The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
Field Notes

The American Revolution: The George Floyd Rebellion, One Year Out

The historical moment that sheds the most light on the current white proletariat is the era of the Civil War. This history powerfully informs the trajectory of what will come. The Civil War and Reconstruction are the unfinished business of this land.

—Shemon and Arturo, “The Return of John Brown”1

The fires, for now, have been put out.

The Trump circus has reluctantly moved out, though not before putting on a spirited finale as the clock ran down. It is spending what might be a short political winter in balmy south Florida, finishing the thankless work of eviscerating the party of Bush and Cheney, of Iraq, Guantanamo, and Katrina. The responsible people are back doing what they get paid for: arguing over whether recent spending bills will produce a Biden “boom” or just runaway inflation (the honest confess they have no clue). Smart people are wondering whether infrastructure means expanded Amtrak service or beefed-up childcare services. Needles are going in American arms, and vaccines flood the land, as bodies pile up in Indian crematoria and Indian hospitals plead for more oxygen; statespeople debate the merits of easing restrictions on vaccine patents, while pyres “burn through the night.” The EU, desperate for tourist dollars, envisions a digital health pass allowing free, closely monitored movement to and across the continent, though its “citizens” remain under curfew, in some cases not permitted to travel more than 10 kilometers from their homes. The very rich, and even just the pretty-well-off, haven’t missed a beat, with stock markets soaring to historic highs throughout the pandemic; for all its demonstrated haplessness in handling a global public health crisis, the political class moved in lock-step solidarity when it counted, rushing in the crisis’s first days to salvage asset values (a routine so familiar, they do it in their sleep). Yet even as the economy “opens up,” floating on an ocean of still more federal debt, the April jobs report suggest it is barely adding any jobs, certainly nowhere near the rate necessary for a recovery; some eight million remain missing, perhaps never to return, with many workers seeming to have dropped out of the labor market altogether (a trend since 2000, accelerated by the shutdowns). The 15 dollar minimum wage was the first provision to go when it came time to cut fat from a stimulus bill totaling almost 2 trillion dollars, and online shopping giant Amazon celebrated a bumper year by crushing a unionization drive in Alabama. The DEI industry is in full flower, as companies and institutions awash in cash loaded up on consultants, new hires, and training seminars for their employees. We were even conceded a conviction for George Floyd’s killer, as cops just this once broke ranks to claim, against all evidence, that Derek Chauvin’s action deviated from policing “best practices.” It takes some work to find a “Fuck 12” tag on the otherwise tattered ramparts of America’s beleaguered big cities.

Now that the one-year anniversary of the events of late May and early June—crowned, dramatically, by the immolation of the Third Precinct station in Minneapolis—has come and gone, the need to draw up a balance sheet of what unfolded becomes urgent. This bit of stock-taking is not just a matter of setting the record straight: it means giving the events their vibrancy, their still-living force, back.2 But we must also be sure not to slip into the bad habit of commemoration, the rituals of monumentalization, whose effect is to consign them to the bygone past, to stitch them into a solemn tapestry of poignant defeat. It is urgent to reclaim the George Floyd rebellion—riots and all—from the knee-taking, kente cloth-draped Democratic politicians, from the consulting industry and the blue-check liberals, but also from the patronizing “socialists” who only piped up during the events to decry the inevitable (and perfectly logical) episodes of looting, as well as those who spent those weeks waving off the largest mass movement in the US in a half-century in favor of parsing what went wrong in the South Carolina Democratic primary. We have to consider what was novel, even unprecedented, about these events and the movement they gave rise to—with its often conflicting tendencies, its distinct phases, its breakthroughs and recuperations—as well as how they might be located within a protracted cycle of struggles dating back decades, or indeed haltingly traced back to a peculiarly American primal scene: Civil War and Reconstruction. Though buried in the rubble of repression and recuperation, the George Floyd rebellion can begin to be seen for what was unprecedented about it: distinguished by its tactical successes, its scope, and its internal composition, it can now even be understood to mark the resurfacing of the long-dormant American old mole. For a brief moment, late last spring, we caught sight not only of the guise the struggles of the future will assume, but even that coming rupture James Boggs christened, in 1963, “the American revolution.”

The George Floyd rebellion of late spring 2020 was a Black-led, multiracial rebellion the likes of which have not occurred in recent US history. The rebellion’s emblematic scene took place, of course, in South Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, less in the figure of a police station in flames than in the livestreamed spectacle of police vehicles abandoning the building in the nick of time, routed, humiliated, and for once, afraid. What distinguishes last spring’s rebellion, however, is not just its tactical feats—a mid-sized American city transfigured into Athens, or Cairo—but above all the movement’s racial composition and its spatial distribution. Unlike the wave of urban riots in the mid-to-late 1960s, or the Los Angeles riots of 1992, these riots were remarkable for the widespread support expressed for them by white demonstrators, as well as their direct participation in them.3 Just as significant were the geographical contours of the rebellion, which exploded simultaneously across the country, in cities large and small, and in doing so remade the map of urban revolt. Wherein the Watts riots of 1965 or the riots of 1992, for example, the action unfolded primarily in South Central LA, in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods, the most heated confrontations—burning cop cars, looting—in the early phase of Los Angeles’s Floyd riots occurred in its gentrifying downtown and in the overwhelmingly white Fairfax District (a center of the city’s Jewish community), before spreading to Hollywood and Long Beach, and even to toney Santa Monica and the Valley’s Van Nuys. But even this litany of place names cannot capture the pervasiveness of the rebellion in its first week, nor the compound of elation and uncertainty, anticipation and menace, that hung in the air across the city as the authorities tried in vain to contain it: with a curfew that was mocked and ignored by all, with threats that could not be carried out, with pleas that fell on deaf ears, and finally with detachments of the National Guard, rolling through neighborhood streets in dingy gray and green.4

Burning cop car in Miami, May 30, 2020. Photo: © Mike Sheehan.
Burning cop car in Miami, May 30, 2020. Photo: © Mike Sheehan.

