound shifts that Black politics underwent between the civil rights era and today, with attention to the shift in emphasis from mass street-based politics to focusing on electoral victories by Black politicians. As understable as that change was given the context, Taylor shows how the dramatic increase in Black people holding elected positions over those decades has accomplished certain kinds of things but has had a limited impact on the central issues in the lives of poor and working-class Black communities, due to how the electoral system and the state more broadly work, and how that has also been part of fundamentally reconfiguring the landscape upon which the Black freedom struggle operates today. The book then zooms in on the justice system and questions of mass incarceration of Black and brown people. It talks in a more focused way about the Obama years and the profound limits on what the now-mainstream Black political establishment can accomplish, again principally in terms of core concerns for poor and working-class Black communities. Then there is a chapter about the Black Lives Matter movement to that point, and finally a chapter outlining Taylor's vision for moving forward with a politics that fully integrates anti-capitalism and opposition to white supremacy and to anti-Blackness.

The most valuable part of this book for me is its engagement with history. There were bits and pieces that weren't new to me, but many more that were, and I learned a lot from its reformulation of some elements of 20th century history. I also really value its account of African American struggles in the decades after the 1960s, which is something that those of us who are connected to movements but are not part of those communities don't necessarily know much about. For all that I'm reading this in the Canadian context, and the shape and historical trajectory of anti-Blackness isn't the same here – the next book I plan on reviewing will likely talk about that a bit – I still think this was a worthwhile read for me. After all, the Black freedom struggle has in some sense been the core of overall movement momentum in the US for a long time, and struggle in the US often circulates in significant ways to the Canadian context. So this feels quite relevant to me, here.

As I said at the start, one of the core goals of the book is to show how we need an analysis and a political practice that integrates anti-capitalism and anti-racism. This isn't a new idea, but it is an important one, and I think that it is very timely to be forcefully arguing for it. In the last couple of years, electoral dynamics in the United States have created a toxic and to my mind entirely unnecessary polarization between those two – I think because of a mix of deliberate efforts to do so by neoliberal forces in and around the Democratic Party as part of fending off challenges from the left, but also because of a lot of really boneheaded moves by said left, including bad choices around race politics by prominent figures and initiatives like the Sanders campaign, as well as the growing embrace by a subset of both socialist and anarchist grassroots anti-capitalists of politics that, when unpacked, boil down to a form of class reductionism. Taylor is very emphatic that this is not inevitable – anti-capitalism is not at all inherently class reductionist – but in a lot of instances when it is white-dominated anti-capitalist groups, that is what happens.

That said, I was a bit disappointed in the book's final chapter, which serves as a sort of manifesto and vision for working towards the promise of the book's title. Like I said, I think the book's vision for a politics integrating anti-capitalism and anti-racism is important and timely, but its articulation in the final chapter felt kind of closed, perhaps even a bit doctrinaire. I know there are other approaches to understanding and resisting white supremacy and anti-Blackness that are radical or revolutionary in character, and other ways of thinking about how fighting capital and white supremacy have to go together, that are not the same as what is articulated in this book. And the final chapter feels a bit dismissive of all of that. Admittedly, some of my discomfort may just be about differences in political sensibility – it has always made the most sense to me to engage generously with a range of political traditions, and take up what's useful to you while doing your best to be able to learn from and work with the rest. So I think things like the critical and radical scholarly work on white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and on efforts to resist them, that are being articulated in academic spaces and are not necessarily quite as grounded in struggle on the ground as this book are still really important and still things that I want to learn from, and that I want the movements I'm in to learn from. And I know that there are some quite different approaches to thinking about and working against anti-Blackness that come from quite a different place, that are (among other things) often quite a bit more skeptical about working in coalition, and I don't think our movements can afford to not engage seriously with those approaches.

To put it all a bit more sharply, I think white anti-capitalists need to be careful how we read and mobilize this book. Definitely I think we should be using it to counter the toxic polarization that is trying to tell people that anti-capitalism and anti-racism are incompatible. But we should resolutely refuse to use this book to evade anti-racist critiques of how instances of white-dominated anti-capitalist organizing are happening, right now, on the ground – these critiques are not always going to use left language, and that doesn't mean we should just dismiss them. And we should not be using it to dismiss or to justify not seriously engaging with other forms of radical and revolutionary anti-racism that don't happen to fit as easily with our already-existing anti-capitalist politics.

So, yeah...this is a very useful book that I think should be widely read. I hope we can let its engagement with history transform our understanding of the last half century and inform our political choices in movements today, but I hope that white anti-capitalists in particular deploy it with political care and respect and don't use it as an excuse to close ourselves off in various ways.

For a video version of this review that is a bit less detailed than the written version, check this out:

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

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