Empire Abroad. Empire at Home.

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This article also appeared in CounterPunch.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Americans are taught to revel in our power and supremacy. Over 650 major military bases span the whole world.  We wage endless wars. American corporations are the most powerful economic organizations in history. The fusion of economic and military power makes our empire unlike any the world has ever seen.

We may be “#1” but it is to this great empire that we have lost our souls and our democracy with it.[1]

The New Paradigm

No great wall separates U.S. foreign policy from domestic policy. The Manhattan Institute is an influential think tank founded in 1978 by William Casey, former head of all U.S. intelligence and Director of the CIA. In a 2006 report “Merging Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism Strategies,” they describe “The New Paradigm:”

We know too that globalization is a permanent fact. The international economy is the engine of our nation and the source of our wealth. It means that all the physical and conceptual walls associated with the modern, sovereign state—the walls that divide domestic from international, the police from the military, intelligence from law enforcement, war from peace, and crime from war—are coming down.

The institutions and ideas U.S. elites used to project “full spectrum dominance” onto the global stage have eventually become part of the political order in the U.S. The “full spectrum” includes us. 

It is empire — most of all — that dooms democracy and constitutional republics. As corporations have an insatiable drive for profit, empires have an insatiable drive for power. And that makes imperial actors hostile to the limits on authority, checks and balances, separation of powers and basic rights that the U.S. republic at least aspired to. As the institutions of representative democracy become weaker and weaker — devoted only to serving the corporate power and global empire — the need for social control of  the people becomes greater and greater.

Targeting Dissent in the USA

The “McCarthyism” of the 1950s was the first modern wave of coordinated social control. Truman stoked the fear and hatred of communism to serve foreign policy, but soon, in the hands of the FBI and unscrupulous politicians, it was turned against domestic dissent. The establishment decided that some ideas were so dangerous that American citizens did not have the right or capacity to think through them for themselves. The government would do the thinking for us.[2]

Dissent was equated with treason, and it was not until the hard fought battles of the civil rights movement that dissent was once again seen as legitimate. It’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King was widely accused of being a communist.

Starting in the mid-50s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program attacked dissenters. While the civil rights and black power movements were the primary targets of violent repression, almost all social movements were surveilled and disrupted. Today, protestors face escalating penalties, police violence, surveillance, and intimidation. Particularly since Trump’s election there have been a host of proposed laws that aim to criminalize first amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

Nixon turned to the “War on Drugs” to create the domestic equivalent of war and suppress the political movements. The War on Drugs — waged by Democrats and Republicans alike — went after hippies, the young and the black community as a way of penalizing the populations on which the movements depended.

 Now we know the outcome of the War on Drugs.

Over the past few decades the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system functions as an effective form of social control. Discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, predatory fine, fee and debt traps, and its gigantic sweep and size constitutes nothing short of a preemptive war against the most potentially rebellious parts of the population: the young, people of color, the poor.[3]

Mandatory sentencing laws passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton shifted the power from judges to prosecutors. By tilting power away from the judiciary and toward the executive, a highly “efficient” system of incarceration took shape.

Police often get military training appropriate to an occupation force.  Training that emphasizing weapons rather than conflict resolution. The “oil cops” at Standing Rock were employees of a private firm with ties to Blackwater, the corporation that provided the mercenaries used by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The use of facial recognition software, the recording and monitoring of electronic and phone communications and the commercialization of internet browsing data — all without consent or indictments — are part of the most sophisticated system of electronic surveillance ever created. Mass surveillance is a profound attack on the First Amendment. Knowing big brother is always listening chills free speech, dissent and free association.

The penal system chipped away other key provisions of the Bill of Rights including the protection from unwarranted search and seizure, the right to a trial, and the most fundamental rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

With 2 million behind bars, a million of which slave away for big corporations and the military, the penal system is the main example of how the empire’s increasing reliance on force and violence to solve political problems turned inward toward the American people.

But, as intimidating and brutal as the penal system is — it also a last resort. The use of force is evidence that the empire is losing control over the hearts and minds of increasing numbers of its subjects.

The NDAA on the Homefront

The line between empire abroad and empire at home was further eroded by provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The 1990 NDAA, passed by Congress and signed by President and former director of the CIA George Bush, allowed for the transfer of military weapons to domestic police forces accelerating the militarization of the penal system.

President Obama signed the 2012 NDAA which extended the rules of war worldwide — in effect making the US. homeland a theatre of war — by allowing indefinite detention without trial or justification, in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right of Habeas Corpus.

