By the Editors of The Flood
“Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle—possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism ‘evolved’ from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.”
—Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
From its inception, argues feminist historian Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch, capitalism was a counterrevolution that sought to maintain the dynamics of feudalism in the face of large-scale peasant rebellion. As capitalist relations spread and developed, they took on new forms in response to the social crises they invariably caused. This ability to absorb and redirect revolutionary energy has remained one of capitalism’s most remarkable features.
Incarnations of this counterrevolution have sometimes appeared as overtly and violently as they did in the Middle Ages. The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, for example, was led by white supremacists who overthrew the Black leadership and economic policies of Wilmington's interracial Fusionist government, which had been democratically elected on a platform of class unity, free public education, and debt-relief. The insurrection, in which 300 or more African Americans were killed, is widely considered to be the only successful coup d'etat in US history.
At other times, counterrevolution has taken on more subtle forms, as in the union-busting McCarthyism of the 1950s. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) led a massive strike wave and attempted to unite the Southern working class, the political establishment raised its demagogic anti-communism to a fever pitch; under pressure, the CIO ultimately raided or expelled its most politically radical and strongly integrationist unions like the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers. After the purge, the union's goals were no longer sufficiently different from the conservative, racialized American Federation of Labor to warrant a separate institution, and the AFL-CIO was born. Recondite economic theories have also had a hand in counterrevolution, formalizing mechanisms for the containment of social unrest: see Milton Friedman's aptly named “The Counter-Revolution in Monetary Theory.”
In The Reactionary Mind, Cory Robin argues that these kinds of counterrevolutionary efforts to preserve hierarchy constitute the essence of conservatism. Central to this strategy, Robin explains, is “an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes.” This dynamic will be familiar to anyone who has watched a social movement set out to address a systemic social issue, often with a clear critique of capitalism at its heart, only to be eventually watered down, absorbed, and assimilated into capitalist culture. One struggle after another has undergone this transformation.
It’s how the foundation for feminist revolution laid by radical Black writers like Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Audre Lorde was used to build the white-centered corporate feminism of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. It’s how the anti-consumerist environmental movement of the 1970s became mixed up with green-washing campaigns, “clean” coal, and mass produced “eco-friendly” products. It's how the creative, anti-corporate LGBTQ activism of Stonewall and ACT UP have been substituted for the modern day Master Card sponsored NYC Pride March, with registration fees prohibitive to smaller community organizations and featuring the 12th Annual LGBTQ Marketing & Advertising Symposium @ Google.
In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor examines this cycle as it has played out in the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. “At the height of McCarthyism,” Taylor writes, “socialists and communists were so identified with the antiracist movement that antiracist organizing was automatically assumed to be the work of communists.” As the civil rights movement gained momentum, however, groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) encountered the complications of being courted by wealthy donors. Taylor writes about “multibillion-dollar foundations” that worked closely with the Kennedy Administration, putting pressure on SNCC organizers to shift their focus from direct action to voter registration and electoral politics. The stultifying effects of these kinds of large, conditional funding streams, she argues, have plagued the movement ever since. Taylor offers another example in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), citing political scientist Megan Francis’ research on the organization’s shift to more moderate organizing goals: “So why did the NAACP move from a racial-violence focused agenda to one that centered on education? In one word: money. [...] In the negotiation of a grant [from the Garland Fund], it quickly became apparent that the NAACP’s black leadership favored a civil rights program with an explicit focus on racial violence [,which made the donors uncomfortable.] Faced with the possibility of losing a critical funding source, the NAACP begrudgingly complied with the Garland Fund’s requests. In the coming years, the NAACP relegated issues of racial violence to the margins and adopted a focus on education, for which it was known for the rest of the 20th century.” Some factions of the movement for Black liberation refused this marriage of corporate funding and civil rights organizing, most notably the Black Panthers; but without the same access to wealth and facing violent suppression from the state, such groups were easily marginalized.
On the other hand, Taylor explains, organizations like the NAACP continued to grow closer to corporate donors over the following decades. She offers the recent example of “Al Sharpton’s sixtieth birthday bash, held at the Four Seasons hotel in New York.” At the event, which raised over $1 million, sponsors donated at various levels: “The phone company AT&T pledged at the ‘activists level’ with a full-page ad in the party program, while Walmart and GE Asset Management only pledged at the ‘preacher level,’ with half-page ads. McDonald’s and Verizon pledged at the ‘track suit’ level with a back page ad.” Considering the funding sources, Taylor asks, “Is it any wonder Sharpton and the others [working with the NAACP] have been so quiet about the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15?”
