On Black Radicalism and the Antipolitical
The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
—Martin Luther King Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience
The fact that black men govern states, are building democratic institutions, sit in world tribunals, and participate in global decision-making gives every Negro a needed sense of dignity.
—Martin Luther King Jr., “Let My People Go”
King lived through an era of state-managed capitalism. He struggled mightily with the contradictions of that era. An explicit and consistent champion of the welfare state, King fought for a government that could enforce capital controls, redistribute wealth and power, and institutionalize a greater measure of democratic accountability. But he knew that the very model of the welfare state was designed to save capitalism from itself, in part by propping up a consumerist “materialism” that his moral conscience could not accept. He knew that the welfare state had been wedded historically to an abiding white supremacism and that any regulatory provisions would always threaten to build out only a kind of herrenvolk democratization—egalitarian gains for a white middle class. And as his later anti-imperialist arguments indicate, he was deeply concerned that the material wealth that made the United States and other Northern welfare states possible was itself largely a product of the historical and ongoing underdevelopment of the Global South.
Nation, state, government—these political categories factor uneasily into King’s critique of capitalism. A similar uneasiness pervades much of the contemporary criticism. Intellectuals and organizers today often take explicit aim at the very idea of the state, an apparatus of power that has always subjugated and meted out violence against Black lives. And yet pervasive is the call for that same apparatus of power to administer regulations, subsidies, redistributions, and reparations.1 This raises questions about the status of the political in the critique of racial capitalism, past and present. Cedric Robinson argued that the historical consolidation of capitalist society established a conception of the political rooted in presumptions of authority, leadership, and order. “The political came to fruition,” he argued, “with the theory of the State as the primary vehicle for the organization and ordering of the mass society produced by capitalism.”2 This state-centered conception of the political has since been consumed by the loaded question of how we shall be governed, rather than by more open-ended questions of how we want to live or to be. The political, in other words, is inherently repressive. But Robinson’s work is meant to show that there was always a limit to the pervasiveness of the state’s governing reach. There was always a contingent and mythical character to the paradigm of the political. In the Black radical tradition especially, in the freedom-fighting communities that were often “blinded from view” by Western scholarship and political science, there emerged, or perhaps survived, latent ideas and practices of living and being together that were not so easily circumscribed by the political and its defining presumption of governability.3
In this chapter we invoke King’s posthumously published essay “Showdown for Nonviolence” to anchor a discussion of King’s two conceptions of the political and to situate King, finally, within the Black radical tradition. King’s thinking about state-managed capitalism discloses the layered nature of his political theory. In his more conventional mode, he affirms the idea of a democratically accountable welfare state, both domestically in the United States and in ways that anticipate the globally scaled “world welfare” model that emerged most prominently in the 1970s in the postcolonial Global South. But he also underscored how efforts to work within the conventional paradigm, how grassroots struggles to pressure the existing state apparatus to expand public control, to achieve some semblance of a more popular grip over the worst excesses of racial capitalism, also yielded new social sympathies and solidarities that could ground and inform alternative ways of living and being together. At issue is a Black democratic praxis that exceeds racial capitalism’s dominion. Much of this is captured in King’s speculative grasping after what he called the “beloved community.” And though it is tempting to read these aspirational dimensions of King’s thinking as a flight into ideal theory, they are better understood, we argue, as a concrete expression of the Black radical tradition.
“Showdown for Nonviolence” begins with reference to state violence. “The policy of the federal government is to play Russian roulette with riots” and to “gamble with another summer of disaster.”4 Written on the cusp of what King feared would be another long, heated season of urban uprisings, the essay sought to rally support for the Poor People’s Campaign and to mobilize masses of American residents who would “call on the government” to “correct” the causes of violent rebellion. But undergirding that call, as always, was the insinuation that government policy, the state itself, was directly responsible for the reproduction of human misery, the very conditions that led to popular unrest. As King argued more pointedly two months earlier at a rally in Mississippi, “poor people are victimized by a riotous Congress and welfare bureaucracy,” by “the insult of closed housing statutes,” by “schools which are institutions of disorder and neglect,” by “flame throwers in Vietnam [that] fan the flames in our cities.” He stressed that as “the lives, incomes, the wellbeing of poor people everywhere in America are plundered,” it is “no wonder that men who see their communities raped by this society sometimes turn to violence.”5
In “Showdown,” King went on to cite the U.S. government’s own conclusion that racism was threatening the “destruction of basic democratic values.” He referenced the Kerner Commission’s plea for “national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on earth.”6 Again, King’s appeal to what he called “national salvation,” to a conception of the state as both cause of injustice and instrument of correction, is nothing new to his readers, especially those who regard him as a kind of egalitarian or perfectionist liberal. In this section we highlight two perhaps lesser-known aspects of King’s thinking about the very idea of the welfare state, both of which came into bolder relief during the last two years of his life.
