One of the fundamental challenges facing existentialism is where one is to derive meaning from. If life is to have meaning (and it’s not abundantly clear that it should) a problem we face is from where that meaning is derived. Is it innate? If so, what makes it innate? If not, then the onus to give life its meaning lies squarely on our shoulders, and again, the question arises—from where should that meaning come? In order to determine what our meaning could be, we must first grapple with what could be so universal that it not only lays the foundation for ourselves, but becomes a (or the) foundation which could be applied to all people across all times. The first universality one could arrive at is a sense of “self”—every individual has a sense of self. However developed that sense of self may be is irrelevant to the fact that it is universal across all people. It is the same universality in the self that Descartes focused on in his Meditations on Philosophy when trying to ascertain the origination of ideas and the nature of truth. The second universality one could arrive at is an acknowledgement of other selves. If I have a self, it stands to reason that you, who are like me, also have a self. This creates relation between selves. Relation, in this case, becomes the fundamental tenet of understanding. I can perceive you because I can perceive myself. I can perceive an object because I can perceive its usefulness to myself. These relations become the foundation upon which all other understandings are built. This is the fundamental claim upon which Martin Buber builds his text I and Thou. In the First Part, Buber establishes what he sees as the fundamental relationships of man:
The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with the two basic words he can speak.…one basic word is the word pair I-You. The other basic word is the word pair I-It; but this basic word is not changed when He or She takes the place of It. Thus the I of man is also twofold. (1)
The “I-It” relationship is one in which I (the self) understand objects (including people) as they relate to the I in space and time. The “I-You” relationship is one in which I am wholly present with You (person or object); this relationship exists outside space and time. This existence outside space and time makes the I-You relationship inherently illogical. I use the word “illogical” literally, it cannot be understood through logic or reason. It is a relationship which exists only in its immediate. To attempt to reason with its existence is to negate its very essence, and to relegate it to the I-It relationship. Both people and objects can move across this relational spectrum. These relationships are not so much descriptors of the other as they are descriptors of the other as they relate to the self. Buber closes his opening statement thusly, “Thus the I of man is also twofold”. (Buber, 53) The twofold nature of the self then exists in the duality we outlined above, both in reason and outside of reason. This duality and the relationship between its parts are what define man. In reason we have understanding, societies, structures, religion, and relations. Reason allows us to build the world in which we inhabit. Reason guides the “I-It” relationship. Outside of reason we have “God”, art, and love. These are fundamental aspects of what makes us human, yet we cannot rationalize their existence. They exist only in their immediacy. To attempt to define any one of these would be to negate their very essence. These are critical conduits in which we experience the “I-You” relationship. Of these conduits, “love” strikes me as especially peculiar. “Love” does not require You to be human, but in its most passionate and encompassing form, You is usually another individual. This makes the “I-You” relationship in “love” dynamic—it can only be reached if both individuals are aligned in the present. Buber attempts to define the undefinable “love” in the following manner: “Love is responsibility of an I for a You…”. (Buber, 66) It is this attempt at defining the undefinable that I find so fascinating. The paradox of the nature of Buber’s statement does not negate its relevance. In an attempt to better understand Buber’s ideas, I feel we must start with his definition of “love”.
