In May 2020, what had previously been a more-or-less marginal theory maintained by the quirkier communists (who got their respective flavor perhaps from Moishe Postone, or Monsieur Dupont, or Endnotes) was not only openly acknowledged by the state and mass-media monologue, but had become an inescapably obvious fact of everyday life — the majority of the labor normally done in the US was utterly superfluous to the basic material reproduction of society. Only a minority of workers’ labor-power was deemed essential, and those of us that produced or moved around badly-needed use-values had to keep coming into work while all the superfluous workers stayed home, quarantining from the Covid-19 pandemic.
We belonged to this undercaste of essential workers, who with gloved hands produced, packaged, and delivered provisions to the doorsteps of the superfluous ones, and the situation made several things perfectly clear to us:
- Our particular lives were not at all essential. There was an excess of interchangeable proletarians who could be sent to die one after the next at the plague-ridden point of production; it was our role that was essential.
- If there was ultimately so little ‘essential’ work being done, its burden fell only on our shoulders because of the structure of class society, not because of any technical requirement of the division of labor. If this small core of ‘essential’ activities, as determined by human needs rather than by the dictates of valorization, were dispersed across the entire population, then no one would need work at the necessities of social provisioning for more than a few hours a week. Thus the objective conditions for communism have not only been ripe for decades at least, but are rotting on the vine as most of the proletariat has staggering volumes of superfluous labor-time pumped out of it.
- We ‘essential workers’ had a tremendous amount of potential power. We were daily being reminded that the basic functioning of society depended on our heroic labor. What if we withheld that labor? What if we took over our workplaces and did it differently, for different ends?
We work on a packing line in a warehouse, boxing goods for home delivery, and in May 2020, the workers of our warehouse had every reason to refuse to go on working. The pandemic lockdown had caused demand to skyrocket to more than triple our pre-Covid production volume, and well above the capacity that the facility could handle. We got a measly drip of weekly hazard pay, but otherwise our low wages remained stagnant, while our workday shot up to ten+ punishing hours of packing. Adequate health precautions were impossible; working conditions were subhuman; the mood on the line was the bitter, hopeless, nihilistic rage of caged beasts awaiting slaughter. We would frequently break into a memetic chant of “burn it down,” fantasize about all the ways we’d like to destroy that warehouse, or all the ways we’d like to murder the owner in his new luxury car bought with Covid profits. Several coworkers raised the possibility of striking for better pay, for a more sane work-schedule, something. But striking remained just as much a fantasy as those more grandiose or violent.
When it popped off in Minneapolis, and proles actually started burning shit down (the proximate cause that lit the general powderkeg being yet another egregious incident of racist state violence), ‘essential workers’ like our friends from the warehouse were more than ready to fight. In our city, that weekend saw two solid nights of spontaneous proletarian insurrection, the second more intense (and better) than the first. The majority of people in the street were not the usual activist protest-going crowd. And if the crowd chanted, it wasn’t the usual canned dialogue with the state. They were talking to each other, getting hyped, picking routes, issuing warnings. Little time was wasted in theatrical stand-offs with the cops outside of symbolic targets; the cops were fought off so the rioting could safely continue. Stores up and down high streets were wrecked and looted, goods were distributed, proles stood on cars howling “fuck 12,” drinking stolen liquor after months of nothing but shuttling between brutal and dangerous workplaces and the tedium of quarantine.
People talk now about “The George Floyd Rebellion” like it was one discrete event that transpired over the course of an entire summer. That’s wrong on all counts. There was a definite hiatus between the initial insurrection (which lasted slightly different lengths of time in different locations), and a second ‘protest’-oriented phase, which was itself riven with numerous internal tensions.
The initial insurrection died at the hands of hard state repression. A curfew was instituted by the end of that first weekend, requiring anyone walking or driving after a certain time to carry papers documenting that they were an ‘essential worker’ who had to be on the streets because of their job. Cops viciously enforced the curfew, often ignoring the papers, ripping people from their cars at random and locking them up, sometimes in windowless vans for hours and hours. This effectively cut off the mass self-activity that drove the initial explosion — proles aren’t stupid, and once the risks of going out to riot outweighed the rewards, we mostly stopped going out. The multiracial proletarian composition of the initial crowds suddenly shifted — only dedicated activists who had made it their moral duty to go make sacrifices in the name of abstractions like ‘the people’ or ‘black lives’ or ‘justice’ considered it worth a likely night in lockup (and a permanent place on any number of lists) to go march around and chant slogans.1
State repression sifted this ideologically-motivated activist segment — the party — out from the proletarian class, and once the split of party and class asserted itself, the historical unity of the initial insurrectionary dynamic was broken.
