We don’t know if the present protests in the United States will be over in days or weeks, or whether they are a first salvo in a build-up of anger or intentional agitation over months or longer, or whether the escalation, if there is any, will come from President Trump himself via a militarised police response carried forward as fuel to far-right reaction and a state of emergency. We don’t know whether predictions of revolt, civil war, collapse of the institutions or the break-up of the United States will come to pass.
We can say, however, that what has taken place in the United States in the last week of May and the first weeks of June 2020 is as profound a sign as we can get that liberal democracy itself is in question. It is being practically critiqued in US streets by protestors, looters and the forces of armed reaction. From right and left commentators there is consensus on this point as well, if on nothing else. This is a perfect storm of crises in interlocking systems that open out for all the world to see the guts of the beast that otherwise innocently calls itself liberal and democratic. It points to a profound crisis of legitimacy, not of one political agent or party, but of a system. Unlike other moments of political crisis, the challenge today to the received form of polity and governance is coming from both (radicalised) sides of the political divide.
In attempts to subvert the meaning and cast doubt on the causes of protest arising from the death of George Floyd, Trump and right-wing commentators have blamed nefarious forces and the political misdirection of youth. But this is so clearly a dissembling, self-serving gesture, underlined by Trump’s spectacular turn as bible-clutching prophet outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington. Whatever the involvement of groupings such as the left-wing Antifa, the protests are so general, and so determined, that the administration is either clutching at straws in this typification or preparing Americans for more violent tactics on its part, and justification for them.
It certainly does seem that something is new in the present circumstances. Unlike protests and violent outpourings of grief and anger over other black deaths in recent times, there is a scale, doggedness and some other level of intentionality about these protests. Anger, distress, disbelief are all prompts to protest, and there is a sense that people this time will protest come what may—it’s time, after so many other deaths, and so little action on changing police attitudes or those of other authorities. We are reminded poignantly over and over again in the testimonies of black Americans, and black Australians, of the everyday pain and sense of degradation that racism, casual and structural, inflicts. We can utter the words ‘structural racism’, but in that this means not simply changing attitudes but digging into whole institutional complexes of assumption, hierarchies, rules, policies and practices we know that the struggle is ongoing. Yet, as other commentators, and young black leaders themselves, have indicated, there is a more profound reorientation of perspective that now frames the conflict from their side. The battle can’t any longer be over attitudes; liberal ‘rights’ have not been sufficient to counter structural racism; ‘equality’ and fairness may be fine goals, but they can’t encompass a claim to full recognition of black Americans and the deep history of their suffering. For this generation of critical young people, black and white, the critique of racism, one might say, ‘goes all the way down’.
Thus, if anger, distress and determination are the emotional frame of this situation, then that ‘other level of intentionality’ can be associated with a new kind of critique of racism. It is radical in its insights, and wide in how it has percolated out, via new frames of understanding. Especially among critical young people, racism has ceased to be an issue of only seeking restitution or acceptance, with liberal-democratic institutions seen to offer the hope of dignity and equal treatment. Today’s conflict and critique appear as a cultural moment—for many of the young at least, it is a conflict of the framing stories that have founded nations and systems, and have operated as originating justifications of whole ways of life. Dispossession and slavery are not aberrations to be overcome in the American liberal-democratic system but rather in particular ways are constitutive of the American nation as such, both its ‘idea’ and the practices that have embedded racial difference in everyday life in all its particular instances. This critique from the ‘Left’ will no doubt be a focus of Trump’s advisers and security agencies, and it is already well present in right-wing commentary on the ‘culture wars’, as it has also been called in Australia.
Of course, even if this political crisis can be read as amounting to a cultural moment—when people start to tell different stories and experience themselves in new terms—this is not to say that what we are witnessing is primarily a battle of ideas or ideologies, as the notion ‘culture wars’ suggests. That phrase has the effect of reducing serious differences of interpretation and notions of value to battering rams. It is a cheap descriptor and rallying cry rather than a framework that might direct us to examining the structures that carry racism in their institutional bloodstream. It also sets those frameworks up in such a one-level disputational mode that examination of the relative arguments is difficult. Indeed, this itself ideological framing of the trouble tends to obscure both deep-set historical forces shaping discontent and the more recent divisions and contradictions that neoliberal capitalism specifically has set in motion.