I’d like to start by dissecting the sentence down to the level of two individual words—“love” and “responsibility”. Buber starts us with “love”. Love is an interesting phenomena. As I argued earlier, by its very nature “love” should be undefinable. It seems only fitting to attempt to define the undefinable by comparing it to another undefinable concept, “God”. Later in the book—when speaking about God (which he describes as the eternal-You)—Buber makes the following claim:
By its very nature the eternal You cannot become It; because by its very nature it cannot be placed within measure and limit, not even within the measure of the immeasurable and the limit of the unlimited; because by its very nature it cannot be grasped as a sum of qualities… (2)
I believe Buber’s notions of God are applicable to what we perceive as “love”. In arriving at a definition of “love”, one would negate the very elements of it which make it itself. “Love” is responsibility, “love” is altruism, “love” is pain, “love” is sacrifice, and yet “love” contains infinitely more combinations of action and emotion. “Love” is all of these things, and yet it is none of them in isolation or individually. “Love” is the embodiment both in emotion and in feeling of what those things represent in relation to a You. Without a You, “love” breaks down into each of these ideas, and becomes the things that define it, making it no longer “love”, but its parts. So in short, one could say that “love” is the eternal sum of its own parts in relation to a You. Even by these parameters, we run into problems defining “love”, as there are many different kinds of “love”. The romantic “love” between lovers is radically different from the “love” between a parent and child, but this difference does not negate the fact that they are both equally “love”. In an interview on Channel 4, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek made the following assertion about “love”:
True love, if it exists—and sometimes it does—is more radical…let’s say I was to have this type of love for you [interviewer]. It wouldn’t be right to say ‘because you satisfy my needs’, it’s simply an urgent impossibility! I cannot be without you! That’s true love! (3)
Žižek was speaking about what he deemed to be the potential for instance of “true love” (i.e. romantic love). A clip from a television interview does not allow him (or us) the room for expansion of these ideas. That being said, there is a simplicity in Žižek’s claim which I feel serves as a foundation for these notions of “love”. The simplicity is this—it defies rationale. If one were to be able to rationalize “love”, it would cease to be “love”. “Love”’s defiance of rationale is precisely what causes (or allows) us to act so irrationally in the name of “love”. So for the purposes of attempting to define “love” in relation to Buber’s use of it, I believe we can land at an undefinable, irrational, and completely necessary element of a relation between an I and a You.
This brings us to responsibility. What does it mean to be responsible? Set aside the inter-relational aspects of responsibility, what about responsibility as an isolated act—responsibility for an It as opposed to a You? Take, for instance, a car. One must assume responsibility for the car, because inevitably, at some point, the car will break down. The car is not sentient and therefor cannot take responsibility for itself. The car also has little to no relational connection to you, although people do become attached to their cars (for a variety of reasons). The car—in theory— will almost never leave the I-It relationship, because even at the most attentive moments of full presence, the car still serves a function in relation to you and your perception of and navigation in the world. In this relationship, it is imperative that you take responsibility for the car. If the car should cease to function, it will stay in that state until you intervene and repair the car. Assuming responsibility for the car assumes that the relationship between yourself and the car is yours to maintain; should you negate this responsibility, the relationship with the car will deteriorate until it is nonexistent. So in this instance, to assume responsibility is to be the conduit by which things maintain their order. Now, what if the “It” in this I-It relationship is not an object but another person (or peoples)? A leader, for instance, has few direct, interpersonal, relationships with the citizens, but instead maintains an abstract relationship with the citizenry. The leader must assume responsibility for the well-being of the people, but not necessarily of individual persons. There are instances a leader will inevitably encounter where assuming responsibility for the whole will come at the sacrifice of the individual. It could be said this is a failure on the part of the leader to uphold their obligation to their citizens (individually), but this oversimplifies the relationship. The citizen who sees their leader as only serving them has failed to uphold their own relationship to their fellow citizens. Ergo, a citizen who has entered into this abstract relationship with their leader assumes the responsibility of their own well-being, knowing full well that they may be asked to make sacrifices for the good of the citizenry. I digress, as the responsibility we are looking at is that of the I-It relationship between people. To use our previous definition, to assume responsibility is to be the conduit by which things maintain their order. However, when other people, even in the abstract, become a part of that order, the responsibility grows. The responsibility must grow to include a dutiful obligation to the well-being of the people. An element of trust is introduced to the relationship. To relate this to our previous example, the car does not need to trust that you will assume responsibility for the relationship between you and it. The car cannot trust as the car is not autonomous, it exists in order to serve you. People are autonomous. Therefor the