Reflection on a decade of New Afrikan Movement #3 The Contradictions That Birthed The Movement Pt 1: The Weight of Empire

Mar 01, 2024

The Deep Context In Which The Movement For Black Lives Arose

In our previous article, we outlined our belief that movements need to resolve the social contradictions that birthed them or they are destined to be defined by how society responds to those contradictions. Thus, before we dive into the specifics of what happened in the BLM movement, we need to get a firm handle of the contradictions that birthed it. 


As we stated in our article on the three crises, we agree with the assessment of James and Grace-Lee Boggs about the central contradiction of U.S society. We believe that the central contradiction of U.S society is between our material overdevelopment and our spiritual, cultural, social and political underdevelopment


In other words we are really good at extracting things from the earth and each other to make tons and tons of widgets but we are really bad at making rational, ethical and collective decisions about what to make, how to make it, how to distribute what we made and how to relate to each other and the earth as we make it. This leads to massive inequality that requires increasing investments into systems of control. This ultimately results into three distinct but interrelated crises: the crisis of belonging, the crisis of unacknowledged history and the crisis of social reproduction. 


Its important to understand that this contradiction was pretty much baked into U.S society from the get go. The vast majority of the Europeans who settled North America were never content to stay within the initial settlements they started. This need to expand that the U.S would come to euphemistically refer to as “manifest destiny” is an imperial idea. That is to say, its the thinking of a society that desires to be an empire. Manifest destiny screams that we deserve and are in fact destined to have more than we physically need. As Willaim Appleman Willaims writes in his book  Empire As A Way Of Life, the fact that the U.S way of life has always been predicated on Empire and has had profound consequences on our development.


“The empire as a territory and as activities dominated economically, politically, and psychologically by a superior power is the result of empire as a way of life. This is particularly important in the case of the United States because from the beginning the persuasiveness of empire as a way of life effectively closed off other ways of dealing with the reality that American encountered.” (pg 13)

 We are over developed materially because we have prioritized empire consistently as a society. Empire has shaped the way that the U.S makes the vast majority of its major social decisions. As Willaims later goes on to say “Empire as a way of life is predicated on having more than one needs.” (pg 34) Americans love big things often irrespective of the quality. We want more regardless of the social or environmental cost. 


Here we are defining Empire as a set of social relationships in which one society maintains a social situation that allows them to have more resources than they physically need by dominating and extracting resources from a wide variety of other societies over a vast territory. Basically, an empire is a society which experiences luxury for at least a small segment of society from the forceful deprivations of other’s basic needs.


 In an important sense, the logic of empire is merely the logic of capital employed on a larger, typically global scale. As you may remember from previous posts, the logic of capital is a social relationship between the people who own the land, factories and equipment (the means of production) and the people who own nothing but their own labor. Fundamental to this social relationship is the idea that the person who owns the machine that makes the thing owns the thing made - rather than the person who actually does the making. 


Empire extends this logic by saying that the more powerful society is entitled to preferential access to the land, culture and labor of a weaker society. Imperial logic ensures that the dominated society can get resources cheaply, quickly and on demand regardless of the cost to people, culture or history of the dominated society.

When we say the U.S is an empire we mean that it is a society predicated on having more resources than it physically needs and does so by dominating other societies it encounters. 


We have often justified getting more through violence whether it was through enslaving Africans for free labor or invading Hawaii on behalf of sugar barons. An aspect that makes the U.S remarkably different from previous empires is that we refuse to recognize ourselves as such. In the U.S our myth of being a nation of equality and peace means the actual violence we do leads to a deep social and psychological investment in forgetting how we got what we have. This organized forgetting is at the core of the crisis of unacknowledged history. We constantly steal from others and then forget that that was how we got nice things.  

A little history will go a long way into making that case. 


Thomas Jeferson is in many ways a clear illustration of this very American dynamic. He was by all accounts brilliant, supremely well read and industrious. He was a man of strong principles with an almost prophetic understanding of possibility (he did in fact help create a system of government that would sadly become the model for much of the world). He was also a moral coward of almost unfathomable proportions and a deeply ethically flawed person.


He had an ongoing sexual relationship with his wife’s relative who was also legally her property, an enslaved girl and eventual woman named Sally Hemmings. It is disingenuous to characterize a multi-year sexual relationship with a teenager your wife legally owns as anything other than serial rape whatever feelings of affection you may have held for each other. Jefferson then allowed his own children to suffer under the condition of slavery while he wrote about unalienable rights. 


This is one of the most twisted examples of crises of belonging (Jefferson wondering if his great-grandchildren will be white enough to be belong to America) stemming from a crisis of social reproduction (his unwillingness to give us the life southern gentleman-plantation owner in order to live in integrity with his own principles.) Our constant refusal to look this history in the eye is also a perfect example about the role unacknowledged history plays in maintaining the imperial contradiction.  


As Karen and Barbra Fields note in their book Racecraft, Jefferson did not do that lightly. Radicals in the U.S often try to make Jefferson into some sort of psychopathic monster but the reality is in many ways more complex, sadder and more uncomfortable. There is notable evidence in his personal letters that the conditions of his own enslaved children bothered him greatly. He was deeply conflicted about slavery and often contradicted himself from letter to letter.  


One can see in his mercurial, shifting, hand wringing position on the enslavement of human beings the kind of trauma that Resmaa Menakem might call white body trauma. Jefferson clearly goes from being highly emotionally agitated about enslavement to weirdly dissociated from it. Yet as crucial as it is to understand trauma, we must remember that enslavement was simultaneously somatic, material and cognitive. Jefferson and his ilk didn't just feel things about race, they wrote about it, legislated about it, built institutions of it and built real material wealth from it. 


