Chinese leftist blog Jiliu (激流) investigates recent Black Lives Matter protests through a Marxist, data-driven lens that offers a dialectical approach to the question of race and class often missing in Western left-leaning debates.
By Jiliu (激流)
Published on Qiao Collective, Aug 22, 2020
Translated by Kevin Li of Qiao Collective and published with the author’s permission.
The original Zhihu post, later republished in Utopia, can be found here (link in Chinese).
Editor’s note: Founded in 2015, Jiliu (激流) is a Chinese youth-focused online blog, focused on leftist, communist commentary on Chinese and international politics. They regularly publish work on China, the U.S., and leftist movements around the globe on their website, WeChat, and Zhihu. Following our previous translation of Chairman Rabbit’s essay on American Electioneering, we are pleased to publish, with permission, yet another piece of “America-watching.”
We were deeply shaken by the horrific murder of George Floyd in late-May 2020. Over the following months, hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many members of the Qiao Collective, took to the streets in what may have been the largest series of mass demonstrations in U.S. history.
Jiliu’s piece begins with a brief anecdote on how the Chinese public’s views towards the U.S. have evolved, from popular support for Black liberation movements during the Mao era to a rosier, and often romanticized view of the U.S. after the Reform and Opening Up Era initiated under Deng Xiaoping. Now, as the contradictions within U.S. society become increasingly impossible to ignore and the Chinese socialist system continues to increase standards of living across the country, we see a resurgence of cynicism towards U.S. capitalism among the Chinese public. The two societies’ radically different approaches to the COVID-19 crisis only further crystallizes this dichotomy.
Reflecting this growing cynicism, Jiliu’s data-driven essay investigates recent Black Lives Matter protests through a Marxist lens. Jiliu provides a dialectical approach to the question of race and class that continue to trouble U.S. socialist dialogues, providing a more in-depth commentary on race and class contradictions of U.S. society than most U.S. media outlets themselves.
Out of our belief that the Western left can sharpen its own analysis and tactics by incorporating the critiques of leftists, socialists, and anti-imperialists in China and throughout the Global South, we are pleased to re-publish Jiliu’s work here.
America’s “riots” are class warfare.
Before Reform and Opening Up, our parents’ generation resolved to free the “American people living in the midst of deep waters and burning fires”. Afterwards, they turned this into a joke. Today, we ourselves have grown up, only to discover that Americans indeed live in such dire straits.
U.S. workers’ wages have not gone up in 50 years.
The following graph plots the ratio between hourly wages and the price index for U.S. laborers (excluding managers), reflecting the real wages of the U.S. proletariat. As we can see, this ratio began falling after the 1973 oil crisis and began to rise again after 1995. Only in 2019 do we see this ratio return to 1973 levels, which suggests that American workers’ real wages have not gone up in 50 years.
Beyond wage stagnation, since 2000, U.S. workers’ employment rate has been decreasing as well.
In 2000, after the dot-com bubble burst, employment rates among U.S. workers declined sharply. 2007 saw the subprime mortgage crisis which soon affected the entire U.S. economy. Laborers faced yet another attack, with employment rates dropping off a cliff. At the end of 2016, the employment rate had slumped to less than 60%. It did not return to 1992 levels until the end of 2019.
Amongst low-earning families, there is an average of 0.5 persons who have work. In the next quantile, that figure increases to 0.8, suggesting that most low- to middle-earning families fail to find full-time work and must turn to temporary work, or are forced to rely on social safety nets.
More and more lower class people are losing full-time work, with hourly wages stagnant. Around 2016, 40 percent of U.S. families could not rely on their current incomes to support themselves.
The above table shows that among the bottom 40 percent of U.S. families, average expenses exceed income after tax. The middle 20 percent of families have to struggle to maintain balance. In other words, in at least 40 percent of U.S. households, incomes are not enough to maintain reproduction of labor power.
This data violates our common knowledge—how could Americans be this poor? But frankly, this is the reality. This has not changed after Trump took office. In 2019, a Federal Reserve study revealed that over 40 percent of Americans would struggle to come up with $400. In order to sustain themselves, the U.S. proletariat customarily takes on debt.
Since 1975, the ratio of debt to income has been steadily increasing. In 2015, this ratio came close to 1.0; even without eating or drinking, a year’s income is just enough to pay back debt.