The first aspect underscores the extent to which King’s views on welfare policies, and indeed the nature of exploitation and expropriation within capitalist society, were expanded and further “radicalized” by welfare rights activists in and after 1966. King, of course, was never alone in voicing his discontent with the limited nature of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty. At the time, several welfare rights groups coalesced to form the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Antipoverty organizers such as Johnnie Tillmon, Beulah Sanders, and George Wiley, among many others, sought to challenge prevailing attitudes about work and welfare and to lobby aggressively for more expansive policies, including a federally guaranteed annual income. In 1968, when King sought the endorsement of the NWRO in the run-up to the Poor People’s Campaign, Tillmon in particular took him to task for failing to grasp the full extent to which government policies dehumanize the poor, reduce Black women to statistics in a management scheme, and reproduce racism, classism, and patriarchy—what Tillmon referred to as the philosophy of “the man.”7 During a panel discussion at a conference in Chicago, as King fumbled through questions about pending welfare legislation, Tillmon said to King, “You know, Dr. King, if you don’t know, you should say you don’t know.” King admitted that he had an inadequate grasp of the issues at hand and had “come to learn.”8
The historian Sylvie Laurent has shown that Tillmon and the NWRO articulated and practiced a “radical vision of citizenship,” which had a profound impact on King. King knew that “race trumped class in the management of social welfare distribution,” and that “antiwelfare policies, particularly those involving the surveillance of recipients, were inscribing criminality onto every aspect of the lives of disinherited African American families.”9 But the NWRO “reframed” debates about work and welfare, “arguing for the ‘right to an income’ to replace ubiquitous yet prejudiced concepts of worthiness and deservedness.” According to Laurent, this helped King see more clearly that “single mothers were entitled to their own income” and that antipoverty activism had to challenge the “patriarchal concept of family wage.” The NWRO “awakened [King] to the double blind of poor black women, notably mothers who, insofar as their work was unpaid, were working poor too.”10
In many ways a “man of his time,” King failed miserably to grapple with the full economic significance of gender and patriarchy.11 He never fully wrested his economic policy prescriptions away from the presumption of a “family wage” for a male breadwinner or from ideas about just compensation for those who “want to work and are able to work.”12 But his eventual call to “guarantee an income to all who are not able to work,” and his more expansive and imaginative ideas about “creating certain public service jobs,” gesture toward new thinking about how to revalue and compensate all of the expropriated work and labor, disproportionately borne out by Black women, that is needed to sustain a regime of capital accumulation. And to Laurent’s point, much of this appears to have been impressed upon King by Johnnie Tillmon and other Black radical welfare rights activists.
King’s inquiries into the role that the state can play helped him build out his critical theory of racial capitalism, perhaps even to the point of seeing more clearly capitalism’s gendered nature, that other pillar of what Nancy Fraser has called the “back-story” of social reproduction that conditions the possibility of capitalism’s “front-story” of commodity production. Included in that backstory, writes Fraser, are “the forms of provisioning, caregiving, and interacting that produce and maintain social bonds,” the reproductive labor of mothers, certainly, but also the broader “work of socializing the young, building communities, and producing and reproducing the shared meanings, affective dispositions, and horizons of value that underpin social cooperation.” Throughout capitalism’s history, this social-reproductive work has been separated from the market, formally unrecognized and uncompensated. Yet, “social reproductive activity is absolutely necessary to the existence of waged work, to the accumulation of surplus value, and to the functioning of capitalism as such. Wage labor could neither exist nor be exploited, after all, in the absence of housework, child-raising, schooling, affective care, and a host of other activities that produce new generations of workers, replenish existing generations, and maintain social bonds and shared understandings.”13 Moreover, the capitalist push to drive down production costs, to exploit efficiencies and offload risks and responsibilities, tends to eat away at social-reproductive capacity, especially among vulnerable populations. Fraser calls this “capitalism’s built-in tendency to social-reproductive crisis.”14 And the great political movements of the twentieth century—the labor movement, certainly, but perhaps even more significantly women’s and Black liberation struggles—emerged as powerful agents of crisis management. These political struggles shed light on capitalism’s backstory and helped to establish public provision, the welfare state, as means of mitigating and forestalling systemic crisis.