responsibility for the relationship between you and it—in this case, the people—grows to include not only to be the conduit by which things maintain their order, but that you are a reliable conduit, which can be counted on to assume said responsibility in a complex and malleable form. To illustrate a further comparison, in order to maintain the relationship with the car, the car needs you to respond to the problems as they arise. These problems are (usually) simple, i.e. if the radiator breaks, you must fix the radiator. Doing so will maintain order (the car will function) and maintain the relationship (it will take you where you need to go). People’s problems are more complex. Society faces a multitude of multi-faceted problems, for many of which the causes and solutions are not abundantly clear. It is the responsibility of the leader to not only address these problems, but to understand the complex nature of their existence. Taking, for example, the problem of homelessness in a society. Homelessness directly affects the individuals who are experiencing it. It also affects the society at large, as the social dynamic in public places changes to accommodate this new reality. The causes which create homelessness, however, are abundant, complex, and compounding. It is rarely the case that one loses their home, and immediately after becomes “homeless”. Instead, the causes of homelessness are usually many, and many of these are individual manifestations of larger, complex, problems which exist at the macro-socioeconomic scale. Three individuals experiencing homelessness could easily come from a background of drug abuse, financial instability, and domestic or familial problems, respectively. While they are all affected by the same problem, their causes are unique, and as a result, a singular solution will not solve each of their problems. Therefor, the leader must act in such a way as to be able to address as many of the causes of homelessness at once. The effects of these decisions will not be immediately apparent to the citizenry to whom the leader assumes responsibility, nor to the citizens, to whom the leader is acting on behalf of. In order for the leader to fulfill their responsibility, they must not only solve the problem at hand, they must do so in a manner that warrants the trust of the citizenry to continue implementing their solution. Without that trust, the order is broken, and not only is the solution not implemented, but the problem continues to worsen. The element of trust which is introduced between the leader and their citizens is the human element of responsibility. This brings us to responsibility within the I-You relationship. To assume responsibility between I and You is for I to take accountability for You and the life of You. Now, the I takes the events of the You to be their own; this is on top of being the reliable conduit by which the relationship maintains its order. To assume responsibility for a You is to bear the cross of another’s burden as your own. Given the nature of the I-You relationship, this cannot be a transactional event, for to expect something in return for this assumption of responsibility would relegate the relationship to the I-It dynamic. Instead, the assumption of responsibility must be an act which cannot be rationalized, which brings us back to “love”. Let us now restate Buber’s claim, “Love is responsibility of an I for a You…” (p.66). In the I-You relationship, to truly “love” is for the I to bear the burdens of the life of You as their own, and to do so wholly without expectation. To rationalize them in any way is to negate the You, and therefor negate the I-You relationship. Buber’s notion of “love” here is one which requires the I-You relationship, but transcends it in its actualization.
What do we make of the idea of “loving” one’s self? Without an understanding of self—or I—how could one enter into any relationship, be it I-It or I-You? There is an inherent problem in defining the “self”, although this is different from the inherent problem of defining “love”. The inherent problem in defining the “self” is one of perception. I can define myself, and I can identify elements of myself that I find to be universal enough that they are manifest in yourself, but I cannot perceive yourself as I can myself. I can only perceive both the space in which ourselves could overlap and our relationship to each other within that space. The self as identifiable entity is both definable in innate understanding and undefinable in universal understanding. So, we will look instead at the overlap in the universalities between selves. The overlaps between ourselves can be seen as the culmination of collective wisdom; we share this wisdom as intuitive, guiding forces, or another way of putting it, as universal understanding about the world. Let us call this understanding “spirit”. Buber alludes to this “spirit” in the Second Part of “I and Thou” in the following manner. “Spirit in its human manifestation is man’s response to his You.…Spirit is not in the I but between I and You.”(p.89) I take this to mean a relationship between the internal idea of self and the external facing physical entity of self. In relating his notion of “love” to his notion of “spirit” we can arrive at a reading that to “love one’s self” is to take responsibility for one’s self of one’s self. In looking to our previous definition of responsibility, we can conclude that to love one’s self is for the I of the self to bear the burdens of the potential You of the self (to others) in order to create a more harmonious “singular” self. To truly assume responsibility for one’s self is to understand the impact the I has on both the It and the You. To truly “love” one’s self is to realize one’s impact on another and to bear the burden of the consequences of that impact. Without this inner harmony, it becomes impossible to relate to another individual, making the I-You relationship unattainable. To love oneself is to prepare oneself for the eventuality of the I-You relationship.
