Turn Down for What? Revolution or Reform in Ferguson

Over the passed two weeks, contradictions inherent to US society have boiled over to protest and resistance.

The impetus was the shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, part of an ongoing country-wide reign of terror against the Black (New African) nation. Fed up not only with the shooting but also by the hostile reaction by police, masses of Black residents have taken to the streets to demand justice. Anger at the situation led to frustration, in turn leading to riots.

These contradictions, represented by conflicts between police and demonstrators in Ferguson but also existing generally throughout the ill-founded United States, present two diametrically opposed lines, or visions and general directions for action – revolution or reform.

These two paths, continued resistance to police terror and national oppression or further pacification and domination under neo-colonialism, are the two primarily poles around which activity swirls in Ferguson and elsewhere.

On the side of pacification stand the guardians of the status quo: the police themselves, various 'progressive' political figureheads (including Barry Obama), and media personas.

James Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, was recently quoted as saying that “we've never seen this sort of violence or tension between the races [sic].” As anyone from the 'midwest' region of the united states can attest to, this is either a ridiculous lie or an entirely misinformed statement (probably the former, considering the same region is highly gerrymandered based on 'racial' and income-based demographic data). Puppet-rapper 'Nelly' was trotted out before the TV-watching amerikan public on MSNBC. Between vague euphemisms, he explained 'we need to bring the anger down and turn that energy into creating something positive.'

Unfortunately, Nelly's vision of something 'positive' is limited to basic reforms to the police system and the creation of a privately-funded 'Mike Brown' college scholarship. Figures like Nelly work usually best from the inside, but not always. Members within the crowd of protestors booed during a speech given by Nelly after he patronizingly proclaimed, “you have options.”

Supporting continued resistance are the broad sections of the Black population in Ferguson, much of which has been lumpenized, and its homegrown leadership, represented in organizations like the New Black Panther Party. These forces have been unapologetically involved in the escalating confrontations with police and intuitively understand these actions to be a basic response to ongoing police terror and national oppression. While the situation is hardly approaching that of revolution, the heightened level of contradictions can only serve as a lesson through experience, one which may further radicalize the Black masses and teach them in practical terms about the necessity of organization and ideology as a tool for resistance and liberation.

Even puppet media personas like Nelly admit the conditions leading to the riots in Ferguson have been 'bubbling under the surface.' Given the heavily militarized response, this is an opinion likely shared by local and federal 'law enforcement.'

It would be myopic and inaccurate to understand the killing of Mike Brown and mass response as encompassing a single contradiction, i.e., a white vs. Black thing, or an issue of the 'people' vs. the 'state.' Though both of these are apparent factors in the conflict, the issues intersect and go deeper.

The Black or New Afrikan nation was founded as an internal colony of slave laborers within the US. In the period since, the form of rule has become neo-colonialism. Under this arrangement, a majority of Blacks are lumpenized – pushed out of normal and into relatively marginal or criminalized sectors of the economy – while a token few are accepted within the upper tiers of wealth and power yet only as a means of continued rule over the oppressed nation at large. As the United States slowly looses its hegemonic power over the world, this contradiction between the oppressing white nation and oppressed Black nation will likely heat up further.

Paraphrasing Malcolm X and Karl Marx before him, the state itself only becomes necessary at the juncture in the development of human society in which there is a split between the haves and the have-nots, the rulers and the ruled. States thus exist to reinforce, codify, and normalize existing social divisions and hierarchy. States first developed as humans moved away from communal societies without major, seemingly inherent social divisions and toward larger, more developed and complex, permanent settlements with a regularized division of labor encompassing different exclusive groups. The first states embodied or formed the ruling classes. In such 'tributary societies,' the price of rule was a direct tax (either in the form of rents, compulsory labor during part of the year, or outright slavery) on producers which was then redistributed by the state in ways that might reinforce or even expand its rule.

Capitalism transformed the state from the embodiment of the ruling class to a mere instrument of class rule. The modern advantage to this change is stunning. While a tiny fraction of the world's population holds any real determining power, attention is focused away from them toward the media or government. In such a manner, the state not only becomes the instrument of rule but foil against popular radical opposition.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian revolutionary who died in prison after being arrested by fascists, noted that the state was more than simply the government or organized body with the exclusive right to enforce rules through violence. Instead, the state includes all aspects of civil society that effectively support the social relations of production and rule by the bourgeoisie. This includes things like the media, promulgators of popular culture, institutions like the church, and nominal opposition parties. In this wider sense of the word, the state is the vast array of social, economic, and cultural support networks arranged invisibly behind existing social divisions. This, however, does not change the basic Marxist understanding of the state: as an edifice and support for modern class rule. That is to say, states are inherently tools for oppression. In fact, Marxists see a necessity in building new states as part of the revolutionary process, specifically ones that advance the interests of the masses and 'oppress the oppressors' out of existence.

