Is America truly unravelling? Or is this just another of its periodic episodes of violence which eventually flames out?
I think what we’re seeing is a country coming apart for real.
This past weekend saw protests and clashes with police across 140 cities in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Now Trump is threatening to send in the army to quell the unrest.
In the nearly two-and-a-half-century history of the country we’ve seen this movie too many times before.
Realistically, the U.S. was most at peril during its bloody four-year civil war from 1861 to 1865, triggered when 11 southern states broke away from the union to try and form their own country. The south wanted to preserve slavery, which was critical to their plantation economy. The war resulted in 620,000 dead — or about two per cent of the entire U.S. population at the time.
A few years later, the U.S. was roiled by the great labour wars of the Gilded Age as America industrialized and workers tried to unionize. There were the Homestead and Pullman strikes that pitted workers against armed strikebreakers. The murder of strikers was commonplace. In 1892 alone, 1,298 strikes involving some 164,000 workers occurred across the nation. The labour wars continued on right up until the Second World War.
The next big spasm of protests began in the late 1950s and into the 1970s over civil rights, the Vietnam War and the emerging women’s and gay rights movements. Race riots tore through Birmingham, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and numerous other cities, burning down whole city sections.
America has a long history of bloody, civil strife
In Los Angeles, the racist LAPD waged a brutal war of suppression against the African-American population, culminating in the 1965 Watts riots, which lasted six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 4,000 arrests, involving 34,000 people and the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totalling US$40 million in damages.
Racism is a by-product of a system that pits worker against worker, designed to keep them from becoming united against their common enemy - an economic system that no longer has much need for them.
In 1968, the police rioted in Chicago against demonstrators during the Democratic convention, which led to 11 dead and the police shooting another 48 people.
Throughout the 1970s, left-wing urban guerilla groups set off a wave of bombings, kidnappings and hijackings.
Then there was the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, which lasted six days and left 63 people dead, 2,383 injured, more than 12,000 arrested, and property damage over US$1 billion.
Fast forward to 2014, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of a whole new series of outrages committed against African-Americans, especially the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
In short, America is not new to violent clashes between enraged citizens and the state.
So are these new protests any different?
Now is different - America has deep structural problems
That’s difficult to say, but I would argue that unlike the protests of the 1960s, or of even six years ago, America’s current situation reveals its deep structural problems.
Empires tend to decline over decades, and then often very rapidly. While the U.S. remains the world’s preeminent economic and military power, internally it’s bedevilled by a host of problems that just keep getting worse. And the two most significant are the abandonment of its working class, and the corruption of its political system.
Going back to the Civil War, that conflict was rooted in economics — the industrializing north versus the agrarian south. Capitalism has no use for slave labour. But it does need cheap labour. And the Civil War was really about freeing up African-American slaves so they could be exploited as workers in the new factories of the north.
Even the labour wars that began in the late 1800s were about workers getting a bigger share of America’s burgeoning new wealth. And I would argue the race riots of the 1960s were the final spasm over the end of slavery, reflected in segregation and the Jim Crow laws.
But beginning in the 1980s, America’s business class decided that the American working class — white, black or Latino — was expendable. They embraced neoliberalism, and went to war against workers with the goal of taking away the post-war gains unions had won. “Neoliberalism is an attack on working class expectations and working class strength,” explains Sam Gindin, the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers union (now called Unifor). “And the most important thing was how to weaken (organized labour) and weakening it actually required changing labour laws making it harder to organize. But it especially meant letting unemployment rise.”
In 1981, Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers during a bitter strike, which opened the door to union-busting across the U.S.
But the 1980s also marked another threat to American workers — the arrival of free trade. In 1988, the U.S. and Canada signed a free trade agreement. Six years later, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada put NAFTA into effect, which made free trade continent-wide. Other free trade agreements soon followed.
The result was American workers found themselves competing for jobs with cheap labour in other parts of the world, especially Latin America, China and India. And they lost: Well-paying, unionized blue collars jobs vanished. Now only nine per cent of the American workforce toils in manufacturing. Wages stagnated and debt levels rose, as did permanent economic uncertainty.
Both parties abandoned average workers
Meanwhile, the Democrats and Republicans were turning their backs on workers. The Democrats were once the party of labour. But beginning in the 1970s, the party tapped into Wall Street money and marginalized organized labour. Democrats embraced free trade and globalization.
“You find that there was a transition in the Democratic Party in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s where they convinced themselves that they needed to abandon working people in order to serve a different constituency: a constituency essentially of white-collar professionals,” remarked journalist Thomas Frank in an 2016 interview for his book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
“That’s the most important group in their coalition. That’s who they won over in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s who they serve, and that’s where they draw from. The leaders of the Democratic Party are always from this particular stratum of society.”
Meanwhile, the Republicans became the party of big business — and increasingly racist as their hold on the American south grew. Together the Democrats and Republicans ignored the growing problems of working class Americans for decades while beholden to the money of the wealthy.
So how does this pertain to the murder of George Floyd?
Racism is dividing workers
Racism is a by-product of a system that pits worker against worker so they don’t become united against their common enemy - capitalism, which no longer has as much need for them.
Indeed, one of the symptoms of working class alienation and frustration is the enflaming of racial tensions. White workers who’ve lost good jobs are encouraged by business leaders, political elites and the right-wing media to blame minorities — African-Americans, Mexicans, women, LBGQT people — for their growing economic and political disenfranchisement. This has been the overt agenda of Trump and the alt-right.
Lay on top an American justice system and police forces which are institutionally racist and militarized and voilà, you have the mess Americans find themselves in.
Will America tear itself apart?
When you have so many people who corporations feel they don’t need anymore — and a political system that doesn’t respond to workers’ problems — then there’s a very high probability it will.
Indeed, while these protests may eventually dissipate, the underlying reasons that gave rise to the tensions are not going away any time soon — even if Trump loses the White House this fall.
In short, the abyss beckons.