Across the country, police forces lost control of cities they once had under their thumb. The night before a curfew was put into place in New York City, shops up and down 5th and Madison Avenues were looted; a few nights before, President Trump had been whisked to an underground bunker, as demonstrations reached the gates of the White House. Soon, military helicopters would be hovering over DC crowds they could not otherwise disperse, using tactics honed in operations overseas. Tom Cotton’s call (duly published by the paper of record) for the President to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act was not just a bit of grandstanding, a white boy’s fantasy of martial law: it expressed a palpable fear, on the part of political class, that the patchwork of local police forces and unreliable, poorly-trained National Guard detachments could not impose order again.5 The spectacle of massive urban police forces, soaking up huge chunks of the municipal budgets of the country’s largest cities (53 percent in Los Angeles) and always eager to brandish surplus military gadgets remaindered from imperial forays, incapable of putting the insurrectionary cat back in its bag surely raised questions, for those whose social power depends on these forces, regarding the rate of return on their investment. Equally disconcerting, for those few who reckon seriously with history, was the entry of National Guard detachments into the fray. Long a staple of urban riots in the US, the Guard is by no means a predictable actor. Unschooled in the arcana of police violence, many appeared in the streets bewildered, with little of the stigma attached to police forces; had confrontations between cops and insurgents intensified, there is no certainty these units would have sided en masse with the local police formations. Finally, even the most inept police commanders and political actors had to be wargaming out the next steps, beyond the inevitable looting and property damage. In cities already beset by severe housing crises, and suddenly confronted with newly unemployed workers unable to meet rent, might some of the more daring “protestors” attempt occupations— at first opportunistically, followed by more concerted efforts—of existing housing stock, empty hotels, or even unoccupied office and retail space?

Police murders of Black men are a ubiquitous and enduring feature of the American landscape; so, too, are robust community responses to this violence, taking the form not only of riots, but of broader social movements, giving rise to orienting slogans (“Black Lives Matter”) as well as activist organizations that survive them. What unfolded in late spring across the country seemed to break with or exceed this pattern. Looking back at these events now, we should ask why so many white—not to mention Latino, Asian, and other—people decided to participate in these demonstrations and actions; why the movement spread so quickly across the country; why it had the intensity and dynamism it did; and, above all perhaps, why it happened not just in working-class neighborhoods, in inner cities or poor suburbs (like Ferguson, Missouri), but in city centers, near concentrations of wealth and power. There was, to be sure, an understandable revulsion toward racism in its most extreme form: police violence. But the scale of the response to George Floyd’s murder far exceeded that following Freddie Gray’s, or Michael Brown’s, or so many others’.

It is lost on no one that the Floyd rebellion took place in the midst of a once-in-a-century public health crisis. “It took 66 days,” Joshua Clover wrote last June, “to get from the first shelter-in-place order to the first riot.”6 The haphazard, bumbling, and often malicious state response to the crisis took place against a backdrop of unyielding social turmoil. The sudden spike in published unemployment numbers—from 4 to 20 percent in the Los Angeles region, and higher than 25 percent in Detroit and surrounding cities—was a direct result of the unprecedented economic shutdown.7 But this abrupt imposition of worklessness on millions of workers whose survival depends on their ability to sell their labor-power in exchange for wages only exacerbated, dramatically, an ongoing pattern of immiseration dating at least to the economic meltdown of 2008. In many of the country’s largest and wealthiest cities, a very visible housing crisis had set in years before the 2020 shutdowns; the uncertain prospect of mass evictions threatened to enlarge the tent cities and encampments cropping up in city parks, under overpasses, and on sidewalks, often on the edges of well-to-do neighborhoods. The relatively low unemployment rate of the pre-pandemic period was itself a screen behind which the full dimensions of the crisis lurked: millions of workers had simply dropped out of the workforce after losing their jobs in that crisis, and almost all growth in employment since the 2008 crisis took place at the low-wage, low-skill extreme of the labor market. These jobs were often in those industries, like restaurants, retail, and tourism, most dramatically affected by the shutdowns.

The effects of the shutdowns were distributed along crystal-clear class lines. As the Federal Reserve quickly scaled-up its ongoing “quantitative easing” operations to the tune of 3 trillion dollars in the crisis’s early days, a political class supposedly at daggers drawn rushed into law a bipartisan 2.2 trillion dollar stimulus package in just weeks, unleashing a firehose of federal aid to businesses to keep them afloat. The rich were taken care of: plummeting asset prices reversed course and soared, while corporations were given a lifeline to ride out the crisis. Most middle-class service workers had a relatively easy time of it as well, easily retreating to online platforms to work remotely, sealed off from the virus as recently-fired restaurant and retail workers delivered groceries and hot meals to their doorsteps. Meanwhile, workers found themselves divided between those made unemployed by the shutdowns and those forced to work—in some cases, by federal order—in order to maintain what the state deemed essential services, defined as “critical infrastructure operations” (food production and distribution, grocery stores, healthcare, and so on). Degrees of exposure to the virus were distributed largely along these same class lines. Workplaces like distribution centers became sites where the coronavirus spread rapidly; infected workers returning to their neighborhoods and homes passed it on to family members and loved ones. The result was predictable enough. In the nation’s largest cities, infection rates diverged dramatically between rich and poor areas, with neighborhoods (like Corona in Queens) with concentrations of “essential” workers devastated in the pandemic’s early months, while the well-to-do in Manhattan remained cocooned in their overpriced apartments, struggling with the mute feature on Zoom. Meanwhile, the newly unemployed, used to eking by month-by-month on service sector wages, awaited the coming eviction wave, a small number organizing themselves into tenant unions to ward them off, most anxiously awaiting a lifeline from above: unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, if the fiscal gods were answering prayers.

It is no wonder, then, that so many turned out in the streets in response to still another police murder of a Black man, in order to demand an end of the murders and, in some cases, the end of those—the police themselves—who consistently carry them out. All of a sudden, it clicked: those who came out for the demonstrations had an acute sense, it seems, that the state so willing to kill in the streets was the same state reconciled to the prospect of letting hundreds of thousands, or more, die agonizing deaths in order to save the economy. The apparent incompetence of the state, when it came to the health of its populations, had come to seem more and more a deliberation, a social calculus. The “economy” to be saved did not include the laborers it employed, only those who owned capital or financial assets; the state rushed in, once again, to save the private sector, while speculating in the same breath on the moral hazard of replacing workers’ lost wages.

