The Concept of Black Autonomy [part 2]: Nonprofits and the Black Bourgeoisie
Will the revolution be funded?
We have a tendency to pay tribute to the Black Panther Party; they were considered by many adherents of the New Left to be the vanguard of the revolutionary movement in the 1960’s. But one NY times story threatened to compromise all of that and destroy the image of the infamous New York Chapter in 1970.
In January of that year, an editor of the women’s section in the NY times published a scathing insider story of a Black Panther fundraising event held in the luxurious duplex of the conductor Laureate in the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein. This was followed up by a semi-fictional expose by Tom Wolfe in New York Magazine which has now became almost legendary; it is where the term “radical chic” — a celebrity taking up radical causes for the purpose of maintaining a “hip” image — was first coined.
In it, Wolfe illustrated a relationship that was not going to last long: “The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollarchatchka flotilla of family photographs”
It was clear what the author was trying to do. Radicals are very used to these simplistic accusations of inauthenticity. When the snarky liberal asks questions like, “Why do you have a car if you don’t like capitalism?” We often find ourselves exhausted. We usually stay quite and let them bask in their own pride.
But the pretentious tone taken in the article inadvertently exposed the limits of liberal solidarity. Only a rudimentary analysis of Leftist politics will exclude what revolutionaries call the progressive elements of the Petit bourgeoisie and more often than not, radical movements have reluctantly had to come to terms with needing their material support. But what happens when radicals are cut-off? Movements tend to die.
It’s become almost a cliche to say that the revolution will not be funded, but when the popular base increases the question of funding becomes one of paramount importance. As most serious movements have had to learn the hard way, sometimes the most tactical option is to decide when to bite the hand that feeds. What we never seem to learn though is that sometimes they arbitrarily stop the feeding.
The article represented the renunciation of financial support that these liberals give: it showed that the terms and conditions of liberal solidarity had finally been breached. Think piece after think piece was released to highlight the infantility of revolutionary politics. Former radicals were starting to become republicans, anti-capitalists were graduating from college and becoming capitalists. As Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin have convincingly argued, this was the beginning of the BPP Party’s demise.
This is of course not to say that one cannot be revolutionary when they are dependent on the bourgeois purse. It is to say though, that people rarely fund organizations if they truly believe that their material interests are at stake. I hesitate to attribute some simplistic understanding that Funding bodies connive to destroy the revolutionary spirit of the Black struggle in board meetings behind closed doors. I’ve seen those board meetings before, they’re pretty boring. They treat social change like businesses treat profit, they want “tangible” results and industry experience — you have to convince them that you deserve the money; you have to show what policies you’ve brought into being. To get those policies to pass, your organization has to play the game of politics, befriending the police and the local congressmen. All of a sudden, no matter how revolutionary the name of the organization is, or how fascinating it’s story might be , the non-profit organization becomes a central facet of the political Matrix. Good people find themselves doing the best they can to maintain relationships of dependency that are inauthentic, extremely volatile, and conditional. This is a nice transition point for the community organizer turned president of Empire, I don’t doubt that it affects the lives of real people, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. In fact in many ways it entrenches it.
There is also the ethical conundrum behind this arrangement. As Oscar Wilde eloquently wrote in 1891, “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good…. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”
It ought not to be like that. In a CBS News Special in 1966 hosted by correspondent Mike Wallace, Stokely Carmichael was bluntly confronted with the waning conditional support he had from the liberal elements of white America. It was way after the time when SNCC had been praising Gandhi and right about the time when they started screaming “Black Power.”
Stokely was the kind of man who refused to play the historic role of the black bourgeoisie, many in SNCC had been the same. But when confronted by Mike Wallace, he knew that his relationship with the white liberal was close to being terminated. “The white liberal, who supported civil rights for so long with time, and effort, and money, what is your feeling about him?” an otherwise defiant Stokely was caught off guard: “I think that there’s no reason why they should stop supporting the movement now. If they are genuinely interested in black people and since black people have charted the course, they believe in that program, they will continue to give to it.” This was of course a naive answer, it’s one thing to fund the movement for an equal place at the lunch counter, its quite another to make sure that everyone has money in their pockets to eat. Bourgeois support comes with terms and conditions, and most of us don’t read them.
