What’s Going on?
It’s almost fifty years since Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On. The title track, which is both the actual and conceptual starting point of the album, was written as a direct response to acts of police brutality that were witnessed at the end of the 1960s. The album, which is written from the point-of-view of a Vietnam War Veteran, tells the story of a soldier returning from a foreign war, a war designed to protect and propagate the ‘American way of life’, only to find that the America he has returned to is broken. As the cycle of the tracks unfolds, for the album ends where it begins with a reprise of the title track’s theme, it explores issues of poverty and inequality, police brutality, drug abuse, and impending ecological disaster. I think people often read and understand the title, What’s Going On, as a question, but if you take a look at the album cover and the track listing you’ll find no question mark. What’s Going On is not a question, it is a statement, a marker set down in 1971 that says this is what’s going on, right now, here, on the streets and in our homes, this is the America we live in. The question that we urgently need to ask now is what’s changed? Why, after almost half a century, are the demonstrations that we have seen spread and escalate since the murder of George Floyd still necessary? Why are black men and women still losing their lives at the hands of white police officers? Why do the people who are, ostensibly, paid to protect communities still pose such a threat to them?
The answer to these questions is as simple as it is complicated. Complicated, because current events are intrinsically linked to a history of slavery that stretches back over 500 years. These are complex historical threads that have informed ways of thinking and ways of being, threads that will require hard work and time to untangle and address. This is work that we all need to be engaged in. The relentless work of changing the everyday. Simple, because industrial capitalism (the foundations of the society that we live in) was built on slavery; at the centre of those complex historical threads lies this one uncomfortable and incontrovertible fact. The ‘golden triangle’ of trade, which proliferated through the 18th and 19th centuries, saw human beings shipped from Africa to America where they were sold as slaves. Those slaves picked the cotton that was shipped back to the mills of Lancashire, England, where the technological developments that mechanised the production of cloth became the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. ‘Things have moved on since then!’ you may say, and you would, of course, be correct. The point remains, however, that the inequalities and the prejudices that continue to produce atrocities like the murder of George Floyd are deeply rooted in the fundamental structures of our society and are directly related to money. It was money that motivated men to enslave other human beings, to forcefully remove them from their homes, to strip them of their humanity, and to sell them as commodities. The transatlantic slave trade was a result of capitalism not racism. Racism was a result of slavery.
Let’s be absolutely clear, the slave trade did not emerge because of racism, racism emerged because of the slave trade. Racism stemmed from the post-rationalisation of the abhorrent act of treating another human being as something less than human. It was a way of thinking that alleviated guilt and allowed trade to flow. A pseudo-science, based on the theories of men like Samuel George Morton who claimed that ‘the Negro’ was ‘the lowest grade of humanity’. A belief system that allowed people to be spoken of like livestock. A belief system constructed to help turn people into products. A belief system that privileged profit and made money more valuable than a human life. Money devalued life by assigning it a price. The continuing cost of that transaction is racism.
It’s worth remembering here that the reason George Floyd was in police custody was for his alleged use of a counterfeit $20 note. The police officers that attended ‘Cup Foods’ on 25th May were not there to protect the public from any immediate threat; they were there to enforce laws that are specifically designed to protect property and prop-up a system that thrives on inequality. Laws that protect money. The document which details the charges brought against former officer Chauvin states that he had ‘his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total’ and that two minutes and fifty-three seconds of that time ‘was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive’. The document also states that ‘Police are trained that this type of restraint with a subject in a prone position is inherently dangerous’. Twenty dollars. The cost of a life?
Money’s Great Trick…
On 15th August 1971, roughly three months after the release of What’s Going On, President Richard Nixon announced that he was closing the US gold window; thus ending the US dollar’s convertibility to gold and effectively creating an international monetary system based on fiat money. Fiat, from the Latin for ‘let it be so’, is a system based on money that has no intrinsic value. So, as Nixon withdrew from the gold standard, money became a concrete abstraction. Concrete in as much as it exists and exerts its power within the world. Abstract as it has no value beyond the one we assign to it. Money is practically worthless. It has no value in and of itself. You can’t eat it. You can’t build a house out of it. You can’t wear it. But it enables us to meet those needs by offering itself in exchange; with it we can provide food, shelter, clothing and shoes. The idea of money is a good one, a universal system of exchange which, in theory, allows everyone to buy everything they need and anything they want. The vast majority of us, however, know that it doesn’t work like that, yet we remain ‘invested’ in the system. We are forced, by circumstance, to work for money and, in doing so, to work for Money, for the idea of it, for the promise of what it might bring. This is Money’s great trick. It convinces us that it will solve our problems while continuing to create them.
For most people money is hard to come by and, even when we have some, the goods and services it can buy are not spread evenly. Scarcity is produced. We overproduce, then destroy rather than distribute surplus stock. Or, we underproduce because rarity creates desire. But for some, for ‘others’, the goods and services simply aren’t available to begin with, because they do not cross the invisible ‘red lines’ of a system that needs poverty in order to thrive. ‘Redlining’ is the systemic and systematic denial of goods and services (which might include banking, insurance, healthcare, supermarkets, clothing stores, leisure facilities) to specific districts and communities. Poverty is produced. Why? Because we live in a system that is based on dissatisfaction. We live in a system where dissatisfaction is an ambient incentive, a constant in our lives that perpetually lures us toward the promise of something better to come (if, and only if, we can get enough money to pay for it). Poverty, like wealth, is inherited and if you are born black then you are also more likely to be born poor. This is not a coincidence. When black people were finally asked to sit at the table they were joining a game in which someone else already held all the cards and all the chips. Playing under those circumstances makes it virtually impossible to win a hand and, as we’ve seen time and time again, this is a game where the stakes are life and death.
Sharing the Burden of History
We live now between a cruel past and the promise of a future that never comes. Tomorrow is always another day, but we all drag our yesterdays with us. Black people still carry the burden of slavery, drag five hundred years of history through every day, a history that manifests in the everyday, in casual prejudices and subtle discriminations, and in the open racism, violence and brutality that still litters our society. I can’t begin to imagine how exhausting it must be to carry that weight, to live that every day, for that to be the everyday. I can imagine a world where this isn’t the everyday, where people are equal and treat each other with compassion and respect, and I know that in order to get there we have to start to share the burden. We have to recognise the weight of oppression that our history represents and we have to help to carry it. We have to deal afresh and play a new game. This requires recognition. It requires the difficult and uncomfortable acknowledgement that white people continue to benefit from the oppression of black people. That even those of us who weren’t born into the privilege of money have always had this advantage. That in a world where we are all slaves to Money, white lives are still routinely valued above black lives. It requires the realisation that it is only through this recognition that we can share the burden and the benefits that society has produced and begin to move forward. The alternative is more poverty, more debt, more discrimination, more death; the continued cheapening of human lives, the continuation of a system where a man can be killed by a police officer in broad daylight over the sum of $20: far less than the price of a slave in 1792. We have lived, for as long as any of us can remember, in a system that ruthlessly and systematically commodifies all aspects of social life. A system which sells us an idea of ourselves, of what we might be, what we might become, but which always withholds any meaningful change, which greedily clings to power and serves only itself. Recent events have again exposed the inherent contradictions upon which our society is based, the lies, the nepotism and corruption, the everyday inequalities. We have seen behind the curtain. There is no great wizard, only a little man with a megaphone, an old rich white man, whose angry incoherence and orchestrated confusion are designed to paralyse us with fear, to petrify, to set the way things are in stone, to keep people in their place. Now is the time for us all to count the cost of how we live and to think carefully about what we actually value. We can live differently. There is an alternative. We can create a better world. Fiat.