Posted by: Doug Henwood | October 30, 2011

Angela Davis’ advice: identify with the defeated?

There are many things I admire about Angela Davis, and I have warm memories of being on a panel with her at Rethinking Marxism 2000. She was wise and very gracious. But she reportedly told the OWS gathering at Zuccotti tonight to: 1) identify with Troy Davis, and 2) study the Attica prisoners for pointers on how to become a “dangerous class.” I have two problems with this: 1) Troy Davis is dead. His execution was a crime, but as anything but a moral force, he’s dead. And 2) the Attica prisoners were utterly crushed. Many of them are either dead or still behind bars.

The American carceral state is an appalling horror, a grotesque form of social control. But most people are not in prison. There are about 70 times as many employed members of the working class as there are prisoners in the U.S.  Even among African Americans, there are about 30 times as many employed as there are behind bars. There are about 6 times as many black unemployed as there are prisoners. Yet if you judged by a lot of left discourse, the modal black American is a prisoner.

Why such an emphasis on people with no social power? The working class produces everything of value, and could shut it all down tomorrow if it wanted to. I’d be the first to say that too much behavior is criminalized, there are way too many people behind bars, and our prisons are miserable places. But the only reason to have any hope for social transformation is that “we are many, they are few.” In strictly numerical terms, there are about as many prisoners as there are members of the bourgeoisie. Revolutions are not made by the most marginalized members of a society.

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Responses

  1. OK – I bet you’d be Rush Limbaugh by last Monday, but I was off by a week. I should have reshuffled my Tarot Cards, but anyway…

    You’re basically arguing that the most oppressed have no place as a ‘moral force’ (like you do???). Conveniently forgetting that prisoners are MADE TO WORK BY FORCE FOR PROFITS. 25% of prisoners on planet earth are in the U.S. (5% of the world’s population, in case you forgot). Of those, 40% are black. One in three Afro-American males are likely to do time in their lifetimes – have they been purged from Dougie’s Communist Horizon? Jumping the gun, aren’t we? I suppose they can’t complain about your demands committee if they’re safely behind bars, eh? Make a note to shout any of their loved ones down if they show up at Zuccotti with that ‘marginal’ shit. No crybabies allowed in The People’s Republic of Dougovia.

    “Why an emphasis on people with no social power?” Answer: It’s the economy, stupid. And the prison-industrial complex. And institutional racism. And ongoing historical oppression. And a ruling class that crushes harder downwards the more it sucks up for the top. Good luck with that comfortable, well-paid, high-skilled, politically influential revolutionary class – the kind of people who never have to worry about inconveniences like prison, or extreme poverty. Stick with ’em and it’ll all be over by Christmas…

  2. Ok. Agree about the big picture. But…

    The working class produces everything of value?

    This claim could require a rather expansive definition of the working class. One so broad that it covers many people who don’t identify as working class and whom social scientists would not peg as such.

    Or it could rest on the notion that wealthy professionals and entrepreneurs produce *nothing* of value. In which case, you know, great. But that’s not a reasonable basis for serious left politics. And it’s not an empirically defensible position.

    [Karl and Frederick had that bit about the bourgeois producing wonders far surpassing the pyramids and cathedrals. Are they now simple parasites? Really?]

  3. Angela Davis is right. It doesn’t matter how many we are. It matters how great is our collective anger, and we draw this anger, if we draw it at all, from the historical knowledge of oppressio. Without this collective memory, which needs to be nourished, we may as well be seven billion robots. Robots do not rebel. There has never been a rebellion without memory.

    Here is Walter Benjamin, on the origins of our previous great defeat:

    Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which had a brief resurgence in the Spartacist group, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed virtually to erase the name of Blanqui, though it had been the rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding century. Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.

  4. I agree with the virtue and tactical importance of remembering that capital accumulation is dependent upon labor, and that economic centrality is a source of tremendous untapped strength, a point which we all–led by capital–have forgotten. By contrast, “Morality which depends upon the helplessness of a man or woman has not much to recommend it.” –M.Gandhi.

    It is also possible that another, more generous interpretation of Davis’ speech is that we cripple ourselves when we fear imprisonment and by extension, prisoners and other modern slave laborers. When we can identify with capitalism’s prisoners, we begin to free ourselves from the thrall of its relentless alienation. Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and in 1942; he spent 7 years in jail, and he was effective.

  5. Doug, I was wondering if you could comment on some of what Angela Davis said at her address to the encampment at Occupy Philadelphia. She ended on a note of solidarity with Occupy Oakland, and seemed to enjoin her listeners to partake in the general strike that has been called for there.

    I am wondering what your thoughts are on the call for a general strike.

    As a side note, I would like to mention that recently prisoners across the US have been willing to use the tactic of the (hunger) strike, as have, of course, prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. One can’t say that they’ve succeeded, but in terms of tactics there does seem to be an affinity to the traditional mass industrial action. Of course, abstaining from work hits at the center of the system in a way that the hunger strike of a jobless prisoner certainly doesn’t, but the creativity in terms of tactics might be something from which the working class could learn.