One conception of Black Autonomy is to finally attempt to escape this relationship.
Is the black bourgeoisie the leader of the Black Liberation movement?
It’s somewhat strange that in my experience, many organizers, have rarely attempted to look at the class composition of the Black Liberation movement today. We treat it almost like a rude question.
But this ambivalence and silence on the class question is becoming extremely untenable. We can ignore it for however long we want, but the contradictions will finally come back to haunt us.
In February 2016 I was privileged to be invited to the bastion of the upwardly mobile, Black bourgeoisie of the future. Perhaps I was foolish to believe that I would witness signs of dissent in the “Black Solidarity Conference.” The promotional materials were plastered with revolutionary quotes about Black Liberation, the organizing committee boasted that since the third decade of its existence, the BSC had attracted over 700 black students annually from “Ivy league and Historically Black Institutions.” And most disturbingly, advertisements with students embellishing “Assata taught me” hoodies elucidated the extent to which revolutionaries have been commodified. For the radicals in the room, the specific misrepresentation of Assata Shakur made them feel deceived, our hero was used as a weapon to lure us into talking about black enterprise.
Most interestingly, the conference was sponsored by Goldman Sachs, Mastercard and Google! I presume that the willingness of investment banks, like Goldman Sachs to sponsor the Black Solidarity Conference is a last resort measure to save their reputation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Along with many other investment banks guilty of predatory lending, Goldman Sachs was proven be complicit in the disproportionate dispossession of African American, Latino and poor White homes. So what better way to continue to pillage than to tokenize?
It was in this spirit that Goldman Sachs invited two african american employees to the event: both of whom were appropriately selected from the “Human capital Management” department and it was in this context that they gave us an impassioned plea to consider joining their black aristocracy.
Those who attended the talks heard a barrage of advice about how Black women ought to navigate within corporate America. Others reported hearing about the difficulties of being black in investment banking. It may be cynical of me to have trouble sympathizing with the hardships of blacks in corporate America, but I still find myself having a hard time understanding the basis of a black liberatory politics on Wall Street.
As disillusioned as I was, I decided to attend the “How Class Matters in Black lives” workshop. An extremely formative event, it helped uncover the class composition of the attendees. Differences arose amongst African Immigrants and African Americans — some students had parents who attended Ivy League institutions and others were first-generation college graduates. Yet, once again the discourse was centered on “checking class privilege.” This kind of bourgeois analysis of self-awareness exemplified by popular articles in the blogosphere.
For instance, Jezebel Delilah X of “Black Girl Dangerous” writes her moment of salvation was when she realized that she “received privileges and affirmations not fully of [her] own merit” and that infact “Class privilege is white privilege’s deceitful little minion.” Acknowledging one’s “class privilege” is common courtesy, it’s being a nice person; But we shouldn’t mistake it for politics. And yet the participants of the workshop did, the overall essence being self-awareness of class dynamics rather than to lay the groundwork for seeking out a classless society. The talk ended with the disheartening advice of “get that money ya’ll.”
Thus, even when class is considered, the politics of performance in identity politics still play a criminal role when put in the service of business enterprise. Rather than abolish class, we are told to subjectively check our own position in class society. When I spoke to the organizer of the workshop, he agreed. His insightful class analysis was developed to pose critical questions to the audience, but many failed to observe the internal contradictions of the conference itself.
In the case for reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that “In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness.” he then goes on to explain that “affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.” To Coates, this was “racism reifying itself.” Not subjectively nor idealistically, it wasn’t the fact that they were called “Ghetto loans” that was the problem, rather it was the material reification of this racism by dispossession. A dispossession for the accumulation of capital, a dispossession that would have never happened without motive for profit.
