We live in an extraordinary moment. One in which many cross-currents tussle for sustained dominance. A moment in which armed white supremacy groups make attempts to take over state legislative offices in states such as Michigan. One in which the science of contagion battles with a myopic individualism in which the wearing of a mask for medical protection becomes a signifier for a symbolic political battle around hegemony.
All of this occurs in the moment of a historic pandemic, which should make us as a human species reflect on our contemporary ways of life. This pandemic has exposed the structures of the American health system, where race and class determine, disproportionately, those who will live and those who will die.
In the midst of this crisis, in which lockdowns and shelter-in-place have become everyday practices, we have witnessed one of the most significant global protests the world has seen for some time. These protests have upended many commentators, shattered many conventional wisdoms about politics, and for a time at least punctured the everyday normal that many of us had become accustomed to. So, what is at the root of this upsurge? What are its significances? And how might we understand it?
Roots of capitalism
In the epigraph to the first chapter of Black Reconstruction (1935), WEB Du Bois writes about how “black men, coming to America … became a central thread to the history of the United States, at once a challenge to its democracy and always an important part of its economic history and social development”. That challenge has historically been the touchstone for both American democracy and its civilisation.
Racial slavery was a cornerstone of capitalism. It is not that racial slavery laid the foundation for capitalism, rather racial slavery, the plantation slave economy, the African slave trade were themselves practices of capitalism. At the core of the inauguration of capitalism was not the factory system with its wage labour but the slave plantation, unfree labour and a network of credit and debt arrangements.
Within this system emerged various institutions we now associate with capitalism, from bond markets to brokerage houses. This saw the emergence of major companies whose chief functions were linked to the slave trade, financing plantations and other aspects of the European colonial project. Here one speaks about, among others, the Dutch West India Company, the French Société de Guinée, and of course, the Royal African Company of England. At the core of what historian Catherine Hall calls this “business of slavery” was the African captive, who became an enslaved person. The late African American theorist Cedric Robinson has called this historical process “racial capitalism”.
The enslaved body, as the Caribbean historian Elsa Goveia has said, was “property in person”. It was a body that produced commodities while it was itself commodified. The black female body reproduced this commodification process three times over; as a living commodity, while producing commodity, and through a regime of sexual violence, as a reproductive body of enslaved labour. The plantation was thus a generative site for the violence of commodification, as capitalism was inaugurated through the violence of black enslavement, and exploitation established upon a foundation of unfree labour.
That is the history of capitalism: not a stages theory of transition from one mode of production to another, but rather a historical process of generative violence enacted upon the bodies of the African enslaved. In such a history the body is not secondary, but the central subject of processes and practices through which the person was turned into an enslaved, dehumanised thing.
To create such a subject/object, power (and in this case colonial/planter power) needed to create forms of life, ways of thinking and modes of being human that could, for a time at least, guarantee the full reproduction of a society. Or to put this another way: exploitation requires its forms of domination, which in turn require a set of ideas accepted by the majority of a society, manufacturing what Antonio Gramsci calls “common sense”, and by which he means a kind of naturalised societal underpinning, an ideational glue that holds it all together.
Glues of rule
In slave and colonial societies, in which might was right, violence was regularised as the technique of rule. There was also the need for a set of ideas and practices, however, in which both the native and the enslaved were characterised as non-human.
All nations, we know, are an “imagined community”, and so we search for what glues, for what binds this imagined community together. In the US that glue is not the fiction of America — as an idea, as the Biblically-inscribed exception of the “city on the Hill” — but rather it is the binding tack of anti-black racism. What Du Bois (1935) calls the “wages of whiteness” has become the glue that holds and structures the everyday practices of living in the US.
This glue that is anti-black racism has a long history, founded in the matrices and generative violence of the African slave trade, and elaborated through the complex system of customs and laws that underwrote plantation slavery. All of this was further systematised and codified in systems of human classification — as promulgated by European natural historians in the 17th century, mapped out by Christian doctrines in which some human beings had souls and others not, and then in the 19th century re–codified through phrenology and other pseudo-scientific studies in which black (in)capacity was fixed. And when science debunked the “evidentiary” basis of this anti-black racism, culture stepped in as the new terrain in which to explain, and re-fix, the supposed inferiority of blackness.