Within the united states and throughout the world, there are other contradictions equally at play. The dominant economic system based on the expansion of capital via profit, for example, contradicts our existence on a planet with limited resources and with necessary conditions for the continuation of life itself. Similarly, competition between rival blocs of imperialist powers necessarily leads to bloody conflicts in places such as Syria, Ukraine, and Libya. National oppression lives on. Within the united states, the Mexicano/Chicano and other Indigenous nations are also subject to modern forms of colonialism and neocolonialism. There is a contradiction between the exploiting economies, the First World, and the exploited economies, the Third World: the wealth and luxury of the former based on the poverty and toil of the latter. There is the increasingly decadent and parasitical nature of modern imperialism (i.e., its expansion and concentration of sectors of the economy which produce less and less actual use-values) versus the potential for increasing use-values in a democratic fashion bound within the existing means of productions. Often times, in Ferguson and elsewhere, these contradictions intersect. For example, billions of dollars and countless resources are spent simply on obscuring the ecological consequences of capitalist-imperialism, much of which are exported to the Third World or shunted in by neighborhoods filled with oppressed people.

In all of the cases, the same two paths present themselves: revolution or reform.

It is obvious which of these lines is supported by ruling powers – reform. Yet reforms will not change the basic nature of these contradiction, which can only live on, evolving, in some instances growing more sophisticated and in others more crude, until they are overturned completely through revolution.

The police could be subject to more accountability, undergo 'racial sensitivity' training, etc, but they will still operate to oppress certain groups of people. Given their role and the basic nature of the neocolonial contradiction they defend, they will naturally act without restraint or respect. Similarly, the state could be subject to one or several legal reforms, but this would not change its nature as a collective instrument used to facilitate the oppression of some to the benefit of others. All of the environmental conferences thus far haven't changed the fact that capitalist-imperialism is still destroying the planet. The abolition of the 'Security Council' from the 'United Nations' might be a meaningful reform, but it still leaves open the question of who is really represented in the 'General Assembly.'

Point being, no amount of reforms, themselves often uphill battles, are going to change the basic nature of the world today and solve the problems we are experiencing. Instead, the resolution of these contradictions can only happen through revolution. But what is revolution?

Returning to Malcolm X:

…You don't have a revolution in which you love your enemy, and you don't have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems…”

At the basic level. Revolution amounts to the resolution of various existing contradictions. This, according to those in the revolutionary tradition, can not happen gradually through piece-meal reforms. Instead, coercive action is necessary to overthrow that which stands in the way of revolution: namely, the ruling classes and their instrument, the state. Thus, revolution involves a necessary struggle against the ruling-class state and the existing set of social divisions its enforces. This struggle, we know from experience, can not be conducted entirely peacefully or within the existing state. Instead, a new nascent state must be developed as a force to overthrow the old. This new state is still an instrument of class struggle. Once its has overthrown the old state and ruling class, it is a state in the hands of the revolutionary people, with the twin tasks of suppressing any tendency toward reversion with respect to various contradictions and of resolving these same contradictions in a truly settled manner. So, simply stated, revolution is merely a decisive measure within in a protracted struggle to overcome and resolve various contradictions. It involves overthrowing an existing ruling class and smashing its representative state by a revolutionary alliance of popular oppressed classes and its organizational medium of a new state.

Some say this vision of revolution is extreme. To this a simple response is in order – Yes, it is extreme, but no more extreme than the contradictions of the existing world, and certainly no more extreme than the level of delusion (or self-serving posturing) underlying reformism.


It is naïve to believe revolution will happen world-wide simultaneously. Similarly, it is also naive to believe various contradictions can be resolved in isolation of each other or those elsewhere. In reality, revolution involves a protracted process of global proportions in which the old ruling classes and social divisions are wipe from every corner of the world. Progress in this manner can only happen unevenly, in a process that is both protracted and punctuated by revolutionary victories.

While it is unlikely that a revolution is going to happen in Ferguson or anywhere else in the United States any time soon, the prospect of further revolutionary struggles in such areas (i.e., those populated by the lumpenized and nationally oppressed peoples within imperialist countries) raises an interesting spectre. While the US and a handful of imperialist state powers are more than happy to hold the world in perpetual ransom based in part on nuclear dominance and threats of 'shock and awe' warfare, this is less an option in the ghetto residential areas housing oppressed peoples inside First World countries. Extremely militarist measures can (and will) be taken, but this can only disrupt the internal unity necessary for maintaining the united states' global supremacy while further de-legitimizing it as the self-proclaimed champion of 'democracy and freedom.' It the context of the global struggle against capital-imperialism, struggles in places like Ferguson carry with it this dynamic element: the ability to weaken the resolve, unity, and capability of the imperialists, the global ruling class, to wield and defend their power internationally.

Nothing short of revolution will ultimately resolve the contradictions behind police terror. Hopefully, recent events will lead to more consistent revolutionary organizing, the only means of truly settling the matter. Nonetheless, the resistance in Ferguson, even in the form of riots, is a good thing. As an old saying goes, 'nothing is worse than a stagnant pond.'


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