This is the counterrevolutionary absorption of tactics and ideas that Robin writes about: corporations that were once the target of radical anti-capitalist, anti-racist organizing now brand themselves as champions of civil rights. So long as economics in a liberal democracy remain separate from culture and politics, argues Robin, “one [can] pursue profit at someone else’s expense, and think freely, no matter how subversive the thoughts, without disrupting the balance of power.” Those interested in effecting change are directed to the morass of electoral politics, and those demanding total transformation are told to be more practical, more realistic. It can be hard to push against this kind of elastic reasoning, which gives just enough to allow for the sensation of progress.
The argument becomes further muddled when, as social movements are absorbed by popular culture, we see representations all around us of a world much different than the one we live in. Commercial advertising offers an eerie fun-house mirror reflection of society in which long-time political aspirations of the radical left appear as commonplace—diverse, integrated, healthy groups, spending ample leisure time in pristine, natural common spaces. The message is whispered in our ear over and over: capitalism is racial equality, capitalism is feminism. capitalism is progress. But as Silvia Federici shows in a detailed recounting of its origins, “capitalism is necessarily devoted to racism and sexism,” which help feed its insatiable appetite for labor—both productive and reproductive—and access to land.
In the case of Black Liberation, writes Taylor, the same disorienting representation of society can be found in examples of Hollywood celebrities, corporate executives, and elected officials. “The success of a relative few African Americans is upheld as a vindication of the United States’ colorblind ethos and a testament to the transcendence of its racist past,” while lived reality for African American communities in terms of incarceration rates, police violence, and economic instability remains “catastrophic.” Representation, Robin argues, becomes ever more important in a society that depends on it to uphold order: “From Hobbes to the slaveholders to the neoconservatives, the right has grown increasingly aware that any successful defense of the old regime must incorporate the lower orders in some capacity other than as underlings or starstruck fans. The masses must either be able to locate themselves symbolically in the ruling class or be provided with real opportunities to become faux aristocrats in the family, the factory, and the field.”
Anthropologist Anna Tsing also marks this desire to see oneself in the ruling class as a necessary function of capitalist supply chains. “In a political climate without much union success,” she writes, “many sweatshop workers, and their families, see themselves most hopefully not as labor but as oppositional consumers or potentially rich entrepreneurs.” Similarly, her research shows, many farmers and employees of the quickly growing gig economy in the US justify the conditions of their own low-wage, high-risk work as part of an entrepreneurial journey that inevitably leads to wealth. “Self-exploitation” Tsing writes, “is essential to the cost-cutting power of the supply chain.” To understand how this is all accomplished, Tsing invokes the concept of intersectionality, “the diversity through which women and men of varied class niches and racial, ethnic, national, sexual, and religious positions negotiate power and inequality.”
There is a growing recognition of the importance of this intersectionality, not only as it applies to the ways that, “labor, nature, and capital are mobilized,” in capitalist supply chains, but also in the ways that social movements are mobilized. “Because of the gross inequality it produces,” Taylor writes, “capitalism requires various political, social, and ideological tools to divide the majority—racism is one among many oppressions intended to serve this purpose.” These various oppressions create deep divisions among people, “who would otherwise have every interest in combining forces”: “The majority of poor people in the United States are white, but the public face of American poverty is Black. It is important to point out how Blacks are overrepresented among the poor, but ignoring white poverty helps to obscure the systemic roots of all poverty.” The solidarity found in this kind of intersectional thinking—recognizing that all struggles for justice are bound up in one another—is essential to understanding the many social crises we face today. There is also, in the concept of intersectionality, a whisper of the spiritual. There is a sense that connection runs deeper than division, that the many “political, social, and ideological tools to divide the majority” that Taylor references are incapable of truly separating us from one another.
In the growing pall of global warming, all of this—capitalism’s utter failure to address social crises, the imperative need for radical solidarity across social divisions, and the profound level at which we are all connected—is made abundantly clear. In the past, the radical voices of each era have been those that refused to wait for justice, that insisted that immediate transformation of the lives of the marginalized and oppressed was a moral obligation. These calls for change have always been met by moderates with calls for patience and assurances that change doesn’t come all at once, that we must be above all practical and reasonable.
But facing a crisis that threatens the very conditions for life on the planet, complete and immediate transformation is the only reasonable path. The obstinate resistance to this change betrays the ugly truth that reason was never the motivation for delaying any other movement. A time frame of “eventually” is inadequate. Anything less than total transformation ensures our doom. Patience and temperance, the political virtues of the moderate, are suicidal. This time, the social crisis that capitalism is incapable of addressing must eventually be faced by each of us. No matter how sure of our divisions we may be, we are profoundly connected to each other and the planet we inhabit.
An awareness of intersectionality is necessary if we are to overcome the counterrevolutionary nature of capitalism and find hope in the crisis we face. The unity of life on our planet is not only a resource in the struggle for a more just world: it is a call to spiritual reconciliation.
(Cross-posted from The Flood. Image by Joel Rosenburg.)