  6. I’d love a general strike. Hope it works.

  7. Rush Limbaugh? You’re a fucking idiot.

  8. Revolutions are generally headed by those in the middle class or above, if only because they have the time to do it.

  9. I reckon doug was saying that maybe the priority of the movement should be speaking to, and organising as many people as possible; rather than forming itself into an admirable and committed minority who are easily marginalised like some of those Davis was urging the occupy movement emulate.
    By doing this, the movement would significantly increase it’s chances of winning.

    I’m pretty sure that an (even partially) organised working class (or cross class progressive movement etc) would be good for those in prison.
    I personally don’t buy the ‘prison industrial complex’ as the main reason for the massive prison population in the US, a more convincing explanation is that locking people up is a sort of social control measure after the de-industrialisation of the 70s and 80s.
    (Loïc Wacquant gives a pretty effective account of this in ‘punishing the poor’)

    Any progressive movement with something approaching power would
    (imho naturally) seek to restore some sort of full employment policy and (it would seem to follow on) the abolition of massive incarceration and workfare.
    I’m pretty sure this would benefit people in jail.

    The US had (as far as I know) a pretty progressive (for the time) prison policy in the early 70s. European countries which are comparably racist to the US, yet have something (however vaguely) resembling a full employment policy/welfare state have a fraction of the prison population of the US. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the incarceration rate reaches it’s lowest in 1967 and starts to climb steeply after 1975.

    Obviously it isn’t as simple as all that, and there would need to be vigilance and solidarity building to ensure nobody is excluded from full employment and the restored welfare state like in the old days.

  10. Fucking idiot? Rush would just yell “shut up!” Is that what the distinction is?

  11. Your tone is obnoxious Kasper.

    You shouldn’t count on anyone taking you seriously if you continue to be personally abusive.

  12. Perhaps Doug is finding a bit of romanticizing the lumpen proletariat in Angela’s “two points” on the prison class. Did she give any other advice besides these two points ?

    The “dangerous class” is an allusion to the lumpen sector.

  13. I agree with Doug’s point: revolutionary movements necessarily rest largely upon the working class (and since we don’t have peasants, it is the working class), though as Bob Morris writes, the middle class also plays a role (chiefly through students, rather than shop keepers – but they again, most college students in NYC for example, are from the working class – I’m thinking of CUNY).

    Yet, I don’t think Doug’s is arguing in total opposition to Davis’ appeal to prisoners as the political vanguard. You’re just saying that prisoners cannot be THE place to go for the primary force in social transformation – though they certainly do and will play an important role…
    I have no idea where Kasper is getting his ideas from, but it is clearly a provocation.

  14. I tremble to see an empowered lumpen proletariat.

  15. Yeah, and Rush would so introduce his remarks by saying he admired Davis and be sure to say that there are way too many people in jail. You’re right – a stunning resemblance.

  16. Revolutionary movements require a working class motivated by Anger and imbued with Self-sacrifice. There is not going to be a nice way to take down the existing system. The upper thievedom is already retreating behind their private security companies. They got the whole future covered, and they are ready to murder anyone who would dare challenge their sacred “way of life.” The point is not to make prisoners the chief constituency that would bring about change on their own while the white middle class cheers, nor is the point that we should all make ourselves feel powerless, the point is we need not only a set or rational ideas about the future, we also need memory, a spirit of struggle, a bond between people, without which nothing will come out this rebellion. It will only contribute to the atomization and loss of hope of our societies as the ringleaders are isolated, jailed and killed, and the rest is shrugged off by the ruling class or pacified with photo-ops. What is great about OcuppyWallStreet is not just the intellectual attention to Wall-Street, but the militancy. And that militancy is right now still driven by a minority, by all accounts, maybe even a large minority, in the movement itself. If that militancy isn’t nourished and expanded, the movement will fail. That is why the experience of the most oppressed sectors of our society is not an optional luxury that the “99%” can do without, it is not a matter of a “sector” that has special demands, although that is also true, nor is it a matter of moralizing and guilt tripping white people, it is a matter of survival and victory that require that experience be shared, understood, feted and universalized. We are all Troy Davis or we are nothing at all.

  17. I’m a huge fan of this blog and all the analytical work to clarify how theory and analysis must be a guide to action.

    But i think i think we need to better understand the political economy of the prison industrial complex (PIC). I’d love for that to be the conversation here: in what ways, and how, is imprisonment and policing important to the capitalist political economy?
    To this end, in different ways, prisons and police have been central to decomposing working class composition from at least Haymarket til today.

    I am not suggesting though a crude economism that argues private prisons are more central than they are (5% of prisons) or that the driving force of prison is private profit by created prisoners working to produce widgets.

    Rather, a study by the National Employment Law Project suggests that 65 million ppl are pushed out of the labor force by criminal records. Samuel Bowles has estimated that 1/5 of labor is employed in guard labor (link below).
    What do these things mean together for the working class broadly? (link below)

    In one of the most materially grounded analysis of the rise of the PIC, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s “Golden Gulag,” she argues that the PIC rises in CA to resolve crisis of surplus labor, land, capital, and state capacity.