The NDAA also included provisions that allowed the “US government to broadcast American produced foreign propaganda in the U.S.”  And that is a lot of propaganda.  In 2009, $580 million was spend in Iraq and Afghanistan on the information war.  Another $500 million was spent by the Pentagon to produce fake Al-Qaeda videos. The NDAA essentially legalized the propaganda efforts of the CIA that were revealed as far back as 1975.

The first amendment is precise and sweeping: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”  The Bill of Rights is designed to protect the people from the power of government not to protect government from the people.

In the last weeks of his term, Obama signed off on a bi-partisan effort to amend the 2016 NDAA and establish a “counter-propaganda” program, once again placing government in a position to determine what is propaganda and what is not. In a free country, that is the job of the people.

The chilling logic behind Obama’s record prosecution of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act and the intense Russian-baiting unleashed by the Clinton machine was taken to it’s extreme conclusion when Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo targeted Wikileaks as “a non-state, hostile intelligence service,” in a direct threat to free speech, free press and public access to information.  Yet, in the last days of his term Obama insured that the 17 secret police forces would be able to freely share raw data and information gathered on millions of American citizens.

They can know all about us but we cannot know about them.

If the elites trusted the old forms of social order and enculturation— the media, educational system, family, military, church, or even the Constitution itself — to maintain order, would they need to create a system of mass surveillance, incarceration, and propaganda?

What a strange moment we live in!

The revolutionary vision of the Declaration of Independence, the checks on tyranny that structure the U.S. Constitution and the limits on government power listed in the Bill of Rights — though they be flawed, two and a half centuries old and obstructed direct democracy— are far more advanced than the form of government we now have.  There is no democratic representation in the U.S. today   We, the unrepresented people, are taxed and the represented corporations rule us.  The U.S. empire and the corporate power have done what the old British empire could not.

Only massive and disruptive social movements can unmask the abuses of power to truly test the limits of our rights.  The most important question: how do we organize the social movements necessary to restore democracy?  

Next: As corrosive as empire is to democracy, another set of institutions joined the  assault on republican forms of representation: the Corporate Power.

  1. See the work of The American Empire Project, “Empire, long considered an offense against America’s democratic heritage, now threatens to define the relationship between our country and the rest of the world. The American Empire Project publishes books that question this development, examine the origins of U.S. imperial aspirations, analyze their ramifications at home and abroad, and discuss alternatives to this dangerous trend.”  Also see Andrew Bacevich many articles and books such as  The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
  2. Ellen Schrecker, Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism in America
  3. https://befreedom.co/2017/03/04/organize-the-white-working-class/
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Radical White Workers During the Last Revolution

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Fifth in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

White Working Class Organizing in the ‘60s and ‘70s

“Poor whites are here today…to make ourselves visible to a society whose continued existence depends on the denial of our existence. We are here today united with other races of poor people, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Indians, and Black people in a common cause. That common cause is Freedom!”

Peggy Terry, The Poor People’s Convention June 1968

Yes, our common cause is freedom. The question is: how do we make that real? We will never know until we know our history. The long-lost story of anti-racist, radical white working class activism has been restored by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy in their invaluable book: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. Get it and read it now. The articles that follow are deeply indebted to their work.

During the 1960s and 1970s, radical activists set out to organize the white working class. They linked the pursuit of working class interest and economic democracy with anti-racist organizing. They discovered, and helped others realize, that white supremacy and racism are not a friend to white people but one of the main obstacles to fulfilling our own destiny as a free people.

The context was the last revolution. The civil rights, black power, feminist, student movements and community organizing set the stage for working class whites to make important contributions to the democracy movements of the time. While these efforts were initiated by various groups, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), radicalized working class youth, and the Black Panthers, they all eventually depended on the leadership of working class communities.

The organizers had been deeply radicalized by the social upheavals of the time. Yet, their own working class backgrounds often placed them on the margins of the New Left. But the activists knew the white working class had enormous untapped potential. The movement to stop the War in Vietnam, fight the bosses, and win the battle against racism needed the hard work and political vision that everyday working people could help provide. The organizers were radicals, many were communists, but virtually all were inspired by third world nationalism abroad and the Black Panthers at home.

The Emergence of White Working Class Radicalism Fits Recurring Patterns in the Social Movements of the 60’s. 

“Black Power” emerged out of the civil rights campaign as an attempt to found an independent, self-reliant movement with its own sources of power, leadership, and inspiration. Black power aimed to create a mass base mobilized around a growing consciousness of African-American identity and history. To do this black power advocates first suggested, then demanded, that white activists leave what had been a multi-racial civil rights movement. The white activists, despite their best intentions, brought with them subtle forms of white supremacy that inhibited the emergence of black leadership. Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael wanted white radicals to “organize their own” in a strategic division of labor much in the same way Black Power was trying to organize their own people. 1

Women active in the civil rights and student movements followed a similar path. Deeply troubled by the sexism and male domination of the movements they devoted their lives to, women struck out on their own to start the modern women’s movement. They went massive by focusing on consciousness-raising efforts. In millions of conversations with each other, women discovered that the everyday personal problems they experienced were rooted in institutionalized forms of oppression they identified as patriarchy and paternalism. The personal became deeply political.