The mass movement that took shape in the streets last spring, particularly in its first week, should therefore be seen as a multiracial, working-class movement centered on, and indeed brought into being in response to, anti-Black state violence. To describe it as a Black-led working-class struggle is to emphasize the movement’s objectives (the end of state violence against Black people, the demise of a racist institution altogether) and more importantly the actors who formulated them, and devised the tactics required to meet them. To describe the movement in these terms is not to diminish the role played by other workers; it is merely to describe a structure that articulated the movement: its actions. That the movement took its lead from Black proletarians does not mean, either, that it was organized by groups that claimed to represent them. One of the defining features of the movement, in fact, was the clear tension that emerged within it—especially in the first weeks of June—between its most militant currents and a broader movement whose social composition was more complex, driven by often irreconcilable divisions. It is this expansion of the movement, bringing in middle-class whites, NGOs, liberals, politicians, and often Black-led activist groups, that accounts for its assuming the scope and scale of a proper “mass” movement. This expansion of the movement also presented a mortal danger.

We should have no illusions regarding the decisive role played by outright political repression in the movement’s defeat. It was articulated at local, state, and federal levels. If the entry of active US military units was narrowly averted, we must not forget that the threat of such intervention shaped the calculations and actions of all the actors involved, on either side of the conflict. When the secretary of defense underlined the need to “dominate the battlespace,” we mostly laughed at one more wannabe performing “hardness” for the boss, while demonstrating an utter cluelessness about the nature of the conflict unfolding. But these words did tip the federal government’s hand: it would defeat the movement by militarizing its response. In a way, that’s just what it did. We need only recall the array of federal agencies called upon—Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Prisons, etc.— to crush the movement at its peak in Washington, DC, or, later, in Portland. But to restrict our analysis to the purely repressive aspects of the response to the movement is to misunderstand the nature of the “counterinsurgency” mounted.

The most powerful means for undermining the movement was not its repression but its embrace and misrecognition by a host of actors—a host of “allies” and self-appointed delegates—who entered the fray a week or two in. The sheer fact of the swelling presence of middle-class white people both reshaped the movement’s composition and changed how it was perceived and treated by the media and the political class alike. Most important was the part played by NGOs, activist groups, and the left wing of the Democratic party (and, later, educational institutions, enlightened corporations, and even, oddly, parts of the US security apparatus). Their embrace of the movement was a smothering one; the price their participation exacted was steep and crippling. The first gesture was to cut the movement off from its own origins, the direct confrontations with the police in late May and early June. They did this first by briskly separating what they deemed “good” protesters from “bad,” distinguishing who was allowed to speak and act, and prescribing in advance what forms of action were acceptable: introducing divisions that reflected, for the most part, existing social (especially racial) cleavages.8 The most effective, because time-worn, technique was to posit the existence of “outside” agents responsible for what was ruled off-limits, with these interlopers characterized as white, on police payrolls, or fascists looking to stoke the flames. Once the direct action tendency of the movement was effectively contained, the energy shifted from the streets to the city council minutes, with suddenly mushrooming groups claiming to represent the movement wheeling out a wide array of policy proposals for political consideration: new training procedures, “defunding” police departments, new social spending, and so on. Most of these proposals had been drawn up by NGOs, activist groups, and left-liberal political figures long before the movement took hold, rather than originating with it. Above all, these groups’ appeal to existing local authorities projected the illusion that what was taking place across the country was a political process rather than a social conflict, an at-times contentious dialogue between legitimate representatives of existing interest groups, or between the governed and those who represented them.

These features of the movement and its trajectory—from unprecedented uprising to containment and defeat over the course of a month or so—require that we reflect, again, on just what it means to describe this rebellion as a “Black-led,” multiracial one. Such considerations are particularly urgent when we register the special role played by Black “leaders” in the undermining and suppression of the most dynamic aspects of the revolt. In many cases, these anointed leaders represented, despite their appeals to a self-evidently undivided Black “community,” one part of it—the Black middle-class—in opposition to another. What distinguishes these leaders and the role they play in contemporary revolts, is that they are not only drawn from the ranks of churches, non-profit groups, and business owners, as might have been the case decades ago. Today they occupy key political posts in many of the cities affected by riots and mass actions in the movement’s first week, carrying out the duties of mayors and police chiefs in cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, DC (21 of the largest 50 US cities have Black police chiefs).9 In too many instances, it was up to these elected officials to discriminate between what they claimed to represent—“Black Lives Matter or members of our community who have suffered from systematic racism and oppression”—and the actions (“looting and violence”) they could only disavow. They did so by attributing them in coded terms (“anarchists”) to white outsiders intent on dooming the movement, or even to what Los Angeles city councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson called “domestic terrorists,” to be dealt with, presumably, with the ruthlessness such labels call for.10


Every reckoning with the causes and consequences of the George Floyd rebellion must pose—and try to answer—a long list of questions. What, in the first place, was distinct about this uprising relative to its recent precursors: the riots of 2014 and 2015, in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the rise of the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” but also the almost-forgotten explosion in Los Angeles in 1992 and, still more distant, the great wave of urban riots in the 1960s? What role did the ambient crisis, the combined effects of the pandemic shutdowns, and the ongoing social fallout of the 2008 meltdown play in shaping the particular form of this revolt, as well as its scale and its social composition? In what sense was this revolt defined by its character as “Black-led,” yet multiracial in nature? How did this fact of its being oriented and pushed forward by Black proletarians differ from previous patterns of protest arranged and overseen by groups—from NGOs and activist organizations to local Democratic party politicians—claiming to represent the interests of a Black “community” without divisions? Why did white workers, as well as a sizable fraction of the progressive white middle-class, join these demonstrations, and what effect did their participation have? In what sense was the revolt defeated not only by means of brutal repression, but through its embrace and deformation by these same progressive forces? And finally, how, despite their novelty, do the events of May and early June fit into a longer sequence of struggles dating back not simply to the 1960s, but to the wrenching and peculiarly American violence of the Civil War and Reconstruction? I have tried to touch on a number of these questions already (and I will return to them near the end). I now want to turn, for the moment, to the question of the historical resonance of the rebellion.

