Pan-African, Liberatory Capital Accumulation
Black Safety Requires Independent, Black Power: Pan-African, Liberatory Capital Accumulation
May 24, 2020 / 6320 AFK
A black friend of mine and I recently spoke about the latest string of police killings of black people and cover-ups to make headline news. Underlying our conversation was our unified exasperation at the United States’ consistent failure to confront systemic, anti-black racism. Earlier that same day, I read another black, male friend’s blog post about being racially profiled and verbally attacked this year. He was right outside of his own home when a white woman, who assumed that he was a thief, started yelling at him. And a few days prior to that, another black, male friend told me about the time that his white, female neighbor called the police on him for, essentially, doing yard work in his own back yard. They had been next door neighbors for several years. And in my own life, spanning middle school to my late twenties, police have chased me, tailgated me, harassed me, detained me or frisked me on at least three occasions, all for no good reason, except that reason. A lot of us have these stories. We could've been hashtags. So, I don't want "community" policing or police "protection". And I don't want a seat at the racist table because I don't want to reform racism. I want the power to protect myself, in part, by putting as much distance as possible between the police and black people. And I know that a lot of us do. But it doesn’t look like the United States is on the verge of giving black communities power over their own public safety. There is no mass movement, no alarming police footage, no number of racist, presidential slurs, no amount of data and no amount of education or advocacy that is capable of inspiring a meaningful proportion of white Americans to deconstruct the invention and impact of legal “whiteness” or implement reparative, systemic anti-racism. Therein lies the problem with relying on liberals and primarily white political organizations to decide when, and to what degree, black lives matter. For our own safety, black people must accumulate our own economic power and rely upon our own political solutions, independent of capitalist corporations, capitalist philanthropy and primarily white, political institutions.
“Walking talking dead, though we think we're living, black zombies,
We just copy-cat, following the system, black zombies”
-- Nas, “Black Zombies,” The Lost Tapes, 2002
As things stand, black people still don't have the power to protect our humanity. Right now, systems of actual power are shortening the black lifespan in a variety of ways and we can't do anything about it without the consent of primarily white institutions or the white, general public. Emancipation, MLK, the Congressional Black Caucus, a black President, #BLM, Oprah, Jay Z, Al Sharpton and everything - none of that has created meaningful power for most black people. So, what was all that advocacy and voting and educating and marching for? Incrementally (and arguably) less suffering? Sometimes I wonder if black and white Americans have simply accepted that systems of anti-black racism will not be removed. For instance, a couple of years ago, I was at an MLK Day prayer breakfast where I was reminded of why I usually avoid MLK Day prayer breakfasts. After the meal, this multiracial, mostly over-the-hill, gathering with elected Democrats present decided to sing, "We Shall Overcome". I bounced expeditiously. Still? "Overcome someday"? If not fifty years ago, then when? What this liberal organization was really saying is that, we will overcome whenever Democratic Party leadership, liberal philanthropy and corporate PAC contributors feel like spending their political capital to confront and repair institutional racism; never. Consider, as evidence, that fifty-something years later they’ve got us singing the same, tired song. It had force and dignity once, but today, it feels more like an opiate for the powerless, walking off a cliff, like Nas’ black zombies. It feels like a death march. As long as we continue to give liberal and conservative capitalists control of black economic practice and black politics, systemic racism will not end. It will only evolve like a virus that disproportionately kills black people and prompts no anti-racist policy changes.
African life in America is still suffering chronic, lethal damage. We need radical, root-level solutions just to achieve roughly equal health and safety. Considering any given statistics on black health and wealth, we’re not even close to those solutions. We should take a critical look at the primary ways that we’ve tried to move ourselves forward over the last fifty years and resolve to try almost anything else. We must dispense with the fatal idea that black people can just follow conventional wisdom, stay the course, let Jesus take the wheel, shoot for the stars, vote for the lesser evil, keep our heads up, or whatever else we tell ourselves and still expect to be alright “someday”. History and the downward trajectories of our, already suffering, social health indicators (e.g. net household wealth, incarceration, land ownership) have disproven that. Here are some things that we must finally rule out as viable approaches to repairing black health and wealth for most black people (all of which, I’ve directly engaged with).
Leadership of primarily white, political or economic institutions
Black Democrats' leadership
Protests and mass movements
Financially broke, black, radical organizations
Resigning ourselves to numbness, apathy or being “not political”
The sixth approach is escapism; burying our heads in the sand; pretending that the problem doesn’t exist. This approach also includes pretending to be too “Zen” to be concerned with matters of life and death, which isn’t enlightenment, but learned numbness. This is peak black zombieism. It’s an understandable response to the trauma of racism, poverty and oppression, but nobody is wondering if this is a viable approach to improving the lives of black people. In practice, it isn’t neutral. It defaults to supporting and yielding to oppression and exploitation.