Thus to heed the promise of “national salvation,” as King consistently did, to adhere to the notion of an expanded welfare state that could create jobs (even wildly imaginative new “public service” jobs) or otherwise recognize, compensate, and sustain social-reproductive work, is to reinforce state-managed capitalism. But crisis management always has its limits. This is especially true of capitalism’s crisis tendencies, as the benefits and protections afforded by state provision were never really extended beyond a relatively privileged few. Racial asymmetries and patriarchal norms, though meaningfully challenged, were never fully overcome. “Although the state-managed regime succeeded in pacifying capitalism’s crisis tendencies in the core for several decades,” writes Fraser, “it could not definitively master them.” From King’s era onward, “cracks in the edifice began to appear: the ‘productivity crisis,’ ‘the fiscal crisis of the state,’ and a full-scale crisis of legitimation.”15 And state-managed capitalism had to confront its contradictions beyond those felt in the core countries, across the decolonizing and postcolonial Global South. And here we pivot to the second aspect of King’s thinking about the welfare state and his “national salvation” approach, namely, its international or transnational implications. This requires a foray into the speculative. Aside from a passing remark in 1964 about the need to “consider some form of world government,” King said very little about how the model could be extended beyond the U.S. national context.16
In the late 1950s, the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal began to articulate the idea of a globally scaled welfarism, what he called “welfare world.”17 This was a decade or so after the publication of An American Dilemma, Myrdal’s pioneering study of race relations in the United States, which King cited many times throughout his career. There is no indication that King encountered or engaged with Myrdal’s later work on international political economy, but King’s analysis of global capitalism and his appeal to state redistribution clearly align with Myrdal’s international vision, which coincidentally also parallels the development and internationalist agendas of several prominent postcolonial leaders in the decade immediately following King’s death.18
Myrdal built his argument not on any moral appeal to human rights, but rather on the socio-historical premise that we have been discussing, namely, that the redistributive politics of the rich countries, and the “national solidarities” that enabled such redistribution, had mitigated systemic crisis and forestalled capitalism’s self-destruction. “Marx’s prophecy” that capitalism would cannibalize itself may have “been proved wrong for the individual nations,” but Myrdal worried at midcentury that it could “turn out to be an accurate forecast in regard to the relations among nations.”19 He saw the global scaling of the welfare model as a necessary next step in forestalling systemic crisis. And of course, this next step posed significant challenges, principally, as Samuel Moyn and others have pointed out, that “the nationalist policies that had made the welfare state possible at home now impeded its institutionalization abroad.”20 That is, the twin expansion of state capacity and nationalist sentiment brought domestic working classes under a kind of state protectionism, forged a transactional, if not fiercely competitive, relationship between national populations on the global stage, and effectively disincentivized an international redistributionism. Quite relevant here is King’s evolving frustration with organized labor in the United States, which during King’s lifetime often reflected both the reactionary racial politics of American nationalism and a strident complicity with a neo-imperial foreign policy that for many union leaders was thought to secure jobs and benefits on the home front.21
Still, the scaled welfare challenge was taken up directly by the next generation of postcolonial leaders, most notably Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Jamaica’s Michael Manley. Adom Getachew points out how Nyerere, in particular, articulated an important reformulation of the theory of sovereign equality. “Just as equal political citizenship within the state does not undo the ‘dependence and dominance’ of the ‘man who needs to sell his labor in order to buy bread,’ formal sovereign equality left intact the dependence of postcolonial states.” For Nyerere, “the discrepancies between formal equality and substantive inequality had to be rectified if sovereign equality was to be a meaningful principle of the international order.”22 This line of thinking more than echoes King’s “second phase” critique of substantive economic inequality, which undergirded his emphasis on domestic welfarism in the United States. It takes very little imagination to stretch King’s famous hamburger-at-the-lunch-counter query and to picture King asking, “What does it profit peoples of the Global South to integrate into the international system if they do not have the capacity to compete economically?”23 Moreover, the world welfarism of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) was seen, again, as an effort to stave off crisis; conceptualizing the Global South as the workers of the world, in a way not unlike King’s emphases on global economic interdependence and the “inescapable network of mutuality,” the idea was to shore up the global bases of exploitation and expropriation in ways that would provide some relative benefit to the workers of the world and stabilize the capitalist system. “While equitable globalization entailed preferential treatment for postcolonial states, proponents of the NIEO argued that it was in service of the global economy more broadly,” an “internationally managed global economy that was structured by equitable interdependence rather than hierarchical dependence.”24
On a practical level, beyond gestures toward the United Nations General Assembly as the sort of political institution that could facilitate a new egalitarian internationalism, proponents of the NIEO and world welfarism were unable to chart a pragmatic course of action. Myrdal, for example, and perhaps not unlike King on matters of economics, was known to be much stronger as a diagnostic critic than a prescriptive policymaker. Myrdal would argue for the building out of a kind of global public sphere in which the grievances of Global South nations could be articulated and amplified, a Southern “Great Awakening.” In the postwar period, he pointed toward, in the words of Moyn, “a broad public not only south but also north accepting rising levels of inequality as an embarrassment.”25 Of course King, for his part, clearly understood that rich countries would not voluntarily redistribute wealth and that in the absence of a hard-fought redistribution of power, such almsgiving would be counterproductive.26 But like King’s calls in “Showdown” and elsewhere to “dramatize” poverty, like Johnnie Tillmon and other welfare rights activists’ struggles to raise consciousness and reframe public debates around race-and gender-based domination, proponents of postcolonial world welfarism saw a need to organize historically oppressed communities, both domestically and globally, such that pressure could be applied to wealth and power. This basic appeal to democratic accountability is the pivot between King’s two conceptions of the political.