The party itself is internally riven. It’s not a discrete group (and certainly not a coherent one), but a separate position taken in relation to the struggles of the class. Once the party-centric ‘protest’ phase began, so too did the intensity of the struggles within the struggle, or the struggles over the struggle. It’s precisely these struggles that allowed the more self-consciously ‘militant’ elements within the party to feel (falsely) that they were carrying on the spirit of the initial insurrection (as against the mild-mannered liberal peace-police who wanted nothing but speeches and signs), when in fact, both approaches alike merely accelerated its degeneration into its opposite.2
The party is not ‘outside’ the class — it cuts across the class. It’s a role proles can be sucked into, which feeds vampire-like off the energy of proletarian negativity, regurgitating it as Politics.
The initial uprising, that flex of the muscles of the proletariat as (potential) subject, was an immensely powerful emotional experience, especially when you’ve felt like an atomized, helpless peon your whole life, and never before had the sense that you could participate in something larger, a community of struggle. It offered a taste of what solidaristic social communication could make possible.
Many of our coworkers who were in the streets those first nights wanted it to continue, and would do anything to try to prolong that high.
People who’d never before given a shit about capital-P Politics sold their souls to the party for the promise of another fix.
Of course, we went back to work. We had our ‘essential worker’ papers because we were working ’til 10pm, long after curfew started. Given that it was a warzone in the streets that first week, with police planes and helicopters always circling overhead, it seems insane that showing up at the warehouse at 9am to pack boxes was just accepted as an inevitability. Burning cop cars was possible, but telling the boss, ‘we’re not fucking working this week’ seemed impossible.
A century ago, the strike was a weapon that made intuitive sense: it was part of our collective class intelligence. Sure, people still sometimes strike, somewhere, when they’re really desperate, but it seems to most workers a totally mythical idea lost to the history books. We’ve never known a single worker who’s participated in a strike.
There has rarely been a time when we had as much obvious leverage as ‘essential workers’ did in that moment, but struggle at the point of production seemed totally blocked. Work was work, while protesting was something you did after work, to blow off steam in your leisure time, a substitute for going to the bar (when all the bars were closed). Leisure isn’t labor; the bar is the bar. You don’t go to the bar at work.
Getting all the workers on the same page to actually strike requires difficult, serious conversations, substantive communication, convincing people who really do have differing material circumstances (some who need the job more badly than others, etc.) to take a chance on our collective power. Protesting is more like an extreme sport done alone, together: less talking, more smashing. More dodging rubber bullets, more hating a vague faceless enemy, the pig in riot gear who’s simply an evil ‘bastard’ — which is easier than confronting a boss who you talk to every day, who you’ve been taught to relate to, who maybe you see as a pretty good guy doing his best, who’ll try every trick in the book to convince you you don’t actually have divergent class interests.
The possibility of the struggle spreading from the streets to the workplace seemed automatically foreclosed upon. But really, the struggle couldn’t make the jump from the rituals of militant-minority street action to intervening in the everyday life of the immense majority in any sense or sphere, not just that of production. As the protest phase dragged on, it increasingly became the after-hours hobby of a small activist clique, but everyone else continued with business as usual, right there in the same chopper-circled city where the party thinks it’s at war. Absurd images resulted: diners eat al fresco at café tables as the sun sets, tear gas blows in from a nearby plaza where some activists are being tortured by police (their nightly public S&M scene), a nuisance, but a natural feature, like stormy weather. Ukulele-players gather in a park, while in a nearby alley, black-clad activists hide from the searchlights of pigs.
Eventually, protesting becomes not so much even the bar, an exciting distraction from our miserable, long work days, but a second job. Everything in many of our coworkers’ lives starts to revolve around the activist social milieu and its squabbles. The party hardens. The meetings multiply; the meetings are endless. The concepts of ‘vanguard’ and ‘educating the masses,’ cloaked in the mantle of some nebulous 'decentralization,’ creep in. The delusions of grandeur inflate as the reality on the ground gets more tedious, pathetic, and pointlessly dangerous.3 It all gets so fucking boring.
Anyone who’s witnessed the degeneration of a struggle knows this tune. The complaints about the more egregious forms of cooptation have been made so many times they don’t bear rehearsing here; this stuff is boring even to talk about, especially if it’s not your first rodeo. What makes this episode worth discussing is that the benchmark set by the initial uprising really was higher, and had a new historical quality: never before have so many cities across the world started rioting simultaneously. The early days saw a chain reaction of international one-upmanship. Cities eagerly watched to see what had happened the night before in other places, and then raised the stakes in a kind of comradely competition: precincts taken, buildings burned, even potentially really cool shit like a hotel seized and repurposed (which started to get at the expropriation and refunctioning of the means of life). We didn’t know how far it’d go — working in logistics, it crossed our minds: if shit really hits the fan, we take a warehouse, we take trucks, we distribute necessaries.