In an extraordinary chapter (“Rebels with a Cause”) in his 1963 book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, on the history of class struggle in the US and the paradoxical place of Black workers within it, James Boggs traces a “pattern,” initially “created by American capitalism in the Civil War,” that was played out repeatedly over the course of the following century. The history he draws up is organized around three key episodes: Reconstruction, the labor movement during World War II, and the ongoing Black liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The pattern is one in which Black workers are, in moments of profound crisis, called upon to save what Boggs calls “the Union,” playing on both the political meaning this term has in US history and the sense it assumes in the American workers’ movement in the mid-20th century. Saving the union means integrating Black workers into a particular cause or movement, whether it be the military defeat of the South, or the mounting intensity of labor’s struggle with capital in a moment of depression and global war. Whether in the figure of ex-slaves fleeing the South, joining the Union army, and converting the “cause” of the Civil War into abolishing slavery rather than saving the Union, or in that of Black workers migrating North to enter industry, and the labor movement, only to help set off an extraordinary wave of wildcat strikes, Black workers “saved the Union” only in order to introduce new dissension and antagonisms within it.

The emancipation of Black workers in the South, carried out not by means of Lincoln’s proclamation but by a ruthless war carried out by the Union army, would be definitively overturned with what Boggs calls “the Bargain of 1877,” in which erstwhile enemies, Northern industrialists and the Southern landowning class, agreed to cede political control of the South and social control over Black workers to the vanquished plantation owners, with Northern capital gaining an upper hand over the US economy as a whole. W.E.B. Du Bois called this turning point the “counter-revolution of property”; but Boggs, like Du Bois before him, stresses that it was the nascent US labor movement that underwrote this agreement. Among the historical conditions that gave rise to the American workers movement, the abandonment of recently emancipated Black workers was decisive. Their return to conditions of servitude, under a “caste system as brutal as that of slavery itself,” laid the groundwork for the formation of a segregated labor movement, one in which millions of American workers were not recognized as such, their struggles seen as racial in nature. Boggs describes this betrayal, on the part of the US labor movement in solidarity with the Northern capital, as “the first major defeat of the class struggle in the United States” (my emphasis). Labor struggles shifted toward industries that flourished in the muck and gore of war, steel and railroads, which saw massive strikes in 1877 and the early 1880s; labor unions, with the American Federation of Labor in the lead, formed along segregated lines. Jim Crow prevailed not just in the South, but in Northern industry, and in the workers’ movement as a whole. Black struggles, which before the war were described as “rebellions,” were now invariably described as “race riots,” with no bearing on class struggle as a whole. Even “American Marxists,” Boggs observes, “have always thought of the working class as white and have themselves discriminated against Negroes by hesitating to recognize them as workers.”

Decades later, in 1941, it took the threat of a March on Washington, organized by Black workers under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, to compel FDR to issue an executive order mandating the integration of the US defense industries, now on a war footing. Just a few years before, Black workers had integrated the steel industry (taking the worst jobs), and had joined the assembly line at Ford, a concession on the union’s part meant primarily to head off the prospect of Black workers becoming scabs and strikebreakers. It took, Boggs notes, the prospect of worldwide conflagration to break Jim Crow in the factories and the US labor movement altogether. From the moment they entered US industry, Black workers began to “seize upon all the weaknesses of American capitalism,” Boggs writes, within the armed forces and in the defense industry. Throughout the war, “hundreds of revolts took place among the Negro soldiers and sailors,” most of them hushed up; despite a no-strike pledge signed by union leadership, the war industries in the north also witnessed hundreds of wildcat strikes, often led by recently employed Black workers. Having been integrated into production to “save the Union,” these workers waged their own war on two fronts, “carr[ying] on offensive battle against both management and the white workers … often causing splits inside the union and among the workers.” These actions continued throughout the first decade of the postwar period, as workers in the auto industry, often led by a militant core of now-seasoned Black workers, continued to launch wildcat strikes, in view of seizing and maintaining control over the labor process within them. It was only with the large-scale introduction of automation in the automotive industry, underwritten by union bureaucrats, that these initiatives were defeated. Automation, which allowed plant managers to reformat the labor process and expel a significant fraction of now redundant Black workers from assembly lines, represented an occasion for companies once again to take control of their shop floors, and union bureaucracies of their own organizations.

It is no coincidence that Boggs’s The American Revolution appeared exactly 100 years after the emancipation of Black workers from the yoke of slavery. The story he tells of class struggle in the US begins at a moment in which the working class was largely agrarian and, in the case of Black workers, subject to new forms of servitude they would only break with the great migration to the industrial North decades later (an exodus from Jim Crow that would echo a prior flight from the South and bondage in the midst of the Civil War). The exemplary episode of the formation and activity of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and Black workers’ special role within it, marks a high point in the historical arc he describes. But already in 1963 Boggs could describe a vast historical mutation underway, one that would have profound effects on the nature of class struggle in the US. Just a year before Johnson’s Great Society legislation, Boggs wrote from the threshold of a coming, and prolonged, period of crisis and decline that would follow hard upon the postwar boom. A wave of urban riots would kick off this process, first in Watts, then in the industrialized North (Detroit, Newark) and, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in scores of cities across the country (in a pattern echoed in the Floyd rebellion). Just around the corner was 1968 and the Tet Offensive, but also the oil crisis of 1973 and a near-decade of economic crisis (“stagflation”).

When Boggs describes the effects of automation on the automobile industry in the 1950s, he emphasizes the primary objective and effect of this revolution in production: that capital, in collaboration with union management, regain control over the shopfloor and over the union rank and file. This process spells the end of “the Union” itself, he writes, a death sealed by the CIO’s merger with the AFL in 1955. But Boggs also is attuned to the impact of automation on the rank and file, and the broader working class. These effects were apportioned unequally, and generally along racial divides. As sizable gains in labor productivity brought about new production processes that rendered many auto workers redundant, Black workers tended to be the first to be expelled both from industry and from the union itself. For Black workers, deindustrialization, the process whereby the manufacturing core’s share of employment declines relative to other sectors, was sped up, unfolding more dramatically and suddenly than it did for their white peers. Throughout the second half of The American Revolution, Boggs calls those Black workers expelled from industry and the labor movement the “unemployed” and “the outsiders.”