In his more conventional mode, King appears to have thought of the state as an instrument to be used for more or less democratic purposes. In this mode, he worked from a conception of the political that is “dominated by the positivity of the State” and that bears the imprint of the historical consolidation of market capitalism.27 This conception of the political, Robinson argues, “found convenience with the exigencies of certain sectors of the population of the new, class-conscious society” that emerged with modern capitalism. The “functional interests of these classes fell within the capabilities of the State as an administrative apparatus, thus confirming its significance in utilitarian terms.” And all of this had a profound effect on ensuing waves of democratization. As the positivity of the state became more stable and entrenched, democratic aspirants were reduced essentially to “claimants,” the struggle for democracy to a question of state capture.28 Could the working classes, could other expropriated groups or constituencies, effectively bend the administrative apparatus more in their favor? What was rarely, if ever, challenged was the presumption of state authority itself, the presumption that political subjects must and should and indeed will be governed.
We might think of King as a willing conscript in these quintessentially modern struggles for statist accountability. He was a man of his time. But he clearly recognized how democratic aspiration gets circumscribed and, in many ways, reduced by the conception of the political that undergirds the statist model. “I do not think of political power as an end,” King said in 1966, “neither do I think of economic power as an end.”29 The call to prepare government programs, he said in 1967, “distracts us excessively from our basic and primary tasks.”30 The objective for King was never to register formal claimants vis-à-vis the racial capitalist state. It was never to reproduce the terms of order, to render the oppressed and marginalized masses available for governing only in a different way than they had been used to. Indeed, political and economic “power,” as measured by the extant terms of order, were for King mere “ingredients in the objective that we seek in life.” And that ultimate end or objective, King said, was something closer to a “truly brotherly society” or “the creation of the beloved community.”31
Though he recognized the utilitarian promise of the state, King sought to cure what H. L. T. Quan has referred to as our chronic “state addiction.” King fought against the “singular obsession with how we shall be governed.” He wanted us to see that “democratic living, as a way of collectivizing, concerns itself not with how we shall be governed, but with how we shall relate to one another.”32 To be sure, King’s vision of the beloved community remained anchored in some idea of love as an ordering principle. “A simple working definition,” Walter Fluker writes, “is a community ordered by love.”33 But King’s notion of the beloved community signaled a profound gesture beyond the ordering logic of the political, beyond the presumption of sovereignty, authority, and hierarchical leadership. It was in many ways an attempt to move beyond state management of governed constituencies. King imagined “a society of friends, a colloquy of equals, a practice of concern, caring, and giving—in which each person had standing, each stone in place, none rejected, in a rising tumult of aspiring mutuality.”34 This was an appeal, if not to a tumultuous disorder akin to what Robinson called the antipolitical, at least to a way of collectivizing and relating to one another that would evade the compulsory order of racial capitalist dominion.
Consider how this “rising tumult of aspiring mutuality” applies to the welfarist movements discussed above. The domestic welfare struggles that affected King in the mid-1960s, as well as the later world welfare initiatives that his thinking can be said to have anticipated, were at once political and antipolitical. They were as much an appeal to the state as a governing instrument as they were a challenge to the very presumption of governability. In their political appeal qua claimants, welfare rights activists in the United States sought to render an entire segment of the population essentially unavailable for governing. Their political claim thus reflected what Quan calls a “willful refusal to be governed as confirmation of a democratic sensibility.”35 That is, in this case, a refusal to allow social-reproductive work, indeed a refusal to allow the lives of predominately Black and Latina women, to remain the expropriated dominion of racial and gendered capitalism. On the international stage, world welfare appeals to the United Nations General Assembly, to the redistributive promise of the NIEO, sought to render peoples of the postcolonial Global South essentially unavailable to neocolonial dominion.
King, for his part, stressed how resistance movements from below tend to forge a “new kind of togetherness,” as he put it in “Showdown.”36 He was conscious of this phenomenon during every phase of his struggle and leaned heavily on its promise in preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to be much more than a mobilization of claimants making a conventional “call on the government.” The point we are trying to make is that in the process of working within a conventional, state-centric conception of the political, King began to expose the contingency of that very conception. His more imaginative and creative gestures toward a “new kind of togetherness” worked to expose the political as the “dominating myth of our consciousness of being together.” This more expansive effort is in its own way antipolitical, as Robinson points out. It serves both to defend against the “destructive objectivation of the myth,” namely, “the apparatuses of repression and control,” and “to subvert that way of realizing” collective life. The key, Robinson says, is to hone the “ability to hold onto the consciousness that the political is an historical, one temporarily convenient, illusion.”37 And in King’s life and work, this ability to hold on to such critical consciousness is of course bolstered by his theism, his Afro-Christian faith in the coming of another world. In grasping for something else, for the transcendent truth and justice of the beloved community, the illusory, temporal, and thus fleeting nature of the political is thrown into bolder relief.
