PM Press Blog, Review

Thinking Was for Later; Movement Was for Now: On the Vortex Group’s “George Floyd Uprising”

By Jamie Peck
Los Angeles Review of Books

IN THE FINAL shots of Jordan Peele’s horror film Us (2019), a cavalcade of ghouls join hands across a burning landscape in a gesture inspired by the Reagan-era charity stunt Hands Across America. This scene comes as the denouement of a story in which a mistreated underclass created by a shadowy “them” escapes the underworld to take revenge on their unwitting upper-world doppelgängers. As we find out from the film’s final big twist, there’s no difference between us and them, at least not at birth: the same child can become a well-to-do college graduate or a zombie-like monster. After a lifetime of underground torment, the shadow people lack the capacity for anything but violence. Once they’ve done away with the upper-world doubles, they become primitive imitations of them. One does not get the sense that the ghouls are going to build a new world to replace the one they’ve destroyed. Their revolution spells the end of civilization.

This apocalyptic vision mirrors the way many Americans think about proletarian insurrection. The liberal bourgeoisie—to which Jordan Peele belongs—may be able to check their privilege, and they may understand the racial violence and class exploitation that undergird the American project, rotting it from the inside, but when it comes to remedies, all they have to offer are platitudes like “we need to fight for the less fortunate,” something Peele told The A.V. Club in a 2019 interview about the film. The idea of the less fortunate rising up and fighting for themselves is literally the stuff of horror. And horror with no possible imaginary or ending.

That the real-life underclass of the United States might actually possess the capability to, in fighting for themselves, create a better world is the wager of The George Floyd Uprising, a new anthology of reportage and analysis edited by the Vortex Group, “an anonymous collective of writers who desire an end to this world and the beginning of a new one.” Yes, this is actually their comically vague back-of-book editor bio. To get a little more specific, it’s not just any new world the book’s editors and authors want, but a communist one: a stateless, classless society in which the global market economy has been replaced by a system of voluntary labor wherein people produce and distribute goods based around human needs and wants. The lessons of past revolutions are sometimes drawn upon, but all of the anthology’s contributors assume the “state socialism” of the USSR and China is an exhausted dead end. What that leaves them with is the not-yet-exhausted hope that those living on the bottom of capitalism’s hierarchy might take back the world directly, going straight from capitalism to communism in one simultaneously creative and destructive process that transforms everyone involved, enabling them to evolve new tactics, pull in more layers of the proletariat, and clarify their political horizon as they go. An uneven process that may very well have already begun, given the recent worldwide uptick in civil unrest.

All the essays deal with the ways in which the nationwide explosion touched off by the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin advanced us towards this version of communism, what limitations participants came up against, what a small but steadily increasing group of pro-revolutionary partisans can learn, and what—if anything—the role of those partisans should be. I count myself among these partisans, making the authors my comrades.

Thinkers like Gilles Dauvé call this process “communization” and the work of thinking through it “communization theory.” Both the Marxist and Appeliste or Tiqqunist—nicknames in reference to their early manifesto, L’appel or Call, and the related, now-defunct journal Tiqqun, which are rarely used as self-identification as they claim to be beyond political ideology—branches of communization theory are represented, and sometimes even combined in the same chapter. Tiqqunism experienced the height of its cultural exposure in 2010 when Glenn Beck got his hands on the adjacent French collective the Invisible Committee’s incendiary 2007 text The Coming Insurrection, which hypothesizes the “imminent collapse” of the capitalist system and makes recommendations for how to fight a revolution under these conditions. For Beck, this text was the perfect bogeyman to thrill and chill his conservative audience: “This is quite possibly the most evil thing I’ve ever read… it’s important that you read this book.” His free publicity made it a surprise bestseller. It feels odd to have such a young and obscure school of thought placed on equal footing with Marxism, but I tried to read them with an open mind—at least when they weren’t indulging in postmodern nonsense.

The other branch of thought, Marxism, would be well represented by academics Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti. In their co-written chapter, “Prelude to a Hot American Summer,” Shanahan and Kurti summarize capitalism’s omni-crisis, linking together police violence, the COVID-19 pandemic, and worsening poverty. “Is it any wonder,” they ask, “that the horrific sight of a man slowly choked to death while pleading for his life has found such widespread resonance?” They note that “[n]ot even the most liberal cities have been able to control their police,” before launching into an analysis of both the reformist and revolutionary potential of the demand to “defund the police,” demonstrating that the book’s fundamental topic is not why capitalism must be overcome, but how it might be. For a rigorous, materialist examination of the American carceral state and the abolitionist movement, check out Shanahan and Kurti’s States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform, and America’s Punishment System and Jason E. Smith’s review of it for LARB.

