Debunking an illusion inhibiting the Black Struggle: A review of Jared Ball’s new book

Introduction

In the wake of the most recent rebellions against racism and police terror, there were widespread calls to “support Black businesses.” These calls were another reiteration of what Jared Ball demystifies in his latest book: The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power. The myth is one of the most pervasive and hegemonic conceptions that inhibits the Black liberation struggle: that  Black America’s buying power is estimated at $1.2 trillion dollars, which is an “untapped power” that is an “underutilized” vehicle for collective Black freedom; the obstacle is that Black people lack financial literacy and don’t support their own communities.

These are deeply ingrained in many of us. Personally, for most of my life, I believed that through spending money, through the act of consumption, that I was engaging in a liberating, emancipatory event, acting on behalf of Black people’s collective interests. As Ball makes clear, however:

“consumerism, spending habits, good or bad, do not determine collective wealth or economic strength. No community becomes rich, not can one become poor, as a result of their spending” [1]

The myth of “buying power” functions as propaganda to deny the reality of structural, intentional, and necessary inequality of capitalism to maintain society as it is, one that benefits an increasingly decreasing number of people. To do this, it functions to falsely blame the poor for being poor. Black poverty is presented as “the result of the poor having little to no ‘financial literacy,’” and emanating “from their bad spending habits, when, in reality, poverty is an intended result of an economic and social system” [2].

A mythology that becomes a reality

In an early critique of Hegel, Karl Marx wrote that a theory “also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses” [3]. Ideas aren’t separate from us but shape our thinking and understanding of the world around us once it becomes hegemonic. The myth of Black buying power is a material force that we need to dispel by having it “grip” the masses. To do that, we need a sober and objective analysis of the socio-conomic conditions of Black people, the purveyors of the propaganda like the Black commercial press, Black elites, and even white elites and their media outlets.

In my own life, the idea stopped me from questioning the capitalist system, holding back my ability to see the real causes and join the struggle for socialism to address those real causes. This is the political and educational value of Ball’s book: to debunk this myth, the propaganda that reproduces it, and the system that benefits from it. By doing so, we can realize what the real path to Black liberation looks like.

My family comes from Jamaica, the country that raised up and produced the Honorable Marcus Garvey, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, which led a mass Pan-Africanst movement for international Black liberation from European and American capitalist imperialism. One tenet of Garvey’s philosophy was to support Black collective economics through the creation of Black businesses and institutions that would ultimately be able to build a nation, a new nation for the children of the African Diaspora–in Africa.

In the streets of Brooklyn, I grew up hearing from various political perspectives within the Black community, including the false perspective Ball articulates in his book: that Black people have some “$1+ trillion dollars that we misuse ” by spending it “on hair, cars and weed” when “we could make our dollar circulate like ‘they’ do and be far better off!” [4].

In my own political development, this myth held sway over my perspectives. I thumbed through Amos Wilson’s book, Blueprint for Black power: A moral, political, and economic imperative for the twenty-first century in my adolescence and believed the propaganda coming from the likes of the Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z [5]. It was my social soil.

When I was a student at Howard University, Trayvon Martin was murdered, and his killer George Zimmerman was set to walk free. Black people of all ages, but especially the youth, rose up in righteous outrage all over the country. Black national consciousness was on display, yet again, as all classes of Black people expressed outrage at his murder and the lack of justice for his family. In all of my classes and in the political spaces outside the classroom, young Black people discussed solutions to Black oppression. Some thought we should “decolonize Howard” and galvanize students to reject the pro-business policies of the administration. Others thought we would be better off organizing off campus in the Black working-class communities Howard is enmeshed in. There were even some who were interested in studying Black radical history to piece together some understanding of what has been done, so we wouldn’t repeat the past mistakes of Black activists. 

Despite all these various orientations and from different political tendencies, a consensus emerged at Howard that we as Black people have $1+ trillion dollars that, if properly used, could provide the necessary economic muscle that would advance our struggle for liberation. Economics, frugality, financial literacy and success, all distilled down to the act of consuming products that are marked by Black brands or to the Black community. This mere act of consumption would be our means of collective liberation. It was unanimous that we should all be “conscious consumers” and “do our part” to “build the Black nation” by supporting Black businesses which would play a vanguard role in liberating us from racist oppression.