The higher the hopes, the brighter the flash of possibility, the harder the comedown.
The insurrection of late May belonged to a determinate historical dynamic. It was a spontaneous and rational response of large segments of the class to the mounting tension of conditions in which the objective expendability of racialized proletarian life was being baldly asserted on all fronts, from lethal state terror to the dull economic compulsion to keep working even when it may likely kill you. Quarantine only built the pressure. This dynamic had immanent potentials (even communist ones, however faintly), pointed beyond itself, allowed us to see where it might go next time, if the historical benchmark is raised again. Outside of this historical dynamic, absent this social composition, property damage is not strategically meaningful or effective, and to think it is is to have a totally fetishistic view of ‘struggle’ — the riot as a social relation disappears in an autonomized dance of bricks and glass; the ‘who’ disappears in the ‘what.’
Months into the summer, the party-people were still trying to drum up new nights of rioting, usually with turnouts not much higher than themselves.
No matter, they’re the player-characters in a video game – so what if they can’t get any NPCs to show up: breaking windows and painting walls is how you score points, and you can always just do it yourself. The actionist’s refrain rings out: ‘at least we’re doing something.’ The streets are empty. Nothing goes down in places where proles actually live and go like it did at first; it goes down in the abstract spaces of financial plazas, municipal buildings, the courtyards of police stations, places overlooked by statues to various objectionable figures of national history, all abandoned at night except for the protestors who commute in for their second job. Obsessed with the mirage of state power, they go seek it out where they think it hangs around haunting, like the boss of a level. They attack its things.
Protesting became labor, thus naturally, it largely reproduced the sexual division of labor. Almost automatically, we found ourselves doing ladies’ auxiliary shit. We mixed and packaged endless batches of sudecon, we bagged hundreds of lunches, we procured and distributed medical supplies, we cooked huge meals for the protest corps when they got home from their tough worknight posturing in front of a precinct. All the critiques we’ve made here, we made then; we tried to share them with our friends and coworkers who had been sucked into this political theater and pointlessly risked incarceration (and indefinite surveillance) for months after the insurrection died. But of course, we were just girls who read too much, thought too much, and talked too much, party-poopers who didn’t get the importance of their militancy4, or maybe just didn’t have the balls for it, and should stay in the kitchen and ‘help the movement,’ or shut up and go away.
Instead of engaging with the substantive critique offered by women in their lives, they sat through activist-etiquette workshops (led by petit-bourgeois with lots of impressive and exotic identity jargon listed in their bios) about ‘centering the voices of the most marginalized’, ‘gender violence’, blah blah blah, etc.
The sex-role structure undergirds the entire alienated political relation of party to class; politics itself is a reflex of the fundamental sexual division of public and private, the sequestration, subordination, and control of reproduction. In a radically sexist society, wherever there are subject-object relations, the object is feminized.
The party-boys talked non-stop about how ‘horny’ they were for this or that act of petty property destruction: an ongoing ‘joke’ that was not at all a joke. Consummation ideally required tricking, coaxing, or cajoling proletarians out into the streets — this entailed endless fliers, memes, instagram accounts, graffiti, even a postcard campaign. The party is defined by its ceaseless scheming over how to get the class to ‘put out’ — it is that part of the class that thinks of itself as the conscious political actor doing very important business in the ‘public sphere,’ trying to get the rest, the passive masses, to give it the satisfaction it craves. The party is the ‘masculine’ moment of the class; its own self-separation, its political doubling, is what produces (the rest of) ‘the class’ as inert, passive material, as objectified, feminized other. The party is blindness to what the class is up to. It is inability to communicate. The party produces the proletariat as the woman he can never talk to.
By early June 2020, the class had ghosted the party. The party was left to oscillate between desperately trying to get some action, or simply jerking off.
What happened to our coworkers is precisely what party-people view as the ideal outcome of a struggle, and simply wish to see repeated on a larger scale: formerly apolitical proles (delinquents, felons, non-voters) were ‘politicized’ — they acquired political understanding. By the end of the summer, they’re picking sides in mayoral races, their speech is littered with the verbal tics of activistese, and they’re firmly convinced of the revolutionary import of the meetings and trainings that now take up their evenings and weekends, since they believe in the fantasy that a world-historically significant ‘civil war’ between themselves (now self-styled as a vanguard, a conscious minority as opposed to the benighted masses) and fascist militias is mere months away.