The other pattern, set by the Black Panthers, was an attempt to solve one of the enduring problems of organizing. How do organizers that aim at fundamental social change engage everyday people? Their answer was to create self-reliant, community controlled service programs. This approach became known as “Serve the People” but was more tellingly called “Survival Pending Revolution” by the Panthers themselves. Best known for their free breakfast program for school kids, they also provided educational programs, legal and health services, programs for senior citizens, and free food for the poor of their community. And they became infamous for community self-defense against police brutality.2

The Panthers initiated an intermediate program that took evolutionary steps toward a vision of revolutionary change. The service programs were one part of bridging the gap. The other was bringing revolutionary politics within reach. One way the Panthers did this was by emphasizing universal values. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” Such values need little explanation, are not open to endless debate, and are self-evident.

The Panthers also drew their revolutionary ideals closer to the people by merging staunch anti-capitalism with a transformed version of American traditions. Beneath the glamour of the black beret and intense drama of asserting their 2nd amendment rights, the Black Panthers were studied revolutionaries. Huey Newton’s book, Revolutionary Suicide remains a classic, tragic, part of American revolutionary thought.

The Panthers learned from revolutionary efforts around the world but also laid claim to the ideals of the original American revolutionary colonists applying them to the black colony oppressed within the modern American empire. The last and longest part of the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program: What We Want/What We Believe — their “major political objective” — called for black self-determination by quoting, at length, the words of the American Declaration of Independence.

However history may judge the outcome, this model was widely influential for community organizing of the period and still shines a light we can follow if we dare.

And so it was, and so it is, with radical white working class organizing.

In Chicago, the SDS sent college students, armed with anti-imperialist ideas and marxist theory, into poor communities. The working class owes these students an enormous debt. The SDS provided the spark and the broader domestic and international context to the problem that workers faced. But, like women and the black power activists before them, white workers chafed under the often unconscious but still stifling cultural biases and assumptions of the student movement. The classism of affluent students limited the full potential of white working class communities. The students had the skills, education, resources, and upbringing that allowed them to take leadership roles. Like women and black power activists, white workers eventually asked the students to stand down and set out on their own to form organizations based on their own culture and political agenda.

Next: Community organizing by Chicago’s Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) set the standard for white working-class activism.


  1. Hillbilly Nationalists p 27
  2. Hillbilly Nationalists, p 68-69
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Trump, Empire and Our Long Retreat to Tyranny

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This article also appeared in Counterpunch.

There has been a lot of worry about the Constitution and basic democratic rights since Trump’s election. And worry we should. But, Trump did not fall from the sky, he is a product of our history.

Over the long course of human history, there has been nothing more hostile to democracies and constitutional republics than empire. Empires destroys republics from the inside out.[1]

And, empires demand and create enemies. In the opening act of our empire we fought our race enemy: the natives we tried to assimilate or eliminate. In the climactic scene of empire building after WWII we fought another “red menace:” the Soviet Union and communism.

But the American people were deeply tired of war. President Truman was convinced that  he would have to “scare hell” out of the people to commit the US to Cold War and global empire.   So evil was the Soviet Union, so alien was their way of life, that the red scare summoned up its opposite: American identity as innocent, good, chosen and exceptional.

Our new enemy was made out to be an existential threat even though Russia had just lost 20 million people fighting — as our ally — against Nazi Germany. Our global superiority was based largely on the fact that World War II had wrecked every major competitor. The US stood astride the world without equal.

But under the cover of Cold War the US empire all but disappeared from public view. We were not, according to the official story, an empire at all but the world’s greatest democracy defending the free world. We were not to blame for the costs of empire building: it was the Russian’s fault or the Chinese or the Vietnamese or the international communist conspiracy. The tyranny to come for America was sold with carrot and stick. Fear was the opener while pride in our might and exceptional character closed the deal. Today we still cloak empire with wars fought for “humanitarian” reasons, out of a “duty to protect.”

But no justification could hide the fact that empire changed America forever. A new form of government called the “national security state” now referred to as the “deep state,” emerged to manage our far-flung domain. The changes were stunning and decisively tipped constitutional “checks and balances.” Soon the executive branch exercised sweeping powers far beyond what the US Constitution allowed for.