The book is divided into two sections that consist mainly of analysis and opinion, and one that consists of journalistic “report backs,” although both elements are present throughout. The writers are less concerned with the so-called peaceful protests, unless they enabled some type of escalation, than with the lootings, occupations, and attacks on police infrastructure that constituted the non-movement’s militant high water mark and which the authors regard as a genuine insurrection. Unlike liberals and even most socialists, who view riots set off by racist violence as tragic outbursts when they dare to acknowledge them at all, this book takes those actions seriously as the means by which proletarians are finding their way towards a rational, empowering, and even, at times, joyful response to racism and capitalism. “Riots abolish capitalist social relations, which allows for new relations between people and the things that make up their world,” notes the anonymous author(s) of the first of two chapters on Minneapolis. With the potential exception of themselves—the authors have no named organization, but evince a level of familiarity that implies a loose, nationwide network—they’re not talking about the organized Left but the crowds of unaffiliated people that engaged in seemingly spontaneous action and on-the-fly decision-making. When groups like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) are mentioned, it’s to show how these organizations failed to productively relate to the activity in the streets … or even, in some hard-to-argue-against accounts, acted as a counterinsurgent force.

As the authors point out, these events were initiated by Black proletarians in response to George Floyd’s murder, but they were soon joined by historically unprecedented numbers of whites and non-Black people of color who participated for “adjacent or overlapping […] reasons,” and much of the book is concerned with this generalization—specifically, with how such a rebellion could transform into a social revolution. This is where things get potentially controversial. In expanding their focus from racist police violence to capitalism writ large and the Black proletariat to the class as a whole—are the majority non-Black authors failing to “center” the Black experience? And if they are, is that a bad thing?

Different authors deal with this question in different ways. Some of the authors argue that overthrowing capitalism is the only way to end what multiple contributors refer to as the United States’ “racial nightmare.” In one part of his impossible-to-summarize collection of theses “How It Might Should Be Done” —written, like Lenin’s “The State and Revolution,” in the heat of battle —philosophy PhD candidate, and the book’s sole credited Black author, Idris Robinson draws a line from our current regime of private property to the fact that, for most of its history, “the most important property in America was human property,” i.e., slaves. Therefore, he says, “[w]e need to weaponize this argument and say that whenever property is protected, it is protected for white supremacist ends.” The only way to ensure Black liberty is to destroy the system of private property. Given that he attacks “identity politics, intersectionality, and social privilege discourse” in another one of his theses, this weaponization might be viewed as cynical … until you synthesize his many points and realize that he believes the only way to end racism is to abolish race itself along with private property in the course of a “terrible” insurrection. He credits the multiracial rebellion, in which racial divisions seemed to recede for a brief moment, with showing us glimpses of what that might look like. He has nothing but disdain for anyone who sought to reinstate these divisions, like the “‘woke’ Twitter activists” who disapproved of Rayshard Brooks’s white girlfriend Natalie White’s participation in the rebellion so much that they implicated her in the burning down of the Wendy’s where Brooks was killed, leading to her arrest. Or those shouting “White people to the front!” (or side, or back, or wherever) at various marches. In Robinson’s eyes, anyone discouraging anyone else from the maximum level of militant engagement has blood on their hands. (Apologies if I got any of this wrong … this chapter reads as the unfiltered thoughts of an Agamben-pilled mad genius.)