The first two approaches of putting black power in the hands of primarily white political institutions or into the hands of black people who work for primarily white, political institutions have dominated black political life since the Civil Rights Movement. Politically, the Democratic Party has the black vote in the bag and they know it. That’s why Joe Biden has the audacity to look black media directly in the eye and say, if you don’t vote for a conservative capitalist like me, then, “you ain’t black.” His gaffe is an honest portrayal of casual racism in liberal political institutions, which presume entitlement to black support. I experienced such condescension myself. Black people who stray from the mainstream, liberal plantation are “too radical,” “not serious,” “crazy” and, apparently, “not black.” And who could blame them for shouldering their liberal, white man’s burden when black people keep electing them in landslides, despite their terrible outcomes for black people? Joe Biden could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, coming on to every black woman who passes by and he’d still get the black vote. (Reminder: There are always progressives running for all levels of office outside of the two major parties at every level of government.)
The third approach to black economic reparation through black capitalism seems to generate more of a buzz than actual results for most black people. Only a small fraction of black people has the financial resources to become actual capitalists – people who can buy enough stock or create a successful-enough business to be able to stop working and support their household on their economic rents alone. The vast majority of black businesses are sole proprietorships that will not be significant employers of other black people. And even if they could employ many other black people, why should they replicate capitalism? Is it even working well for most white people? Is black power working for a black Wal-Mart at $15 per hour instead of regular Wal-Mart for $15 per hour? And the philanthropy of black capitalism is hardly worth the cost if it is predicated on exploiting cheap labor to begin with. Capitalism’s philanthropy can’t solve the problems of poverty wages and classism faster than it creates them. There has never been a period in the history of American capitalism during which most black people were well-served by capitalism. The playing field of American capitalism’s un-free markets has been tilted against black people ever since it was constructed on the basis of our foremothers and forefathers being the “capital” themselves. It’s unreasonable to expect that most black people, who have been systematically separated from financial capital and who lack financial education, will spontaneously bootstrap ourselves into economic stability using business structures that was developed for and by wealthy white men. This might become a viable plan after reparations for the African Holocaust and legally-sanctioned, institutional racism have been in place for many years. But let’s not hold our breath for the Democratic Party to make that a priority.
The fourth approach of black protest and black, mass movements have a mixed legacy. Excluding boycotts, the weakness of black, mass movements is that they are predicated on appealing to the moral conscience of the elected leaders of the United States’ federal and state governments. Strategically, this is an error unless the movement is willing to escalate its movement beyond public demonstration. Limiting a movement against oppressive violence to non-violent appeals to the conscience of one’s oppressors ignores all the evidence that there is no conscience there. At least, there is no conscience that is intelligent enough to see that black people are worthy of restorative justice, equality and systemic anti-racism.
The other failure of black, mass movements, namely the Civil Rights Movement, was not a strategic failure of black activists, but a result of the amorality of the people and institutions that had a violent, reactionary compulsion to suppress black liberation, including center-left political leaders. State violence and grassroots violence against black movements have undermined black-led advocacy since slavery and especially after slavery ended. This anti-black terrorism lasted throughout the “Progressive” Era of the American left. As the white worker class made gains for white unionism and white labor rights, that same class used terroristic violence to prevent formerly enslaved black people and their children from competing in the labor market and engaging in political processes. Anti-black lynch mobs and massacres, including the Red Summer of 1919, often fed on the same energy of the pro-white worker movement that led to major gains for the center-left Labor Movement. Liberals’ default tendency to center whiteness and marginalize black advocacy has yet to stop. Under President John Kennedy, the FBI spied on Dr. Martin King and other, black civil rights activists. President Lyndon Johnson notoriously referred to black people as “niggers” regularly. And it was under Chicago’s Democratic Party machine that Black Panther Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department in 1969, while sleeping in his bedroom. As racism assassinated, terrorized and jailed the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements to near death, many black leaders found decent jobs in the nonprofit sector and Democratic politics, both of which were beholden to corporate interests and the philanthropy of capitalist, primarily white institutions. The Congressional Black Caucus was born in 1969 and the momentum for developing independent, black politics was all but dead by the “end” of the Movement. This transition from independent, black advocacy to political assimilation into the Democratic Party revealed that black, independent politics did not (and still does not) have the capacity to protect black mass movements from racist violence or from being co-opted by the liberal side of capitalism.
The fifth approach is the most sensible, but still lacking in the previously mentioned ways. In the consistent, multigenerational absence of acceptable results for most black people under the first three approaches, our only, logical choice is political independence. This means reasserting our sovereignty as a nation of displaced, indigenous African peoples and acting on our power to prescribe our own solutions. These ideas are as old as the Maafa. Credit is owed to the Black Power Movement of the 1970s and similarly-aligned organizations that exist today. Despite being remaining financially broke for decades, these black, independent organizations rejected and continue to reject capitalism as an effective means of healing and advancing black people. They recognize that only black people’s solutions will actually address black people’s problems. However, in fifty years, most of these radical, black organizations haven’t developed in their internal capacity nor have they significantly affected the landscape of power in favor of African self-determination and liberation. Respectfully, their knowledge of the necessity of independent, black power and black solutions has not yielded much power for them, for their organizations or for the black liberation movement. That’s because knowledge is not power. It is only an integral component of power.