The Imperial Presidency

The US president has war powers that would make a king jealous. The Constitution is crystal clear: only Congress has the right to declare war. The emergence of an executive that could unilaterally declare war and make continuous war preparations overcame the “separation of powers,” and undermined the rule of law.[2]

Tyranny was sure to follow.  It was after all an old story.

In 1793, James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, reflected on just how important it was to “disarm” the presidency of its “propensity to war.”

In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department….

The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man….War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement…. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace….

The executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war: hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence. [emphasis added]

“In proportion as they are free.” For Madison, the executive’s capacity to declare war has a direct and inverse relationship to freedom.

Not only does this mean that every war since WWII has been illegal — by our own highest law of the land — but that the system of check and balances, so carefully crafted by the framers has been tilted toward tyranny.

Executive power has grown persistently since WWII and every President, Congress and Supreme Court has added and abetting its growth. Only the anti-war movement of the Vietnam Era marshaled popular resistance to slow, for a time, the empire.

After the US lost the Vietnam War the liberal project of “nation-building” could never be fully revived. Nation-building was our illusion and our conceit: we were not aggressors but engaged in the godly task of helping oppressed people build stable democracies and resist communism.

But by the first phase of US war in Afghanistan (1978-1992) the current pattern of disorder and decline emerged. US elites opted for the chaos of weak or failed states. US sponsorship of the Mujahideen gave birth to modern armed “islamic fundamentalism.” The US would come to rely more and more on shifting coalitions of unstable militias prone to terrorism and internecine warfare.  To hide the war and dampen military and civilian dissent the elites grew dependent on corporate mercenaries.  And for cover, Bill Clinton sold us  “humanitarian war:” noble war, not driven by interest or advantage but for human rights or to end suffering.  It is a paternalistic version of nation-building that harkens back to White Man’s Burden.

If this is our history then Trump is very much our President. Trump is an imperial president well suited to a system that values power and authority over democracy and thrives on crisis, chaos and war. And the corporate media agrees that  Trump’s wars are full of “heart” and humanitarianism.

Militarism

Before the Korean War the US regularly maintained only a small army and officer corp.  In time of war armies were raised by mass conscription and the citizen-solders were sent home when the fighting stopped. There was no military-industrial complex. Auto and airplane factories were converted to wartime use and converted back. There were war profiteers, yes, but never a powerful and permanent war industry directly linked to government. American has a violent past, true, but we were not militarists.

President Eisenhower was so disturbed by what he saw that he chose his farewell address to give the country serious warnings about the military-industrial complex.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implication. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted, only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.…We should take nothing for granted.” Today war is big business  and we cannot take democracy for granted.

Secret Police Forces

Alcohol prohibition gave us the FBI, the first national secret police force in the US. But, it was after WWII that the secret police grew and became independent actors in both domestic and international affairs. Starting with the 1948 Italian elections, the CIA quickly developed a global network based on intervention in elections, the overthrow of governments, and assassination. Secrecy, deception and covert activities beyond the rule of law was standard operating procedure from the beginning.

Truman, one of the chief architects of US empire and the Cold war created the CIA . These new institutions were such a troubling departure from US politics that even he feared that the CIA had gone rouge.

Truman shared his concerns in a public letter:

For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government….I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue….

Now we have 17 secret police forces and they have become a “policy making arm of government.” They are real players in the domestic politics of the US, intervening in our own elections,  and suppressing free speech and dissent by spying routinely on millions of Americans.

The imperial presidency, militarism and secret police forces have hollowed out the US Constitution and left our democracy in tatters. Tyranny is the price of empire. The struggle against war and empire is essential to the struggle for democracy. We cannot have one without the other. Real resistance to Trump will be made by those willing to confront the history which made Trump possible.

Empire means more than foreign policy. It did not take long after WWII for the same institutions and the very same culture of war and dominance to fundamentally alter politics at home by creating new forms of social control in America.

Next: The War at Home. The Empire Within.

 

  1. For more on US empire see the work of Chalmers Johnson, especially, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. Andrew Bacevich also presents many well-documented and argued accounts. For example see The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
  2. Ryan Alford, Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law.
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Strategy Begins by Reclaiming the Discourse on White Privilege

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Fourth in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

Reclaim The Discourse on White Privilege

White privilege, an indispensable tool for teaching white people how we had been blinded and bribed into becoming the tools and fools of the elites, got converted into a way to demand obedience to the machine — the Democratic Party in particular — and silence working class discontent and resistance. The not very hidden message is that the corporate order is working for white workers. Period. Try organizing with that rap. How do we talk to white people about white privilege? Start by reclaiming the discourse.

Start with the fact that the white working class is in fact ruthlessly exploited but by virtue of our class — or even our gender, age, sexuality or military status — but not because of our race.  And that class exploitation is made possible because the working class is divided: white privilege is the wedge.