What these terms seem to designate is less a sociological grouping than a broad, social, and material process in which Black workers bear the brunt of an increasingly crisis-prone capitalist economy. Over the course of the next half-century or more, up to the present, Black unemployment rates would on average be double those of white workers and, in times of acute crisis, almost three times as high. When speaking broadly of the “unemployed,” we must also consider what economists call the “labor underutilization” rate, a category that tries to capture persistent trends in underemployment for certain groups of workers, as well as the extent to which these workers, unable to find consistent work (or work that matches the “skills” they bring to the labor market), will drop out of the work force altogether. Over the past two or three decades, commentators have tended to describe these jobs as “precarious” ones: without any of the job security or benefits accorded the workers organized into the great industrial unions of the middle of the last century.

While many workers expelled from the industrial core would remain un- or under-employed, and on the outskirts of the organized labor movement, others would be absorbed into a rapidly expanding service sector, especially beginning in the 1970s. As this sector began absorbing some of those made redundant by automation in manufacturing plants, it also began to absorb women, who started pouring into the workforce at the same time. What distinguished the so-called service sector from the manufacturing core of the economy was the fragmentation of workforce it registers and, with this fragmentation, its reorganization along more clearly gendered and racialized lines. One of the salient tendencies of the industrialization process is the relative convergence of labor processes across what were once distinct craft-based industries and, with it, a convergence of skills (workers become machine operators) and wages across once distinct lines of production (steel and automobiles, say). As Boggs’s account of the rise and fall of the CIO makes clear, these material conditions at the level of the labor process make possible the integration of Black workers into a broader, more coherent workforce. The full integration of Black workers was, of course, never complete: they were often assigned the worst jobs in these industries, were paid less than their white peers, and were the first to be fired when automation-induced job cuts were introduced. These divisions were, however, on occasion overcome; indeed, the specific conditions of employment in the automobile industry made it possible for Black workers to assume key roles not only in the production process, but also in the union and its struggles. The upshot was, Boggs writes, at times to “raise problems which the white workers and the union had never before had to face, often causing splits inside the union and among the workers.” But these “splits” had the effect not of weakening the union, but of strengthening it, as is evidenced by the wave of wildcat strikes the union rank and file set off throughout the war and the first decade after.

The tendency toward convergence and integration—of labor processes, wages, and skills, but also of Black and white—characteristic of the industrialization arc is seemingly reversed with the explosion of the service sector. Here the tendency is toward fragmentation and segmentation. Vast disparities open up between skills and wages, as labor processes are differentiated as dramatically as they were in the pre-industrial epoch. These disparities create a polarization of the labor market, in which a small fraction of well-remunerated jobs are set off against an ever expanding bottom end of the labor market consisting of low-skill, low-wage occupations.11 This polarization in turn depends on the segmentation of the workforce and the coding of certain types of labor as women’s work, or appropriate for Black workers (and especially Black women). Black workers are not only subject to higher rates of un- and under-employment than white workers—again, especially in recessions—but tend to be concentrated, when employed, in specific, often poorly-paid, segments of the labor market. Underrepresented in what remains of the manufacturing sector, as well as in construction, they are shunted into what are often called “caring” occupations, in health and education, where they often land at the bottom end of the wage scale.

These tendencies toward un- and under-employment, relative to white workers, as well as the broader segmentation of the labor market along racial lines—with Black workers disproportionately assigned low-wage service occupations—create at times insurmountable fractures within the working class, as workers are divided by industries, workplaces, skills, and so on. These divisions, and the general tendency toward fragmentation and divergence outlined above, make it especially difficult to organize workers into powerful workplace organizations of the kind that emerged in a rapidly industrializing US (a phenomenon, it should be repeated, that took hold in an environment of depression and global war). Above all, they make it possible, and even encourage, white workers to differentiate themselves from their Black counterparts, with whom they otherwise often share a great deal. White workers often find themselves differentiated from Black workers by the labor market, even and especially when they are forced to compete with those same workers for specific types of service sector occupations. Anti-Black racism is a consistent feature of American life. But it is undeniable that the particularly virulent racism of the last 30 years, including the overt and highly-articulated racism of the erstwhile liberals of the ruling class (think of the role played by “superpredator” trope in the Democratic Party of the 1990s) has its roots in these structural transformations.

The process I am describing amounts to a profound transformation of the labor market and the social division of labor and, with them, the composition of the working class in the US. These new segmentations, introducing widening fractures within the labor market with respect to both wage levels and definitions of “skilled” labor, are reinforced by workplaces that tend to be smaller and more spatially dispersed. The re-racialization of the labor market requires these articulations, which allow certain kinds of occupations—especially low-skill care work—to be encoded as “Black” jobs. By no means do Black workers have a monopoly on low-wage, low-skill personal service work. It is the very susceptibility of white workers being reassigned to such occupations that reinforces the racial stigma associated with them, and undoubtedly contributes to the more generalized, socially pervasive rise in white racism and resentment towards Black workers. Of particular note is the place of Black women workers in the contemporary service economy. Since the conclusion of the Civil War, Black women have historically had much higher labor force participation rates than white women (or Black men); but they have equally been excluded from both jobs in industry and the clerical work generally assigned to white women. This left work on farms and, especially, domestic labor in the homes of white families as their only source of income. Domestic labor of this sort was not only encoded as Black women’s work, it was deliberately excluded from New Deal-era social welfare provisions (the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farm laborers and domestic workers from coverage).12 Today, Black women are considerably overrepresented in low-wage service occupations, and in particular in “caring” occupations, compared to their white counterparts. The historical legacy of Black women’s exclusion from industrial and office work accounts for their overrepresentation in occupations like home health care aides, nurses’ assistants, and childcare providers: among the fast growing occupations of the past decade, and the lowest-paid.13