This debt consists of partly mortgages, partly consumer debt. Of Americans in the bottom 40 percent, only 15 percent have a mortgage, meaning that among bottom earners, most debt is consumer debt. One must borrow money in order to sustain life.
The poorest proletariat must work multiple jobs to raise their families. One Chinese person living in the U.S. describes, “Once at a former company, I spent half a day at the production line. During the middle of the day, during break time, I spoke to a few production line workers. One person had two children and an ex-husband unable to find a job or pay child support. She worked three jobs, and worked 18 hours a day to raise her children. Without talking to them, I would have no idea that the U.S. would have such hardworking people who despite this are so poor.”
Such an enormous gap has created the primary contradiction within U.S. society—the contradiction between the proletariat and monopoly capitalism.
At the same time, the top 0.1 percent’s share of wealth keeps increasing. A series of policies passed after Trump took office cut taxes for the wealthy, enlarging the gap between rich and poor. Such an enormous gap has created the primary contradiction within U.S. society—the contradiction between the proletariat and monopoly capitalism.
Every single large scale protest in the U.S. has roots in this contradiction. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protests championed the motto “1 percent vs. 99 percent”—the standoff between the top 1 percent and 99 percent. During these ongoing protests, some people have gone to rich neighborhoods chanting “eat the rich.” Take note, these people were not chanting “eat the police,” but “eat the rich.”
Under the primary contradiction between the proletariat and monopoly capitalism rises a series of secondary contradictions. The most influential secondary contradiction is that between Black people and the white monopoly capitalists.
Racism towards Black people in the U.S. is rooted in colonial history. During the period of U.S. monopoly capitalism, in order to prevent unity between laborers, the rich and powerful consciously created a wedge between Black and white laborers (for example, having white people manage Black people), extending the history of anti-Black discrimination. Even till the modern day, African Americans on average still have not achieved a standard of living comparable to white Americans in the same class, due to these historical reasons. Their educational attainment also lags, causing black people to earn less than their white counterparts, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
An influx of immigrants further complicates this issue. Immigration has changed the structure of the U.S. population where minorities [including those designated by the census as “Hispanic whites”] account for nearly 40 percent of the total population. The largest minority hail from Latin America, who make up over 16 percent of the population followed by Black people at 13 percent.
A large inflow of low-cost labor naturally creates competition between workers. Capitalists take advantage of the contradictions between races, employing various mechanisms to use temporary labor, simultaneously increasing labor competition and labor costs. One Chinese American described competition between people of color and white laborers:“When we moved and renovated our house, the chief labor contractor said that picking businesses from a directory would be expensive, but come with permits and insurance. If we were to hire a few Mexican people, we would cut down costs by over a half, but there would be no contract or insurance.”
Racial contradictions cover up and obscure the true nature of class contradiction. The exaggerated narratives pushed by capitalists, the media, and politicians drive sharp divisions between different racial groups within the working class.
Around 2010, nearly 30 percent of workers were contractors. Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and white people without high school degrees made up the majority of contracted work. Another Chinese American expressed an understanding of the white proletariat: “You say that undocumented immigrants are hardworking, but these Americans (white people) are also industrious. They would take a 4000 mile round trip just for a one-month gig, all while sleeping in their cars.”
Racial contradictions cover up and obscure the true nature of class contradiction. The exaggerated narratives pushed by capitalists, the media, and politicians drive sharp divisions between different racial groups within the working class. A poll conducted during the 2016 election season has shown that “61 percent of working class whites believe that immigrants are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care. Over 71 percent of the white working class believe that due to immigrants lowering wages, their future economic development suffers… and over half of the white working class believes that the U.S. should build a wall on the Mexican border.”
In reality, the competition between the white working class and working class people of color again pushes racism further into the social fabric.
A Chinese American recently uploaded a TikTok video saying that he hired two Black health workers into his neighborhood to take care of the eldery, only for them to be detained by security. If he hadn’t shown up to explain, these two Black people might have been sent to the police. Although this sounds unimaginable, this is the truth of the U.S..
After this incident, a black person uploaded a video to the internet where he talked about lessons that his mom taught him. “Don’t be out too late,” “Do not touch anything you’re not buying,” “Never make it look like there’s an altercation between you and someone else,” “If a cop stops you randomly and questions you, don’t talk back,” etc. He didn’t pay too much attention to this beforehand, but he knows now: Black people must follow these rules to survive.