It was the summer of 2014 when the rebellion that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in response to the murder of 18-year old Michael Brown by killer Cop Darren Wilson. Many young Black people burst onto the scene and Black national political consciousness entered a new stage. Again, I saw the propaganda of Black buying power emerge. The social movement that emerged from this came to be the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Movement for Black Lives. These various groupings generated excitement and attention around the politics of Black liberation in the 21st century.

Two years prior, I had broken through the myth and began identifying as a socialist. Yet it wasn’t until 2014 that I saw the need to join an organized socialist party fighting for national liberation, self-determination, and multinational unity at the same time.

The forces propagating the Black buying power myth are powerful. In order to make our theory–Marxist theory–a material force, we need an organization.

Even the living examples of the heroic struggles of the 1960s-70s went through their own period of political growth. As Assata Shakur writes in her autobiography,

“I wasn’t against communism, but i can’t say i was for it either. At first, i viewed it suspiciously, as some kind of white man’s concoction, until i read works by African revolutionaries and studied the African liberation movements. Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonialists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists. There was not a single liberation movement in Africa that was not fighting for socialism.” [6]

Later, she realized that “there were Black oppressors as well as white ones,” and that “as far as I was concerned, it didn’t take too many brains to figure out that Black people are oppressed because of class as well as race because we are poor and because we are Black” [7].

Dr. Ball’s book is incredibly timely as we are in the midst of a massive rebellion spearheaded by the politics of Black Liberation. It’s a book that can help all oppressed and working-class people make the transition that Assata and I did.

Young Black activists, many of whom are new to mass political struggle confront the question: which way forward to liberation? Is the path to Black liberation “banking and buying Black?” As a public school educator, I was offered educational services for my 5th grade students, most of them from working-class Black and Latino communities and families. The massive rebellion against racism in the summer of 2020 created an environment for radicalization as well as absorption by capital. Corporations saw it as an economically smart move to shift massive advertising dollars towards Black consumers, so as to better “capture the Black market.” This has led to much political and ideological confusion about how Black people can actually achieve collective liberation in this country. It was therefore also a political response to reinforce capitalist ideology. It’s one, again, that’s easily disproved: how is it that, for instance in Boston, where the median Black family wealth is just a grand total of $8 dollars, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, that Black people simultaneously are able to have  “immense” even “untapped power” financially? 

Class and national liberation

The U.S. ruling class is not one monolith. There are segments, entire wings even, that are supportive of a liberal policies and attitudes towards Black oppression on the belief that deeper inclusion of Black Americans into the nation bolsters the U.S.’s international image as a multiracial democracy and not the prison house of nations that it truly is. Additionally, the illusion of inclusion, the use of more diverse and representative politicians serves to present the false idea that individual success of a politician from an oppressed identity represents collective advancement for the oppressed.

The “middle class” plays a class functionary role for the white monopoly bourgeoisie. They “deliver” the “Black market” to white corporations by showing the benefits of investing in advertising targeted at Black consumers. It’s even presented as the way for white people to contribute to Black liberation: watch the “Black Lives Matter” channel on Hulu, support Black businesses, and so on.

Given the ideological hegemony the white monopoly capitalist ruling class holds over the means of production, and thus ideological production, the struggle for correct ideas towards liberation becomes an even more crucial issue as the struggle against oppression that intensifies with every passing day. It is for this reason that The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power is such a gift to the movement today.

One way they work is to reduce our leaders and movements and histories to symbols and representations, depriving them of their political vision. For example, how many people wear Black power symbols and Assata Shakur t-shirts, praise the Black Panther Party, chant radical slogans but don’t actually know what they believed in and struggled for: communism.

Ball’s work provides a cogent political analysis that dispels the myth at its roots, and confronts the propaganda, recognizing both as ideological weapons in a class war on Black people. By framing popular Black figures such as Jay-Z and Beyonce not just as preeminent stalwarts of Black capitalism, but within a historical continuum of Black politics, wherein the tendency has been counter-revolution and not revolution after the destruction of the Left in the 1970s. We often think of state repression as violence, but the ideological part of the war on Black America was strategic support of Black capitalism.

Figures like Jay-Z and Beyonce, Ball writes, are “like most commercial artists and art, reflects a racial and class politics often masked by talent and performance” [8]. The class politics of the Black bourgeoisie are to deliver the Black consumer “market” to the white monopoly capitalist class who own the vast majority, if not all of the means of production, distribution, and communication. Within the Black Liberation movement, tendencies towards socialism/communism Pan-Africanism, and revolutionary nationalism were violently suppressed and our leaders have been subject to outright murder. Within this, there were ideological gaps and politics abhors a void – so the myth enters our political discourse on strategies for Black liberation. The purpose of Ball’s text is to expose this myth and provide some of the political and ideological clarity needed to wage a fight for liberation that is scientific in it’s understanding of the enemy: capitalism, in any appearance.