Contributors Arturo and Shemon, each credited as a “writer and researcher,” take a pragmatic approach to the role of the white proletariat in their clearly articulated—if at times spottily argued—polemic, “The Return of John Brown: White Race Traitors in the 2020 Uprising.” Drawing on the Black radical tradition—thinkers cited include Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson, Sylvia Wynter, and C. L. R. James—they argue that, while there are plenty of historical reasons to distrust them, whites remain so demographically dominant in the US proletariat that any successful revolution would need to be joined by a substantial number of white proletarians who, in becoming “race traitors,” trade the ever-dwindling—at least in absolute material terms—“wages of whiteness” for an alliance that helps the working class as a whole defeat its enemies. Their standards for race traitorship are high; you don’t qualify unless you, like John Brown, are willing to instigate, fight, and die in a literal war of liberation. For now, that means “fight the police, burn cop cars, burn police stations, burn courthouses, and commit [your] bodies to the uprising” like the aforementioned Natalie White, or Michael Reinoehl, who was extrajudicially executed in Washington, after shooting and killing a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon. Drawing the line from these acts to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry that helped start the Civil War, they say in language echoing the Communist Manifesto that the uprising raised the “specter” of civil war. A specter is not something most would bet on, but they are nonetheless confident enough to jump from there to the question, “How do we turn this civil war into a revolutionary war that abolishes whiteness, empire, capitalism, and patriarchy?” They admit that this will require “strategy, organization, tactics and politics that most of the US left is unprepared for.” What any of those might be, they do not say, except to point out that the white proletariat learns through crisis, of which we are in no short supply. In a clear allusion to the late Mike Davis, who blessed the book with a blurb, they conclude: “We welcome the proletarian monster.”

If that leaves you wondering how we are going to do all that, some chapters attempt to shed light on this question, while others only serve to … let’s say, complicate it. In addition to victories like the one over Minneapolis’s Third Precinct that accomplished more in a day than the clunky legislative processes could have in years, Shanahan and Kurti find hope in the mutual aid networks that sprang up in the form of street medic teams and redistribution of expropriated goods. Following that, they note that the struggle needs to penetrate the realm of production if an event like the George Floyd uprising is ever going to be able to sustain itself long enough to turn into an actual revolution. This adds a bit of long-term strategy to a book that, at times, can feel more excited about heroic street battles than the equally important feminine-coded work of social reproduction. To be fair, other authors’ failures to seriously take up this question does not mean that they, like the monsters of Us, are only interested in destruction. Rather, they believe the rioters are onto something and trust them to figure out new ways of sustaining life along the way, a difficult prospect for the planners among us to swallow. It’s also possible that these questions are simply outside the scope of this book, and they’ll save their ideas on how to keep everyone fed once the stores have been emptied for another group writing project. (I suggest Angry Workers’ “Insurrection and Production” as a jumping-off point for anyone interested in following that thread.)

On the question of organization, some authors acknowledge the need to create networks by which militants might coordinate—both between those weeks where decades happen, and during them. “Welcome to the Party,” a rigorously reported chapter on the riots in New York authored by “some pro-revolutionaries in Brooklyn,” concludes that “revolutionaries should try to make and keep contact with those George Floyd insurgents who trashed Manhattan for three nights straight, while resisting a cross-class alliance with professional activists.” I can’t help but wonder, Did they get anyone’s numbers? Others, like the anonymous author(s) of “The Siege of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis: An Account and Analysis,” view any kind of preexisting organized group, with their instantly obsolete plans, sluggish decision-making processes, and inevitable desire for control, as a check on the superior wisdom of ad hoc groupings. While they make a decent case for the ways spontaneity helped a particular crowd defeat an infamous police precinct in Minneapolis—a battle they analyze in tantalizing detail—much of it relied on various actors combining their efforts in just the right way at just the right time via spur-of-the-moment decision-making. That protestors failed to achieve a similar victory anywhere else in the country does not make me feel like we can count on the spontaneous organization that defeated Minneapolis’s Third Precinct as revolution’s primary executor. The anonymous author of the Atlanta chapters describes the historic role of the party in positive terms, but seems to take it as a foregone conclusion that, since no such thing exists now, it’s time to move on from that idea. Adrian Wohlleben, “a writer and researcher living in the Midwest,” takes it in a slightly different direction in his punishingly long and at times tough-to-parse chapter, “Memes Without End,” claiming that “[t]he party is not its ends but its gestures,” and the task of insurgents is to anonymously introduce actions that are devoid of political content (why?) and hope they spread across unorganized populations in ways that snowball into communist results. The step between the rise of a meme (i.e., a new looting tactic, a subway fare evasion game) and “mass experiments in communist sharing” takes the form of yet another specter. While spontaneous activity indeed has a role to play, as Rosa Luxemburg argued 117 years ago, and communists should marshal as many comrades-in-waiting as possible, this all feels a bit like the boy from The Matrix telling Neo to bend the spoon with his mind by thinking, “There is no spoon.”