Now I’m left to wonder, does diversity politics on Wall Street entail pitiful pleas to check these bankers privilege. I dare you to imagine a bizzare scenario: “Go ahead and sign that predatory loan, as I shall do, but don’t you even dare call them “ghetto loans” and “mud people” because that disrupts this safe space. Check your privilege.”
I always used to say, quite ironically, that the inevitable terrain for the final battle of privilege politics was the Goldman Sachs office; never would have I imagined actually witnessing the capitulation of the revolutionary vernacular of our black struggle to Wall Street. From one perspective one cannot help but see the surreal distortion, and utter absurdity of MasterCard, Google and Goldman Sachs openly funding a conference purportedly dedicated to the re-education needed to Liberate Black America. From another perspective, we should wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.
It’s a simple question, if you are complicit in dispossessing the Ghetto, if you are offering sub-prime mortgages to people in bad faith, can you really call yourself a leader in the Black liberation movement? In June 2015, an Independent report commissioned by the ACLU attempted to study the Impact of the US Housing Crisis on the Racial Wealth Gap Across Generations. The findings were unsurprising. In their own words there is a tale of two recoveries, “White households have started to rebound from the worst effects of the Great Recession while black households are still struggling to make up lost ground.” As it concerns wealth it was found that from the recovery period of 2009 to 2011, “White wealth levels, excluding home equity, began to show signs of recovery: median white household wealth exhibited zero loss. During that same period, however, black households continued to experience severe declines, with the typical black household losing 40 percent of non-home-equity wealth.” It was also found that “During the 2009–2011 period .. the typical white family’s losses slowed to zero, while the typical black family lost an additional 13 percent of its wealth.”
This is to say that not only has the financial crisis disproportionately affected people of color, it is furthering the wealth gap between blacks and whites. To put it even more simply, the financial crisis has ended for some, but it sure hasn’t for black people. Yet, many of the black participants that I was accompanied with had ultimately convinced themselves that they are infiltrators building black wealth. Can we call out this nonsense for what it is? Or shall we continue to celebrate the natural hair of the Black investment banker?
Now, I hope it is understood that I am not attacking individuals working in these fields. To quote Marx from the first volume of capital, “Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interests.”
What I am insisting though, is that many of those in the emerging “Black bourgeoisie” — not only those who own the means of production, but as Frazier defined them, those who are part of an emerging Black middle class — should question whether our own class interests are at the expense of the black working poor. And most importantly, whether some of us might be setting the direction of the Black Liberation movement at their expense.
The inadequacy of Class Suicide
In1963, a small clandestine organization was formed by Max Stanford (Muhammad Ahmad) to infuse the ideas of Marxist-Leninism into the emerging Afro-centric student movement. Front organizations under the banner of the Afro American Student Movement (ASM) were created all across the United States to put into practice what was one of the most defining documents of the black revolutionary struggle — the RAM 12-point program.
With just a cursory glance one can see just how epoch-making this document actually was. Envisioning both a guerrilla army and an armed revolutionary organization to fight police terror, the 12 point program was the ideological pre-figuration for what would become both the Black Panther Party, and the underground Black Liberation Army. Both Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were associated with this organization before forming the Oakland chapter of the Panther Party, and the former NAACP leader turned black Maoist, Robert Williams was seen as it’s ideological inspiration (they considered him as the honorary chair in exile ).
Much can be said about the historical moment of its formation. The civil rights act was just passed but many had already questioned whether salvation lied behind the curtain of liberal integration. The disillusioned former Communist, Harold Cruse, had put his weight behind the emerging trend of black revolutionary nationalism that was becoming “hip” among the youth. In his “Black Nationalism and the Afro-American”, he famously argued that the Marxist intelligentsia were incapable of understanding the black struggle, and that the blacks were an internal colony within the United States. He believed that the integration vs separation debate was in actuality an argument between two separate factions of the Black bourgeoisie. He called for the youth to instead look towards the anti-colonial struggles roaring from the East.
