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Stakes is High: Addicted to the Spectacle


Watching the protests in France, I was hit with an overwhelming feeling of hope. Maybe this massive collective action would spread like a virus and invigorate the masses to awaken to the reality that the power can once again be in the hands of the people and not the exalted few. Watching France burn in real time made me wonder what keeps us from engaging in the same kind of collective mass action over the privatization of our welfare state. Of course we experience protests, riots–“uprisings” if you prefer– but in the U.S. context there seems to be a reactive aspect to mass demonstrations. Regardless of their political coloration, they always seem to emerge from a feeling of immediate outrage; a police murder of an unarmed person of color if you’re on the more liberal/left side of things, or the perception of the state as a fascistic entity if your beliefs are more conservative. But what we’ve witnessed in France with the Yellow Vests and now this current uprising is a cross-partisan coalition of ordinary people standing up en masse, against neoliberalism, not random acts of state violence or reactionary culture war shenanigans. Why are we so willing to accept the fundamentals of a system that has commodified the public good?

Even reactions to authoritarian right-wing policies stay at a fairly shallow level.. Nowhere is this more apparent in the current fight over women’s reproductive rights. The common left position I see is that the government shouldn’t have a say so when it comes to bodies of women. But which women?

While we regard the welfare queen” as a Reagan era racist trope, we are rather comfortable with the policies that still exist in its wake. In the eyes of the law, poor mothers and people on probation do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. That means if you receive certain state and federal benefits you can have your home searched, be forced to give up the name of your child’s father or lose your benefits, and you’re incentivized to have birth control implants. I haven’t seen a pussy hat protest over any of these laws.

In the American context, there’s a palpable feeling of powerlessness against neoliberal capitalism. Social media and (more rarely) actual protests are reduced to something like water cooler conversation. If you can’t actually change anything, you can at least feel some relief from voicing your Outrage and Being Heard. Likes become validation and the Correct Positions that only exist in your head become a substitute for real politics. I worry that, in the context of America in the 2020s, the “justice” people are looking for is less an attempt at a change in material reality than a purification of the soul. Even when people do log off and hit the streets with a protest sign, it often feels like just more politics of self-expression. Whether we’re talking about pussy hats after the 2016 election or right-wing anti-mask protests during COVID or even demonstrations against police brutality, I wonder whether these “cries of the unheard” end up being much more than attempts at group catharsis.

Potholes in My Lawn

Recently, it was announced that 32 million Americans would be affected by a cut in SNAP benefits. Not one building burned. Hell, nobody even knocked over a garbage can when the news broke. Why is that? About 42 million Americans a year receive SNAP benefits. That’s 12% of the population.

What’s the reason behind the lack of collective action?

Of the 88% of Americans NOT receiving SNAP benefits, about 60% say they’re living paycheck to paycheck.One of the more mundane reasons for the lack of collective reaction to cutting a benefit that will affect millions of children may be that so much of the rest of the population has excellent reasons to keep their heads down and do what they can for themselves and their own families.

Another factor is that the welfare state in the United States is constantly under attack by both political parties, and citizens as a whole don’t have much faith in government institutions. As Loïc Waquant says:

“The downsizing of public aid, correlative of the shift from ‘welfare’, as the right to protection from the sanction of the market, to ‘workfare’, as the obligation to orient oneself toward forced participation in subpar employment as a condition of support (as with the Harz III reform inGermany, the ALE programme in Belgium and the RSA in France), and the upsizing of the prison are the two sides of the same coin. Together, workfare and prisonfare effect the double regulation of poverty in an age of deepening economic inequality and diffusing social insecurity.”

In France,people are taking big risks to fight for their state sponsored benefits. Americans shudder in fear if they fall into a situation where they would require state assistance.

In France, there is a certain quality of life provided by the state that the citizens have fought for and are accustomed to receiving. But universal programs to provide for material needs like healthcare have never been a part of American life. About half of the U.S. population has employer sponsored healthcare. It’s a huge advantage for capital to hold that over the heads of workers, and the fear of a system inferior to the one we have right now is enough to keep many people silent on the need to join the rest of the developed world and institute a single payer system. So while Bernie Sanders struck a chord with many voters with his call for Medicare for All in 2016 and 2020, that aspect of the capitalist status quo isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

The Bizness

You might think the picture I’ve been painting is too bleak. There is a limit to what Americans will accept. Just look at the summer of George Floyrd protests in 2020. People weren’t willing to accept ANOTHER televised murder of an unarmed black man–the cops so unafraid of repercussion that they killed Floyd in front of citizens openly taking video on their phones.

Let’s take a closer look at that example, beginning with how it started. That fiery summer didn’t happen in a vacuum; there were many circumstances that caused that explosion of frustration on the streets of Minneapolis and beyond.

There was a shelter in place order that caused many Americans to be locked in their homes, and let the poor be sacrificed as “essential workers”–many of those deemed essential being Black and Brown. We were in the final days of maybe the most polarizing and openly racist presidency we’ve seen in modern history. Many people felt that Trump had mishandled the pandemic and added to the frustrations of the shelter in place orders by allowing mask wearing to be politicized. And George Floyd was one of 3 highly reported cases of state murder and racist vigilante violence in a matter of months. Breona Tayler, Ahmad Aubery, and, as tensions boiled, Floyd was a bridge too far for many people.