Poverty co-occurs with crime. Those on the margins fall into rogue, violent crime, further complicating racial issues. In the eyes of many, Black people are associated with violence, drug use, and robbery. The truth is, 52 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and 12 years after Obama was first elected, black people still live in a world ripe with discrimination.
In the U.S., the pandemic has intensified pre-existing racial and class conflicts.
Due to the irresponsibility of U.S. politicians and social divisions within U.S. society, government infighting has wrecked the U.S.’ ability to efficiently address crises. During these past three months, the U.S. government has completely lost control of the pandemic. Since March, cities across the country have locked down and the number of working people has decreased by more than 20 million between March and April. Suddenly, many Americans are out of work. As mentioned earlier, 40 percent of Americans do not have $400 to spare. Losing one’s job threatens one’s very survival.
On the other hand, working people must confront the threat of the virus. In the U.S., there’s a saying: the virus only attacks poor people. Due to differences in housing conditions, living conditions, and access to care, there is a huge disparity in the mortality rates due to the virus.
In the U.S., the pandemic has intensified pre-existing racial and class conflicts.
At the moment, the death toll has exceeded 100,000 and the mortality rate increases among poorer people. If rich people come into contact with a suspected case, they can quarantine on a yacht. If poor people come into contact with a suspected case, all they can do is keep going to work and living in their cramped, rented rooms. If poor people are ill, the hospital won’t provide testing, but rich people can buy tests from private labs, have access to good treatment, and enjoy greater protections. Poor people must work to live, while rich people can stay at home and support themselves with their capital.
At the end of March, the University of Michigan surveyed the residents of Detroit. 50 percent of Detroit residents said that it was “very possible” that they would run out of money within the next three months; about 20 percent of Detroit residents said that they were “extremely certain” that they would run out of money within the next three months. University of Michigan professor Jeffrey Morenoff notes that “the fact that these residents will run out of money shows that if their costs exceed their emergency fund—which is to say 400 dollars—they won’t make it.” In another interview, a man said:“I’m not saying I’m not afraid of the virus, but I’m more worried about surviving, because I have a wife, father, and three children to take care of.”
In the U.S., the lower your class, the greater the impact of the pandemic, whether that be higher unemployment rates or mortality rates
Morenoff also says that “other than the residents who will immediately run out of money, the Detroit area currently has a high unemployment rate threatening their health and safety in addition to the economic burdens.” How high is Detroit’s unemployment rate? At the end of March, it hit 35 percent. Said figure is clearly higher among people of color compared to white people. Among the unemployed, 17 percent were white, 37 African American, and 40 percent Hispanic.
Furthermore, many people in the U.S. suffer from homelessness and are thus extremely vulnerable during a pandemic. Using California, the most populous state, as an example, there are 150,000 people who are homeless. They must sleep on the streets during the pandemic; who can say how many of such people have died from COVID-19?
In the U.S., the lower your class, the greater the impact of the pandemic, whether that be higher unemployment rates or mortality rates (black people make up 23 percent of all COVID deaths, but only 13 percent of the general population). The poor must choose either death by starvation or death by COVID. Under these conditions, the pandemic has attacked the American poor’s bottom line.
First, U.S. workers’ real wages have not grown in 50 years; 40 percent of American families spend more than they earn; 40 percent of Americans cannot cover a 400 dollar emergency expense; and the rich get richer. Class contradictions sharpen by the day.
Second, the Black working class are disproportionately impoverished. Not only are they oppressed by capitalists, they face the crushing pressure of racial discrimination. The Black proletariat are furious [满腔怒火].
Third, the pandemic has pushed poor people to struggle at the brink of starvation. Black people clearly face a higher COVID-19 mortality rate, amplifying racial and class conflicts.
Under these conditions, it is as if all of U.S. society sits on a gunpowder barrel of class struggle. One only needs a single spark to cause an explosion. And indeed, the spark has been lit.
40 percent of American families spend more than they earn; 40 percent of Americans cannot cover a 400 dollar emergency expense; and the rich get richer. Class contradictions sharpen by the day.
On May 25th, a 46 year-old black driver named George Floyd was pulled over by the police in Minnesota, who suspected him of using a forged 20 dollar bill. Law enforcement pushed Floyd to the ground, and kneeled on his neck for 7 minutes, killing him.