This breaking apart and recomposition of the labor market and the US working class since the 1960s—a recomposition that intensified racial and gender divisions within them—is part of a much broader pattern of crisis and disorder that beset the US economy from the late 1960s onward, unfolding over decades. When Boggs wrote The American Revolution in 1963, the US was on the verge not just of Johnson’s Great Society legislation—what would turn out to be the last hurrah of the New Deal order set in place in the 1930s—but also of the social explosions of the 1960s: the riots in Black cities on the one hand, the student and antiwar movements on the other. These social ruptures were accompanied by a slow-moving crunch on private sector profitability, a systemic crisis that would emerge full-blown with the “oil” crisis in 1973. By the early 1970s, a new political edifice was being constructed to confront these dilemmas. It is no accident that the crises of the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with the rise of a new Black political class, which began to assume power in major US cities (Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles). These political personnel represented the rise to power of a newly consolidated and expanded Black middle class, the primary beneficiaries of civil rights struggles of a generation before. But Black political power represented a poisoned gift, the helm of the municipal ship transferred at the very moment the devastations of deindustrialization began to surface in major US cities. The shrinking industrial workforce, combined with a property tax base that declined dramatically as the white working class fled for the suburbs, compelled city governments—whatever their stated political commitments—to slash social welfare spending dramatically and impose fiscal austerity. These conditions continued unabated throughout the decade, as a prolonged “stagflation” crisis beset the nation, combining rampant unemployment and inflation. Blighted inner cities were neglected and left to crumble.

In a process that would play out over decades, an unrelenting economic slowdown compelled cash-strapped local governments to reallocate what was left of their municipal budgets to policing their impoverished populations, just as, at the state and federal levels, crisis conditions gave rise to a prison-building spree. As cities were abandoned to their rustbelt fates, or in a few cases primed for gentrification, as real estate markets collapsed and speculators and developers swooped in, the face of the state mutated dramatically. Throughout the middle of the 20th century, the state played the role of ensuring the reproduction of the capital-relation by regulating labor markets and ensuring a social wage that coordinated the interests of labor and capital, above all by encouraging the sharing of the fruits of labor productivity gains won through the expansion of industry. As the profitability crisis of the late 1960s worsened into a broader economic and social collapse in the 1970s, the dwindling share of surplus value allocated to the state for social spending meant that its administration of social peace gave way to a more directly coercive role, in which the emergence of active social antagonists compelled the state to take sides openly, to resolve the conflicts through the use of direct force.14

Throughout these massive, tectonic shifts in the US social landscape, as the fracturing of the working class along new lines reinforced or reactivated racial divisions within it, new divisions within the Black “community” or “identity” surfaced. The expanded Black middle class, which would capture political power in many US cities and even appoint Black police chiefs, not only won access to the best schools and in many cases professional prospects (in the public and private sector) but often found itself at odds with the Black underclass it claimed to represent. Separated from it not only by educational achievement and income but often spatially as well, as the easing of Jim Crow-era housing discrimination allowed well-to-do Black families to leave their former neighborhoods, this class found its claim to “represent” the Black community compromised by its role in managing the social fractures running through these cities. Positioned between white elites and an impoverished Black working class, and largely absorbed into the Democratic Party apparatus, this class was deputized to play a mediating role between the traditional centers of economic and political power and a subaltern Black population that was increasingly distanced from the dwindling economic “core” of the country, which had shifted dramatically to business services, real estate speculation, and other activities which do not contribute to the growth of actual production. This task of mediating between an increasingly multiracial elite and what Boggs called the Black “outsiders” often required, paradoxically, the invocation or enforcement of the very racial divisions they themselves were transcending.


The American Revolution, written at the tail end of the postwar boom, could not entirely anticipate the history I have quickly recounted here: rapid deindustrialization leading to a segmented, racialized labor market; a subsequent and enduring profitability crisis lasting decades; and a dramatic political realignment that would assimilate the winners of the “civil rights movement” into a post-New Deal dispensation charged with managing this economic and social crisis through punitive means (prisons, police violence). But Boggs did see one thing very clearly: the New Deal compact was collapsing before his eyes. As early as 1955, in fact, with the defeat of “the Union,” Boggs understood the history of class struggle in the US to have breached a threshold. In The American Revolution, the struggles of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the CIO, along with the decisive role played by Black workers within them, are recounted at great length, but without a hint of wistfulness. The triumphs were considerable: the wildcat waves, the initiative shown by union rank and file, the control over the production process, the willingness of Black workers to directly confront racism on the shopfloor and in the union. The movement’s weakness, as Boggs saw it, was not to be held against it: the inability of “the Union” to go on the offensive against capitalist society as a whole, rather than just plant owners at the point of production, was less a failure on its part than a limit inscribed in its very organizational tissue. More importantly, Boggs saw that the conditions that enabled its breakthroughs—depression, war, and an older technical division of labor—had eroded entirely, replaced by a postwar boom, a nuclear-armed “peace,” and the imposition of automation in core industries. He wrote The American Revolution above all as a polemic against those (“Government officials, labor officials, and the university professors,” not to mention “well-meaning liberals”) who contended that the solution to unemployment, particularly among Black workers, was this or that program of “full employment,” the guarantee of the right to work. To the contrary, he held, what the automation of US industry and the unprecedented material abundance made possible by advances in labor productivity represented was not the “right to work” but the snapping of the link between the right to live and the need to work, between existence and the wages system.

It is often forgotten that the 1963 March on Washington was organized around the demand not just for civil rights (“freedom” from discrimination in housing, education, and the labor market), but also for the right to work (“jobs,” in the form of a federally-funded retraining program for the unemployed).15 The list of speakers that day included not just Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins, but also Walter Reuther, whom Boggs singles out as having run the radicals and communists out of the recently merged AFL-CIO. To this list of demands articulated by a group of civil rights, religious, and labor leaders, and to those pining for the resurrection of the militant CIO of the sit-down strikes and wildcat actions, Boggs opposed the course of the Black struggle in the South as he understood it, and offered a stunning analogy to clarify its meaning. What he saw there, as the conflict intensified in the early 1960s, was less the cherished myth of a non-violent mass movement that exerted a fundamentally moral pressure on the existing political class, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of the next year, than an increasingly violent conflict drawing in any number of actors fighting not only against one another, but also amongst themselves. Pointing to the clear achievements of King’s non-violent tactics (the Birmingham bus boycott, for example), he also underlined the violent nature of the response to them of white civilians and state authorities. Black southerners answered these “atrocities perpetrated by white civilians against Negroes”—lest we forget: the 16th Street bombing in September 1963 was just one of dozens of bombings of Black civilians in Birmingham between the late 1940s and 1963, earning the city the name “Bombingham”—by, in some cases, taking up arms of their own in self-defense.16 What Boggs saw in the Black struggle in the US South was not simply a non-violent mass movement whose objective was the securing of civil rights for Black citizens, but a mutation of the struggles undertaken by Black workers in northern industrial bastions: a migration of the wildcat strikes in the factories to open confrontation in the streets. These struggles represented, for him, a leap in antagonism, as Black workers found themselves no longer just confronting the boss, the union leadership, and racist coworkers, but waging “an offensive against white society.”

