Back to School
Michael Brown will not be going back to school. Angry people in Ferguson, Missouri have been helping us remember that as we return to our jobs after Labor Day, to the search for work or other pursuits if we are unemployed, to school as teachers or students. There’s a lot to remember: not just the long line of young (and not so young) black people killed by police (or white civilians fearful when a black face appears at their door), a line stretching back to the beginnings of American history in genocide and slavery; not just the daily violence inflicted by Americans of all colors, with easy access to guns, on each other; but also the way in which such events fit into a world gradually disintegrating into generalized barbarism. As New York Times reporter David Carr noted on August 18, after describing an Al Jazeera news team chased from their equipment by Ferguson police:
It was … a surreal moment … in which scenes from Gaza, Iraq, and Ferguson merged in the fog of war. In June, Matt Apuzzo [of the Times] wrote about how equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was now finding its way to local police departments in the United States.
As always in the American mixed economy, in which the state and the “free market” pass the bucks back and forth, there’s a scam element—the government simply must keep purchasing more weapons than it can use, which have to go somewhere. But it also enables the accelerating militarization of civil society matching the viral spread of networks of surveillance. Current military doctrine notes that war is becoming increasingly urban, fought against irregular or non-state combatants—“militants,” as the Islamist exemplars of this new enemy of the established order are now called. As Stephen Graham observed in his Cities Under Siege (2010), a study of “fantasies in which the West harnesses its unassailable technological power to reinstate its waning military, economic, and political supremacy,” models “of pacification, militarization and control, honed on the streets of the global South, are spread to the cities of capitalist heartlands in the North.”
Increasingly, “contemporary warfare takes place in supermarkets, tower blocks, subway tunnels, and industrial districts rather than open fields, jungles or deserts.” World War II was a precursor of this, with its focus on the mass destruction of population centers. But today, war between states has gone out of fashion. The globalization of business has combined with emerging long-term economic stagnation to drain the pep out of erstwhile superpowers. The German army, agent of so much damage in the past, hardly exists. The U.S. isn’t even rattling a sabre at Russia in response to Putin’s monkeying with Ukraine; the closest thing to 20th-century warfare today is the deployment of the Chinese navy in potentially oil- and gas-rich Asian waters and Japan’s announced intention to someday acquire real armed forces of its own in response. The real action is elsewhere: in local struggles like the endless battle for the oilfields of southern Sudan, the gang wars over diamonds and other minerals in Congo, which have killed five million people in the last decade, Israel’s mass destruction of Palestinian life and property in Gaza to facilitate its relentless geographical expansion, most noticeably the gigantic struggle between multiplying religiously-defined forces for control of the Middle and Near East (as they were called in the old colonial days), to which Israel’s war-making is itself both contributor and response. The U.S.’s half-hearted attempts to demonstrate its importance by intervening in these struggles is clearly doomed to fruitlessness. Even in this limited theater it has become a minor player.
Meanwhile, in the “developed” countries, both the ongoing depression with its impoverishment of the population, and accelerating climate change call up the specters of domestic uprisings—there have been quite a few already, in some parts of the world—and international migrations of desperate masses. The grotesque image of Texas game wardens with machine guns mounted on military-style personnel carriers hunting for immigrant children and adults attempting to escape the misery and murderous chaos of their home countries suggests nothing so much as a rehearsal for the proposed future sealing of the Mexican border to keep out people doomed by global warming to mass starvation.
All this provides only a new context for the centuries-old disciplining of the “dangerous classes,” in the U.S. identified particularly as black and Latino. But as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that’s right) put it in an outstanding essay published by Time on August 17, “unless we want the Ferguson atrocity to […] become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.” While Abdul-Jabbar defines the class on the losing end of this war as “the poor,” he also points out that the so-called middle class—including the vast bulk of the 99% excluded from the fruits of the conflict—is steadily being moved towards relative or absolute poverty. To expand his point: we must remember that Michael Brown is part of a global story, in which “race” and other forms of differentiation structure a conflict between the majority of mankind and the minority of exploiters who profit from their confusion, ignorance, and division. “Otherwise,” concludes Abdul-Jabbar:
all we’re going to get is what we got out of Ferguson: a bunch of politicians and celebrities expressing sympathy and outrage. If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.
That agenda remains to be constructed. This is the real return to school our times call for—to the tasks of understanding our situation and imaging ways to overcome it. To repeat something I wrote when Field Notes first appeared as a section of the Rail, our publication hopes to play a role in this process of self-schooling. To this end, I repeat my request for readers to send in comments, short or long, on the essays we publish, so that the discussion can be as wide as possible. (Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)