“Kanye West merely represents what happens when the Black misleadership class begins to reflect the crisis of the US system.”
In the neoliberal era of US capitalism, the Black celebrity has a definite role to play. Amid the plunder and poverty of most Black workers, Black celebrities over this period have represented the pinnacle of individual uplift and what it means for Black people to “make it” in America. White celebrities remain in the realm of entertainment and only participate in the governance of the system at a cursory level at best, mostly through donations to NGOs and other charitable ventures. Corporate executives and militarists would never allow a celebrity to run the show, which partly explains some of the opposition they have expressed toward Donald Trump. For Black America, however, celebrities have acted as the ordained spokespeople of the entire community, often at great expense to Black people in the aggregate.
The recent headlines regarding Kanye West are indicative of this trend. Anger at Kanye West has flooded social media and corporate media platforms alike after a confused Kanye voiced his support for Donald Trump and called slavery “a choice.” His records and products have been boycotted by once loyal fans. West’s comments came amid reports that the unemployment rate in the US is at an all time low. It appeared that the bad news about Kanye was at least supplemented with good news about the economy. Attention to Kanye West has only begun to subside while few have engaged with the reality behind the unemployment numbers, especially for Black people.
“Celebrities have acted as the ordained spokespeople of the entire community, often at great expense to Black people in the aggregate.”
The latent expectation that Kanye West serve as a spokesperson for Black America ensured that the unemployment rate received little criticism or even commentary outside of the corporate media. Corporate media reports spoke of how “curious” it was that wages have failed to keep up with the supposedly falling unemployment rate, which stands at 3.9 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate is in fact much higher, but the US imperial state’s measure of the statistic is inherently flawed. A Forbes Magazine analysiscredits the drop in the unemployment rate to the hundreds of thousands of workers who have given up looking for work. The labor participation rate stands at 63 percent, nearly four percent lower than before the 2007-2008 crash.
Workers are being permanently replaced by a high-tech capitalist economy that no longer requires their labor to speed up productivity (exploitation) and accumulate profit. This past May 5thwould have been Karl Marx’s 200thbirthday. His life’s work helps us understand exactly what is happening with unemployment and wages in the capitalist system. Marx called the unemployed a “reserve army” that allowed corporate bosses to keep wages down with the threat of replacement should workers become too rebellious or socially unnecessary. The larger this army grows, the more impoverished the working class generally becomes. US government measures of unemployment have inherently undercounted the unemployed, leaving little opportunity for the desperate masses to gain an understanding of their condition.
“Marx called the unemployed a ‘reserve army’ that allowed corporate bosses to keep wages down.”
US capitalism won’t count the unemployed properly because that would expose the disposability of a large section of the workforce. The most disposable section of the working class today resides in Black America. Even when the unemployment rate is supposedly falling, Black American unemployment remains double that of whites. Not counted in the unemployment rate are the one million Blacks behind bars or the fact that under Obama, over ninety percent of all jobs created were considered part-time or low-wage. We shouldn’t expect anything else under Trump. After all, the capitalist economy is not dictated by who sits in the Oval Office. It is the other way around.
Marx could not have predicted the rise of a Kanye West or the special condition of 21stcentury Black America. The celebrity of Kanye West has elevated his opinions on political matters to a status far beyond the average Black American. Yet Kanye represents only a tiny minority of a misleadership class that is special to US capitalist development. The Black misleadership class is the US’ own version of the “comprador” class produced by the advent of neo-colonialism in Africa or Latin America, except with one important exception. Other colonial powers throughout history required a “mulatto” or “buffer class” class much earlier than the US did to ensure the survival of colonialism. US capitalism kept its own system of colonialism a majority white owned system. Black capitalism thus remained a non-factor in the development of so-called “freedom” and “democracy” on the US mainland.
“The Black misleadership class is the US’ own version of the ‘comprador’ class produced by the advent of neo-colonialism in Africa or Latin America.”
The Black misleadership class in the US has always been relatively poor in material terms, making it politically even more bankrupt than the national bourgeoisie in other colonial contexts. It cannot and will not strive for any sort of “Black independence” because it is completely dependent on white capital for its survival as a class. Kanye West merely represents what happens when this class begins to reflect the crisis of the US system. This doesn’t make what West said right. His comments about slavery and Trump are a disservice to Black people and oppressed people everywhere regardless of how confused they may be. But the Black misleadership class has done far worse than Kanye’s comments and gotten away with all of it.
Obama’s political career was never threatened for bombing the African country of Libya into oblivion. Nor was he scorned for helping facilitate Black America’s path to zero wealthfollowing the 2007-2008 economic crisis. Corey Booker has never received as much hostility as Kanye West for selling Black schools to the highest corporate bidder in New Jersey. The Congressional Black Caucus been safe from criticism despite voting to preserve the 1033 programthat sends billions of dollars of military weaponry to police departments across the country, the same police departments that murder Black Americans at a near daily rate. Kanye West has received more attention from the corporate media for his political commentary over the course of a few weeks than any of these issues have received in ten years’ time.
“West’s comments about slavery and Trump are a disservice to Black people and oppressed people everywhere.”
Black celebrities play a definitive role in this period of US capitalist stagnation and crisis. Their presence is meant to give off the allure that upward mobility is indeed possible in a society built upon the downward mobility, enslavement, and elimination of Black labor. Bill Cosby, as Glen Ford put it, was one of the first Black celebrities to serve another function of the Black celebrity: social discipline and control. Cosby preached a form of anti-Black vitriol that justified the punishment of Blacks by all aspects of the racist and capitalist American system. Kanye has caught the Cosby syndrome, blaming Blacks for choosing slavery just as Cosby blamed Blacks for being murdered by the police or for being unemployed because their names were not “respectable” (i.e. white).
But Kanye and Cosby are products of two different generations. Cosby is the product of the counterinsurgency war against the Black community begun in the 1960s while Kanye is the product of what happens when that counterinsurgency war begins to falter. Kanye cannot preach respectability like Cosby could because the capitalist system offers even fewer prospects or opportunities for upward mobility. However, the Black poor and the working class is without political direction or organization. And the stranglehold of Black political leaders in the Democratic Party establishment over the Black polity is even more suffocating than it was in the 1960s.
“As anti-freedom fighters, Black celebrities are stealth political operatives of the ruling class.”
Black celebrities only tighten the grip through their dedication to the US imperial power structure. Gone are the days of Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Lorraine Hansberry. These Black celebrities were freedom fighters who refused to ignore the plight of the Black condition and its relationship to the global system of US imperialism. To paraphrase Donald Glover, they realized that “This is America.” Kanye West’s seemingly disparate cry for attention is really a rupture in the historic role of the Black celebrity in neo-liberal America. As anti-freedom fighters, Black celebrities are stealth political operatives of the ruling class whose sole purpose is to conduct an ideological assault on the Black poor. Kanye’s outburst lifted the veil.
So what does Kanye West have to do with the unemployment rate? Both are manifestations of a system built upon lies. A system of imperialism that is in decay. However, this system will not cease to exist on its own. We must be willing to risk our lives for our liberation while daring to live long enough to ensure that a vision for a new society is born from our efforts.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and journalist in the New York City area. He is currently writing a book with Roberto Sirvent entitled American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: Essays on Race, Empire, and Historical Memory. He can be reached at [email protected]