But what happened after the calming of the uprising in the name of George Floyd? Who was able to capture the energy of the people in the streets and fold it into a political movement? Much like the silence around the cut to the SNAP benefits, the lack of any deeper vision to address the roots of the problem was revealing. Where were the calls for policy to attempt to improve the lives of the millions of George Floyds all over the world? Is defunding the police force going to generate good union jobs, when working in law enforcement is a good union job for many people of color? Even if there were permanent changes to police funding–which always seemed unlikely–how would that prevent murders by private security? What exactly did the uprising want to accomplish? Do we even know what success would have looked like? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like what happened.

Remember that the main organizers of the Minneapolis protests did have a goal. It wasn’t just defunding the police or having some tepid reforms. They wanted the entire thing abolished. On June 7th a veto proof majority in the Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle the Minneapolis police department against the wishes of Mayor Jacob Frey. Protesters brought the action to the home of Mayor Frey when he didn’t back down on his stance to keep the office intact. A ballot measure was introduced to abolish the current police force in favor of a “department of public safety.” Would that have been anything more than a renamed Police Department? We’ll never know. It went down in defeat and the Mayor was re-elected.

After hundreds of arrests and an estimated $550 million in damages, the call to reimagine law enforcement didn’t resonate with the people and the establishment remained in power. And of course nothing changed in the material conditions that produced a disposable person like George Floyd in the first place.


It’s hard to reimagine policing when the brutality of capitalism’s enforcement arm is just one small part of a vast labyrinth of injustice Institutions that are supposed to buttress the poor against the freedom of the market are privatized, penalized and underfunded. Turning a prison into a rehabilitation center may be a slight easing of the boot off the neck of the incarcerated, but what does their reality consist of upon release? Housing is dwindling and hard to come by even if you have means. Benefits to enable the indigent to eat and seek healthcare are lackluster and, when they’re present at all, amount to tiny band-aids on massive societal wounds. So where is the resentment against this larger reality?

Social media has allowed us to double down on the idea that the “personal is political”. Algorithms of hate designed for engagement reward us with passive acceptance in the form of likes, retweets and hearts. You can create a large echochamber and fool yourself into believing you’re doing politics. But mass politics–the real kind–isn’t passive. It’s done in person, it’s built over time and doesn’t look for the “viral” moment as an endgame moment.

When we can’t get justice, we settle for catharsis.

Building that kind of movement is outside of what a lot of people can even imagine–so they settle for rituals of anger instead. When we can’t get justice, we settle for catharsis.

Ghetto Thang

For those reading this unaware, the title and the section titles are the names of De La Soul songs. The band has been in the news in recent months as they’ve won a years-long battle over streaming royalties. For almost 20 years their most classic material has been unavailable. Sadly, weeks before they were to reissue their early catalog they lost member Dave Jude Jolicoeur (Trugoy the Dove) to a heart disease.

For me, the emergence of De La Soul marks the end of looking at hip hop music as one that is entrenched in underclass ideology. They were from the suburbs and they didn’t posture as gangsters even when it was the dominant trend. Their music and colorful visual representation was a stark departure from the Adidas tracksuit, Kangol hats and gold chains imagery of the genre. Sonically vibrant and eclectic, they combined funk sounds of the 70s and early 80s with what we now call the “yacht rock” of the AM gold era. They were the first rap group to incorporate humorous skits in their albums and weren’t afraid to smile in photos and make fun of themselves. The emergence of De La Soul and the Native Tongues allowed rap music to become more than simply ghetto tales of masculine bravado and inner city violence.

Here’s the connection: Our willingness to accept the systemic punitive treatment of the poor and working class has a lot to do with our bipartisan acceptance of underclass ideology. It has a lot to do with our deeply American belief in individual morality as the cause of problems and individual greatness as the solution. This comes in radical and conservative versions. If you believe that anyone from Fred Hampton to George Washington was a messianic figure who accomplished things all by themselves, by sheer force of character, then it’s just as easy to see these societal failings as individual missteps by broken people. And even your gestures of protest are, well, gestures. When you’re storming the capital or throwing cans of soup at a cop you’re on your own hero’s journey that can become as iconic as Banksy’s “Rage, the Flower Thrower”.

People are more politically plugged in than ever before but as my friend and scholar Daniel Bessner reminds us we’re in a moment characterized by the profound absence of mass politics. Circling back to the example of France, their government institutions are a source of pride. We Americans don’t believe in institutions and regardless of our political affiliations, most of us have deeply accepted the idea that poverty is a personal defect–a failure to play according to the rules of the game–and the economic structures that set those rules are too powerful to be challenged. Unless we find a way to funnel our collective outrage against the basics of the system itself, we’re just rushing to see our reflections in the sea, stepping over the bodies of the poor while claiming to be representing their plight.