The I-You relationship is the culmination of the human spirit manifest in the self. Without it, our relational understanding—our I-It relationships—become irrelevant. While we need rational understanding in order to organize the world around us and the self within it, this becomes an act of futility in defining meaning. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. That is to say, one cannot derive value from facts alone. Rationality will explain the world, but it will not explain why. It is this need for understanding why which drives us into the arms of a lover, or to beautiful music, or to search for God. These are not rational pursuits, but they are fundamental pursuits. This is also not to suggest the answer to why can be “arrived” at; but in attempting to understanding the illogical, one must first eschew logic altogether. Early in his text, Buber makes the assertion, “All actual life is encounter.” (Buber, 62); encounter here being the immediacy of the present in the I-You relationship. Toward the close of his text, Buber revisits the encounter, saying “No prescription can lead us to the encounter, and none leads from it.” (Buber, 159) I take Buber’s claim to mean, in plainer words, no amount of logical reasoning will lead us to the illogical, and no amount of rationalization will explain it in the aftermath. It is only in the immediacy of the You that we can experience life as opposed to understanding it. While that experience cannot be quantified, it is invaluable to ascertaining what could be meaning in life. Therefor, the onus is on the I to both prepare itself for the encounter and to live within it, as opposed to attempting to understand it.
- Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Touchstone; A., p. 53
- Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Touchstone; A., p. 160
- Slavoj Zizek on Love. (2017, May 28). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6MqaX6vyl0
- Responsibility. (n.d.). In The Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/163862?redirectedFrom=responsibility#eid
I wrote this two years ago:
4 July 2018
It feels off to celebrate today. I am lucky enough to have been born here — to be born a white male here — plenty of my closest friends and relatives have had to immigrate here and work even harder to get to where they are now. But the warm embrace of opportunity available here seems to be getting colder. While the United States has always had a dark side to its bright light, it seems the shadow is moving by its own accord now. I can’t say that I believe in things such as “American Values”. Not only do they seem arbitrary and prideful, so many of them are values that the majority of people inherently seem to care about — regardless of nationality. I have been lucky enough to live between some of the wealthiest and busiest cities in the world, many here in the United States. When I look at the forsaken, the homeless, the hungry, the segregated, the recipients of violence, and those who’s socio-economic status is so low that resorting to crime is not a choice so much as a logical solution, I am reminded that the “American Values” that created the opportunity that fuels my life also created the vacuum of despair that affects those people. Somehow, our society has become dictated by zero-sum rules: if we are to succeed, someone else must fail. Zero sum ideals will only feel successful until there is no one left to blame, and those who have already paid the price will likely not be helped back.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a happy end to this monologue. There isn’t a call to action, a “keep your chin up”, a “the resistance will rise with persistence”. I am afraid for where we are headed, and it doesn’t give me very much hope. I am finding it harder and harder to say “I am American” because I don’t recognize the United States of America anymore. We are casting out the sick, the weary, and the tired. We are administering vigilante “justice” without due process in the name of safety and our brown and black brothers and sisters are largely the ones who are paying the price for it. We are demanding our children mortgage their future for an “education” now, making them debtors for the rest of their lives. We’ve sacrificed our moral compass and pride in our work for the bottom line and shareholder dividends. We set aside civility for entertainment, and became enraged when the aftermath began to affect our lives. We demand higher wages and job security but happily buy the products that took those from us in the first place.
We succumb to the lowest common denominator in nearly every aspect of our lives without so much as a pause to think why. And now the chickens seem to coming home to roost. We have allowed greedy, evil, and very calculated men and women to take power and are surprised when they abuse it. Except this time, it feels as though their abuse of power will go unchecked. I am scared for the future. I am beginning to wonder when those of us who object to the direction the country is heading in will have to start fleeing to other nations. I am beginning to wonder not if the end to this will be violent, but when the violence will begin.
If I had a hard time recognizing the United States of America then, I am looking at an utter stranger today. There is no celebration today. While the country is in dire straits grappling with a second wave of COVID-19, we cannot forget the things we are doing now sight unseen. Immigrant children are still being separated from their families. (1) Police are still killing our black and brown brothers and sisters. Police departments are still funded. Universities are still forcing students into debt — and now refusing to give back tuitions after classes were canceled. Drug companies still get to dictate the price of American lives. (2) While we are seeing our daily lives change in radical ways, the fundamental issues facing the country have not had their reckoning.
I said above, “I am looking at an utter stranger today”. I suppose that is not entirely accurate. I have an idea of what I want America to stand for. I know many share these ideals: equal opportunity, universal civil rights and liberties, entrepreneurial spirit, altruism, fellowship, and more. More succinctly put, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as the French national motto goes. (3) I would like to think we as Americans — as a whole — are capable of that. I believe that we are, and I believe that a vast number of Americans would agree with me. The trouble with the “silent majority” is, there’s no way of knowing how big it is (or isn’t), because it is “silent”. The America that I believe is possible is being undercut by two sides digging in their heels, one-upping themselves and each other to maintain dominance. I am not looking at an utter stranger, I am looking at the painfully predictable result of five decades of increasingly toxic partisanship. This America is an utter stranger to what I believe we can be. It is sadly, not a stranger to what I know we are capable of.