White privilege discourse was misappropriated from the social movements to undercut support for Sanders and the Green Party in the 2016 election. Dissenters were widely attacked as privileged.  The twisted logic of this argument:  only the privileged can afford to revolt and the truly oppressed will just have to take what is handed out and be content with more of the same. In this upside-down privilege, dissent is rooted in privilege and obedience in oppression.

Progressive writers responded to the Democrats in a number of insightful articles.  Take a look at articles by Patrick Barrett and Deepa Kumar, Kate McMahon, Morgana Visser and Danielle Decourcey.   Perhaps the most useful outcome of this debate was Rashna Batliwala Singh’s and Peter Matthews Wright‘s argument about “Imperial Privilege.”

Indeed, so pervasive is this particular form of privilege that it is not limited to the “usual suspects,” e.g., militarists or right-wing politicians. Imperial privilege makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of U.S. militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.

Imperial privilege is the hidden model for the Democratic Party’s attempt to discipline dissenter by demanding we “check our privilege” by endorsing the status quo as a “humanitarian” gesture and a “duty to protect” the less fortunate.1 They act as if they know what the people they are “protecting” want for themselves. It’s a lot to presume.

At what point in the future would this duty to protect allow for risk, struggle, and revolution? Never. Instead liberal privilege is a study in safe logic. For the Democrats, privilege became yet another social control discourse that also fit comfortably within the long established arguments that “there is no alternative” and the “lesser of two evils.”

Privilege discourse is further weakened by confusing power with privilege. We all commonly refer to the Koch brothers, George Soros, Bill Gates, or the Clintons and Trumps as privileged. But that is not quite right. They have real power and real wealth. They do not need or have privilege. Privilege is a means of dividing the people, it is the payoff poor whites or poor men or everyday people earn in return for our identification with and support for the powerful.

Are Privileges Earned or Unearned?

The liberal or Democratic Party version define privilege as unearned benefits or unfair advantages, but its logical only holds within the meritocratic view of our economy that is so central to maintaining order. We are all taught to believe that people get what they deserve and work for. White men can pull themselves up better because we are born to boots and bootstraps. There is a certain truth to that, but it is a less than useful reference point for organizers aiming at social transformation. The framework of merit smuggles into privilege discourse some of the basic cultural assumptions that rationalizes the existing order.

The true nature of the corporate economy is to distribute wealth according to political power not individual merit. Meritocracy and the ideas of Social Darwinism that came before it tells us that the world is a true and transparent regulator of merit.  The good and worthy rise; the weak and stupid fall as competition sorts thing out. But given an equal chance, the argument goes, people of color, women, or working class people generally can rise through the ranks to claim their individual success. If enough individuals earn enough wealth than the problems of race, class, gender or sexuality can be solved. Can they not?  We are treated to a parade of celebrities, athletes, and politicians, to prove the point.

Faith in merit disappears class struggle by suggesting we are all just individuals performing in some magical free market. This is total bullshit.

Meritocratic beliefs make it easy to view the white working class as lazy deplorable failures. After all, we are white. With that privilege in hand, what could stand in our way? Class? What is that?

From an organizing perspective, it is precisely our privileges that stand in our way.

While there is nothing wrong with a little utopian thinking of a visionary kind, merit and the free market is the corporate utopia and should not be the basis of our strategy. Real benefits for the people are won in struggle not earned by hard work. And it is white privilege that disrupts our ability to organize effectively because it routinely recreates racist ideas and divides us from our allies: Blacks and natives are poor, we are told,  because they deserve it and deserve our contempt as well.

These ideas of merit and hard work are also part of the “protestant work ethic” and are an essential element of the American mythology of exceptionalism. Unlike every other country in the world where someone’s fate is largely determined by the accidents of birth — their race, class, sexuality or gender — America is a land of opportunity outside the normal course of history.  The white working class tends to be either invisible or unworthy to those confident that the US is exceptional because we fly in the face of the cherished myth.

The liberal version of white privilege appears to take on racism but fails because it props up the existing order by limiting our understanding of the deeply historical and institutionalized nature of racism and white supremacy.

If instead we look at the past to see how power works, history reveals a far more devastating critique of privilege than simple unearned benefits. Whites do in fact earn their privileges and in the worst possible way. We earn privilege by the betrayal of fellow workers and fellow humans. The soldiers and veterans we send into dubious battle, we stab in the back. We betray our true fellow Americans. By our disloyalty, we forfeit our place among “we the people.”

