Originally published on CounterPunch
Killed at noon, just down the road from the grave of the slave Dred Scott, Michael Brown has now joined a perennially growing group of dead men and women (a group that only recently added Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, and others) killed by a combination of institutional racism and systemic poverty. Poverty and race, of course (like race and wealth), cannot be easily disentangled. Not only has the man-made construct of race been used to justify seizures of material resources (gold, timber, land, etc.) from various locales throughout the world, impoverishing these; it has also justified enslaving people, creating immense wealth from slave labor. That is, racial discrimination is not only intertwined with poverty; its obverse, racial privilege, is a key component of affluence. As such, rather than the existence of the two Americas we hear so much about (black and white, rich and poor) there is really mainly one: the parasitic embrace of its constituent parts.
This entanglement of race and poverty, and the relations of domination it implies, demonstrates that poverty should also be regarded as something beyond the absence of economic power. For poverty refers to a condition in which political power, in addition to economic power, is absent. In other words, poverty refers to a lack - or, more accurately, a deprivation - of political-economic power that amounts to something more than political-economic weakness; it amounts to a weakness that leaves people vulnerable to such a degree as to constitute an injury in its own right - a vulnerability which tends to go unseen, taken for granted, and not easily distinguished from the more quantitative harms characteristic of poverty, such as high rates of incarceration, and epidemic levels of preventable diseases.
In spite of the fact that African Americans and indigenous people have suffered inordinately, it deserves to be mentioned that women and immigrants from across the world - Ireland, Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, China, Vietnam, and the rest of Asia, as well as from Latin America, among other places - have suffered generations of exploitation as well. In fields, in the depths of coal mines, and in countless sweatshops and factories, countless people have been compelled - at the expense of limbs, lives, and well-being - to produce tremendous wealth and power for a small class of people. Consequently, when discussing the issue of reparations and social justice, we must address the fact that - according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, at least - most people in this society - the urban poor, the rural poor, the working class, and even the middle class - deserve some form of reparation. How, however, does one begin to repair this widespread impoverishment?
Because money derives its value in part from scarcity, exploitation, and debt - and, so, requires poverty and exploitation to function - money can only superficially correct the basic problem of poverty/social injustice. Instead of thinking about reparations as the distribution or redistribution of money, or of other commodities (the value of which is restricted to its exchange-value - i.e., money), then, we should recognize that actual justice, and actual peace, requires social relations that are not regulated by the drive for profit (i.e., peace requires social relations that are non-exploitative). As such, a step toward an actually just society can be accomplished not by distributing commodities but, rather, by decommodifying that which is necessary for an actually democratic society. Instead of remaining within the sphere of commerce, and subject to its whims, that which is necessary for human flourishing should not be available conditionally, in exchange for something else. Housing, nutritious food, water (as the situation in Detroit is making so clear), not to mention health care, education, communications, transportation, and other resources necessary for the realization of an actually just, actually democratic society should not only be inalienable (not for sale), an actually just society's priority would be to supply these conditions directly. Producing and maintaining housing, food, livable cities, healthy ecosystems, and other conditions, would be a just society's job - as well as its reward.