The entire process was captured on tape and uploaded to social media, quickly catching fire. On May 26th, the people of Minneapolis took to the streets in protest, paving the way for a new round of popular uprisings in America. Democratic Party politicians furiously seized the opportunity to make their presence felt, heading to Twitter to condemn violent law enforcement (people of color are one of the Democratic party’s main voting blocs). Pro-Democrat news channel CNN immediately set off a propaganda storm. American-style freedom of speech was Minnesota’s spark, quickly igniting the gunpowder barrel of class warfare.
Which states haven’t seen Black people killed by gun violence! Which states don’t have blood on their hands!
Minnesota’s protests quickly spread to Memphis, where on May 27th, the people took to the streets in protest of Floyd’s death. The people simultaneously mourned Breonna Taylor (a black woman shot and killed by the police in her own home) and Ahmaud Arbery (a young black man shot and killed by a white person while jogging).
Soon after, the movement spread to more cities. The people, enraged, chanted on the streets, clashing with police. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to suppress the people, and in the process, some attacked the public indiscriminately. This led to an even greater feelings of resistance among the people.
The people, absolutely infuriated, rose up in one city after another. The masses took to the streets, looted, and set ablaze as far as the eye could see.
There were occasional robberies and arson. Based on current observations, they come from 4 types of people: members of Antifa, a loosely connected leftist federation, who believe that material attacks are more effective than non-violent protests; white supremacists, who provoke chaos in an attempt to have the government deploy troops; ordinary people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, who rob stores much like peasants of feudal times, stealing from landlords to feed themselves; and lastly, opportunists. Looting during a popular uprising becomes complex, and also gives the U.S. government an excuse for further suppression.
Trump tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” But his threat backfired. The people grew more and more furious, with some law enforcement already unable to control the situation. The military began preparations, ready to suppress the people. Hundreds of angry people marched towards and surrounded the White House, scaring Trump into an underground bunker. A small neighboring church, typically reserved for the President, was set ablaze.
On May 30th, Floyd’s first autopsy came out, stating that he died of “heart disease and potential intoxicants in his system and not asphyxiation or strangulation by officer.” The people, absolutely infuriated, rose up in one city after another. The masses took to the streets, looted, and set ablaze as far as the eye could see. Tens of cities initiated curfews, which the U.S. hasn’t seen in many years. After fewer than 10 days, protests broke out in over 100 cities.
The U.S.’s state of affairs grows more chaotic as we speak. Trump’s performance merely adds fuel to the fire. He’ll call himself the “law and order” President, call himself “an ally of all peaceful demonstrators”, increase suppression on protests, and tweet about “lowlifes and losers”—all in the same breath. This clown, who once pretended to walk alongside the working class, has truly revealed his ugly face.
The movement is pulling in more and more forces. The left-wing “Antifa” and far right-wing white supremacist organizations are all participating. Trump named Antifa as the black hand behind looting and arson [Antifa is a non-consolidated left-wing political body, whose viewpoints include socialism, anarchism, feminism, environmental protection, etc. Some organizations indeed directly protested against racism and fascism, they believed that material attacks were superior to non-violent means. In 2016, Antifa grew quickly after Trump was elected]. However, the State of Minnesota reported that some white supremacist organizations embedded themselves in the protests to sow chaos.
Decades without a raise, slaving away yet unable to prop up an emergency 400 dollars! The creators of such immense wealth, yet stuck at the lowest classes of society.
A fight started by racism and violent law enforcement—the breadth and depth extend far beyond the bounds of racism and police.
Countless proletariat, white and people of color alike, took to the streets.
They roar in fury! Decades without a raise, slaving away yet unable to prop up an emergency 400 dollars! The creators of such immense wealth, yet stuck at the lowest classes of society. If unemployed for two months, they could die.
They denounce all of this! Why do they have to die in this pandemic, why are black people treated so unjustly, why do the rich get richer and the poor poorer, why do we separate people like alpha beta gamma?
This is a great, mass movement. The broken glass and fires, seemingly spontaneous, show that the proletariat alone cannot lead the movement. However, all consciousness rises from spontaneity. The importance of this movement rests not in its spontaneity, but in its inexhaustible power. There will come a day when people of the U.S., regardless of vocation, race, or gender, unite against the U.S. government, itself a representative of the propertied class. These movements will go down in history as a movement of the U.S. proletariat.