- Vinson, L. (2020, June 18). Family separation policy continues two years after Trump administration claims it ended. Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/18/family-separation-policy-continues-two-years-after-trump-administration-claims-it-ended
- Walker, J. (2020, June 29). Covid-19 Drug Remdesivir to Cost $3,120 for Typical Patient. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-drug-remdesivir-to-cost-3-120-for-typical-patient-11593428402
- Liberté, égalité, fraternité. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 4, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberté,_égalité,_fraternité
This graph is wrong. Any version of understanding these ideologies as polar opposites is wrong. Flattening the ideological spectrum to a line assumes there is no potential for reflection between the two. Instead, I urge one to consider the horseshoe theory. Jean-Pierre Faye proposed it in his 2002 book Le Siècle des idéologies, though some version of it had been prevalent in Germany before that. (1) Critics of the horseshoe theory tout the vast ideological differences between the communists and the ardent capitalists, though I disagree. In my opinion, the horseshoe graph is still too simplified, however the idea behind it is not. Both communism and capitalism in their extreme forms exist with relatively little economic competition. In communism, the state owns property and the means of production; in capitalism, property and the means of production are privatized. However both systems, left to their own devices, will eliminate economic competition and result in unitary authoritarianism. By design, with communism the state becomes the de facto power. With capitalism, a plutocracy seizes power. The gap in the horseshoe between the two ends is the difference in ownership of the monopolies which contain the means of production. I am not suggesting that the extremes of both communism and capitalism share similar ideologies. Instead, I am suggesting that for both, the end and the means each get more and more similar the more extreme they get.
Communism is the easy target here. Each adaptation of Marx’s principals on a statewide level has failed. As stated by Marx in The Communist Manifesto, “…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” (2) The abolition of private property is not as easy to realize in practice. All past failures at implementing Marx’s ideas follow a similar course of events: first, the proletariat overthrow the government via violent revolution, then the new proletariat state seizes control of all private property. The redistribution of wealth, however, complicates things. The very nature of redistribution requires that someone in the state arbitrarily make decisions, as though they were handling private property. This paradox only expands within the bureaucracy it is created in. Inevitably, someone at the top must maintain some form of “ultimate” authority in order to ensure that decisions are made efficiently and consistently. Herein lies the creation of the hierarchy which comes to define modern applications of “communism”. It is never communism in the ideal form, as dreamed up by Marx as a government of the proletariat. Instead, it inevitably becomes a government of unitary authority, governing equally over the proletariat, but never governed by them. Dissidents are silenced, and attempts at reform — from the outside or inside — are quelled immediately.
Capitalism is a bit more difficult to define in this theory. Capitalism is strictly an economic theory, whereas communism is equally economic and political. Therefor the flaws in capitalism are usually attributable to whatever political realm it inhabits, as opposed to within capitalism itself. Capitalism is applied to democracies, republics, and authoritarian regimes alike, as seen in both the United States of America’s and China’s standing on the world stage. Though China is ruled internally by the Communist Party of China (CCP), their economic standing with other nations follows the same rules as the U.S., Europe, and other western nations. The potential for capitalism to morph into unitary authoritarianism may be best understood as described by Slavoj Žižek in his debate with Jordan Peterson, “there is a problem with capitalism here for the simple reason that its managers, not because of their evil nature — that’s the logic of capitalism — care to expand self-reproduction and…consequences are simply not part of the game. This is, again, not a moral reproach.” (3) The context of Žižek’s comments in the debate were in relation to capitalism’s inherent indifference to ecological consequences. I think any form of consequences can be applied to this statement with relative accuracy. Growth is paramount to profit, and profit is the main motivator in a capitalist enterprise. This is not inherently problematic; profit is an internal motivator and, when applied universally, allows people to act within their own best interests while simultaneously engaging with the needs of others. However, as enterprises grow, their accumulation of profit allows them the means to manipulate the marketplace to their advantage. Price fixing is a natural byproduct of upscaling. By integrating vertically, an enterprise can dictate not just the price of goods, but the price of raw materials, making competition impossible. Other businesses can either attempt in futility to compete, or be absorbed by the larger company. At a certain point, capitalism is designed for monopolies. In this sense, there is an end to capitalism. This is where capitalism begins to look like communism in the extreme. When an enterprise becomes a monopoly, its customers are left no other options. They end up retaining about as much individual power as constituents in a communist state. Their choices are dictated to them and controlled largely by those in control of the means of production. Ironically, in order to protect the interests of the company, enterprises end up creating internal bureaucracies which look largely like the inflated entities of communist government. These have little accountability from department to department, and the majority of those involved are unaware as to what the others are doing. This makes navigating the bureaucracy for customers impossible.
