Anyone with two eyes and an iota of social consciousness understands that our society is rife with issues of social justice. From the over representation of African Americans and Indigenous people as victims of extrajudicial police shootings, the prison industrial complex, income inequality, and the recent up tick in race-based violence, there is no shortage of social ills to address. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Brown Berets, and other groups in the liberal left seek to resolve these issues through demonstrations, social pressure, and the fight for representation near the seat of power. At the height of the civil rights era of the mid-20th century, the great aspiration was to not only acquire rights for the marginalized, but also to create opportunities for them to access the power and success they were denied for so long. Through these movements we have seen openly gay elected officials, black police chiefs, and even indigenous judges. It seems that we were almost at the mountain top. Coming off the high of 8 years of not only America’s first Black president, but also one of the most successful presidents in American history, liberals could sit back in self-assured confidence knowing that progress had won. America was about to continue this trend of development and elect its first female president, but then, it didn’t. In a plot twist that belongs in some bizarre episode of the West Wing, that didn’t happen. Overnight, all of that progress had been lost. The United States’ Electoral College selected Donald Trump, a man that received the endorsement of the KKK, the alt-right, and a litany of dangerous neo-fascists. The next day, our social media newsfeeds were flooded with stories of violence, intimidation, and harassment against every minority group imaginable. The flurry of swastikas, punches, white power marches, and now white nationalist recruiting drives rammed a fist through the pretty picture of progress painted by the identity politics of the liberal elite. Identity politics as the solution to addressing our social ills had failed.
2016 was not the first time that identity politics as a political strategy were exposed for being largely ineffective. Enter the American Civil War of the 1860’s. In the period drama The Free State of Jones we follow the true life story of Newton Knight, poor white southerner that served as a nurse and infantryman on the southern side of the of the American Civil War. We begin the story on the battlefield where the bodies of soldiers, masticated by the gaping jaws of human savagery, lay mangled on the cratered and bloody battlefield. Newton, affectionately known as “Newt” scoured the field searching for his wounded comrades and dragged them to the field hospital for medical care. From the very beginning the audience is told how much he hates the war. He mentions over and over again that the poor and landless are dying in droves so that the wealthy can continue to enrich themselves on slave labour while wholly avoiding direct participation in the violence. When his nephew appears in his camp after being conscripted and later dies in his first engagement, Newton had enough of fighting and carried his nephew back home to his sister in law for a proper burial.
While he settled back into life at home, he finds out that the Confederacy had been taking upwards of 10% of all the worldly possessions of his wife and neighbours to support the war effort, while largely leaving the property and productive capacity of wealthy slave owning families unmolested. This enrages Newton, as this confirms what he suspected the war was about. After getting into a confrontation with the Confederate tax agents, he is forced to go on the run as they decide to indict him for desertion with plans to hang him. With the assistance of a close friend of his, Newton finds himself hiding in a swamp with a gang of runaway slaves. There, despite the differences in their social class, they realize that the root of their oppression is the same. Whether they are soldiers or slaves, they are still dying for the wealthy to profit. If the Confederacy won, life would be no better for poor whites, and it certainly would be no better for enslaved blacks.
They were all just dying for cotton. It was this theme of anti-exploitation that appears again and again throughout the film. Newton makes it clear on several occasions that race does not matter. Race was only a tool used by the wealthy to give poor whites some semblance of power in their tuberculosis-fueled misery, and it was easy to put enslaved Africans beneath them. A white man could be living in conditions no better than the plantation slaves, but so long as he wasn’t one, it made him better than someone. The wealthy slave owners used this mentality to keep the poor whites focused on keeping blacks oppressed so that they would not see the real oppressor pulling their strings. Newton Knight saw the truth of this as more Confederates deserted and jointed his integrated company of blacks and whites, and fought against the tyranny of the Southern elite. Like a sweaty, mosquito-bitten Robin Hood, he would take the appropriated resources from Confederate tax collectors, and then redistribute it to the poor. He continued this practice throughout the Civil War until it finally met its conclusion in 1865.