So blackness, as a visual marker, produces within the dominant frame of common sense the death of the black person. Black life becomes disposable — is a lack, has no interiority, is locked upon itself. As a visual marker, the black body has no escape. Its public presence is an affront. It must be tamed, put back in its place. It must not be allowed to breathe, because breath is life, and if black bodies have breath then black bodies have life.
Is this America? Yes, but this is not an American phenomenon. The imperial power of the US on the world stage has created the illusion of a special American race problem — from its history of racial slavery to the inauguration of Jim Crow and formal segregation. Of course, all societies have their own historical specificities, but anti-black racism was not an American feature alone. What Du Bois called the “colour line” was embedded not only in the US but in the world, because racial slavery and colonialism were parts of a global system of rule, at work from the 15th century Columbian voyages and subsequent histories of conquest.
The anti-black racism of European colonial powers thus drew from racial theories developed in America, the Caribbean, and the historical encounters between Europe and Africa. In this global circulation, the structures and practices of American Jim Crow informed, to some degree at least, those of South African apartheid. In all of this the black body was the disposable surplus; not the other but the irremediable non-other, that which could not be fully included into the body politic of the given nation.
Such an irremediable body, as one always on the outside, challenges the very meaning of democracy itself. This is why struggles around anti-black racism shake society so profoundly, and indeed call Western civilisation into question.
If we agree that the historical foundation of the capitalist West was racial slavery and colonialism, and the accompanying genocide and attempted erasure of indigenous populations, then what we are witnessing today are challenges to that foundation. Capitalism is not just an abstract economic system, as Marx made clear long ago when he noted that economic relationships are always between people. To rule, to be able to reproduce itself, any social system creates ways of living, modes of being human.
Historically and in the present, anti-black racism and the creation of whiteness, of white supremacy, was both a way of life and a signifier of being human. It is not just an ideological belief but rather a naturalised common sense, which in many ways functions like a fantasy, but one that has material life and consequences.
History of erasure
Common sense is also in part constructed by the historical understandings a society maintains about itself. We are, as humans, historical beings who make sense of ourselves through memories of the past — taking from the past to make the self. But in societies where the past has been a historical catastrophe, where regularised violence has operated as “power in the flesh”, making the human superfluous, the past becomes a critical way to establish the grounds for inhumane ways of life.
The US’s unwillingness to confront the fact that it was a slave society since its founding as a British colony, and that practices of settler colonialism wreaked havoc on indigenous populations, in conjunction with Europe’s unwillingness to confront its own history of colonial violence, now provides a dominant common sense which structures the present.
As the poet and thinker Aimé Césaire noted in 1955: “Between the coloniser and the colonised there is room only for forced labour, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops … no human contact, but relations of domination and submission.” This history is elided by European countries. It is a history of erasure, made visible as violence — in pacification campaigns, in the regular amputation of Congolese hands, in the genocide of Herero people in Namibia. It is a history codified through forms of rule creating natives of African subjects and manufacturing tribes out of diverse African social and political formations.
But, if history lives in the present, and is continually re-inscribed through a landscape of public monuments, then the present confrontation of the Black Lives Matter Movement with that very history marks a significant counter-symbolic move, a counter symbolic insurgency to both confront and tear down the everyday monumentalisation of historical anti-black violence. This happens in the US, in South Africa and the United Kingdom. And continental Europe cannot escape the fire this time.
Revolts and uprisings
So here we are. For over a month the US has seen the largest protests in its history. These protests were ignited by the pubic lynching of George Floyd, who cried out “I can’t breathe”, before being murdered — dying with the words “Mama” on his lips. In that modern lynching scene, for nearly nine minutes we witnessed the meaning of anti-black racism.
Yes, it was the policeman who kneeled on his back and neck. Yes, the American police force was operating like modern-day slave catchers. But there was something else at work, and that something else was the casual nonchalance, the non-recognition that Floyd was human. It was the nonchalance that allowed Floyd to be just another disposable black body.
The daily confrontation between black men, and increasingly black women, queer and transgender black people, with the police is the nodal point where anti-black racism is most visible. At this nodal point there is no pretence. State authority expresses itself: that might is right, that black life does not matter. And this is so, whether in Brazil, Europe, the Caribbean, America or indeed in parts of Africa. Here, ordinary black life does not matter.
In 2013, after the death of Trayvon Martin, a group of radical black feminist organisers — Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — formed an organisation which they called Black Lives Matter. Today the name of the organisation has become a political banner, igniting the political imagination on a global scale, of both black and white.