And betrayal is far harder work than we dare admit to ourselves. High stake betrayal wounds even the perpetrator. Betrayal deeply and grotesquely deforms our spirits. The blind spots, denials, and airs of moral superiority we adopt to cover the wound have become the basis of a white character willing to strike again. This is in all of us. It makes us weak. And then we pass our deformed humanity to our children in silent acts of acquiescence to the established order even if not in overt racism. At the end of the day, we have betrayed ourselves and our own.

Privilege is for Pawns

My purpose is not to shame and blame but to reveal a liberating truth: racism and white privilege hurts white people. It undermines our capacity to fight for democracy. It undercuts our economic power. Racism diminishes our own spirits and humanity. Racism must be fought for our own good. White privilege makes us pawns in their game.

White privilege is chump change. We can return our 30 pieces of silver as Judas returned the price of his kiss. And with all of our blind spots and flaws, we can start working with white people to oppose racism. Let’s start by listening carefully to white workers and fighting for our needs and interests. We do not have to be perfect; we just have to be activists.

If we bring patient listening skills and anti-racist perspective to all of our struggles, we can help white people discover that racism is against their interests. If we do this, we can earn a distinction the future will thank us for. Perhaps we can stop being white all the time and through and through. Maybe we can become European-Americans and take our rightful place as revolutionaries and equals among the rising ranks of “we the people”.


  1. I use “duty to protect’ and “humanitarian”  to highlight the underlying similarity between Democratic party uses of privilege, and their justification for war and empire.
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On Leverage*

Revolt Against Plutocracy

#leverage

Revolt Against Plutocracy’s trans-partisan, inside/outside strategy of electoral revolt against the establishment will remain active to let Democrats know in all national elections, we are #ProgressiveOrBust. Party affiliation is of secondary consideration, a tactic to deploy until a third party can successfully challenge Democrats in elections. Half of the traditionally Democrat Party progressive base should be enough to provide the leverage needed. It’s not hard work; we’re just changing parties to either compel reform of the Wall Street-backed neoliberals or escort them to the dustbin of history. With the selection of Clinton-supporting and Obama White House recommended Tom Perez as the Party Chairman, the establishment retains control of the Democrats.

So why bother supporting progressive candidates running as Democrats? It depends on the congressional district. If a popular progressive is running either as an independent or progressive party candidate against the establishment Democrat, “or bust” messaging on social media…

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White Privilege

 

Third in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

White Skin Privilege

Writing for the John Brown Commemoration Committee in 1965,  Theodore Allen innovated the discourse on “white skin privilege.” In 1967 he co-authored “White Blindspot” and in 1969 published “Can White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?” According to Jeffrey B. Perry,

Allen’s work influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left” and it paved the way for the “white privilege,” “race as social construct,” and “whiteness studies” academic fields.1

Originally white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” that was simultaneously denied Blacks.

We can track that presumption of liberty straight to today’s “presumption of innocence” that we are all supposed to enjoy but are all too often denied Natives, Blacks, other people of color, poor people and those that do not conform to gender or sexual social norms. The vast militarized penal system all to often deprives people of color the “presumption of liberty:” the right to be innocent until proven guilty and to enjoy the equal protection of the law as demanded by the Constitution.  As the presumption of guilt becomes normalized it effects everyone including the white working class.

Unlike liberal interpretations of white privilege, Allen’s understanding was that white privileges are contrary to the long-term political and material interest of white people. The benefits, bribes, and appeals to white people do have a real value, which is one reason they work, but that value is far less than the value that would be produced by class solidarity and cross-racial action to raise wages, win political power and establish justice.

In 1969 Allen wrote:

The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it and a diet more nearly adequate. It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself and his family, but that the black worker gets less than the white worker. The result is that by thus inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power-masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure…2 [emphasis added]

And still, “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…”

Look at mass incarceration today. According to a Pew Research Center study  2010 US incarceration rates for white men are 678 per hundred thousand and 91 per hundred thousand for white women. While the incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women) white men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than those of comparable countries.

The US rate for white male incarceration alone is far greater that every other European incarceration rate for total prisoners of all classes, races and genders.  And the Russian incarceration rate skews the statistic as it towers above every other European country at 439 per hundred thousand.  The average rate for European Union members was 135 in 2006. US white women for example, are incarcerated at higher rates than the total of all classes, races and genders for an astounding 20 European counties.

The penal system captures the effect of white privilege in a nutshell.  “You got more than the blacks don’t complain.” But so much less than justice, freedom or democracy would demand. Yet our relative privilege allowed us to consent to the war on drugs and the “get tough on crime” politicians that aimed at Blacks first but who ultimately created an authoritarian police state that now aims to make even the exercise of constitutional rights a criminal act. We all lose, including losing our rights to a trial by jury that the Bill of Rights claims to protect. The new penal system also got tough on whites as it garrisoned the entire country with a militarized force dedicated to protecting the established order.