Cooptation and collaboration: multiracial ruling-class unity

In any struggle for liberation, a clear understanding of the enemy is crucial for victory. In the United States, the struggle for Black liberation has faced all kinds of violence, subterfuge, and generalized repression. Radical and especially Marxist or Marxist-adjacent Black organizations were targeted: their leaders assassinated, imprisoned, and their membership divided through infiltration and subterfuge.

But capitalism and white supremacy can’t operate through repression alone. One of the most crucial ways that the ruling class maintains our oppressive conditions is ideological domination, which is carried out by diverse methods of propaganda and by Black leaders, celebrities and even political groupings. Capitalism maintains itself through nourishing the social and cultural institutions that transmit these myths.

What better way to maintain an oppressive system than to brand and package consumption of goods and services, suggesting that Black people spend all of their discretionary money on them as a form of “power.”

Ball’s book begins with a critique of multimillionaire rapper Jay-Z’s “Story of  OJ” video for the ways in which it uses politically laden historical symbols, anti-Black iconography, and the politics of Black uplift to propagandize the myth that Black Americans can overcome their oppression through changes to their individual choices and practice better financial literacy.

The danger that Ball presents is in the figure of a Jay-Z or a Beyonce,  who are “among today’s biggest proponents of Black capitalism couched often in the aesthetics or language of Black power” [9]. In fact, Jay-Z is simply reifying racist tropes about Black Americans and blaming 42 million victims of American capitalism because of the bad habits and unintelligence of Black people. 

The white monopoly capitalist media and elements of the state promote Black capitalism, Black “buying power,” and other capitalist ideas onto the masses of Black people. “Buying Power” is a marketing phrase that refers only to the “power” of consumers to purchase what are strictly available goods and, as their own report admits, has nothing to do with income or wealth.

“Power” in this case, Ball writes, “has nothing to do with actual economic strength” [10]. Moreover, “Black people do not have enough to deposit, wealth to offer as collateral, nor the ability to circumvent persistent White supremacist devaluations of Black housing, land, or business to generate the kinds of banking (economic) strength to serve the needs of a Black community” [11].

As with “meritocracy,” the myth blames the poor for being poor. As Ball formulates it, “what ultimately results from such claims are attitudes that Black people remain unequal as a result of their own poor decision-making” [12].

One theme that Ball develops is that the promotion of Black capitalism and its attendant political concepts of frugality, Black banking, financial literacy, and the American exceptionalist notion that America is a “land of opportunity” for those who wish to seize it through hard work. Ironically, Black Americans, whose collective hard work and slave labor that built the economic and financial edifice that modern U.S. imperialism rests on, are chided and derided as being particularly incompetent and incapable of actualizing what is the “American dream” of upward class mobility through individual gumption, savings, and hard work.

The Cold War within & State Repression

The social context of when the myth and propaganda experienced a revival in the wake of the radical social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s is important to understanding the political factors that shaped the way in which the myth was promulgated and propagandized. As a part of Richard Nixon’s ultra-right wing “Southern strategy” to appeal to white reactionary elements in the Southern states–which held more political sway in Washington because of the anti-democratic and anti-Black designs of the U.S. federal system–he promoted Black capitalism as a way to fill the political and ideological void left in the Black community from the decades of sustained war against Black radical formations such as the Black Panther Party. Black capitalism was part and parcel of the strategy to “secure the support of white Southerners and to oppose meaningful economic reforms proposed by Black activists” [13]:

“Nixon’s desire for ‘containment potential domestic Black radicalism’ was,” according to Ball, “simply his adherence to existing national policy. It was his internal Cold War.” This “containment” was accomplished from several angles. “Leftist elements representing socialism and pan-Africanism, radical internationalism, and nationalism, even those promoting more mainstream liberal or progressive integration, were supplanted or simply run over by the promotion of  more  conservative  alternatives” [14].

In The German Ideology, written by Marx and Engels during 1845-1846 but unpublished until 1932, state what remains an essential conception of historical materialism, writing that:

“the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch  the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force…the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance” [15].