Cruse didn’t have a favorable opinion on the solutions that were on the table. He thought Marxists were out of touch, Integrationists were self-serving, and mainstream Nationalists were trying to establish themselves as a powerful black bourgeoisie at the expense of everyone else. He also believed that the debate was neither profound nor new, it could be seen for example in The Washington-Du Bois controversy, which was not “a debate between representatives of reaction and progress, as Communist historians have asserted, but over the correct tactics for the emerging Negro bourgeoisie.”
And yet despite his bleak prognosis, he did have hope, in “a recognizable third trend” of “young social rebels” that rejected all of these solutions. He had nothing but praise for those who were “neither avowed nationalists nor NAACPers …” Those that “consider themselves “revolutionary”, but do not have revolutionary objectives.” He berated the Old left for not being able to adapt to these changes. “There is no longer room for the revolutionary paternalism that has been the hallmark of organizations such as the Communist party. This is what the New Left must clearly understand in it’s future relations with Negro movements.”
The Revolutionary Action Movement was clearly the response to this call to arms. In a local student newspaper, Max Stanford argued that because black students were disillusioned with what seemed an absent future, they would “transform as a class; from being a bourgeois assimilationist, alienated elite to becoming a revolutionary nationalist intelligentsia for the movement, developing a vanguard on the road to independent nationhood.”
This was Max Stanford’s contribution to what was becoming a global question at a crucial moment in decolonization. In the Wretched of the Earth for example, — published in 1961 — Franz Fanon described the question of the black middle class as follows:
“In an under-developed country an authentic national middle class ought to consider as its bounden duty to betray the calling fate has marked out for it, and to put itself to school with the people: in other words to put at the people’s disposal the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through the colonial universities. But unhappily we shall see that very often the national middle class does not follow this heroic, positive, fruitful and just path; rather, it disappears with its soul set at peace into the shocking ways — shocking because anti-national — of a traditional bourgeoisie, of a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois.”
The problem at the time was that as one man put it, the Black bourgeoisie failed at being a responsible elite. In common parlance they often forget where they came from.
This was a problem that breached the divide between the metropole and periphery. At the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966, The anti-colonial fighter for the self-determination of Guinea Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, Amilcar Cabral called it the dilemma of the colonized petite bourgeoisie. In front of the audience, he forcefully argued that “in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.”
But despite all the talk on class suicide, this revolutionary class of leaders — both in the United States and the colonized world — went from a humble group of revolutionary nationalists to the “race leaders” that convinced themselves of being the vicegerents of the black world. Cedric Johnson argues that the key moment in this transition was in 1972, when the “Black national political convention” in Gary became “a shotgun wedding of the radical aspirations of Black power and conventional modes of politics.”
This was the moment when black power had been dis-wedded from it’s anti-capitalist roots, and the pro-capitalist camp of the black nationalist bourgeoisie won their struggle to dictate the direction of the black movement. All of this is necessary to understand the present predicament we are in today, where many believe that “buying black” and other consumer strategies are incremental steps towards our Freedom.
The contemporary black bourgeoisie — who are at the helm of the black struggle but confined within the dictates of the non-profit world — must renounce their belief in their own importance. This is what I imagine to be an improved understanding of the concept of Black suicide. Much better in fact to not talk about “a responsible elite”, but rather, “responsible servitude” to those most affected by white supremacy: The black working class and those who have no work.
Whether we are speaking about the Revolutionary Action Movement or the Black Panther Party, before many of these organizations either dissolved or capitulated to the logic of liberal integration, their cadre were willing to “commit suicide as a class.” They weren’t willing to concede, however, that power to the spontaneous energy of the black underclasses.
Much like Lenin, they decried the idea of assessing the political content of spontaneous black struggle as infantile “ultra-leftism.” They believed that their role was to discipline the masses in the resistance, they sang songs about the masses not being ready for revolution. While many of them took up the Marxist-Leninist viewpoint of being the “vanguard” of the struggle, they were very much reiterating Du-Bois’s early and regretted concept of the talented tenth. Those so called leaders that could uplift the rest of the race.
One conception of black autonomy is to refuse the dominance of the black bourgeoisie in the black liberation movement