Necessary trouble - The rising tide of organised resistance in the United States

Necessary Trouble Americans in Revolt Sarah Jaffe

Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

Sarah Jaffe, Nation Books, New York, 2016, 352pp, ISBN 978-1-5685-8536-9 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-5685-8537-6 (ebook)

Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble provides the fullest account yet of the social movements that have arisen in the US since the financial crash of 2008. The author travelled widely across the states to speak to a huge variety of people in revolt, including members of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, OUR Walmart (Organisation United for Respect at Walmart), Fight for $15 (minimum wage) and the victims of environmental degradation, toxic energy corporations and extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. She even spoke to members of the Tea Party.

Jaffe traces the connections between disruptive movements, noting that participants quickly learn that issues like housing, racism and employment are so tightly related that any separation between them is artificial. She shows that where spontaneous protests have arisen, they continue and survive only with the direct participation of organisers from one cause to another. Committed socialists and leftists work to keep campaigns sustainable and make links with other groups in struggle. The social protest movements of the last decade have adopted processes and structures that are as important as the demands they make. People who were previously apolitical arise from the community and become local leaders. New tactics are constantly needed to keep a movement alive and the more people feel that the movement belongs to them, the more they will believe that they can try something new. ‘We need to be quick and nimble and experimental and militant because those are the things that work,’ says an activist who helped achieve the $15 minimum wage in Seattle.

This approach is working against Walmart, a strongly anti-union firm where employees are constantly monitored. But ongoing resistance to overwork, delayed pay and other injustices are possible when complainants are not left isolated and where management cannot settle agreements without a general vote.

Constant action and solidarity mobilised by social media and on the streets is behind the rise of the organisations known as Black Lives Matter. Ordinary people have limits to their time and energies to commit to unceasing protest and yet that has been shown to be what is most effective. When unarmed black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead in February 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch member who had trailed the teenager on his way home in Sandford, California, Zimmerman went free. It was the unceasing protests that forced the authorities to arrest him on 11 April and charge him with second-degree murder. When 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 in Ferguson, with his hands in the air saying ‘Don’t shoot’, his body was left lying in the road for four hours. Protesters, both black and white, took over the streets and the spontaneous fury of the crowd, continuous and lasting for days, was met with military force by armoured cars and tanks, flashbang grenades, rubber bullets, pepper balls, beanbag canisters, wooden pellets and the LRAD ‘sound cannon’.

The purpose of what Jaffe describes as the ‘militarisation of everything’ was once the Cold War anti-communist crusade against civilians. Today it is the War on Terror and the War on Drugs that targets the population. But, as one commentator notes, ‘the items being balanced on the scale are not freedom and security but power and powerlessness’. Trump’s words during the 2016 election tour – ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters’ – are a boast about personal power and authority.

Jaffe exposes the economic pressures and the bitter disappointments in the ‘American Dream’ that have made hatred and violence an acceptable player in US politics. The US looks like a failing capitalist state – and it is. The rate of transferring public services to the ‘for-profit’ sector is causing chaos in education, transport and public services. Median household wealth was 36% lower in 2013 than in 2003 and was down some 20% from 1984, meaning that not all this drop can be attributed to the collapse of the housing bubble. The level of debt is so great that wage increases don’t make up for how much people owe. The cost of a college degree has increased over 3,000 per cent since 1972 and by 2012 the total student loan burden was $1 trillion, and 44% of graduates worked in jobs that do not normally require a degree. Poverty and unemployment amongst black people is twice that of white people. Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African-American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of the 1,134 police killings in 2015, five times higher than for the equivalent white population.

Anti-globalisation talk in praise of free market capitalism and the restoration of American business is mere posturing in the face of reality. Without owning a single factory, Walmart is the world’s third-largest employer, after the US Department of Defense and the Chinese army. Add in the number of workers across the globe who work in Walmart’s supply chain, and the number is staggering. As a low-pay employer, Walmart receives massive subsidies from the state of between $3,015 and $5,815 per worker in food assistance, health care, housing tax credits and more. Every year some $13.5bn is spent in Walmart from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, food stamp dollars. This is parasitic monopoly capitalism dominating world markets and consuming lives and natural resources.

How to fight back against this corporate capitalist domination is the question. When the unions have been sidelined, when the Civil Rights movement is institutionalised and dismissed as liberalism, when killer drones are operated from a desk in Washington, how to even start? The forces of populist reaction have seized the moral high ground. Where it was once the workers’ movements that spoke for ‘the people’, today it is the billionaires who speak for the workers; the tax evader who poses on behalf of the tax payer; the religious fundamentalist who pits the rights of the unborn against the rights of the living; the police who claim Stand Your Ground legal protection as they shoot unarmed civilians.

It is this context that the mobilising slogan of the 2008 Occupy Wall Street movement, ‘We are the 99%’, evolved. The slogan affirms the foundational idea of ‘We, the people’ but many activists that Jaffe spoke to are concerned about its validity in a society divided by race, gender and class. In the US the wealthiest 1% owns over 37% of household wealth, while 160 million people, the bottom 50%, own 0.1% – almost nothing. But the 9% of the population just behind the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, rising from 23.1% in 1970 to 27.6% in 2014. This ‘next 9%’, the most affluent section of the middle class, plays a key role in American politics. It is influential in the media, the universities, the law, financial services and businesses, including the health and housing sectors. This bloc, largely supporters of the Democratic Party, fights to sustain its standard of living and is anxious about passing on privilege to its children. While it may support environmental issues and identity politics to varying degrees, the ‘next 9%’ acts in its own practical interest to sustain its material advantages under capitalism. Solidarity with the working class is for electioneering and career purposes only.

Jaffe interviews activists of the Tea Party right-wing populist movement who express radical anger. The shock of the sub-prime mortgage collapse and bank defaults of 2008 directed hate against ‘them’, the other, the migrant worker, the bankers and Wall Street. The movement has a variety of views on the role of the state, on the need to ‘take money out of politics’ and contempt for the Washington establishment. The Marxist economist Richard D Wolf remembers getting calls from Tea Party groups asking him to come and lecture. The groups did not care that he was a Marxist because ‘You’re saying that what happened was unfair, that the little guy got screwed, [and] we want to hear you’. Even with members of the Tea Party a dialogue is possible.

The value of this book is not affected by the fact that it was published before Trump won the presidential election. It is estimated that the 2012 election cost $10bn and the 2016 election looks likely to have doubled this. Jaffe records the growing number of voices that say that these usual processes must be disrupted. Charity work must be moved from aid to action in really deep community organising to build social justice consciousness – class consciousness. As an anti-racist activist says, ‘We are finding a way to get in the way. Finding the way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble’.  

The real, legitimate anger widespread in the USA will take many forms in the coming year. There is a strong possibility that the anti-communism that has devastated social movements in the past will evaporate in the heat of struggle because, in the words of one socialist activist: ‘the bottom line is that it’s becoming clearer to people that it’s getting hard to imagine a way that capitalism can actually solve our problems’.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 255 February/March 2017