It is also important to keep in mind as well that it was not the case that it was simply “how things were then” and considered normal. He and other founding fathers we often mocked quite openly by conservatives in Europe for talking about slavery and freedom in the same breath. He himself recognized that the institution of slavery was unnatural (which is why he blamed King George for it in the Declaration of Independence.)  He understood first hand, perhaps in ways even we might struggle to viscerally understand today how the institution of slavery makes the whole society based on it less humane. 


Jefferson was as internally conflicted, full of contradictions as the country he helped create. Freedom and empire, domination and co-creation clashed within him as they have throughout U.S history. The history of so-called democracy in America is the history of this intermingling of moral cowardice and imperial ambition coming into conflict with a more radical idea of democracy in which the “people” means all the people


Slave Democracies 


We really can’t fully understand the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement without understanding the way in which “freedom” and “democracy” have always been predicated on unfreedom and social control. 


For instance, Madisonian Democracy, the kind of democracy imagined by one the chief architects of the U.S constitution James Madison—places the rights of those who own profitable property (stolen, in all cases from indigenous people) as equal to all other human rights (such as life and liberty). It seeks to avoid land reform-the redistribution of property from the haves to have nots—at all costs. This is the foundational “democracy” on which the nation was based, the ideal recognized in modern day events like the citizens united supreme court decision. 


Jeffersonian democracy, based on a homesteader model that might be more egalitarian for white people, was still based on the conquest of indigenous land by a superior force that relied on enslaved Africans to power it. It was equally based on gendered labor arrangements of frontier wives whose subservient petty commodity production (producing things like food, soap and clothes) made life possible and allowed for an economy based on the exports of things like fur. 


Jacksonian democracy, also based on slavery, is a type of proto-fascism that seeks to extend property rights to all white men through sustained, government supported genocide and land theft of indigenous people and war against the other nations in the hemisphere. It sought to “democratize” universal white male suffrage through brutal conquest that would allow all white men to be homesteaders on their own plot of land.


The New Deal, was the first legislative postulation of democracy in American history that understood that economic democracy vs republicanism was also essential. Yet it was still predicated on exclusionary logic as well as the logic of capital. U.S citizens of African descent were often excluded from new deal policies. The resources for the new deal were also taken from our colonial ventures in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Philippines and other parts of the pacific. It was subsidized by the expropriation of thousands of acres of land owned by Japanese Americans forced into internment and expulsion of thousands of latino/a  citizens/resident workers. Ultimately, the program relied on war production, literal killing machines, in order to actually fully fund itself. 


The Great Society of LBJ was the first mainstream articulation of democracy written into policy in the U.S that actually meant all the people when it talked about government by the people and for the people. As progressive as the Great Society was, it was still fundamentally trying to distribute the loot of empire (it came during the Vietnam war and after years of interventions into Latin America on behalf of corporate interests).  Its programs would also be dismantled and privatized slowly over the next few decades.


In a way, American “democracy” is in ecocycle that escapes the poverty trap by stealing from other peoples. It escapes the rigidity trap by expanding its hierarchy. First it absorbs more people into whiteness and then, finally, when it has no other option, it allows the elite from other groups to find a place for themselves within its logic. This expansion of the hierarchy is always accompanied by an investment in its mechanisms for control. 


The goal of this internal logic is to ensure that the cycle of imperial accumulation continues. 


All these ideas of “democracy” are made possible through slavery and empire, just has the democracy of ancient Athens was or the republic of Rome. Athens, Rome and the U.S vested sovereignty of the state in the consent of this dominate class against the lack of consent of the poor, the femme, and the slave.


 They also shared that aristotelian belief in what it means to be human. That is to be human is to be in the polis (political socieity) for only gods and slaves could exist outside the polis. This is to say, these democracies were centered around the distribution of loot stolen from subservient people, women and conquered foreign peoples to a class of people who were considered not only the “real humans” but the basis for state sovereignty itself. 


Due to the imperial nature of this idea of democracy, the state requires well developed systems of coercion and control to keep the subject population (those female, enslaved and poor populations subjected to whims of the sovereign class) under control. Two of the most effective forms of control in this system have been the use of genrecraft (the creation of different types or genres of human within a hierarchy of worth) and loot from conquest recast as some token of our goodness. 


That is to say, the crisis of social reproduction that is at the heart of U.S imperialism has fed the crisis of belonging (through its investment in racism and other forms of genrecraft) and the crisis of unacknowledged history (through myth making about how “America’ got great”) 


As an example, in the pre-bellum south, while only a small population of people socialized as white were slave owners, nearly everyone raced as white was a slave master. In other words, every person raced as white was expected to observe and enforce the rules of the institution of slavery. Most people raced as white would have regularly been checking slave passes, reporting “misbehaving” or “underperforming” enslaved workers, and often renting out enslaved labor for smaller jobs. In the north workers of different races and ethnicities were played off each other. Ethnic tensions were used to obscure the race to lowest wages that only benefited the rich. Eventually the human genre of whiteness was introduced to these european ethnics to invite them into a deadly brotherhood against newly freed Africans seeking employment outside the south. 


The second mechanism of social control has always been the distribution of loot to the domestic population. In its most straightforward manifestation, this loot was the land stolen by frontier men and brought into the U.S system by military wars against indigenous people. Westward expansion created new lands that would allow for upward mobility for the poor European immigrants who came over as indentured servants. It created a sort of relief valve for class tensions, as poor populations started to demand better treatment and new territory would open up and they could simply go west and participate in the bloody process of “winning the west.”

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