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Taking Account of State Violence

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

Taking Account of State Violence


A Proposed Revision of We Believe that We Can Win

Building on a discussion convened at the first Leftroots Congress on the topic of mass incarceration, policing, immigration detention, and other forms of state violence, this statement proposes a revision to We Believe that We Can Win (WBTWCW).

While the characterizations of racial monopoly capitalism and the strategy of the historic bloc in WBTWCW are largely sound, we see an important flaw in the analysis. This is reflected in the document’s failure to seriously engage with the current scale of this nation’s institutions of policing, surveillance, temporary detention, long-term imprisonment, and militarism, even as these repressive institutions pose significant obstacles to the prospects of revolutionary struggle.

These repressive institutions bear down heavily on the lower layers of the working class. In the US today, some 70 million people have felony jackets, with severe consequences for their ability to work, keep their families together, vote, obtain housing and social services, or exercise any semblance of individual or collective self-determination. About 113 million adults have an immediate family member who is formerly or currently incarcerated, including six out of ten African Americans and a similar proportion of Native Americans.

These repressive institutions now hold roughly 42,000 people in immigrant detention, while simultaneously criminalizing more than 10 million, overwhelmingly working class, undocumented immigrants. These institutions legitimize the separation of families, whether through mass deportation, juvenile incarceration, or the wholesale loss of parental rights by imprisoned parents. LGBTQ people and people living with HIV, particularly LGBTQ people of color, transgender, and gender non-conforming people and LGBTQ youth face widespread profiling, harassment, and sexual assault by police while in jail or prison. Beyond this entrenched pattern of individual harm, these institutions create a profound obstacle to revolutionary struggle by seeking to broadly demobilize the lower layers of the working class.

Perhaps no fact better represents the enormity of this obstacle than the historic and continued incarceration of political prisoners, some of whom have now been held behind bars for nearly a half century. These include: Russel Maroon Shoatz, Mumia Abu Jamal and other veterans of the Black Liberation Movement; Puerto Rican independentista Oscar Lopez Rivera, recently freed after 36 years in prison; leaders of the Native American sovereignty movement, most notably Leonard Peltier; and on to recent waves of activists from the Animal Rights, Environmental Justice, Occupy Wall Street, No DAPL, Black Lives Matters protests, the immigrant rights movement and others.

This domestic repression is mirrored by and further enhanced through the U.S. military’s projection of power abroad, ostensibly as the “world’s policeman.” Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has pursued the goal of “full spectrum dominance,” or control over all dimensions of potential battlefield conflict. For military and civilian officials, this has meant a pursuit of superiority in various fields of conflict, including terrestrial, aerial, maritime, extraterrestrial, psychological, biochemical, and cybertechnological. Over the past three decades, this approach has led not only to the U.S. military maintaining nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad, but also its innovative use of cyberattacks, drone strikes, special forces operations and even a proposed Space Force. As such, this country’s military budget, is greater than those of the next ten largest spenders combined. And rather than remaining abroad, aspects of this war machine inevitably find their way home, from the transfer of military equipment to local police departments to the now routine use of military consultants in the entertainment industry.

Taking all of this into account, we find that WBTWCW fails to foreground the role of the state, and its coercive capabilities, throughout its assessment of the system and our current conjuncture. In essence, the role of the state as an instrument of coercion in WBTWCW remains underdeveloped and understated.

This theoretical flaw also runs through the depiction of the Revolutionary Road, beginning with its unbalanced account of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. The document largely attends to the capitalist class efforts to win the consent of key sections of the working class (taking place through what he termed “civil society”), but makes few references to the use of force, the other element of class rule identified by Gramsci (operating through what he termed “political society”). As Gramsci argued, these are two sides of the same coin: “The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterized by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed by the so-called organs of public opinion – newspapers and associations – which, therefore, in certain situations, are artificially multiplied.”1 Here, Gramsci is clearly concerned with the exercise of both force and consent, noting the reciprocal relationship between the two during periods that were not marked by political or economic crisis. In contrast, WBTWCW addresses only one aspect of hegemony, a theoretical limitation that fails to fully account for the key role of force, ranging from state sanctioned violence to the more indirect forms of coercion, like the mistreatment of large numbers of women, children and people with disabilities through what remains of the “welfare” system.

As Gramsci dialectical approach suggests, force is not simply a material matter, but also a deeply ideological and political one. As the account of the current conjuncture in WBTWCW notes, the police and military, along with small businesses, are key institutions that retain a significant degree of legitimacy. While various public and private institutions have lost prestige over the past decade, much of the country’s identification with these key repressive institutions helps to shore up the hegemony of the racial monopoly capitalist class. Similarly, as members of the operative layer of the professional managerial class, the most ideologically committed members of these institution often serve as a leading edge of reactionary right-wing mobilizations. The active role of police, prison guard and border patrol unions in the Trump coalition has demonstrated this quite clearly. At the same time, those who are not ideologically committed remain an important “middle force,” aggressively pursued by those on the right, particularly white nationalists, while their experience of how much the state’s exercise of force stands in contradiction to the avowed explanation makes them open to persuasion by the organized and social movement left. Because of their relationship to various medical, housing and educational benefits associated with the GI Bill as well as the stress of multiple deployments and service-related mental health challenges, those in the military may emerge as a key middle force.

In the service of fully developing LeftRoots’ conception of the state, WBTWCW should be revised to draw further on Gramsci’s account of force, especially when it is being exercised during periods of crisis. Our document should point to the strategic importance of contending with state-sanctioned violence. Perhaps more so than any other factor, the racialized violence of domestic policing and immigrant detention, mass imprisonment and military intervention have the potential to bring together the driving forces, while also building a coalition inclusive of the associated social forces. Within the U.S. population as a whole, the driving forces face disproportionate patterns of police violence, criminal incarceration, voter suppression, post-release surveillance and legalized discrimination. In other words, contending directly with state-sanctioned violence would help to anchor a historic bloc led by these forces and joined by the associated social forces.

This approach to directly engaging those directly impacted by state violence might also serve as a grassroots counterweight to an approach to revolutionary struggle that in WBTWCW is largely concerned with the formal strictures of the electoral arena in Phases 1 and 2. Securing institutional reforms that constrain the state’s coercive capacities would not only help to consolidate this emerging bloc, but also would help to further broaden the political space needed for the driving forces, particularly those from the excluded layer of the working class, to operate.

If taken up in a way that points to the inadequacy of piecemeal reforms and isolated victories, these efforts have the possibility of further weakening and delegitimizing the capitalist state while also highlighting the need to build the sort of alternative institutions envisioned in Phase 3. With the role of racialized state violence deeply embedded in the emergence of racial monopoly capitalism, a commitment to eliminating the institutions that exercise it could help to ground the process of constructing the socialist hegemony outlined in Phase 4 and founding the socialist state described in Phase 5.

  1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections form the Prison Notebooks of
    Antonio Gramsci (New York: International Publishers, 1999) 80, fn 49.
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