Of course, what portends a broadly ‘cultural moment’ is not ideas as such but a conjuncture of actual lived conditions that have become overdetermined; in other words, overlapping conditions, forces and experiences that create a febrile situation open to new possibilities. In this light it is no simple coincidence that George Floyd’s death produced the reaction it did in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As others have noted, COVID has proved a testing ground of existing social conditions and cultural structures. Even as particular lockdown restrictions may have contributed to protest (and looting), offering some sort of release, it is not because some general ‘pressure’ or pent-up rage, as the old sociologists might have put it, had to find a valve. Far more specifically than that, the consequences of the virus, and of policies related to it, have re-enacted those disparities between black and white Americans that have both a long history and a more recent one: both capitalism’s intertwined relationship to liberal democracy as an eighteenth-century philosophical outlook and liberal democracy’s recent embodiment in neoliberal forms. Existing racism and COVID have ramified against each other to produce a density of affect, and multiple effects.
One glaring example, also evident in the United Kingdom, is of course the neoliberal state’s deep institutional culture of a lack of care, writ large in its healthcare systems. Disproportionately dependent on people of colour as nurses and carers, the United States, and the United Kingdom, have seen a widely disproportionate number of black nurses and carers dying of the virus, as well as a widely disproportionate number of poor people of colour generally, both off the back of a complete lack of capacity or preparedness in the system—and this in two of the wealthiest nations on earth. That Trump and UK prime minister Boris Johnson have attempted to simply media-manage this away is testament to the success of the forty-year rise of the neoliberal understanding of the state, which delegitimised state responsibility for the social, devolving it either to the private sector, now running multimillion-dollar shiny new caring industries, or to the re-imagined, now radically ‘freed’ individual. Healthcare is presently the most dramatic illustration of this in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the former the longstanding centrality of ‘liberty’ in the American imagination was muddled and engineered into a popular revolt against ‘Obamacare’, a modest attempt to roll back privatised healthcare. More dollars are spent in the United States than anywhere else in the world on health provision, through its profit-hungry private health-insurance system, for the worst health outcomes in the Western world. In the United Kingdom the story of the dismantling of the postwar National Health Service by stealth ever since Margaret Thatcher is just an astounding illustration of neoliberal certainty, and rapacious entitlement. With hindsight, of course neither system could ever have met the challenge that COVID-19 would present or the racial consequences that could only flow from there. Neoliberal government vacated that space some time ago; it does not count human life in quite the way many still expect governments and states to do.
The commentary from the Right is curious in this context. Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan at Murdoch’s Australian take up the issue from somewhat different points of view but present themselves as liberal democrats defending that political framework as the only one that gives black Americans the chance of redress and equality. While they are sympathetic to the personal tragedies experienced, and can even see black deaths as racially inflected in some sense, these are understood as unintended consequences in a context actually governed by aspirations to a higher ethical end. The American ethos, Enlightenment values, the individualising of persons, the rugged possibilities for advancement of individuals in principle mean that ‘America is anti-racist’, as Sheridan put it. They do not look upon the material setting in which black deaths have occurred to find the contours of either the deep history of American racism, which has persistently, structurally shaped black experience, or the specific aggravations of racialised state practices that have taken on new or highly exaggerated forms more recently. As mentioned elsewhere, neither capitalism nor neoliberalism are noted as framing considerations in recent articles by these journalists. They speak of liberal democracy as if it has an ethereal or purely spiritual quality that has uplifted the human in all of us, and could do so eternally if only we could commit to its guiding light. For Kelly, it is the only framework that can channel the expressions of the disparate interests of plural society while retaining a commitment to the government of the whole; there is no consideration of the practical break-up of the social whole by neoliberal capitalist development, which has eaten up the social-cultural underpinnings of communal life and individual identity. There is no sense that the fragmentation they observe and decry in the new political formations is a product of the system they defend.