Amidst the terror campaigns carried out by white civilians in concert with local officials, state governments, and racist police forces, Boggs described what was unfolding in the South in the early 1960s not simply as a movement for civil rights—including the right to work—but as something closer to a nascent civil war, the most fitting analogy for which could be found in a contemporaneous conflict in North Africa. It was in the complex dynamics established by the war against the French colonial occupation in Algeria—a war that had recently “concluded,” in 1962—that Boggs saw the future course of the conflict in the US South. This conflict would not only, in an echo of the first Reconstruction, pit state authorities, intent on preserving Jim Crow and segregation, against federal forces, or federal troops against “white civilians,” including those organized into secret terror organizations (which Boggs compared, strikingly, to the Secret Army Organization in French Algeria). Nor would it entail an at-times violent, but still largely frontal, confrontation between Black civilians and the local authorities (“what is involved is not only the likelihood of open and armed revolt of the Negroes against state power in the South” [my italics]). The terrain of conflict Boggs sketches out would be extraordinarily complex, with both Black and white insurgents facing off not only against state authorities and racist white workers but also against “all the institutions of American society, and particularly those which are supposedly on their side (the labor organizations, the liberals, the old Negro organizations, and the Marxists)”:

[I]n the same way that, during the course of the Algerian Revolution, Algerians fought Frenchmen, and Algerians fought Algerians, and Frenchmen representing the national government eventually had to fight Frenchmen in Algeria, and the Algerians had to take over political power and now have to expropriate the property of Frenchmen—so in the United States the Negro revolt will lead to armed struggle between Negroes and whites, Negroes and Negroes, and Federal troops and armed civilians, and will have to move to political power and economic power. Already clashes between Federal troops and white civilians have been narrowly averted. The counter-revolution in the South may not yet be as well organized as the Secret Army Organization was in Algeria and France, but the attitudes, actions, and atrocities perpetrated by white civilians against Negroes are no different.

In proposing this analogy, Boggs emphasized the fact that where Algeria represented for the French state an external colony17, the US South—or more accurately, the Black population who live there—can be seen as an internal one. But the point of the comparison was not to map the various actors (nationalists, fascist army officers, and so on) and the parts they played in the conflicts onto one another. The upshot of the analogy was to explore the peculiarly fragmented theater of operations in which both conflicts unfolded. Above all, it was to envision the possibility that “the Negro struggle” would not simply be waged against the local authorities (police and politicians) and white civilians (some organized into terrorist groups who killed with impunity). It would not only pit one group of white civilians against another in a struggle against Jim Crow, in an echo of the war carried out against the institution of slavery a century before. It would also give rise to division within the Black community itself (“Negroes and Negroes”), a struggle of newly militant Black workers against “old Negro organizations like the NAACP” which—here again, Boggs proposed another dramatic analogy—“like the union [i.e. the labor movement] … at this stage of the struggle has been by-passed by harsh realities.”

The scenario Boggs anticipated in the early 1960s was, it seems, echoed in the events of late last spring. The conflict that unfolded then was remarkable in part because it did not merely set a militant Black minority against an unchanging white society, but instead brought to the fore deep divisions within what the media and the political class assume to be monolithic identities. The struggle against anti-Black violence, and first and foremost against the police murder of Black men, women, and children, was often waged against police departments staffed with and run by Black officers, in cities overseen by Black mayors. Within the movement itself, there were in turn splits between Black rioters and Black-led organizations that worked to tamp down the riots or prevent new ones from occurring. The riots were composed not simply of Black partisans, though they were often led by them: they included, in cities like Los Angeles, large numbers of Latinos as well. Just as important, however, was the participation of white workers—many of them, in the midst of the “shutdowns,” without work—in these actions, fighting alongside Black and brown comrades against white, Latino, and Black cops. These divisions within the identities “Black” and “white” were, importantly, articulated primarily along class lines. The George Floyd rebellion made it crystal clear that Black proletarians must fight on multiple fronts: not only against racist whites and murdering cops but against a peculiar form of racial domination (let’s call it “whiteness”) in which the Black middle-class is called upon to play a special mediating role between Black workers and class society at large. Naturally, many in the Black middle class, especially students, refused this role assigned to them. By the same token, white workers were split between those who, like their great-grandparents, condemned Black workers in the streets and those who joined them. The white middle class, for its part, was split between those who ignored the events altogether, those who embraced them while condemning “violence” (i.e. property damage and looting) and appropriated the events for their own purposes, and finally those who threw themselves into the struggle wholeheartedly, understanding at least implicitly that “the goal of the classless society is precisely what has been and is today at the heart of the Negro struggle.”

White workers in the US find themselves in a novel historical situation, one that accounts for the fractures opening up among them. On the one hand, the labor market in the US remains segmented along racial lines, in such a way that racial divisions within the working class assume an objective form, irreducible to the attitudes and behaviors of workers themselves. But this fragmentation of the labor market is itself enveloped within a longstanding arc of immiseration that affects Black and white workers alike, and exposes them to many of the same forms of direct (police shootings) and indirect (e.g. declining life expectancy for white workers) violence once thought to be inordinately imposed on Black workers. This process of immiseration, characterized by stagnant wages, declining labor force participation, rising rates of “labor underutilization,” and so on, has slowly chipped away at the advantages accorded white workers in the labor market. This apparent convergence of the fates of white and Black workers has contradictory effects. On the one hand, it probably accounts in no small part for the large number of white workers who participated in the George Floyd rebellion in its riotous first week. The erosion of “white skin privilege,” in a context of global immiseration, opens the way to new forms of solidarity among white and Black workers. But it also provokes the opposite response: the dwindling discrepancy between white and Black workers just as often incites new and virulent forms of racism, as white workers cling to often illusory figures of distinction and hierarchy within the class. It is this contradictory dynamic which is likely to play itself out in more dramatic forms in coming revolts: some white workers joining Black comrades in an assault on whiteness as other white workers cling desperately to its ruins.

