By John Ross
The racist police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the widespread protests and riots it has caused all across the US, has rightly attracted universal attention. But it is crucial to understand why this specific one among the routine killings by American cops of black Americans has ignited an unprecedented movement of protest within the US. This is not due simply to the particularly blatant and videoed racist nature of the killing. This utterly brutal and racist act was the touch paper to ignite a revolt fed by the deepest processes currently taking place in the US – in particular Trump’s use of COVID-19 as a method to attempt to terrify and beat into submission the American people. What Trump, and the US political establishment did not anticipate was that the American people would fight back on such a scale against American capitalism’s brutal attempt to crush them into submission.
Mass deaths and mass unemployment
The scale of attack on the American people at present is literally unprecedented since the Great Depression. More than 100,000 Americans have died from coronavirus – far more than any other country in the world. But despite this death rate Trump is doing everything possible to lift even the present very limited US lockdown – a path followed also by his close allies Bolsonaro in Brazil and Johnson in Britain. Trump’s path guarantees that tens of thousands of Americans will die – probably very many more.
Simultaneously more than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs in only three months due to the colossal impact of COVID-19 in a country with a weak long-term social security system.
Therefore, never before have so many Americans faced the simultaneous literal threat of death (from coronavirus) and of being forced into poverty due to massive unemployment.
This background makes clear why the brutal racist killing of yet another black American by the US police became the straw that broke the camel’s back – unleashing protests and rioting that has so far struck at least 75 US cities.
Trump’s strategy is not ‘irrational’ for US capitalism
The Trump administration’s failure to prepare to protect the US population from coronavirus, and its insistence on lifting even the partial lockdown while the virus is raging unchecked in the United States, from the viewpoint of US capitalism is not ‘irrational’ but has a deadly internal logic.
A huge US economic downturn when confronted with coronavirus was inevitable whatever course the United States took. If the US had decided to protect the lives of its population by a strict lockdown, then it would inevitably have suffered a serious economic blow – just as the first country to be struck by the coronavirus, China, did in the first quarter of 2020. But the US, due to the capitalist character of its economy, possesses neither the ideology nor the practical economic mechanisms capable of preventing a downturn and has much weaker mechanisms than China for creating an economic revival after it. In short, the US, due to its capitalist economy, is incapable of protecting its population against the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.
The Trump administration consequently concluded that there was only one integrated way it could attempt to maintain its political and economic position.
Politically the consequences of the failure of the US to protect its own population against COVID-19 is an even more traumatic experience than it would be for almost any other country. The US has experienced periodic mass deaths of its troops abroad – in World War II, in Korea, in Vietnam. But because it is protected on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the Pacific, a large scale military attack on the US itself has been impossible – only nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles for the first time have made it possible. COVID-19 is therefore only the third ‘mass death’ experience on the United States’ own soil in its entire history – after the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 and the Civil War. The coronavirus pandemic is consequently a far more traumatic experience for the US population than the large-scale deaths of US soldiers abroad in military conflicts.
It is decisive for the US ruling class to hide its responsibility for COVID-19 deaths
If the catastrophic failure of the US to prepare for the entirely predictable onslaught of COVID-19 was widely understood by the American people, it would inflict immense damage on the domestic ideological legitimacy of the US political establishment and its international standing. It is therefore totally imperative for both the Trump administration and the US political establishment that the reality is hidden from the American people and as much as possible from international public opinion.
It is for this reason that the means chosen by great majority of the US political establishment to attempt to conceal this reality from the American population is to launch a diversionary campaign of falsification against China – the country which has actually by far the most successfully dealt with a mass coronavirus outbreak!
Cutting US living standards
But this diversionary propaganda against China does not by itself deal with the deep US economic downturn. Rejecting any socialist, or even state-led, mechanism to overcome its economic problems, the only option open to the Trump administration is to launch a massive attempt to drive up profits and increase the rate of exploitation of the US working class by literally terrorising it into accepting large numbers of deaths and cuts in its living standards – this is the role to be played by mass unemployment. The greatest weight of that attack, as always falls on the black and non-white population of the US.
This is also why US share markets have rapidly recovered, after an initial downturn, during what is the worst US economic downturn since the Great Depression, while more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs, and while 100,000 Americans died. There is no ‘paradox’ in this as some superficial analysts have claimed. Wall Street and the Trump administration’s calculation was that this huge attack on living standards would be immensely profitable – just as in the end the results of the international financial crisis had been immensely profitable, producing a huge share price boom. This reduction in US living standards, and profits boom, would then produce more rapid US economic growth – strengthening it for an attack on China.
As Bloomberg noted under the self-explanatory headline ‘Salaries Get Chopped for Many Americans Who Manage to Keep Jobs’: ‘Companies across the U.S. are cutting salaries… On earnings calls, big businesses… have cited what they say are temporary salary reductions. Federal Reserve officials also have found plenty of supporting evidence.