Nowhere is this lack of insight more obvious in such positions than in their incapacity to see black incarceration as anything more than excess on the part of state authorities, or worse, the result of behaviours of disadvantage, this latter an apparently sympathetic humanist response to the plight of black people. Upwards of a million black Americans were incarcerated, in one form or another, in 2017. One black child in fifteen had a parent in jail. A whole carceral complex is in operation, in which street policing and arrest for petty crimes—or just the suspicion of such, as in George Floyd’s case—and identity checks and casual harassment are just the tip and feeders of the American gulag. These commentators hold that the civil rights movement of the 1960s is proof of the American dream: that marginal groups can come in from the cold, be recognised as human beings, and exercise their rights just like white people. For black activists the civil rights movement is a moment in a history of persecution and struggle. Far from that struggle establishing full rights to black Americans or raising up their communities, and despite such ‘successes’ as the creation of a black middle class (black Americans occupy positions of authority in key institutions such as the academy and the military), effective segregation in American cities is rife, and poverty and precarious life define the conditions of so many black communities. As activist-theorists have for a long time pointed out, this is a kind of ‘antithesis’ at the heart of America; it is the end-point institutional embodiment of an oppression, not merely an absence of rights, which could be argued for, or the consequence of disadvantage, which might be reversed with material support for individuals. Far from the civil rights movement being a beacon here, some write of the incarceration of the past forty years as a strategic backlash against the expression of black civil rights. The persistence and the scale of policing and incarceration, and the dedication of the system and its operatives in maintaining it illustrate a larger view of the light and dark of the American system that is in necessary relation to liberal democracy, and its economic counterpart, liberal-democratic capitalism.
There should be no surprise then that critical young people and others have taken to the streets. There is so little else that has proved effective. There is both a continuous history and an intensification of oppression. There have been many black deaths, and a growing counter movement in Black Lives Matter. Neoliberalism is reaching its apotheosis: after ten years of austerity following the Global Financial Crisis, and the running down of essential services, except policing, something like the 80/20 society—in which 80 per cent of people are redundant—is coming into being. Not just precarity but destitution threatens under conditions of COVID, and especially in the United States it threatens people of colour. It is not surprising that many find an answer in something like a view of ‘constitutive racism’: that liberal democracy is founded in—could not have taken shape except through—a structurally necessary racism.
Kelly is right that this kind of framework foretells the break-up of liberal democracy—that it is a disintegrative force in that sense.It may also not be capable of or seek to imagine any other kind of unifying outlook, or any social ‘whole’. It may be that this framework, which Kelly associates with identity politics, may not be good at stabilising the means of connection and condensed meaning that any kind of social whole, of any complexity, requires. Kelly’s concerns do at least tend to suggest that identity politics may be part of the rise of the radicalised Right as well, which similarly challenges elements of the origin story of America and sets itself up in violent opposition to ‘liberals’ and ‘democrats’. But this kind of defence of liberal democracy once again sees social emergences merely as ideologies. White poverty exists, white disadvantage is real; these constituencies have been blasted by neoliberal globalisation too, even if they misrecognise much of their troubles via racist compensations and rantings about liberty that hold as essential the right not just to bear arms but to use them in civic spaces.
That Trump stands for something other than neoliberalism is clear. Some have said that his rise is precisely the eclipse of neoliberalism in a final movement facilitated by it towards the crudest form of corporate capitalism. Others comment that in his case this takes the form of a mafioso style of clan-family oligarchy dedicated to the protection of its own privilege and that of supine ‘clients’. He will re-entertain national economic development over global trade to put ‘America first’ in some sectors, but that won’t mean a reanimation of elements of a welfare state. Further, the militarisation of policing, now well advanced with war-on-terror hardware and Israeli instruction on containment of civil unrest, suggests appalling possibilities for the invasive supervision and violent control of those who make up the throwaway 80 per cent, in which black Americans will be disproportionately represented. At the most general level, the present context suggests the further break-up of liberal-democratic ‘unity’ and the further attenuation of the old meanings and constituencies of Left and Right. The contrasting, but in some senses complementary, positions of those critiquing liberal democracy as essentially racist and those pinning American identity to whiteness and pioneer individualism point to a basic conjuncture in which the social has receded and founding stories are up for grabs.