These approaches have led us to where we are today. They are evidently unable to protect black people from the police or from any other manifestation of lethal, systemic racism. Nor can they protect most black people’s health or most black people’s financial wealth. Somewhere in the last fifty years, too many of us assumed that 2020 was bound to be better after years of two-party leadership and assimilation into capitalism. But, the failure to reject or evolve beyond these approaches are why the families and friends of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are in premature mourning today. Our lives and safety depend on making an honest assessment of our failing, exploitative relationship with Democratic and Republican politics and finally separating from them. For the lives and safety of African people in the United States and around the world, we should finally reject their politics of centering whiteness, systemic racism, perpetual war, imperialism and capitalism. The only option that we haven’t exhausted is to build on the vast abundance of political and economic ideas, scholarship and practices in the traditions of independent, African liberation.
Even if black people’s prolonged adherence to these approaches worsened our situation, we can at least learn from these approaches, particularly from the work of independent theorists and activists who were politically organized. In my estimation, most of these financially broke, black, radical organizations overlooked the tradition of Africans in America who successfully organized some power for themselves on the basis of cooperative finance.
In the United States during the 1700s and 1800s, African people’s mutual aid societies, beneficial societies, insurance companies, susus, rotating credit associations and cooperative buying clubs grounded black power in material power. These cooperative organizations had the black power to buy black people out of genocidal slavery. They had the black power to meet vital needs of black communities. They did this without replicating the capitalism that was exploiting their labor to begin with. Ideas, political education and inspiration are powerful, but they are only so powerful. They may liberate African hearts and minds, which is imperative, but cooperative financial practices have the power to actually liberate African bodies and land. Radical, black organizations with all the right ideas, but no plan for accumulating financial power have also failed – for fifty years – to move black people forward. Knowledge, financial capital and the egalitarian management of that capital is power. The accumulation of knowledge and capital, in combination with the financial skills to manage that capital, results in the gradual accumulation of power. The Ujamaa Works Accounting & Finance Network is for financial services professionals who want to learn and apply such egalitarian management.
We’re tired of appearing “non-threatening” to the police and to the people who call them on us, tired of the decline of black wealth, the interpersonal and systemic racism, the capitalism, the pollution and the wars. So, these friends of mine, some members of the Ujamaa Works network and I are taking a cue from our ancestors and using cooperative finance to create the power that racism and capitalism would typically deny us. We’re forming a "liberation susu" – a cooperative investment club that engages in Pan-African, socialist political education. We’re saving to invest in non-extractive assets while furthering our African-centered, political education. (Extractive assets would include the traditional stock market, real estate or other investments that extract financial returns at the expense of the black working class, the global worker class in general or ecological systems.) We’re doing this for our personal, financial empowerment and to gradually create an endowment for African liberation. In the future, our black, independent political agenda will have the financial power to stay independent. This independence is essential if our efforts at social transformation are to have an effective, self-determining impact. The fact that we’re accumulating financial capital does not, in and of itself, make us a capitalist organization. In fact, as an anti-capitalist organization, we are implementing systemic, cooperative controls to prevent our organization’s ownership of “private property,” being means of production. Further, we are defining our personal and institutional needs and systematically setting limits on the economic accumulation that our liberation susu will allow. Replicating capitalism’s habit of infinite accumulation is neither sustainable nor liberatory.
Socialism requires money. Meeting our basic needs as individuals requires money. Independent, black power requires money and so black safety requires money. Our initially modest investments will not give us the power that we wish we had today in one year, or even in ten years. But our endowment will grow and we will ensure that thirty, fifty and one hundred years from now, black people can pay and protect black liberationists for our sorely needed work and do so on our terms. It is only a matter of time before liberatory capital accumulation gives us the financial capacity and the political independence to protect black people from internal threats and external threats like the police. We’ll have the power to reject systems of oppression and exploitation, to educate Africans as we should be educated, to control our food and medicine, to “own” our land and to protect our air, our water from pollution. From that point forward, our black power will be real, irrespective of neoliberal politics’ capacity to meet the basic needs of African people.
It is our hope that everyone who considers themselves a black liberationist and opposes imperialism, capitalism, racism, patriarchy and ecocide engages in ongoing, political education and liberatory capital accumulation. When the African diaspora and all of the oppressed people of the world have the power to prevent exploitation and the integrity not to exploit others, then we can move on toward the greater goal of human and planetary liberation from systems of oppression.
As a student of history, I anticipate anger and violence from some white people for putting financial resources behind black power, especially when things start to go well. But we and the people we care about are subject to violence for being black anyway, so there’s little to lose and everything to gain. If the police attack us, like they did Fred Hampton, or if hate group wants to target us, like they did Tulsa, Oklahoma and dozens of other black, economic endeavors, then we’ll defend ourselves violently. We’re not concerned about secrecy because we don’t have any delusions about evading the surveillance capacity of police departments, the FBI, the NSA, other intelligence agencies and their private contractors. Our best defense against sabotage, a negative public relations campaign or a false pretext for prosecution is transparency. The more that people understand our liberation susu, the better. Organize with other African people, study Pan-African socialism and start accumulating financial capital from non-extractive assets for your independent solutions and for the black power to implement them.
Ancestral libations from the first study group of the Pan-African Liberation Susu