By Bruce Dixon
May 11, 2018
The 70-minute lecture on militarism by the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor Peoples Campaign earlier this month is no small thing both for who was talking, and for what was said.
We would have liked to link directly to the video, as is our custom, but unfortunately it’s a Facebook video, shareable only to other Facebook pages. So you’ll have to check it out out here . There are several versions in circulation, but this is the best one, produced by Repairers of the Breach and the PPC’s own communications shop. It’s 2 hours and 20 minutes, all of it worth a serious listen, in order to get a sense of who and what the PCC and its world view are abd again, what they’re saying.
The organizational forces mustered behind Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Poor Peoples Campaign are nothing less than a broad swath of mainline and other US Protestant churches, backed by the generous gifts of a galaxy of foundations and individual wealthy contributors, supplemented by the bottom-up energy pulled from many thousands of church communities, their activists, and the innumerable good works they carry on. Rev. Barber speaks for the politically leftish wing of the Institutional Church in the US, which has pretty much anointed him the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s final year, minus the burden King carried as one of the nation’s most hated, derided and despised public figures.
In a little over an hour, Rev. Barber’s sermon stakes out a number of anti-imperialist and anti-militarist positions on US and world history, and on current US imperial policy more explicit and more advanced than any the Church has issued in the past. He notes the foundational American crimes of Native American and African genocide, land theft and slavery, white supremacy and settler colonialism.
Barber condemned Vietnam and scores of US interventions all over the planet since WW2 as illegal and immoral, and denounces environmental devastation as immoral too. He names the US empire’s military budget as the principal obstacle to human progress inside the US. These and other evolving positions reflect the fact that the Church is a field of contention too, in which a number of institutional and activist forces are vying for influence. Barber’s position makes him a kind of Church politician, and activists inside and outside the Church are pushing Barber and the PPC to the left.
But the limitations of the PPC are both philosophical and political.
Philosophically the PPC’s historical and current analysis blames everything on immoral persons and immoral policies, on a lack of moral depth and moral commitment , distorted moral narratives and moral analyses, to which Barber puts forth the remedies of “moral revivial,” of a “massive moral reset” to be accomplished by “moral defense”, moral resistance,” by nonviolent direct action and in the line where he and his audience were most enthusiastic and at ease by rising up and “…voting like never before.”
The problem here is that labeling your political opponents, their leaders, their misguided values and their persons as “immoral” is never a persuasive political tactic. It might make those already on your side feel nice and comfy to know they’re all moral and the other guys are not, but it’s functionally indistinguishable from Hillary appearing to call 60 million Trump voters a “basket of deplorables.” That kind of thing wasn’t respectful or persuasive coming from Hillary and it’s not any better coming from Barber and the PPC.
The PPC’s philosophical limitation becomes a political limitation because it excuses them from helping craft political messaging or strategies that might break the hold of Trump and the right upon tens of millions of Americans by somehow appealing to their class interest. The “immorality is the root of empire, war, economic injustice, environmental deststion and poverty” construct is at the very core of their political analysis, and it’s the nexus around which all their remedies revolve.
Without a transcript I’d guess Barber’s 70 minute oration on militarism used the word “moral” a couple hundred times to explain the past and present but didn’t use the words capitalism, socialism, class or working class once. How we can explain, let alone solve economic injustice, environmental destruction, white supremacy and the rest without these concepts is a mystery that makes Barber’s and the PPC’s actual politics of change more than a little cloudy.
The lack of any political endgame for the Poor Peoples Campaign beyond “vote like never before” is telling. There’s an existing, a hegemonic structure of thought and belief, of received societal “wisdom” and common sense that takes over when you stop being politically specific about political outcomes, a force that bends them back into familiar channels with familiar results. This kind of political cloudiness is characteristic of a particular school of “nonviolent direct action” associated with Gene Sharpe , a curious apostle of nonviolence whose entire career, publications and training apparatus was bankrolled by the US national security state.
Policy-wise there are places where Barber, the PPC and the Institutional Church are unwilling to tread. Barber and company seem barely able to recognize domestic or international crimes when these are perpetrated by Democrats. It was Obama not Bush or Trump that started giving training, material support, ammo and logistics to every single army on the African continent except Libya, Somalia and Zimbabwe.
Barber’s call for “a just two state solution” is utterly oblivious of the impossibility of anybody peacefully co-existing with or creating such a thing out of the nuclear armed apartheid ethnocracy that is today’s Israel. Barber’s sermon condemns drone warfare’s murder of innocents without noting that Barack Obama originated the policy. Barber’s sermon denounces the hateful and immoral border wall, without noting that 70% of it was built under Obama, who voted for it as a US senator, leaving less than 30% to be completed by Trump. All these are places where rank and file activists inside and outside the precincts of the Church-led movement must continue to press Barber, the PPC and the Institutional Church.
The PPC has other built in political limitations as well. While legally and nominally a non-partisan endeavor, its operatives, its organizational history and political ties are firmly to the Democratic Party. Barber comes out of the NAACP, which is firmly tied by blood, business, social, funding and legal networks to the Democratic party. For all of Barber’s career, and in his previous outfit, Moral Monday Barber was known for deploying his guns of moral outrage exclusively against Republicans. That’s a problem when empire and militarism are bipartisan projects of the ruling class. And of course Barber doesn’t touch the Democrat’s craven obsession with blaming Russian meddling, Russian influence and Russian perfidy of all kinds for the Democrats’ loss in 2016.
Finally, despite pretentions to nonpartisanship, Barber and friends historically tend not to play well with leftists outside the Democratic party. While Barber and the forces allied with him are grateful for leftists to pad their crowds at events, forces left of the Democratic party are never allowed mic space at any events whatsoever. If Barber and his friends ever find a way to publicly and collegially acknowledge the presence of leftists outside the Democratic party we could easily find ourselves marching a long way against war and imperialism alongside the church folks. We won’t be the block to this happening.
We can and ought to march alongside them. What we cannot do, as socialists, is consent to be led by their cramped vision, a vision which refuses to name capitalism as the problem, let alone consider building a 21st century socialism as the solution.