The Psychic Wage

The wage harder to put a price on, and one of the most serious remaining obstacles to overcoming racism, is what W.E.B Dubois, the great American thinker, called the “psychological wage.“3  The psychological or psychic wage is that highly coveted sense of personal, spiritual, and moral superiority we are taught to derive from our skin color.

This psychic wage is collected, in part, by an imaginary connection with whites of high status. White privilege creates vertical solidarity that connects working class whites to the power and glory of the rich, strong, and celebrated white elites, even though our overall political and economic interests are shared by working class people of color. White workers are exploited by the boss and sent to die in their wars daily. Our privilege gives us the delusion that we are not who we truly are.

James Baldwin, the black writer and visionary, put it this way:

[A]s long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish…in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us….But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers. [emphasis added]

Whiteness and privilege distances us from our “own experience and the experience of others.” You may feel connected to a Trump or a Clinton for an Obama, or aspire to become a general or a billionaire, but to them we are but chumps and pawns.

Solidarity — Horizontal or Vertical? 

Yes, it is the privileges whites have that disrupt horizontal solidarity, but when those bribes are eroded, even partially, by debt, poverty, the long term decline of  wages, poor health, drug addiction, and hopelessness, their hypnotic power weakens. Young whites in particular have come to see the transparent truth that the system is rigged against them, and perhaps above all, that the scientific forecast of life on our planet is so poisoned and precarious that no amount of privilege will save them.

These changes in consciousness are signs that we might again cross into revolutionary territory. The unending recession of 2008 has forced whites to choose. Cling ever harder to the psychological wage, hate, and white supremacy, or join the movements toward social reform, revolution, resistance, and love.

In a broader sense, it is the corporate power that is creating the crisis in privilege as a form of social control.   If the corporate state can no longer allow any meaningful improvements in the lives of everyday people — and impose only austerity and growing poverty — we can expect that both the Democrats and Republicans will increasingly turn to the psychological wage as the remaining form of compensation, bribe and appeal. In different ways perhaps, Trump, Clinton and Obama have nonetheless resorted to the vertical solidarity of nationalism and/or corporate forms of political identity to block the political space that should be occupied by struggles over economic democracy, equality, ecology and peace.

The vertical solidarity of white privilege should make us very wary of other forms of vertical solidarity that have been a typical tool of the elites. Tokenism and machine politics establish a political and spiritual connection when people identify with the managers of war and empire because they share the same gender, sexuality, color, class or national origins. The degree to which there was uncritical feminist support of Clinton —and many feminists did oppose Clinton — is the measure of how psychic wages can operate to protect the existing order. The unfounded belief by some liberals that Obama is a civil rights leader — and many in the new civil rights movement do criticize Obama — shows the degree to which the vertical solidarity that has so damaged white people, and the social movements, will have a similar effect if offered to others, even those historically exploited and oppressed by the established order.5

Privilege, vertical solidarity and the psychic wage remain potent means of maintaining social control at home and empire aborad. In the same way white privilege blinds white people to their own invented identity and the depth of racism, imperial privilege blinds all of us to the ongoing imperial project with its constant bloodletting and profit making that has become our way of life.

Our best move is to take on the most deeply entrenched form of privilege: white privilege.  For that we need to organize the white working class.

It’s Not Academic.

Debates continue over Allen’s assertion that the white race and white privilege was invented as a conscious and deliberate act of the oligarchs. Was it that, or the general outcome of the historical conditions of the time? The key argument for activists, however, is that white racism is not itself innate and therefore can be changed. History is made by human action. Sometime human acts are conscious, even conspiratorial. Other times we contribute to change through a multitude of human decisions; local and global, visionary and parochial.

But the political world is not an academic debate. It is up to us to prove that white racism is not innate in white people and that racism can be changed by activism.


  1. The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy p 8-9
  2. Ted Allen, Can White Workers Radicals be Radicalized p. 175

3. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction [New York, 1935], pp. 700-701.

4. An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis

5. For more see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chapter 3.

Posted in Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, Uncategorized, White Privilege, White Supremacy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Ted Allen and The Invention of the White Race

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Second in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

Ted Allen 

There is no better place to start organizing than with political strategy inspired by Theodore W. Allen’s classic book: The Invention the White Race: Volume I Racial Oppression and Social Control and Volume II: The Origins of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America.

Before we continue, a word or two about Ted Allen.

Ted Allen was a working-class white man without college training but with a long history of activism and a deep determination to uncover the truth about how racism came to be in America. Allen was a Marxist and used a class-based analysis to guide his study. Jeffrey B. Perry continues Allen’s work today, and you should view his presentations on Allen’s legacy.