    Doug, as you say in your Shock Doctrine review: “Capitalism simply cannot live with low unemployment rates. Workers gain confidence, resist the direction of the boss, and wages are forced up. Add to that a welfare state, which cushions workers against the risk of job loss, and things are even worse from the bosses’ point of view.” In tandem, the PIC is a central way to manage labor surpluses and has risen alongside the decimation of the welfare state. In this sense, high unemployment and high imprisonment (and parole and probation rates) undermines our struggle to build solidarity as a class.

    thanks for posing important questions as a comrade to try to disentangle the way imprisonment and policing are enmeshed in our “world of economics and politics.”

    http://www.nelp.org/page/-/SCLP/2011/65_Million_Need_Not_Apply.pdf?nocdn=1

    http://ideas.repec.org/p/ums/papers/2004-15.html

  18. Waiting wrote:

    “This claim could require a rather expansive definition of the working class. One so broad that it covers many people who don’t identify as working class”

    And that matters how?

    “and whom social scientists would not peg as such.”

    Are those social scientists Marxists?

    “Or it could rest on the notion that wealthy professionals and entrepreneurs produce *nothing* of value.”

    Given that the term “professional” is pretty nebulous ie one who has a profession (which could be in someone else’s employ or not), this might or might not be true. Likewise for entrepreneur: does the entrepreneur operate entirely on his own? He might produce something of value (in the objective sense). An entrepreneur who simply has an idea then hires others as wage workers to carry it out is simply a capitalist and produces nothing of value, merely appropriating what others have made.

    “In which case, you know, great. But that’s not a reasonable basis for serious left politics.”

    It seemed to work well in the past.

    “And it’s not an empirically defensible position.”

    Really? How so?

    “[Karl and Frederick had that bit about the bourgeois producing wonders far surpassing the pyramids and cathedrals. Are they now simple parasites? Really?]”

    They’ve always been parasites. Doesn’t prevent them from ordering wonders built in order to appropriate the wealth created by the workers from their labour.

  19. I’m a huge fan of this blog and all the analytical work to clarify how theory and analysis must be a guide to action.

    But i think i think we need to better understand the political economy of the prison industrial complex (PIC)–the total infrastructure of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment. I’d love for that to be the conversation here: in what ways, and how, is imprisonment and policing important to the capitalist political economy?
    For one, obvious reason, in different ways, prisons and police have been central to decomposing working class composition from at least Haymarket til today.

    I am not suggesting though a crude economism that argues private prisons are more central than they are (5% of prisons) or that the driving force of prison is private profit by created prisoners working to produce widgets (it’s not).

    Rather, a study by the National Employment Law Project suggests that 65 million ppl are pushed out of the labor force by criminal records. Samuel Bowles has estimated that 1/5 of labor is employed in “guard labor” (links below).
    What do these things mean together for the working class broadly?

    In one of the most materially grounded studies of the rise of the PIC, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s “Golden Gulag,” she argues that the PIC rises in CA to resolve crisis of surplus labor, land, capital, and state capacity.

    Doug, as you say in your Shock Doctrine review: “Capitalism simply cannot live with low unemployment rates. Workers gain confidence, resist the direction of the boss, and wages are forced up. Add to that a welfare state, which cushions workers against the risk of job loss, and things are even worse from the bosses’ point of view.” In tandem, the PIC is a central way to manage labor surpluses and has risen alongside the decimation of the welfare state. In this sense, high unemployment and high imprisonment (and parole and probation rates) undermines our struggle to build solidarity as a class.

    thanks for posing important questions as a comrade to try to disentangle the way imprisonment and policing are enmeshed in our “world of economics and politics.”

    http://www.nelp.org/page/-/SCLP/2011/65_Million_Need_Not_Apply.pdf?nocdn=1

    http://ideas.repec.org/p/ums/papers/2004-15.html

  20. I’ve been thinking about something which relates to this discussion maybe only tangentially, since this thing started (and I’ve been physically involved in the movement as much as I can and still hold down my job, without having my own tent) , and that is how did this “leaderless” (really led by petty bourgeois liberal-pacifist types, hippie-punching the anarchists all the way) and young “progressives” (i.e, clueless about such things as Marxism), had the nerve to get themselves arrested right off the bat for not respecting a curfew (and many were brutally beaten by the cops here in Des Moines) when they don’t even have a program of any kind much less a Marxist one. Now I know, it wasn’t bravery or naivete (I concur with Doug that real fighting can’t be done from behind bars but wonder if he doth protest Angela Davis too much), but it was to get their asses on television! This whole OWS movement is rooted in the Spectacular, the jouissance if you will, a Baudrillardian notion that if it doesn’t happen on TV it doesn’t happen. Now, I don’t really have a problem with it; however and whenever rebellion takes place it’s a good thing and to be encouraged with all our might, but like Doug it helps to be conscious of the factors at work here….


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