THERE HAS ALWAYS been an authoritarian stench to the land of the free. Libertarian America has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest incarceration rate. Violence stalks the streets, much of it inflicted by trigger happy officers of the law. And everything is overdetermined by a peculiarly American interaction of race and class, partly originating in the violence of slavery, but mutating significantly after the authoritarian “reforms” of the Reagan and Clinton years.
Nobody wanted to talk about this back in the roaring nineties, when I first became aware of politics. Our leaders were deferential to the world’s sole imperial power and indulged all of its national myths. It was the Empire triumphant.
Naturally, centre-leftists were the most craven apologists for anything American, good or bad (a whole generation of Labour Young Turks were paid to go on pro-US indoctrination tours). Trotskyists, anarchists and Noam Chomsky types were lone voices pointing to the ugly side of state power. Loose talk about the prison industrial complex or police brutality was liable to have you branded a humourless, out of touch extremist.
Yesterday’s prosecution of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd symbolises a different era. On the surface, at least. America’s President and Vice President are from the right-wing of the Democrats; both made their names as “tough on crime” authoritarians. Joe Biden can be heard, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for crackdowns on “predators on our streets” who are “beyond the pale”. Kamala Harris rose to fame as a robust prosecutor during California’s “lock ‘em up” era, in a state, the home of Rodney King, where being Black made you five times more likely to suffer incarceration.
Nonetheless, their responses sounded definitive. Biden spoke of “a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America” and said such verdicts were “much too rare”. Harris has urged lawmakers to pass a George Floyd Bill aimed at reforming policing.
Fashions have changed accordingly: liberal Europeans earnestly contemplate questions of White privilege, and guidebooks on that topic are bestsellers on prominent displayed at every Urban Outfitters. “Activism” is all the rage; it’s even a good career move. It’s no great insight to say that liberal politics today is built on elaborate gestures and performative displays of virtue. The Obama era exemplified its pathology: oodles of empathy, zero underlying change.
Circumstances have forced Biden to engage in more radical reform that anyone had a right to expect. With America’s reputation in tatters, and capitalism on its knees but for massive government interventions, the leader of the free world has scrapped the rulebook that he helped to write. However, this is all just the preliminaries of saving the system from itself. Redressing America’s monumental injustices – that’s another matter entirely, and it will take much more than empathy.