It should be underlined, in this context of splits within the working class—between Black and white workers, and among white workers as a whole—that the Floyd rebellion unfolded largely at a distance from workplaces, where traditional forms of class struggle are said to occur. This makes a certain sense: the riots occurred in the midst of a massive and sudden spike in worklessness, after all. Many assumed that the “essential” workers forced to report to the warehouses, distribution hubs, and meat-packing plants during the pandemic would take matters into their own hands, shutting down what was left of the “economy.” Clashes surfaced across the country, but in a disconnected and unsustained way. We don’t know how quickly things might have spun out of control had the street actions been joined by interventions within plants or the logistics sector. In this sense, the rebellion echoed some of the weaknesses of the revolts in the early phase of the 2008 crisis—in Greece, in Egypt—whose fury and potency nevertheless left the production infrastructure largely intact.

The workplace struggles to come—we can be sure they’re near—will most likely assume the spontaneous, wildcat forms Boggs recounts in his history of the CIO and the role of militant Black workers within it. But the conditions that made those struggles so momentous, namely the convergence of war and depression, in a context of rapid industrialization, are no longer our own. We can imagine Black workers will play a crucial role in these struggles; but we can also assume that many of the struggles that erupt within workplaces will reproduce the racial dynamic of US society as a whole, with white workers both joining and attacking Black workers, and frequently enough, one another.

  1. Shemon and Arturo, “The Return of John Brown: White Race-Traitors in the 2020 Uprising,” Ill Will, September 4, 2020, I have learned a great deal from the series of articles on the rebellion published by Shemon and Arturo on
  2. One of the best analyses of the rebellion, Tobi Haslett’s “Magic Actions,” does this admirably. See “Magic Actions,”, May 7, 2021 ( In his “How It Might Should Be Done” (Ill Will, August 16, 2020), Idris Robinson likewise begins by insisting on the massive fact of the rebellion, as well as on the function denying (in the Freudian sense, almost: Verneinung) this fact plays in the subsequent recuperation of the movement: “A militant nationwide uprising did in fact occur. The progressive wing of the counter-insurgency seeks the denial and disarticulation of this event.” See
  3. Arrest records suggest that Latinos most likely made up a majority of those involved in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. We can reasonably assume the same pattern recurred this past spring in Los Angeles.
  4. For an extensive account of the riots across the US, see Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti’s “Prelude to a Hot American Summer,” Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2020,
  5. “The pace of looting and disorder may fluctuate from night to night, but it’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority. Some governors have mobilized the National Guard, yet others refuse, and in some cases the rioters still outnumber the police and Guard combined” (Tom Cotton, “Send in the Troops,” The New York Times, June 3, 2020,
  6. Joshua Clover, “66 Days,” Verso Blog, June 2, 2020,
  7. For data on changes in rates of unemployment in specific metropolitan areas as a result of the shutdowns, see:
  8. Idris Robinson makes this point with great clarity in his important intervention, “How It Might Should Be Done”: “While spearheaded by a Black avant-garde, this largely multi-ethnic rebellion managed to spontaneously overcome codified racial divisions. The containment of the revolt aims at reinstating these rigid lines of separation and policing their boundaries.” Similarly, one of the remarkable features of the mass movement in Egypt in 2011 was its ability to neutralize, at least in part and within the movement itself, the many divisions that organize Egyptian society (between Muslim and Christians, but also class layers—workers, street youth, educated middle classes, etc.), even as new contradictions appeared in their place. It is in the political “translation” of the movement that these divisions were reimposed. This dynamic is most likely a constitutive feature of mass movements.
  9. On this dimension of the conflict, see Shemon, “The Rise of the Black Counter-Insurgency,” Ill Will, July 30, 2020, See in particular his account of the counterinsurgency’s “triple dynamic”: “(i) the Black middle class strives to achieve the wealth and power of the white middle class, (ii) yet this requires it be willing to discipline the Black proletariat, (iii) with whom it nonetheless shares a sense of linked fate driven by the police’s and other white people’s inability to distinguish poor Black people from the hood from their suburban counterparts.”
  10. Harris-Dawson: “Anarchists are taking advantage of our pain with looting and violence—this is not Black Lives Matter or members of our community who have suffered from systematic racism and oppression—these are domestic terrorists.”;
  11. I discuss this fragmentation and polarization of the labor market with the onset of “deindustrialization,” as well as their effects on class composition and the difficulties these processes pose for organizing the class along traditional lines in great detail in my Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation (London: Reaktion, 2020).
  12. The special place of Black women in the history of class struggle and the labor movement in the US is an important question I can only touch upon here. On this topic, see the work of Angela Davis and Claudia Jones, among others. Elsewhere, I will attempt to address this issue as well.
  13. These data and more can be found here:
  14. On the role this protracted crisis had in the rise of “mass incarceration” and the punitive state, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definitive account in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  15. For the full list of demands, see “Goals of Rights March,” The New York Times, August 28, 1963,
  16. Boggs mentions in particular “ex-autoworker” Robert F. Williams’s initiatives to arm Blacks against KKK violence in North Carolina. In 1962, Williams published Negroes With Guns, a text that had a significiant influence on the Black Panther Party’s notion of Black community self-defense. On Bombingham and “Dynamite Hill,” see Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon and Schuster, 2001), which also discusses initiatives of Black citizens arming themselves in response to the white supremacist terror campaign.
  17. In fact, the French state considered Algeria an integral part of France as early as the mid-19th century, a detail which reinforces the notion that the conflict there had aspects of a properly “civil” war.


Jason E. Smith

Jason E. Smith writes about contemporary art, philosophy, and politics. His book, Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation (London: Reaktion, 2020) is part of the Field Notes series.


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JUL-AUG 2021

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