Vincent Harding recalls of his comrade that in the last years especially, King “was slowly turning away from the New Deal–inspired dream that the federal government (locked as it was into a deadly alliance with an almost autonomous military and with the U.S.A.-based transnational corporate structures) had any, or desired any, compassionate solutions—regardless of the color, gender, or political leanings of the president, regardless of which of our major parties was ‘in power.’” Nor was King “inclined to jump to the conclusion that any socialism that we have seen anywhere offered an alternative model for the ‘reconstruction’” of modern society.38 For King, Harding recalls, “the answers, the models, the hopes, the new constructions were still in the hearts and minds of all those men and women who were being drawn away from the old and working their lives toward a new way” and “he knew instinctively, and said it more and more clearly, that we would be unfaithful to our own best history of struggle and to the hopes of the exploited peoples of the world, if black folk in the U.S.A. were to settle for what is now called ‘a fair share’ (and what was known in the sixties as a ‘piece of the pie’)—some proportionate cut of the wealth amassed by this nation’s military-industrial empire.”39 To be sure, King “was unclear about how this would be done.” But such was precisely the point. He was “improvising,” as Harding put it, “in the great black tradition.”40
Recovery of King’s two conceptions of the political puts us in position finally to situate King within the Black radical tradition.41 The book’s broader analytical framework, the theory of racial capitalism, emerged from Robinson’s account of this very tradition. Previous chapters have touched on aspects of its ontology and epistemology. But we have not yet trained focus on what Robinson identifies as the tradition’s defining nature—namely, its striking, almost incomprehensible aversion to mass violence. Robinson documents how, time and again, in their historical struggles against racial capitalism’s dominion, Black people “seldom employed the level of violence that they (the Westerners) understood the situation required.”42 At issue is a philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance that is to be distinguished from appropriations of European political radicalism, including the violence of “Fanon’s extended Freudianism” and the “revolutionary terror” of various Black neo-Marxisms.43 The resonances with King are profound, both in terms of King’s normative philosophy of nonviolence and his descriptive accounts of Black struggle: ”the amazing thing,” he said in “Showdown,” is that “but for a rare exception,” Black people “haven’t killed any white people, and Negroes could, if they wished, kill by the hundreds.”44 In reconstructing King’s two conceptions of the political, in exposing how he worked both within and beyond the governing violence of the state-centered paradigm, we are able to add further perspective to King’s own philosophy and practice of nonviolence, which has been otherwise widely studied and remains perhaps the most celebrated dimension of his life and legacy.
First it will be helpful to review the ontological and epistemological claims at the heart of the Black radical tradition. The absence of mass violence in the context of Black liberation struggle—so strange and irrational by Western standards—is a testament to how “a very different and shared order of things” tended to prevail among a “brutally violated people.” Robinson traces the vast history of this. Our concern is with the theory that Robinson articulates, and its normative implications. The key ontological claim is that the Black radical tradition demonstrates a “renunciation of actual being for historical being,” a denial of extant reality born of a struggle for “the preservation of the ontological” or “integral totality of the people themselves.”45 That is, the Black radical tradition reflects a struggle to retain, or perhaps to retain the possibility of, a form or forms of collective being, of ideas and practices of shared Black life, that are denied or negated by the expectations and requirements of Western modernity—its slavery, its imperialism, its racial capitalism.
