Retracing Historical Missteps and Reworking Revolutionary Strategy
By Lacino Hamilton
An historical misstep of the vanguard – referring simply, in this case, to those most active in and conscious of social struggles – has been to pass off tactics as solutions. Historically, we’ve engaged in actions that may not solve the larger problem. If what is struggled for is accomplished, however, we can sometimes put ourselves in a better position to continue the fight.
The examples are endless.
Should we have fought for access to the voting booth? Stokely Carmichael was asked during an interview why he fought so fiercely for Blacks’ “right” to vote. He had been arrested 38 times fighting for that “right,” but he never once tried to vote himself. Carmichael explained how many members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did not believe acquiring the franchise would fundamentally change Black people’s lives. However, SNNC members did believe that as long as Blacks were denied access to the vote, they would believe the power to change their lives lied within it.
Fighting for the right to vote had two tactical advantages: 1) Militants wanted to prove they could make white people do something they did not want to do, in order to prove the power of the people; and 2) They knew that once people received the vote it would not change their material conditions and assumed they would be more susceptible to revolutionary (as opposed to reformist) actions.
The misstep was that the strategy was never explained to other Blacks they were organizing. Many were left to believe acquiring the vote was a/the solution.
Another example is the fight to desegregate schools. Should we have engaged in such a fight? All I know is that more than 50 years after schools were legislatively desegregated we are arguably scholastically far worse off.
Diane Ravitch, in her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” recounted how when Bill Gates spoke to the nation’s governors in 2005, he bluntly referred to America’s schools as “obsolete.” They were designed fifty years ago, he said, “to meet the needs of another age,” and they are ruining the lives of millions of students every year.” Even when functioning as efficiently as educators and administrators want them to, Gates suggested schools in the US are unable to meet the needs of students nor the evolving workforce.
So according to Gates, even if schools were operating perfectly as designed, they’d still be obsolete. Granted, Gates is a billionaire who, has for more than a decade, as Ravitch recently pointed out, “dabbled in education,” launching “initiative after initiative, with slim or no research,” while “all of them flop.” As Gates “dabbles–whether it is the Common Core or evaluating teachers by test scores–he messes up other people’s lives with no accountability for his screw-ups,” Ravitch wrote. “He just moves on to his Next Big Idea.”
But Gates’ comment about the educational system noted above was not totally off the mark.
Sure, he might be more interested in shaping schools for producing the next labor force for the high-tech capitalist economy, as opposed to supporting education that can cultivate persons capable of critically understanding the dynamics of exploitation in the era of digital capitalism and capable of struggling strategically against it.
Gates gets it right, though, when he refers to schools as obsolete. But we can go beyond the billionaire’s logic and understand the education system as indeed obsolete when we consider that Black people – all poor and oppressed people – require a curriculum based around liberation. In the main, mainstream education does not and cannot as currently structured meaningfully liberate suppressed human potential.
Simple and plain, integrating into a school system that cannot even meet the needs of the oppressor class could never help meet the needs of the oppressed.
I bring this up because “mass” incarceration is the recent expression of a larger edifice of carceral power. It is a political project that began in response to the rebellious social movements in U.S. cities and prisons during the 1960s. It began with state and national politicians giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on the world’s largest prison construction program.
Consider the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” thereby effectively recodifying legalized bondage based on criminalization and incarceration. Even if we successfully pressure national politicians to abolish the 13th Amendment, that’s no solution to abolishing the power national politicians have to begin with. A campaign to abolish the 13th Amendment seems a good way to raise awareness about an interlinked system of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment concentrated on the most marginalized sectors of society.
See most of us weren’t charged with violating the 13th Amendment. Rather, we were accused of violating some state statute. Said another way, if the 13th Amendment is abolished, will incarceration be abolished along with it? Probably not.
Another example can clarify the point. Contrary to wishful thinking, removing the Confederate Flag from public view doesn’t remove white supremacy. The symbolic change may encourage those who work to put white supremacy to rest. Simply getting rid of the flag was no more a solution, though, than would be abolishing the 13th amendment.
This would be just another instance where Black people – poor and oppressed people all over – work for a goal which prompts those that run society to grant a concession upon realizing, long before we do, that what it is conceded is mostly a symbol. It occurs to those in positions of power that the symbolic gesture won’t in reality cost much yet can, if approached artfully, help keep us rabble pacified.
Or, as the late esteemed critical race theorist Derrick Bell wrote in his classic, “Faces At The Bottom Of The Well,” the above strategy is tantamount to an updated version of the glass trinkets and combs they used in Africa a few centuries ago to trick some tribes into selling off their brothers and sisters captured from neighboring tribes.
What we designate as progress is seldom a solution to our problems. Usually the supposed solutions are regenerations of problems in particularly perverse form. For too long we’ve fought for substantive reform, then settled for weakly worded and poorly enforced legislation, indeterminate judicial decisions, token government positions, and other half measures that stop far short of liberation.
That doesn’t mean we don’t fight to abolish the 13th Amendment, but the ultimate goal must be to abolish the “power” that brought it into existence. In modern times, that power is capitalism – a hyper-competitive system that creates winners and losers. Not only will the “losers” always outnumber the “winners” in this system, though. Nor when we refer to losing do we mean a mere loss of status on a superficially meritocratic social dominance hierarchy. No. We’re talking about winning or losing when it comes to food, clothes, shelter, health care, education, justice, and other facets of life. Losing means some form of social or physical death.
Prisons become “necessary” at the point in human society when there emerge haves and have nots. People struggle to ask and often to even comprehend the fundamental question posed by Angela Y. Davis – “Are prisons obsolete?” – because living in a capitalist epoch teaches us to perceive incarceration as a requisite pillar of human society. What we are not taught so readily by living the reality of capitalism is to interrogate the underlying conditions, characteristic of capitalistic social relations, which make mass incarceration appear needed and legitimate.
Now, criticisms of the enormity of the prison-industrial complex have admittedly received newfound attention as of late.
Yet what is missed in all this talk about mass incarceration is that the men and women that make up that mass are the very people who have historically facilitated revolutions. These are the men and women who have nothing to lose but their chains, as the old adage goes. Or, to pose an arguably more pressing and related question, who among us has more to immediately gain?
History suggests – as do basic observations about the persistent human drive to liberate our own potentialities – that if left to their own devices eventually the poor and oppressed are likely to together develop revolutionary consciousness and vision.
The criminal justice system at present incarcerates that consciousness. It is dehumanizing not just because it involves putting people in cages but because it cages our desire to be more fully human.
In that sense prisons are counterrevolutionary.
The sooner we truly sense that and start seriously educating each other to liberate our own sensibilities, sense of strategy and visions of what is possible the better.
Lacino Hamilton can be reached for a larger discussion on this and related topics at: Lacino Hamilton #247310, Chippewa Correctional Facility, 4269 West M-80, Kincheloe, MI 49784. He can be reached by email through www.jpay.com. Lacino, who has been incarcerated since 1994, spent four of his first six years behind bars in solitary confinement. During that time he started to read, think critically and distinguish between expressing a desire to change and demonstrating the ability to achieve it.