But “political understanding is just political understanding because its thought does not transcend the limits of politics. The sharper and livelier it is, the more incapable it is of comprehending social problems”5. This political doubling of proletarian consciousness was not an issue of individual ‘upward mobility’ out of the class; our coworkers’ real social situation remained unchanged — we all still work in the same shitty warehouse — but they started living in an illusory political world over and against it, in which the busyness of their dutiful activity and the imagined might of their revolutionary will served to distract from, obscure, and compensate for, their own ongoing daily humiliation, impotence, and dependence on the wage.
Thus proletarians’ political understanding ultimately serves a capitalistic function:
“The ‘consciousness’ to rebel against and to change society is not developed by the ‘propaganda’ of conscious minorities, but by the real and direct propaganda of events. The increasing social chaos endangers the habitual life of greater and ever greater masses of people and changes their ideologies. So long as minorities operate as separate groups within the mass, the mass is not revolutionary, but neither is the minority. Its ‘revolutionary conceptions’ can still serve only capitalistic functions. If the masses become revolutionary, the distinction between conscious minority and unconscious majority disappears, and also the capitalistic function of the apparently ‘revolutionary consciousness’ of the minority. The division between a conscious minority and an unconscious majority is itself historical”.6The division Paul Mattick here points to, the political separation of party and class, belongs to the bourgeois revolution. But the era of bourgeois revolutions (and substitute ones) is over.
It is not an ahistorical question of the political alienation of proletarians being ‘bad’ as such (indeed it was necessary in earlier periods when the task of the class was to push through capitalist development where the bourgeoisie itself could not); rather, categorically, it is not the means by which proletarians can ever abolish our conditions of existence, because this separation, pushing us inexorably to the object-side of the social process, is one of our conditions of existence, which a communisation process would have to overcome.
There is no question that the present social chaos will increase, and increasingly endanger the habitual life of greater and ever greater masses of people. This is what will provoke another insurrectionary wave, not the agitation of politicized ’conscious minorities.’ All we can hope is that when it pops off next time, it will be at a greater scale and higher level of intensity yet again, just as the uprising of May 2020, striking in its breadth and simultaneity, represented a new high water mark, propelled by precedents such as London 2011 and Ferguson 2014. The general intellect of struggle is not manifest in the political understanding of the party, but latent at the level of the class as a whole: it is the historical tendencies of capitalist society that drag it on, and periodically drag it into the open. A great many more defeats await us. But their lessons will compound as our lives become ever more unlivable, the pressure of catastrophe ever-greater, perhaps even great enough to demolish the separation of party and class. This is a terribly thin hope, but it is slightly more than none.
- Arrest is traumatic for anyone, but may be more tolerable for someone who is sure an encounter with the police won’t result in further racially-motivated violence, or the institution of a previously suspended sentence, or forcible mis-sexing by the state. Arrest is a different matter for anyone who has not completed (or cannot complete) bureaucratic legal sex/gender transition, or for anyone who’s still embroiled in existing criminal proceedings, or for clandestine laborers (like those involved in sex work or the drug trade) who rely on clean records. Plus, arrest in connection with the uprising meant being put under state and civil surveillance: media outlets published daily lists of names, charges, and mugshots of those arrested the night before. These lists quickly migrated to reactionary archives, and regularly set off personal harassment campaigns of arrestees by vigilante groups.
- The false confidence of the militant spirit was vindicated by horrifying instances of “peaceful” crowds all over the country turning unwanted “violent” (or even merely suspicious) elements among them over the protest line into the waiting hands of riot police: the peaceful protestors passed betrayal and snitching off as solidarity with some greater progressive cause.
- The activists indulge a nightly obsession with fomenting minor, isolated acts of property destruction, always courting the pursuit of the police. Meanwhile, in the daytime, Nancy Pelosi is donning kente cloth and decrying white supremacy; NGOs/non-profits are recruiting Black kids out of the protest and staging spectacles at various monuments where people “graduate from racism;” BLM.com is accused of absconding with a bunch of donations; POC are posting up so white people can wash their feet to atone for a legacy of settler-colonialism; etc.
- Thus we were generally suspected of being complacent ‘liberals,’ because to the actionist, who reduces questions of ends to questions of means, liberals and ‘radicals’ – a word they erroneously think is synonymous with militants – have basically the same ‘goals’ and ‘ideals’ … but a pussy-ass ‘liberal’ just reads books, or votes or posts or whatever, whereas a ‘radical’ gets his hands dirty breaking things, asserting his (liberal) demands to the state.
- Marx, “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia’” (1844)
- Paul Mattick, “Pannekoek’s ‘The Party & Working Class’” (1941)