Black buying power is a powerful example of the dominant ideas of the ruling class prevailing throughout society, but also illustrates the complexity of these dominant ideas, the different forms they take for different groups, and their power to shape our thinking and conceptions of the world and social change.

Clearing the distortions to make way for real Black liberation

During the 2016 presidential election, as mainstream media and popular Black media outlets worked to demonize Russia and discredit the historic ties between Black liberation in the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Peta Lindsay critiques and deconstructs one particular argument that “that Blacks who supported socialism did so because they were duped, and that the Soviet Union was only interested in Black liberation insofar as it meant spiting their enemies in the White House” [16].

Lindsay carefully discredits this, demonstrating that there were real reasons why Black people in the U.S. traveled to and looked to the Soviet Union for guidance, even joining the Communist Party of the USA. Consider these words from Paul Robeson Speaks, where he writes that “Mankind has never witnessed the equal of the Constitution of the U.S.S.R.” Robeson cites several reasons, including legislation, specifically Article 123 of the 10th chapter of the Constitution, which stated that: “The equality of the right of the citizens of the U.S.S.R. irrespective of their nationality or race, in all fields of economic, state, cultural, social, and political life, is an irrevocable law. Any direct or indirect restriction of these rights, or conversely the establishment of direct or indirect privileges for citizens on account of the race or nationality to which they belong, as well as the propagation of racial or national exceptionalism, or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law” [17].

Harry Haywood, who joined the CPUSA in 1925 after leaving the African Black Brotherhood, is another example of the reasons the Black liberation struggle is the socialist struggle, and thus why many looked–and continue to look–towards countries developing socialism. 

In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik, Haywood says he only encountered one instance of racist hostility in the Soviet Union. While on a streetcar one evening to visit a friend, a drunken passenger stepped aboard and said “something ‘about Black devils in our country’” [18]. He writes:

A group of outraged Russian passengers thereupon seized him and ordered the motorman to stop the car. It was a citizen’s arrest, the first I had ever witnessed. ‘How dare you, you scum, insult people who are the guests of our country!’… What then occurred was an impromptu, on-the-spot meeting, where they debated what to do with the man. I was to see many of this kind of “meeting” during my stay in Russia” [19].

Some passengers wanted to excuse the passenger’s behavior blaming it on his drinking. Ultimately, however, it was decided that they would take him to the militia station to press charges. The motorman proceeded to drive everyone to the station, where the commandant said “We’ll keep him overnight. Perhaps this will be a lesson to him” [20].

No wonder that the link between the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. and the worldwide communist movement was authentic and mutually supporting. Imagine what would have happened to a racist killer cop there!

The only path to Black liberation in the U.S. is the path of socialism, of building the struggle to abolish classes and to fully liberate Black people by the force of an organization of the multi-national working class advocating fiercely for their right to self-determination. This is a struggle for power and control over the economy, society, and the state. Such a struggle is not only incompatible with the myth of “Black buying power,” but in direct opposition to it. Ball gives us some key tools to fight that struggle. To do that, however, we have to fight to make the oppressed the ruling class, to make revolutionary Marxist theory grip the masses, becoming a material force.

References

[1] Ball, Jared. (2020). The myth and propaganda of Black buying power (New York: Palgrave Pivots), p. 6.
[2] Ibid, p. 7.
[3] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. (1967). Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society (New York: Doubleday & Co.), p. 257.
[4] Ball, The myth of Black buying power, p. 7.
[5] Wilson, Amos M. (1998). Blueprint for Black power: A moral, political, and economic imperative for the twenty-first century (New York: Afrikan World InfoSystems).
[6] Shakur, Assata. (2001). Assata: An autobiography (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books), p. 190.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ball, The myth and propaganda of Black buying power, p. 6.
[9] Ibid., p. 3.
[10] Ibid., p. 7
[11] Ibid., p. 93.
[12] Ibid., p. 73.
[13] Ibid., p. 43.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. (1998) The German ideology (Amherst: Prometheus Books), p. 67.
[16] Peta, Lindsay. (2017). “Black Bolsheviks and white lies.” Liberation School, Oct. 5.
[17] Robeson, Paul. (1978). Paul Robeson speaks: Writings, speeches, interviews 1918-1974, ed. by P.S. Foner (New York: Citadel), p. 116.
[18] Haywood, Harry. (1978). Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American communist (Chicago: Liberator Press), p. 170.
[19] Ibid., pp. 170-171.
[20] Ibid., p. 171.

 

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