In some sense, this would appear to be a backward-facing or conservative orientation: Black liberation as recovery of precapitalist modes of living and being together. But the argument is much closer to the one that W. E. B. Du Bois pioneered in “Conservation of Races.” Du Bois, whom Robinson identifies as an exemplary figure in the Black radical tradition, argued for the preservation of a set of distinctive Black racial “ideals,” including a commitment to some notion of shared living and togetherness, perhaps even a community ordered by love. This is less about resurrecting a romanticized African past or recovering some sort of lost communalism than it is about resisting the foreclosure of democratic and communal possibilities moving forward, in the face of what Du Bois called “white world” ideals and practices—including abrasive ideologies of competitive market individualism and the violent partitioning of the racial capitalist order.46
What would it mean to “renounce actual being” and thereby “preserve” the “integral totality” of a people in movement for their liberation? This question implies a renunciation of the political as a mode of ordering Black lives. We have spoken about the state as an abstract structure of authority, but Robinson argues that the political often expresses itself well beyond the purview of the state, in and through a more pervasive application of a hierarchical leadership ideal in which the people are essentially called into being and ordered from above. According to this ideal, the led—the masses, the people—are rationalized, comprehended, governed, managed, all at the hands of an exceptional and heroic individual or body of governing elites. Robinson contrasts this sharply with how leadership manifested itself in the Black radical tradition, where, he says, it was more often “an expression of the people focused onto one of their members.”47 And this, indeed, is where Robinson situates King:
King’s charismatic authority was a tributary of the Afro-Christian tradition embedded in the consciousness of the now mostly urban Blacks in the South and elsewhere. His leadership was grounded on culturally cemented legitimacy rather than organizational management skills, on the biblical faith tales retold at thousands of places of worship each Sunday, the militant millenarianism of Afro-Christian hymns, and the messianism of the Gospel. When he spoke, his speech rhythms and language conspired with beliefs, concepts, ideas, and icons insinuated into Black Christian consciousness for generations. He clarioned a call to action that was heard wherever Afro-Christians could be found. . . . In this performance, he was less a person than a signature of a social and historical identity. King articulated a Salvationist vision of a future but accessible utopia, a golden place whose every ethical and moral stone was familiar to this widely dispersed congregation. Baker and others, whose genius rested in organization and the analyses of social process, recognized both King’s unquestioned authority and his obvious limitations. Baker was appalled by the other SCLC leaders’ deference to and dependency on King. But they too were hedged in by the prescripted narrative of Black salvationism. Thus while a Baker or an Abernathy or a Clark might provide organizational integument—that is, practical planning and realistic goals to King’s paradigmatic talk—the power of the movement came from the masses, from a century or two of their ancestors, under acute distress, elaborating a vision of the future and how it might be attained. In King they saw their own reflection, not their master, their own ambitions, not his dictates.48
The point, we might say, is that King was a man of the people, an expression of its being. Such phrasing has become a grand cliché, of course, and its application in King’s case is certainly a vast oversimplification—and a blatant evasion of King’s patriarchy.49 But in King’s case there is a real and distinctively Black radical substance to it. King was raised in the Black Church, in the Black working-class milieu that was “Little Africa.”50 As his career moved though formal schooling, through the ministry, ultimately into the role of grand mobilizer of a mass movement, his travel regimen was unrivaled, such that no matter how much his star ascended in the public consciousness, he was still gripped by the plight of urban youth as he moved though Newark and Chicago and Watts, still brought to tears at the sight of starving Black children in rural Mississippi.51 In the very last year of his life, he was moved by welfare rights activists to “look to them for guidance” and a richer understanding of state violence toward poor Black women.52 In his final weeks in Memphis, moved by the responsiveness of the Black working class, he spontaneously called for a general strike, what amounts to a movement by a people to forge itself through a grand refusal to be governed.53 The point is that King was never walled off from the history and present of life-and-death struggles for Black survival. There is something in King—in his leadership, his authority—that is expressive of an African people that had fought for generations to preserve itself as an “integral totality,” and not simply as the negation or antithesis of capitalist modernity.
The epistemological claim merits review as well. It has been said that the Black radical tradition denotes “a praxis that can provide an alternative mode of being and of conducting critical social inquiries.”54 Robinson describes it as an “accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle.”55 Part of what it means to “preserve the ontological totality” is to preserve modes of registering, documenting, and disseminating its knowledge. Robinson warns against New World “thefts of consciousness,” which he says are equally as tragic as “thefts of labor, life, and material wellbeing.”56 Black scholarship can easily replicate the division between mental and manual labor and become, as Erica Edwards puts it, all too complicit in “the theft of Black being.”57 King’s own scholarly training was in many ways conventionally Western, his fondness for the likes of Kant, Hegel, and Marx perhaps complicit in theft. His conventional conception of the political was likewise shaped by exposure to white theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, who gave King a “a detailed theological underpinning that supported the need for the state as a principle of order.”58 Gary Dorrien lists an appeal to the state as among the influences that the Black social gospel tradition took from “white social gospel and progressive movements,” which “conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights and principles of justice.”59 But Dorrien goes on to add that as King, for his part, became “increasingly radical and angry as a consequence of failing to break white supremacy,” he “spurned his access to the establishment in order to stand with the poor and oppressed, struggling against intertwined forms of racial, social, economic, cultural, and imperial oppression.”60 In other words, King did not allow himself to be walled off from the fullness of Black being. His epistemology did not replicate the separation of mental from manual labor that, since Aristotle, has been used by Western elites to legitimize their knowledge claims over slaves and working people.
Consider King’s 1968 tribute to Du Bois. “He was in the first place a teacher,” King said of Du Bois, who taught that “Black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies.”61 For King, Du Bois’s most important book, Black Reconstruction in America, “demolished the lies about Negroes in their most important and creative period of history,” debunked the revisionism of “white historians” to reveal the truth about the “only period in which democracy existed in the South. This stunning fact was the reason the history books had to lie because to tell the truth would have acknowledged the Negroes’ capacity to govern and fitness to build a finer nation in a creative relationship with poor whites.”62 Working through the fog of lies and the theft of Black being is what yields “a wholesome, vibrant Negro self-confidence”—not only in the sense of recovering the dignity of self that had been beaten down by slavery and Jim Crow, both old and new, but also in the sense of promoting the self-confidence of the Black world: the ideas, values, principles, and defining natures that the ontological totality stands for.