Does it even count as a spontaneous gesture if the memes have been intentionally produced with a specific end in mind? Will it ever be time for everyone to get together and talk about the world we want and how to get it, or are the members of this gesture-party the only ones who can do that? Why do the communists need to be anonymous? Are we scared that no one likes us? I’m also not ready to walk away from the idea that organization and political education can be powerful weapons in the hands of the masses. Millions more people joining together to study and strategize communism would not necessarily guarantee victory, but I’m not convinced it would hurt.

At times, the book’s authors verge on ventriloquizing participants in the uprising as already being revolutionaries. (Or maybe I should say “fellow participants,” since the book’s introduction states that all of its contributors fought in the uprising.) At other times, the authors gloss over participants’ conscious motivations and jump straight to sifting through their actions for crumbs of communist potential. This may be the inevitable outcome of an anonymous ad hoc group of academics and amateur theory nerds (who don’t run in the same social circles as most of the rioters) trying to make sense of the rebellion as a broad historical event and see how it might map onto their goal—which, to be fair, is to save humanity. Regardless, the book would be stronger if its authors had talked to more participants about how they conceived of their own actions, or at least read their posts on social media. This is either balanced out or made worse, depending how you look at it, by the authors’ clear-eyed accounting of not only what these crowds of people got right in service of a goal they probably don’t have, but also what they got wrong. In chapters on Kenosha, Louisville, and Atlanta, for instance, the authors analyze how protestors’ possession of firearms impacted various situations and conclude that guns are a tactical dead end, with Robinson as the sole dissenter in his moving chapter “Letter to Michael Reinoehl.” (Sidenote: The only reportage in this book that shocked me was just how many people on the anti–white supremacy side of things were waving guns around in certain cities.) I’m persuaded by most of the authors’ arguments that guns limited the scope of participation possible for Black and non-Black people alike, but their troubleshooting of certain Black proletarians’ actions will inevitably be distasteful to some. Then again, if the outward appearance of historical events always aligned with their true essence, we wouldn’t need Marx or the Invisible Committee, or any of the contributors of this book.

The book’s potential to communicate with anyone outside this small milieu of theory heads is wildly uneven. Some essays I had to read multiple times, and I know more about this communism stuff than most people. Even the contributor bios can be exhausting: “Inhabit is a collectively and anonymously written strategy emerging from a network of autonomous projects across North America.” Excuse me?

But where the book is legible, it’s really legible. The firsthand accounts have as many gripping moments as any bestselling thriller. In the chapter “In the Eye of the Storm: A Report from Kenosha,” some self-described “revolutionaries living in the Midwest” tell the story of trying to escape the Kenosha downtown area during the chaos unleashed by a teen vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, shooting three protestors with an AR-15:

We didn’t have that far to go, but the echoes of gunshots ringing from who knows where made every space of open terrain feel like unwelcomed exposure. After crossing an empty lot, we hid behind the side of a car only to see a lone white man driver spot us, pull his car around, and stop right by the car we were hiding behind. To our left an armed Black man was walking toward us with a determined gait. We kept moving. We didn’t feel any kind of fight or flight response—we felt present, alert. Thinking was for later; movement was for now.
And maybe that’s what this whole book is about: the drive to achieve a kind of flow state where what we normally think of as “thinking” is replaced by a present and embodied kind of on-the-fly thought-action. Like an athlete training for the big game, we can do things to prepare, but a lot of it will necessarily be left up to the moment itself. Between battles is when we can analyze what went right, what went wrong, and how to take it even further next time.

The George Floyd Uprising gives the reader hope that the events of 2020 cracked open the door to a new world, however uncertain our arrival to that world may be. What it lacks in actionable plans—some of which would be unwise to speak about publicly anyway—it makes up for in reportage and vision. When one of the authors writing about Minneapolis describes through numerous vignettes the comradely way people behaved during the riots, helping each other evade the police and turning looted goods into gifts to be freely shared, you really can imagine the commune taking shape. Even the parts I disagreed with beckoned me to tease out why I harbored that disagreement, and motivated me to become a better participant in the real movement they envision, that which is devoted to the destruction of this world and, contra Peele and liberalism, the creation of a new one. Unless you think humanity should stay on its current trajectory, dismiss these conversations at your peril.