There are a myriad of examples for how capitalist enterprises move into these extremes. Looking at the United States, we can see things like overpriced education, opacity of privatized health care, increased housing investment by hedge funds (4), the weaponization of debt, and rising income inequality (5), to name more than a few. To dive into each of these would warrant articles of their own. The aggregate effect of all, however, is rising income inequality. As the rich get richer and the poor stay poor (and the middle class either shrinks or stagnates), the impact on society is a collective ownership of property and the means of production in the hands of the few. This is reflective of state control of the economy. The difference is, this is not the state, this is the corporation.
Once each of these systems reaches their extremes, the differences boil down to who owns the means of production. What difference does it make if your home, your school, or your hospital are owned by a repressive state or a profit-oriented corporation? The point is, it doesn’t belong to you. The warning to retain is this: extremes of either political ideology offer little to no freedom to the citizenry. Both capitalism and communism are inherently anti-nationalist. Communism aims to eliminate the state altogether, but fails in its application. Capitalism is indifferent to the state, but in its excessive success ends up becoming a de facto state. Competitive marketplaces eliminate the need for the state to provide, and state regulation prevents enterprises from growing to point of competition with the state. This is where the horseshoe model provides us with clarity on the political spectrum. It is not that communism and capitalism share economic ideology, or that communism and fascism share political ideology. In their applications, both theories lead to relatively the same result, a politically repressed and economically deprived citizenry ruled by the few.
- Horseshoe theory. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe_theory
- Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). Manifesto of the Communist Party.
- Peterson, J. (2019, May 19). Marxism: Zizek/Peterson: Official Video. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsWndfzuOc4&t=3157s
- Semuels, A. (2019, February 13). When Wall Street Is Your Landlord. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/02/single-family-landlords-wall-street/582394/
- Horowitz, J., Igielnik, R., & Kochhar, R. (2020, January 9). Trends in income and wealth inequality. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/
“Soyez réalistes — demandez l’impossible!” “Be realistic — demand the impossible!” was the slogan scrawled on the sides of walls and houses across Paris in May 1968. (1) The youth of France in that year rose up in defense of their future, and the people of France stood behind them. A lot of comparisons have been made between the riots of 1968 in the United States and the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd two weeks ago. I fear that keeping an americentric view on historical comparisons limits today’s movement’s ability to learn from the past.
Emboldened by anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiments, the youth of Paris grew tired of the rigid classism and the political bureaucracy they felt defined their tenure at university. Their uprising threw the societal order of France into chaos. The ensuing social revolution caused then-president Charles de Gaulle to dissolve the National Assembly and call for snap elections to remake the French government. However, as a result of the May 68 events, the conservative Gaullist government actually gained the first absolute parliamentary majority in the history of the French Republic. But where the May 68 events failed in France, the Black Lives Matter protests do not have to.
Where the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy sent the United States into collective mourning, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department threw the nation into collective uprising. Much like the youth of Paris in 1968, America’s youth has reached a tipping point of nihilism at their own future. With two major economic recessions under their belts, 21million people unemployed, and a botched COVID-19 response, the murder of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of the police mobilized both the African American community and America’s youth.
In the week following the first — and most violent — days of protest, mayors and governors across the country implemented curfews to stamp out potential for looting or rioting. Ironically, the curfew might be the strongest case for Black Lives Matter and the success of the movement; by implementing curfews at the height of tensions, governors have effectively told the police to treat all people (white people) breaking curfew the same way they are being accused of treating black people. It takes a case that was formerly relying on white empathy to black suffering and made it a case of white sympathy, strengthening the resolve of the white protestors on behalf of their black counterparts. Black Lives Matter has the nation’s attention, and as of yesterday morning the Minneapolis City Council has vowed to dismantle the city’s police department, saying “…the city’s current policing system could not be reformed”. (2) Calls have been made on other cities nationwide to follow in suit, making “defund the police” the first policy-oriented call to action of the protests to date.