To be sure, it can be tempting to read the epistemological dimension of the Black radical tradition as something of a flight into idealism. Robinson himself acknowledges this when he says that “its epistemology granted supremacy to metaphysics not the material,” and that Black radical alternatives to the political were often “translated and transformed into ethical theory, theology, and philosophy, that is into forms of idealism.”63 There is more than a grain of this in King’s notion of the beloved community, which owes much to the mysticism of Howard Thurman and Afro-Christian spirituality.64 But the Black radical tradition complicates any binary distinction between ideal and real. In the struggle for survival, the limitations and perversions of the white world become intelligible, as do both real and speculative gestures toward alternative possibilities of being and living together. Despite all the dehumanization, despite all the reason to despair, writes George Lipsitz, Black people “somehow managed to extend recognition and respect to each other while in bondage, and to maintain a commitment to the linked fate of all humans, [and they] countered vicious dehumanization with determined and successful re-humanization. Insisting on their own humanity and the humanity of all people, even that of their oppressors, they have been at the forefront of what Dr. King called ‘the bitter but beautiful struggle’ for a more just and better world.”65
Our focus on King’s two concepts of the political helps both to situate King within the Black radical tradition and to cast new light on his theory and practice of nonviolence. Again, it is the relative absence of mass violence that Robinson identifies as the defining nature of the tradition. King’s commitment to nonviolence is part of an effort to vivify—or, as he would say in “Showdown” and elsewhere, “dramatize”—the violence of racial capitalism and the statist paradigm. This is perhaps his grand contribution to Black study, a testament to his refusal to produce or reproduce knowledge that is complicit in the theft of Black being. But his commitment to nonviolence can also be read to reconcile the layered nature of his political theory, or to bridge his movement through the two concepts of the political.
The key is that nonviolence augurs a democratic praxis, both as means and as end. Within the conventional paradigm of the statist order, as exploited and expropriated communities struggle to win state recognition of their formal and informal labors, nonviolence is the most effective means of pressuring the state from below. King knew that Black communities would never win gun battles with the U.S. government. And he feared white backlash to demonstrations of violent resistance and insurrection, what he said in “Showdown for Nonviolence” could quickly descend into a “right-wing takeover” and “Fascist development” that would foreclose democratic possibility.66 If “legitimacy” in the era of state-managed capitalism depends upon some working consensus of popular support, then nonviolence is necessary (a) to expand popular concern about a legitimacy crisis—that is, concern about the extent to which Black and poor people continue to be exploited, expropriated, and disposed of, despite the historically expanded societal capacity to overcome this—and (b) to draw on that heightened concern to forge a multiracial consensus that could realistically pressure the state to overcome and deliver on its expanded capacity.67 In this way, as Karuna Mantena has argued, King gave us a “theory and a practice of nonviolence that were conceptually realist and intensely pragmatic, and that aimed at making visible the moral stakes of undoing racial domination.”68 Racial progress for King “depended on finding a way to get every American to see themselves personally implicated in racial domination,” and “nonviolence was the best means to persuade a reluctant populace to actively engage in acts of moral reevaluation.”69 Mantena refers specifically to the American context, but inference suggests that King intended this logic to apply beyond national borders.
The transnational context allows for an even more vivid rendering of how King regarded nonviolence as much more than simply an effective means of working within the statist paradigm. To be sure, King kept one foot planted in the model of “national salvation,” wedded as he was to the notion that the representative nation-state was the established institutional arrangement that could potentially facilitate some measure of democratic responsiveness, where other existing modes of coordination, most principally the market economy, could not. But the ultimate end or objective, as we have seen, was the human togetherness that is forged in the struggle, the building of community, the real democratic substance of it all. King would not pursue violent resistance, he would not pursue strategies or ends of racial separatism in the United States, in part because he knew that racialized groups would have to continue to engage one another in the wake of any bloodletting. He wanted racialized groups to continue to engage one another, albeit in radically transformed ways—that is, peacefully, productively, sustainably.70 Beyond the borders of the United States, in the context of postwar anti-colonial struggle, the “national salvation” model may have lent itself more easily to ideas about violent resistance and insurrection, if only because it was both possible and necessary to push out the colonizer, to restore land and control to native peoples, rather than to persuade settlers and natives to engage in shared governance within the borders of the postcolony. But here, too, King knew that postcolonial regimes would have to continue to engage external peoples and states in the broader global arena. And if there was ever going to be any hope of moving beyond an international politics mired in national interest and transactional exchange relationships between territorial states, if there was to be any hope of moving beyond the reproduction of North-South asymmetries and relationships of domination and dependency, then some sort of global democratic togetherness would need to take shape. It was and remains something of an otherworldly—Robinson might say “outlandish”—proposition.71 But King was not willing to foreclose the possibility.
