The Black Panthers and the Argentinian Unemployed

There is a notable parallel in the way that both radicals in Argentina today and the Black Panthers of the late ’60s and early ’70s engaged in class struggle in local communities, rather than in factories.  The focus on communities will become increasingly important for the radical left, as the rate of automation continues to undermine the traditional Marxist concept of the factory as the site of class struggle.   

I started reading To Die For the People a few days ago.  Its a compilation of works by Huey P. Newton, ranging from executive orders to members of the Black Panther Party, to essays, to speeches.  A lot of it so far has mostly consisted of polemics with amusingly aggressive language (notably Newton’s references to “the Gestapos of the Berkeley Pig Department”).

However, there was some more interesting theoretical arguments made in Newton’s speech to Boston College, in 1970.  Most notably, was his prediction of the effects of technological progress on employment rates, and a line of analysis that struck immediate parallels to recent radical struggles of the unemployed in Argentina.

In this country the Black Panther Party, taking careful note of the dialectical method, taking careful note of the social trends and the ever-changing nature of things, sees that while the lumpenproletarians are the minority and the proletarians are the majority, technology is developing at such a rapid rate that automation will progress to cybernation, and cybernation probably to technocracy…if the ruling class remains in power the proletarian working class will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the class of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables.  Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle, which is why we say that the lumpenproletarians have the potential for revolution, will probably carry out the revolution, and in the near future will be the popular majority.

One reason I was struck by this statement, mostly because it was so in-line with the rhetoric spouted today–both by radical leftists and mainstream economists.  There is currently a specter that technology is creating a permanent downward force on employment, due both to its elimination of labor-intensive jobs, and the inability of the population to access the education necessary to gain the skills for the jobs created by technological advancement.  You even have institutions like MIT arguing that technology is destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, and that this trend will only accelerate in the future–think about the rapid advancement of smart cars, and their potential to eliminate virtually all transportation jobs (taxi drivers, bus drivers, truckers, etc).

Another reason I was struck by this statement was because of its parallel with the autonomous Marxist argument that there needs to be a constant analysis of classes and sub-classes, and the way that the relationship of the workers to the means of production needs to be constantly re-evaluated to properly understand the methods in which these relationships can be exploited for revolutionary and emancipatory purposes.  (This is a very good academic paper, published earlier this year, that takes a very in-depth look into this concept.)  Along this method of analysis, Newton argues that the lumpenproletariat–or in colloquial language, the unemployed–will become the revolutionary class, implicitly because of their stagnant (if not deteriorating) living conditions and future prospects.  And while this certainly has progressed much slower than Newton might have believed at the time, I would refer back to the MIT article to argue that such a trend might still, slowly and surely, play out.

Another point for Newton’s prediction is the actual radical organizing by the unemployed that took place in Argentina at beginning of last decade.  As Mason-Deese of Viewpoint Magazine points out:

The movements of the unemployed, which first emerged in Argentina in the mid-1990s, challenge traditional representations of the unemployed as lacking political agency and revolutionary potential. While many Marxists and labor organizers have maintained the latter position, Argentina’s recent history paints a different picture: the militant organization of the unemployed across the country was instrumental in overthrowing the neoliberal government in 2001 and steering the course the country would take following the economic crisis.

The article goes on to describe the various methods that the unemployed must take to resist marginalization and oppression; and the thing to note is that these methods arise from the specific conditions of a population which has been separated from the means of production.  But what’s really interesting is the tactical parallels between the Argentinian Movements of Unemployed Workers (Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados, MTDs) and the Black Panther Party.  The Panthers are mostly known for their “Survival Programs” and community organizing, which attempted to consolidate community control over the basic functions of daily life: nutrition, education, and self-defense.  The MTDs, too, sought to focus their activism and tactics within their communities, rather than in the factories:

The struggle against capital must also be the struggle to produce a different type of space and different social relations within the space.  That is precisely what the MTDs seek to do in their territories, by establishing a physical presence in the neighborhood and seeking to collectively manage as many of the elements of daily life as possible.  Territorial organization as practiced by the MTDs includes creating schools, soup kitchens, health clinics, daycares, community gardens, social centers and productive enterprises within a given territory.  It means organizing around the basic needs of community residents, food, clean water, housing, education and the desire to form community in neighborhoods that are socially and ethnically fragmented.

The major difference, however, is around end-goals.  For the Panthers, community organizing and the consolidation of local life was only a temporary measure; the ultimate goal was to provide a crutch with which the Black population could stand on, in order to attack, undermine, and take over the State.  The MTDs, on the other hand, have no such ambition; for them, the consolidation of the community is the primary function of activism.  Their relationship to the State is one of distance; demands are made for things such as unemployment subsidies, but State power is not sought after.  But this does not mean that the MTDs are reformist; rather, the focus is on re-structuring political economy on the local level.

The alternatives that the MTDs construct are not limited to workplace alternatives, to working without bosses and democratically controlling the workplace. They aim to create different ways of working, questioning what counts as work and how that work is valued, how that work is carried out and organized, and the relationship between that work and other parts of life. This means going beyond the productive enterprises to focus on activities that create new social relations within the neighborhoods, relationships that are not based on competition or profit but on solidarity and mutual aid.

Thus, in many ways, the strategies of the MTDs was actually the fullest realization of Newton’s analysis.  If the Panthers had fully engaged with the idea that “the neighborhood is the new factory,” there is a good chance that they would not have fallen apart, and instead of created robust, long-lasting community-based organizations with revolutionary ambitions.  But luckily, their ideas and practices still live on, and give us historical experience on which to base our own analysis and actions.

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