The film follows him and his friends and family through the reconstruction era and the ultimate betrayal of poor whites and newly freed Blacks throughout the period. The film takes special care to show the wealthy returning to power and almost immediately finding ways to re-enslave blacks. This was done through “apprenticeship” programs which amounted to forced labour on the plantations of former slave masters enforced by poor whites hired to maintain the social hierarchy. This practice was later proven to be unconstitutional, and was soon struck down and its abolition was upheld by a period of martial law in the former Confederacy. Without giving too much of the story away, the film also invests time in showing the various ways in which poor whites were elevated to positions of nominal power. These roles included running voting booths while being incentivised to interfere with the voting power of blacks, covert support for white vigilantism used to intimidate African Americans, and the police force, which herded African Americans into jails so that they could be coerced into hard labour for the state and plantation owners as punishment for whatever crimes were invented to keep them incarcerated. The ending, of course, I will leave for you to discover through watching the film.
The Free State of Jones shows us the difference in the effectiveness of fighting for rights using class consciousness in comparison to identity politics. It shows us why one works and the other, though much easier to digest, is ultimately doomed to fail as a main strategy. First, let’s examine why Newton Knight’s class-based approach proved more successful. It is important, from the outset, to understand exactly how remarkable a feat it was for him to assemble white and black men into a single fighting company. Not even in the Union would they allow black and white soldiers to integrate. Yet somehow in the heart of slave country, where African Americans were considered less than human, and many of the poor whites, even if they did not own slaves, were set on dying by the thousands to maintain the institution of slavery, Newton Knight convinced them that their goals were so aligned that they had no choice but to fight together. He repeats constantly that their goals are the same, they are the same people, the same people are hurting both groups etc. They were both oppressed, (though one SIGNIFICANTLY more than the other) and they all wanted the same things, which were publicly declared in a gathering they had after chasing confederate soldiers out of a town they captured:
In short, their stance was anti-exploitative. They advocated for equal human dignity, and the right of the people to control and profit from the means of production. These are all very strong communist socialist principles, almost a decade before Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto appeared on American printing presses for the first time. It is, therefore, no surprise that they use communist imagery throughout the film. A few examples include the gathering in the scene above, which is reminiscent of the 1917 painting by Vladimir Serov showing Lenin delivering a rousing speech to the proletariat.
There is also the focus on the hammer and sickle in the barn when Newton and his companions tried to create a movement to enfranchise Blacks in cooperation with the white working class. This was to secure more political participation from African Americans, an initiative that was well received by the Black community and secured their interest to become politically active.
Considering the years of Jim Crow laws that followed reconstruction and the current state of the treatment of African Americans, it could be argued that his strategy was a failure because it ultimately did not result in the unification of Blacks and the White working class. This failure however was not due to the veracity or vigour of his message about shared exploitation and equality, nor the principles that underpinned it. Truth be told, the fact that he was able to unify a two groups that believed they were fighting each other for two different causes through making them understand that they had a common enemy and then to foster a willing spirit of equality between them is nothing short of a miracle. This is especially poignant considering what societal fallout resulted at the end of the war. His plan was a success, and would have maintained equal rights and justice if it were not for the eventual pitfall of co-opted identity politics.
To understand how identitarian politics can be used for both good and evil, let us consider the lessons of history at the time. Prior to black soldiers taking an active role in combat in the United States Army (the war for independence excluded, that is another article), the civil war appeared to have come to a stalemate, were it not for one fateful decision that swelled the ranks of the Union army. Lincoln declared that Black men were allowed to not only enlist, but they would be put into a “special” unit of only black soldiers (lead by a white officer of course). The idea of not only fighting a war against the enslavement of their own people, but also the “special status” of their own units swelled the Union army by nearly 180,000 volunteers. Though there were many other factors that contributed to the victory of the Union over the Confederacy, this was considered to be a watershed moment in US military history, even though the African American soldiers were still segregated from their white counterparts. In the beginning this seems like a fantastic way to demonstrate the worth of African Americans as major contributors to the eudaimonia of their countrymen. The issue here, as I have mentioned, is that identity politics can be easily perverted to serve the ends of the less scrupulous. In a modern context, imagine that this is akin to electing black officials, or swelling the police ranks with people of colour. It looks good, but it does not solve the underlying problem. The black soldiers were still segregated, paid less, and until the 54th Massachusetts was called in to fight due to a shortage of available men, were put on “engineering duty”. Essentially, they were still discriminated against by the very system that sought their freedom from bondage and put blue uniforms on their backs.