King lived through an era of state-managed capitalism. The contradictions of that era have since given way to the neoliberal present, a moment in which global capital (particularly finance capital) and the transnational private sector have in many ways captured the governing capacity of territorial states. Where King saw promise in a more democratically accountable state apparatus that could rein in capital, at least to some degree, and forestall its tendency to decimate labor, exacerbate inequalities, and essentially cannibalize itself, the very successes of that model prompted a tremendous backlash on the part of the ownership class, such that in the fifty years since King’s death, we find ourselves forced to reimagine the relationship between polity and economy that the social welfare contract presupposes. We argue that King’s liminal standing between two conceptions of the political—again, the conventional, state-centric model on one flank, and a more Black radical democratic praxis on the other—suggests a way of reckoning with the neoliberal condition.
On one flank is the imperative to recover popular political control over the economy and to restore a commitment to the welfare and developmental state. Welfare reform efforts in the United States in the 1960s were imperfect and limited in their capacity to transform basic structural features of the economy. So, too, were the world welfare initiatives at the global level. But as Reverend William J. Barber’s renewed Poor People’s Campaign attests, it stills makes desperate sense to, as King put it, “plague Congress,” to “plague the government, until they will do something,” until “the nation will not be able to overlook the poor.”72 Such an approach may be more limited today, given the relative incapacity of the U.S. government or any other territorial state to reverse the direction of capture, to restore some degree of management of the sheer force of global capital.73 Nancy Fraser has argued that in working in this vein today, it is useful to shift categories of analysis and prescription. Instead of attempting to negotiate a relation between polity and economy, instead of focusing on the state management of capital, it may be more appropriate and generative to think in terms of a re-empowerment of the public vis-à-vis the private power of capital.74 The real imperative, after all, is not to empower the state, but to protect and enable the publics that states have the capacity to serve. We spoke in chapter two about how King’s legacy jells with Michael Dawson’s call to dismantle neoliberalism though a rebuilding of the “Black counterpublic.”75 That aspect of King’s legacy is reaffirmed here as an expression of a conventionally political prescription, albeit one that decenters and destabilizes the political itself.
It does so in part by shifting focus toward racial capitalism’s backstory. The rise of the Black radical counterpublic necessarily challenges the ways in which the state confers and manages racial subjections, which have been and remain central to the reproduction and legitimation of the inequalities that capital accumulation requires. To compel the state to recognize and compensate expropriated Black labor, for example, including the social-reproductive work of Black women, or to compel the state to confront its ongoing enforcement of racial partition through residential segregation, is to move toward a restructuring of the very society that gave rise to the political. Remember, “the political came to fruition,” Robinson said, “with the theory of the State as the primary vehicle for the organization and ordering of the mass society produced by capitalism.” If there is mass resistance among those who are meant to be ordered, among those whom capitalism exploits and expropriates and divides and conquers, then the political is necessarily destabilized. In this regard, King’s work with the original Poor People’s Campaign, and what that could have become, is exemplary. It has been said of his last campaign that “King knew what he needed to do and with whom he needed to be,” and that “he only did not know where this was heading politically.”76
Robinson might have said that King was heading away from the political, that social movements of this sort are in their own way antipolitical. They have the effect of exposing the “mythical” nature of the political and its terms of order. In a neoliberal moment, the antipolitical exposure of myth requires, perhaps most significantly, a reckoning with market fundamentalism. Capitalism’s neoliberal phase has amplified the tendency of all capitalist societies to defer to “market forces’” collective decisions about how to invest society’s “surplus”—what Fraser, following Marx, calls the “collective fund of social energies exceeding those required to reproduce a given form of life and to replenish what is used up in the course of living it.” Fraser adds that “how a society uses its surplus capacities is absolutely central, raising fundamental questions about how people want to live—where they choose to invest their collective energies, how they propose to balance ‘productive work’ vis-à-vis family life, leisure and other activities—as well as how they aspire to relate to non-human nature and what they aim to leave to future generations.”77 These are not questions about how we want to be governed. They are not conventionally political questions. They are, rather, questions about how we want to live, how we want to be together in the world. And these questions are not restricted to the context of what we might think of as local or domestic societies; the manner in which racial capitalism today compels the absorption of surplus—as a movement away from reinvestment in productive output and toward predatory and extractive financialization—is necessarily a global phenomenon. At a time when the private power of capital has captured territorial states worldwide, rolled back the welfare state contract in the rich countries and the developmental state model at the periphery, compelled state actors everywhere to consider and pursue only “market solutions,” we point to King’s democratic praxis, the antipolitical flank of his political theoretical imaginary, as a refusal to be governed.