There is a rich historical current in which black revolts and uprisings have catalysed political struggles around the world. In the 19th century the dual Haitian revolution inspired Greek anti-colonial figures fighting against the Ottoman Empire, with some of them even writing to the Haitian government requesting arms and political support.
We recall how what was then called “Negro Revolt” — the black uprisings of the 1960s — influenced feminist and anti-war movements around the world. In all of this the African American spiritual We shall overcome became a clarion call and political message of many movements. So why, might we ask, has Black Lives Matter become at this moment a catalytic political banner? I return to Du Bois.
Racial slavery was the foundation of the US and, I would argue, the making of the modern world. As a form of domination its very core was the double and triple commodification process I addressed earlier. It was about making non-human another human being. As a generative historical process, it lasted for centuries. This was a special form of domination which not only required violence, but the creation of another kind of human being, one who would be surplus and disposable.
It also created the conditions for black struggle to be catalytic, a point the Caribbean historian and radical thinker CLR James made in 1948, when living underground in the US. In his seminal 1940s essay, The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States, he noted how “this independent Negro Movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation”.
A challenge to Western civilisation
Black Lives Matter has become a political banner because it challenges racial domination, and its deep-rooted legacies and consequences. It says, “we are human”. And as humans, it demands that society be transformed to create new ways of living. It therefore not only exposes police brutality, but also calls to order the entire historical foundation on which Western civilisation rests. While being part of a historic black liberation tradition, its political organisational methods have also enacted critiques of black masculinity. Given all of this, Black Lives Matter as a political banner is world historic.
And here the reader might pause and wonder why? Let us return to the making of the modern world, and to the ways in which in the afterlives of racial slavery anti-black racism continues to dominate black life, as it has for centuries. So, when there are sustained protests against institutional and everyday forms of anti-black racism, and this happens on the global stage, and under the adverse conditions of a pandemic, is this not world historic?
The current global protests are world historic because they confront the racialised edifice that built the modern world. World historic because it posits different methods of political organising, which break from previous forms of radical black movements. It demands that monuments that invoke a past that undergirds the violent present must fall — a call drawing from the earlier struggles of South African students and the Rhodes Must Fall Movement of 2016 and 2017.
It demands abolition, making the word capacious, creating a new political language — demanding more than just the abolishing of prisons, but demanding the opening of an entirely new space, invoking the radical imagination in a call for new ways of life. It is world historic because, although many radical social and political movements have paid attention largely to the state and the economy, as structures of the present, Black Lives Matter is attentive to the history of those structures and their underlying assumptions and common sense.
We are indeed in a new moment. Some say this moment feels different in part because the worldwide protests have been multiracial, as illustrated by the image of a lone white woman sitting on the sidewalk of a rural American town with a sign reading “Black Lives Matter”.
But perhaps what is most different about this moment is that for the first time in a world governed by neoliberalism — one in which as Stuart Hall and Alan O’ Shea put it, there is a neoliberal common sense — we are witnessing an uprising that fundamentally challenges that common sense. A common sense in which anti-black racism has been the glue for the American body politic.
This is an uprising of the radical imagination, that demands the abolition of the reproductive structure that has been for centuries making and re-making the modern world. We end where we began, with Du Bois and Black Reconstruction. In 1935, Du Bois identified in Black Reconstruction a form of politics he called “abolition democracy”. It was, he argued, the necessary radical political framework required for transformation to occur in America post the civil war. For Du Bois, abolition democracy, “pushed towards the dictatorship of Labour”. Du Bois was by then in the most radical phase of his intellectual and activist life.
Eighty-five years later, the black radical imagination has reworked abolition into a demand for new ways of life, dismantling the anti-black structures that inaugurated the modern world, and made it stick. That makes it world historic. Fundamental change may not come, and for sure revolution is not around the corner. But historically, fundamental change requires the work of the radical imagination, of thinking a new form of human life is possible. The global Black Lives Matter protests have opened that space, and that is its remarkable significance for the current moment.
Anthony Bogues is a writer, curator and scholar. He is the Asa Messer professor of humanities at Brown University where he is the inaugural director of the Center for the Study of slavery and Justice. He is also a visiting professor and curator with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg which is currently featuring a number of his projects through the online platform Reading the Moment