While spontaneous revolution coming directly from the people may seem more authentic, a lack of formal structure can prove to be a movement’s undoing, even in its success. Even if seizing power is realized, there must be a plan in place to implement the desires of the public, otherwise a power vacuum is created, which usually reverts to conservative rule as a response to the instability caused by revolution. In the United States, Richard Nixon seized on the upheaval caused in the wake of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy’s assassinations, promising a return to law and order. In France, this took the form of the abandonment of the students by the public and leftist political groups. In his essay titled “Re-politizing ’68” Jacques Rancière states “…the institutional left said that there were many steps to get over between the revolutionary aspirations of the students and the reality of their situation…” (p.40) (3) Much like the students in France, the African American community and youth of the nation have the ear of the streets but defiance from Washington and their statehouses. The Minneapolis City Council’s reaction is shocking given the apathy to the consistency of these murders in the past. While the House of Representatives introduced a bill this morning to reign in bias and excessive force in policing, it is all but guaranteed to die in the Senate. (4) That being said, the willingness of the city council to listen to the demands of their constituents shows both promise for the future and proof that the protests are working.
Up until now, the protests have been largely spontaneous and reactionary to the murder of George Floyd. Calls to “end systemic racism” and “fire racist cops” are understandable, but sadly very abstract and nearly impossible to enact. Defunding the police force has tangible actions attached to it, making the legislators accountable to the people. Systemic problems, such as racial police bias and use of excessive force, can be solved with even seemingly “radical” systemic solutions, such as defunding police departments and reinvesting in social programs. The movement has momentum, and if the momentum continues, systemic change may be possible. We are only two weeks removed from George Floyd’s murder. The May 68 events lasted for nearly two months.
- ’68 NOW. (2019). The Kyiv International. p.25
- George Floyd Protests. (2020, June 7). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/protests-today-george-floyd-video.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage#link-512cff3a
- ’68 NOW. (2019). The Kyiv International. p.40
- Democrats in Congress unveil a bill to rein in bias and excessive force in policing. (2020, June 8). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/us/george-floyd-protests.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage#link-17c889e8
There are the oppressors, there are the oppressed, and in between is everyone else. Society is not binary; rarely in life are confrontations truly a circumstance of “us” vs. “them”. The people have an obligation to protest injustice, especially when the injustice is as egregious as murder. My fear is that there is disconnect between systemic problems and individual responsibility. System problems call for systemic solutions, and individual problems call for individual solutions. One of the banes of bureaucracy is a lack of accountability by those who are enforced to uphold it. When frustrations mount with the system, people tend to take it out on the people who work for it. Screaming “Fuck you house nigger!” (overheard in Union Square) to a black police officer is only incendiary, and it’s far from “peaceful” protest. This isn’t a revolution — yet. There are few leaders and even fewer directly in touch with the anger and frustration felt on the streets across the country. Until someone arises to channel the chaos into a movement, chaos will continue. The country is not only in mourning over the death of George Floyd, but in lament over its own inadequacies. Grief is necessary, without grief there is no acceptance, and no progress. So the United States will feel its grief in self-immolation.
For ten weeks we’ve been sequestered to our homes while we watch over 100,000 people die from COVID-19. The next ten weeks will be fraught with tension surrounding George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent riots. Looting broke out across the country, and with it the usual debate over its morality and place in protest. Regardless, it casts a light on the priorities of those who participate. In Minneapolis, protestors burned down a police precinct. The police took someone from the community, so the community took something from the police. In Los Angeles, looters systematically raided the trendy shops of Melrose Ave. In New York, protesters looted the stores of Gucci, Rolex, Versace, and other high-end luxury brands. When people’s priorities are warped, so are their responses. The commodification of culture has prioritized sex over substance. If the goals before this were monetary and material gain, the opportunism born from the chaos will reflect that. Sadly, these acts are as reflective of “business as usual” as the crime which enabled them in first place.
Of course the notion that this very small number of looters in comparison to the tens of thousands of peaceful protestors represents the majority is absurd. The vast majority of people who have arrived on the streets have done so peacefully and respectfully to publicly mourn yet another victim of racial violence at the hands of the police. The United States is having to reckon with its shortcomings in public and in real time. That being said, peaceful protest of violent acts fails to address their fundamental causes. Stokely Carmichael addressed this better than I can articulate, so I quote him here:
“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” (1)
Violence is a tool, one which the United States has used with chilling precision throughout its history. Even non-violent protest is more effective when met with violence. (2) Violence, however, must be organized, and must be directed. Chaos and looting are necessary releases from the unbearable tension pent up in a nation, but they are no building block for what is to come next. The police are highly organized. Riots are not. Chaos can upset order temporarily, but without an organized plan to capitalize on the vacuum it’s created it only furthers the existing paradigm, because the police and the government are always organized.
In ten weeks, we’ll see a new uprising when PUA ends and millions of Americans out of work will see their only form of income dry up. 40 million Americans and counting — over 10% of the population — are now unemployed, with almost 8 million on PUA as of May 9. Many of these people are relying on this government assistance, with little in the way of savings or other means to provide for themselves with the nation locked down. Either the Republicans are incredibly smart or incredibly foolish in their refusal to deal with the mounting economic crisis. Inaction by the leadership will only push people further over the edge, and once they have nothing left to lose, they will come for them. Chaos today is a release, but chaos ten weeks from now will be a revolt. Either the Republicans know this and plan on enacting swift martial law across the country at the first sign of a true social uprising; or they do not, and will respond with a predictable and short-sighted knee-jerk reaction.
Ten weeks after that will be the general election, and I have no doubt that Trump and his cronies will do whatever they can manage to interfere with it, inciting another round of riots. The American people barely wanted Trump in power in 2016, and since have become even more disillusioned with the status quo. The inefficiency of the bureaucracy has been glaring in the face of the global pandemic. While some other governments enact swift measures to suppress infection and stabilize their economies, the United States has floundered, both in the citizenry and the leadership. One thing is for certain, no one in this country really wants Donald Trump, and no one really wants Joe Biden. At a certain point the “lesser of two evils” is still evil. The black community is enraged and in mourning after George Floyd’s murder, and then will turn around and be asked to vote for someone who helped enact laws that disenfranchised them in the first place, or for someone who has publicly called for their execution. (3)
This time, the country has no work and nowhere else to go. All Americans, regardless of race, are going to be confronted with the reality of their problems and their causes. Systemic problems call for systemic solutions, and Americans’ participation in the system needs to drastically change.
I said at the beginning of this that society is not binary. The fact is that no matter what structure we as a society take, be it revolution or the status quo, there will be police. The people will be forced to maintain a relationship with them, and the make up of who polices who is entirely in the hands of the people. If we maintain that it is “us” vs. “them”, they will stay the same, they will keep killing, and they will win; because they have the arms, the funding, and power of the United States military behind them. Scenarios of just that dynamic played out in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and Chile. If we as a society do not want racist cops, then we have to value the police enough to incentivize people who represent the community to become police officers. The same will be said of politicians and business leaders. When we break our struggles down to identity politics, everyone we may disagree with becomes an enemy, and anyone who agrees with us an ally. It does not matter the substance of their claims. In the war of attrition that is “us” vs. “them”, the victor will be the one with more power and more means.
The issues facing the American people do not arise and get solved every four years. Politicians know this, yet they stand on their soapbox and tell the people otherwise to ensure their votes. At a certain point, the blame lies squarely on the people who believe them, because without their vote, politicians are powerless. The problems that Americans face on a daily basis are rooted in decisions and ideas from forty, fifty, one hundred, and four hundred years ago. They cannot be undone or rectified overnight, anyone who says they can is a liar. Unfortunately, today liars are in high supply with little accountability. Change cannot come without both people in the streets and people in the system. The most effective revolutionary is the one who puts on the suit and goes to work ready to dismantle it from the inside out.
- Rogell, A & Olsson, G. 2011. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Sweden
- How Violent Protests Change Politics (2020, May 29). Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-violent-protests-change-politics
- Bring back the Death Penalty. Bring back our Police! (1989, May 1). Retrieved from http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1838466.1403324800!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/article_970/trump21n-1-web.jpg?enlarged