With the end of slavery and the return of wealthy plantation owners, we find that there is a gap in the workforce. They wealthy do not want to pay white workers fair wages to work the land once tended by their slaves for free, especially since in many parts of the south the emancipate black population well exceeded whites due to the breeding programs of the pre Civil War era. In order to re-institute a system that allowed for them to exploit African American labour for free while keeping them apart from the white working class so that they could not unify, they artificially elevated the status of poor whites above the newly emancipated blacks. This was achieved by appointing special sheriffs, whose goal it was to force blacks on to plantations under obscure laws they neither had access to learn about nor the education necessary to even read them if they could. They also put poor whites in charge of voting booths, as overseers on the plantations, and numerous other strong-arm social order enforcement positions. This created a social license for poor whites, lead on by the wealthy elite, to take their economic frustrations out on the “other” in the form of secret societies like the KKK. This all happened even though the poor blacks were in many cases were living in similar conditions of poverty and squalor, even after emancipation. The white working class was given this power with the suggestion that if they did not do so, then these undesirables will make it difficult for them to find work, increase competition, or act as agents of the United States government to further enforce the perceived northern aggression against the southern states and its population (read wealthy landed gentry). With this ideology, poor southern whites acted against their own class interest and instead became active participants in the abuse, harassment, disenfranchisement, and incarceration of the local black populations. We saw this scenario play out with the recent election of Donald Trump to office. Throughout his campaign he, and his alt-right and neo-fascist supporters used the “othering” as the identitarian tool for convincing the white working class that they have to act against the looming predator in the darkness, or their lives will get worse. Then unchecked abuse of identity politics by the liberal left, which as its main weapon against the very real institution of systemic white supremacy, has ironically alienated whites that could have been sympathetic to the cause of social justice and equality. One need not look any further than this clip of a Black Lives Matter rally:
While representation is essential to creating the appropriate context, over reliance on and the unsophisticated use of identity politics to do any more than make a statement will eventually be misinterpreted or misappropriated. Over-reliance on identity politics will almost always lead to co-optation by the ruling class, twisted into the tyranny of the majority. Anyone with enough money can hire one black face with hungry enough pockets to serve as a voice for white supremacist ideology. It allows for unqualified individuals to represent causes and when given platforms discredit the movements that they are selected to represent. Just because an individual looks the part of a marginalized group does not mean that his or her knowledge, training, or personal agenda in any way aligns their skill-set and interest with the marginalized groups that they claim to represent. This is not to say that identity politics should be entirely eschewed, rather, that identity politics are only a start, they can address the symptoms of wider social ills, but only with adequate class consciousness can social justice movements address the core issues that underlie the challenges that confront us as a society. This allows us to seek lasting solutions to those problems for future generations.
Corrupt practices by the ruling elite have always been a question of social class structure. The fact that they control so many of the resources and keys to power allows them to not only exploit the working class, but to manipulate the trappings of identity to turn them against each other and use one group of the poor to manage the others and maintain social order. The solution to our social problems is more than skin deep. The real issue is the way these differences are exploited to create social factions that overpower each other for the benefit of members of the ruling elite and those that aspire to join them. Once we understand this and seek to treat the real illness, it will be much easier to quiet and eventually eliminate the symptoms. Perhaps then we can have a truly free state. Until next time, be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
More on Newton Knight and his movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton_Knight
More on the Film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1124037/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
Lenin painting – https://www.pinterest.com/explore/vladimir-lenin/
Cover Photo – http://screenrant.com/tag/the-free-state-of-jones/