‘The pandemic has triggered unemployment on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. Aggregate weekly pay fell 11% in April, the most on record.
‘Outside of “high-demand sectors such as grocery stores,” there are signs of “general wage softening and salary cuts” all over the economy, according to a Fed business survey in April. A study by Thomvest Ventures, which looked at 22 public and private technology companies, found that non-executive employees had seen pay reduced by an average of 10% to 15%.’
The US approach was the same as the view expressed openly in the Daily Telegraph in Britain under the self-explanatory headline ‘The cost of saving lives in this lockdown is too high’: ‘The former Governor of the Bank of England, Lord King, put it well: “The younger generations have suffered in the last 20 years. Why on earth is our future being put at stake in order to help prolong life expectancy of older people, whose life expectancy will not be very high in any event?”’
Naturally Lord King, who has ample financial resources to self-isolate for as long as he wishes, and therefore easily protect his own existence, did not volunteer to be one of those whose lives should be terminated to avoid having to ‘prolong life expectancy.’
‘The enemy is at home’
The Trump administration thought it had a winning political and economic combination. The US population would be told the lie that China was responsible for their problems and this would mean that the American people would not oppose the reduction in their living standards that was going to deliberately take place.
The US international offensive against China was therefore inextricably linked to a domestic attack on the US population. ‘Don’t blame us, blame China’ was to be the mantra to link both the political and economic policies of the Trump administration.
But the riots threatened to blow this apart both politically and economically. Huge numbers of Americans decided, in the famous words of Karl Liebknecht, that ‘the enemy is at home’. Naturally, this does not mean that they clearly understood ‘our suffering is not due to China’. But they did understand that ‘our suffering is due to forces within the US’ – and they took to the streets accordingly. In short, they refused to contain their anger because they were told a lie that their problems were due to China.
‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger’
It is the same process as in the last great crisis of US society after World War II – the Vietnam War. The American people, with black Americans and their leaders playing a key role, did not come out against that war, and in the end force their government to bring that war to an end, because they actively supported Vietnam against the US. They did so because, in the famous words of Muhammed Ali: ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.’ Or, in the words of black US protestors Muhammed Ali took up, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.’
The American people, rightly, decided at that time that the people creating the source of their problems were not Vietnamese but within the US. They refused to make the sacrifices, either in terms of their lives or economic, that were demanded to keep the war going. They therefore rightly refused to believe the lies they were told and decided ‘the cause of our problems is not Vietnam, the cause of our problems is in the US.’ That is exactly, even if they did not put it that way, ‘the enemy is at home.’
Only a relatively small minority of the US people consciously supported Vietnam in its just war. But in the end a huge majority of the US population rightly decided ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong, I have a quarrel with those attacking me in the US.’ And by acting in their own interests the American people both ensured the just victory of Vietnam, defended their own interests, and for several years held back the aggressive assaults by the US imperialism – until Reagan again openly launched the US on a path of international aggression.
This illustrates why ‘anti-Americanism’ is one of the most puerile and dangerous ideologies in the world. It is absolutely vital for all those oppressed by the US internationally to distinguish between the United States ruling class, humanity’s most powerful and vicious enemy, and the American people – who are also victims of that US ruling class. Above all the most direct domestic victims of US imperialism are the non-white population of the United States.
Confronted with the world’s most powerful ruling class the American people directly face a formidable enemy with enormous resources. For that reason the American people certainly sometimes move more slowly than justice would demand. But when they do move on any issue they are capable of changing the entire world. That was shown when they decided to bring the Vietnam War to a halt. It is beginning to be shown again in their mass rebellion against Trump’s decision to let hundreds of thousands of them die, and tens of millions suffer mass unemployment.
The global stakes in this crisis
What is at stake at the beginning of this rebellion of the American people goes even beyond November’s presidential election. Trump calculated that the US population would remain passive, and see the enemy as China, while their living standards were reduced. But if the US population decides not to passively accept the attacks on it, but to resist and hit back, then Trump’s economic strategy collapses. And the present nationwide US riots are on a scale to potentially create a political crisis in the United States not only threatening the Trump administration but the entire strategy the US political establishment had decided upon.
If the US population resists the deadly combination of deaths and unemployment which is being unleashed on them, then both the Trump administration and the US political establishment will be severely weakened. That is indeed the fundamental threat if the US population decides ‘the enemy is at home’.
The brutal racist killing of George Floyd, symbol of everything that is rotten in US society, would by itself entirely merit the vast outpouring that is taking place in the United States. So would any of the other hundreds of black people killed by the US police. But George Floyd’s death created this vast revolt because at present the US capitalist class, led by Trump, is not simply killing one but directly killing tens of thousands of Americans and forcing millions into poverty. Whether the American people continue to revolt against this literal mass murder launched by US capitalism is a decisive issue that will crucially determine the entire world situation.
This article was previously published by Learning from China and is an edited version of one which originally appeared in Chinese at Guancha.cn.
The photo at the top of the article is by Rosa Pinedes.