Much of the power of Allen’s ideas comes from his unmatched devotion to research. He spent more than 20 years digging deep into the colonial archives of Virginia and mastered what is, arguably, the most extensive body of evidence ever produced on race in early colonial America. Allen contested and bested some of the most acclaimed historians in the field. The working-class reader cannot help but revel in the fact that a worker without a degree kicked Ivy League butt.

But getting class identity jollies aside, Allen’s work is such a useful guide to action because he did what no other historian did. Allen created an argument that might help us discover a truly political strategy to fight racism among whites based on empowerment, class solidarity, community interest, and self-interest, rather than relying on morality, guilt, and shame. In other words, Allen innovated a revolutionary approach to fighting white racism and white privilege.

The Invention of the White Race

What Allen discovered transformed our understanding of race in America and can transform our organizing practice and activism. He shocked readers with a startling finding:

“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people there; nor according to colonial records would there be for another sixties years.”1

Oh, yes, there were English and Irish, but nowhere in the colonial record is there evidence that law or society granted special privileges to people based on European origin.

The white race and white identity were “invented,” Allen argued, by the ruling elite of Virginia, in order to divide laboring people in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. The white race was constructed and used as a political instrument to divide and conquer.

How did this come to be?

By 1620 or so, a system of unfree labor became the dominant labor system in Virginia. The system was essentially slavery, some “bond-laborers” had time-limited contracts, but most servitude was open to interpretation by custom. A majority of these bond-laborers were Europeans.

The archival evidence is clear, as well, that the role of African and African Americans was “indeterminate.”2  From 1619 to the years following Bacon’s Rebellion, the status of black people was contested in the courts and in the fields. Africans held a variety of social and economic positions: some were limited term slaves, some free, some endured lifetime bondage, while others were property holders, even including a few slave owners.

It was not until after Bacon’s Rebellion, or the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion to be precise, that law and society created a new custom of racism, and for that to happen, the white race had to be invented. What was the trigger?

“[I]n Virginia, 128 years before William Lloyd Garrison was born, laboring class African-Americans and European-Americans fought side by side for the abolition of slavery. In so doing, they provided the supreme proof that the white race did not then exist.”3

The Rebellion occupied the capital of Jamestown and pointed the way toward freedom for everyone, by contesting the rule of the oligarchs who had grown rich on slave labor and land stolen from the natives.

“[I]t was the striving of the bond-laborers for freedom from chattel servitude that held the key to liberation of the colony from the misery that proceeded from oligarchic rule…4

After the rebellion was suppressed, law and custom began to shift. Europeans were increasingly designated as “white” in the historical record, and given privileges that conferred a “presumption of liberty” while blacks were increasing subjected to legal and cultural limits to their freedoms. Whites were encouraged to view blacks with contempt and see their inferior social positions as proof of innate inferiority.

Allen summarized the early system of white privilege as “simply the right to be free.”

All authorities agree…that the conditions of the masses of white industrial and agricultural workers, North and South, were abominable in the decades before the Civil War. Still they had their white-skin privileges: The white worker was an actual or potential citizen, with citizen’s rights; the black had no rights. The white, as possessor–if not immediately, then within a definite time–of his own person, had legal freedom of movement; the black did not own himself. The white, if bound by indenture, debtor apprenticeship, or in some other manner, might still succeed in escaping into the free-moving white world much more easily than the black worker. As possessor of himself, the white workers could–even though not always immediately– take a better job, if he could find one; the black had no such chance. The white worker, if opportunity afforded, could learn to read and then study as a means of improving his lot; the black worker was forbidden by law even to learn to read. The white worker could aspire to become a farmer, a merchant or an industrialist; the black had only flight, revolt, revenge to dream of.  At this point, the white skin privilege of the white worker was simply the right to be free…5

The white race, white supremacy, and black subordination were all products of the same historical period in which the slave system was recreated as a racist system to prevent the threat of united action by the people. Today the new oligarchy still relies on their ability to divide and conquer.

Here is Allen’s legacy and challenge to us: racism is historical, it is the product of human activity. If it was then, it is now.  Racism was founded on a system of privileges designed to win working class white people’s support for slavery. And so it is to white privilege that we must look if we want to free ourselves from being the tools and fools of the rich and powerful.

We must be pawns no more.


  1. Allen, Invention of the White Race Vol. II p X
  2. Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 178
  3. Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 214-21
  4. Invention of the White Race Vol. II p 212
  5. Can White Workers Radicals be Radicalized. p176 in Revolutionary Youth & The New Working Class/Lost writing of the SDS. 

 

Posted in American Culture, Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, White Privilege, White Supremacy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment