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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Reclaim 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 with the same aim as 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 logic only holds within the meritocratic view of our economy that is so central to maintaining order. The idea of merit teaches us that people get what they deserve and work for. “What you earn is what you learn,” Bill Clinton claimed, and the “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” Democrats still insist it’s true.

White men can pull themselves up better because we are born to boots and bootstraps. There is truth to that of course, but it is a less than useful reference point for organizers aiming at social transformation. Faith in merit smuggles into privilege discourse some of the basic cultural assumptions that rationalize 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 can rise through the ranks to claim their individual success. If enough individuals earn enough wealth then 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 systematic 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: white supremacy 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. Don’t be a chump.

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

White privilege is a thing. It’s just not the same thing the corporate Democrats use to boss us around with.  The concept of white privilege was not invented by some liberal university  professors.  In fact, the concept of white privilege was invented by a white man: a radical activist and historian who never went to college.

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

In our deep past, white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” to white people 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 used to attack dissent, 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]

To this day,  “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…”  Some of the prisoners can control other prisoners but never challenge the warden.

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.  The incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, and almost three times higher for black women. (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women). Yet,  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 working class 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.

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Ted Allen and The Invention of the White Race

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Second in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

This article also appeared in CounterPunch.

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

Organize the White Working Class!

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First in the series: Organize the White Working Class!

“ . . . their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis-a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”– Theodore W. Allen, Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, 1975*

“The ‘white race’ is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration.”- Theodore W. Allen,Taped Interview with Chad Pearson, SUNY-Albany, May 13, 2004*

 

The time is ripe.

 

At no time since the ’60s has social movement activism created such rich opportunities to oppose racism and engage white people in a struggle over what it means to be white and a worker in America. And that engagement will be most successful in the world’s best classroom: movement building, organizing and activism.

Like many times in our past, Americans of African descent have led the way. The new civil rights movement, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and the resistance to Trump’s reemergent racism, have given birth to an array of new organizations and political projects. Like no other single scholarly work, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness has rallied the troops and identified the enemy.

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. If you favor social change then the vast militarized penal system must be confronted. It controls us all black and brown and white.

The new civil rights movement has challenged white activists to confront white racism at a time of economic and workplace conflict. The never ending recession of 2008 has intensified wealth inequality across the board with the upward redistrubion of wealth falling hardest on Americans of color.1  Good full time jobs are going and in all likelihood they are not coming back.

There is a widespread understanding that the economy and political system are rigged.   One of the main rigs is the class line: corporate power now controls the economy and government wielding both great wealth and global political power. Once the insatiable demand for power and profit drive government, representative democracy fails and can no longer deliver significant economic benefits to everyday people. Yet, Occupy and the Sanders campaign, the resistance to Trump and other social movements have revealed the discontent of millions of white people who have the capacity to create progressive social movements and even make history.

But the working class has deep flaws that have until now proven fatal: it is divided. Race, gender, sexuality, age cut us up in many ways. If history is a guide to action we can retell a crucial part of the tale by making a challenge to white supremacy central to our organzing efforts. To do that, white people must combat the system of white privliges that has long been the primary means by which racism has been nurtured and sustained.  Those white privileges are institutionalized in a complex web of arrangements in housing, education, health care,  law enforcement, election procedures and voting that further rig the system against people of color.  But because white or male privileges have been so deeply entrenched for so long they often appear as seemingly neutral measures of merit, at least to white people.  How do we shine light on this blindspot?

Resistance and action are the best paths to revelation. Institutionalized racism is historic and collective and cannot be addressed through individual repudiation alone. You can’t just give it up, even if you want to, except through joining the social moments for change and organizing at the point of privilege. The purpose of these privileges is to keep us all in line.  White organizers and activists who challenge the system have taken the first crucial step in repudiating privilege.  Many organizing projects await and all of them are difficult and challenging. We can expect no easy victories.

Organize Our Own?

As the ’60s revolution came up against the wall of institutionalized and interlocking obstacles, civil rights organizers experimented with Black Power and Women’s liberation. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Jo Freedman, Shulamith Firestone and others authors of “To the Women of the New Left” offered up some hard-won knowledge.2  They told a sometimes bitter but compelling truth: organizers were most effective working within their own communities.

Speaking to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X put it this way.

Now if white people want to help, they can help. But, they can’t join. They can help in the white community, but they can’t join. We accept their help….They can…work in the white community on white people and change their attitude toward us.3

“Organizing your own” was not a call to white separatism, but a way to lay the basis for coalition movements in which working class whites saw their own destiny bound up with that of black folks.   In Black Power and White Organizing, Anne Braden, a legendary southern white civil rights organizer, wrote:

Certainly the inherent needs of poor white people are reason enough to organize—they, like poor black people, are ill-fed, ill-housed and lacking in opportunities for education, medical care, political expression, and dignity. But I think what we are recognizing is that these white people will never be able to solve these problems unless they find ways to unite with the black movement seeking the same things.

My purpose is not to present false either/or choices. The organizational forms we create are up to the local situation and local actors. White organizers can make contributions in multi-racial groups, coalitions, unions, as well as in community groups among the white working class.  Check out the visionary work of Showing Up for Racial Justice for a recent example of white working class organizing. But one way or another, we white organizers must reconsider ways of talking and organizing around white supremacy and white privilege.

Luckily for us we can follow the work of the great white working class intellectual, Ted Allen, as our north star.  Next we will look at the strategic implications of his classic work: The Invention of the White Race.


*Both quotes cited in Jeffrey B. Perry, The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy  p. 2 and p. 5

  1. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation, 27 and 28.
  2. See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
  3. Malcom X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.
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No Ban! No Wall! No War?

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This article also appeared in Counterpunch

No Ban! No Wall! No War?

As I watched the corporate news on demonstrations against Trump’s travel ban, I was struck by the fact that on-going wars in the Middle East were not mentioned. It was as if these refugees were fleeing Nazi Germany. No, they are fleeing the wars that we the American people have been waging against them for many years.

It is a good thing to show compassion, declare our solidarity with Muslims, or to talk about our own immigrant histories, but we will fail to oppose Trump and make a real difference if we do not act against war and empire.

The corporate media avoids connecting our wars to Trump’s ban because war and empire is a matter of agreement among the political elites, an elite that the corporate media is very much a part of.  In a remarkable reversal of the Russian hacking story — which was broadcast  constantly for weeks without evidence — the connection between war and refugees is patently obvious and glaringly absent.  What are they trying to hide?

If a new anti-war movement emerged from the resistance to Trump it  would have the potential to shake the entire system. So the Democrats try to focus as narrowly as they can on Trump’s social and psychological pathologies while waiting to make up for their loses in the 2018 mid-term elections as the default party. The corporate media follows suit.

The anti-war movement of the Vietnam era was so powerful not just because of its compassion for others and moral condemnation of evil, but because it was a real political resistance movement that led people beyond the “liberal consensus.” The liberal consensus was a set of interlocking cultural norms and beliefs. It basic assumption was that  America was the supreme and exceptional leader of the free world.   The passage beyond conventional ways of thinking and acting occurred because being anti-war demanded a deep criticism of the established order both liberal and conservative.

Remember that the Vietnam war was fought by liberals like John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy’s war advisors became known as the “Best and the Brightest,” a high powered  team of academic and industrial superstars that could, it turned out, calculate everything but understand nothing. Lyndon Baines Johnson escalated the conflict but was also the president that passed civil rights legislation on a scale that no other modern president has even dared. Liberal leaders like Hubert Humphrey and Edward Kennedy pursued the war as well.

Nixon won in 1968 largely because he ran to Humphrey’s left, as an anti-war candidate of sorts.  He returned the war to conservative leadership but, it was a conservatism  that would fit comfortably within the corporate wing of the today’s Democratic Party. Both Nixon and Hillary Clinton embraced Henry Kissinger who, seeking power like a missile seeks heat, has now gone over to Trump’s side.

It was the anti-war movement, against this basket of poltical icons, that crossed the threshold to a meaningful, principled opposition.  Two example will suffice to show just how deep it all went.

In April 1967 Martin Luther King rocked the civil rights movement and the nation with his first major speech opposing the war in Vietnam and linking war to racism and poverty. King crossed into revolutionary territory, stepped outside the liberal consensus, and became the leader of a movement for peace, racial equality and economic democracy. Let’s not forget that King was not a Democrat or a Republican. Leading up to the 1968 election, King supported dissenting candidates and even considered an independent run for president.

We must also recall the other truly revolutionary frontier crossed by American soldiers and veterans. In an unprecedented political movement, thousands of American soldiers and veterans opposed the very war they had fought in.

The leadership of the GI and Veteran anti-war movement were not reluctant draftees but rather gung-ho volunteers who were willing to risk life and limb to do the right thing. When the reality of combat in Vietnam dashed their high hopes they turned against war and empire. The military peace movement made history in ways no other peace movement could: soldier resistance slowed the war effort through direct action while the political resistance of the veterans challenged the symbolic and cultural foundations of the war. The Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Veterans for Standing Rock continue this tradition.  The Vietnam Veterans Against the War took the same smears and attacks Tulsi Gabbard does today for her courageous acts against war.

Endless wars have been fought by Republicans and Democrats to secure oil and produce huge profits for major corporations. No wonder the media is silent on just where all these refugees are coming from.

Nothing captures the deception better than Madeline Albright’s claim that she will register as a Muslim given her bloody record of killing Muslims in Iraq.  Albright agreed with New Mexican Bill Richardson, that “the price was worth it.”  That “price,” according to former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and other observers, was the devastation of Iraq including the deaths of up to 500,000 people.

For us protestors, maybe its that war has been normalized. We started this cycle of conflict in the Greater Middle East in 1978 when we organized the Mujahideen in Afghanistan — the same rebels that would later become Al Qaeda and fight alongside of the “moderate rebels” we currently fund in Syria. We started bombing Iraq as far back as the First Gulf War in 1990. For many Americans these wars have been fought for their entire lives.

Trump’s war talk may or may not escalate beyond Obama’s rush to expand US military operations in Eastern Europe and Africa and invest a trillion dollars into nuclear weapons.  Trump is nonetheless challenging us to restart an anti-war movement that wages peace on many fronts: the Middle East, Iran, China, Mexico and the growing dangers of nuclear war.

Trump’s reckless provocations can only be answered by the renewal of a peace movement large enough to disrupt business as usual; by a peace movement that looks to soldiers and veterans for leadership; by a peace movement that understands, as Dr. King did, the deep connections between racism, war, economic exploitation, and now we must add, climate change. Trump’s war plans, climate denial and support for big oil are a dangerous formula  as it becomes increasingly clear that war and climate change are intimately connected.

We will fail to oppose Trump and everything he stands for if we do not oppose war and empire.

No Ban! No Wall! No War!

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