sociotechnical survivalism

The Black Panther’s have many lessons for the contemporary left. Here I’m interested in pointing at the medical activism of the Party as an example of what Srnicek and Williams conjure up as a sociotechnically competent future-oriented left. In doing so I want to create a gap in the connection of ideas of survivalism and positions of left melancholia. As ever I’ve just sat and written this without reading or editing, so apologies for annoying errors.

I was invited to speak at the first Plan C Fast Forward last year. I spoke on a panel on mental health and in my rambling I made reference to The Black Panther Party and it’s survival programs. Everyone is aware of the breakfast program that the Panthers put on for kids. This was genius as it meant they could fulfil a need for impoverished black communities whilst asking nothing in return. This is the very embodiment of ideas of communist prefiguration: your kids need fed and we are able to feed them. More than this it allowed the Panthers to engage with these same children and their parents. It allowed for the dissemination of information in a setting of social ease and intimacy with the warmth of the ancient human ritual of sharing a meal. It allowed the Panthers to explain to the people the mechanisms of their oppression without ever patronizing them. These were the Party member’s own communities very often, with a surprising number of local groups meeting the expectation that they provide a breakfast group. It allowed for a dialogue with the people in which it was possible for the Panthers to learn as much as they imparted. It let them foster a radical sense of community, rather than merely a community of radicals. And it gained them popular support and respect.

The survival programs could also be considered as the development of a network of autonomous counter-institutions of mutual aid that demonstrated the capacities of people and allowed them to build a sense of confidence in their capacity to act, whilst also building social forms that operated to maximize their capacity to act. This counter-infrastructure was never on the scale needed for the entire black working class population of the United States and would probably never have been able to replace state services. But this wasn’t ever really the point. The infrastructure could be seen as propaganda, mutual aid, the building of synthetic freedom from the zero degree of the total exclusion of the black working class, among other things.

In this short post I want to draw attention to the way that these survival programs are an example of the kind of “sociotechnical literacy” that is demanded of the left in Inventing the Future. Here I’m referring to the medical practices of the Black Panther Party. In their own guide to the survival programs the Panthers note that

The People’s Free Medical Research Health Clinics depend heavily on community donations for maintenance of the health services. Volunteers solicit funds from individual businessmen, churches, and social clubs, as well as conduct door-to-door campaigns to seek funds.

One technique employed for fund-raising is to set up a Community Outreach Program whereby mobile units go out into the community and conduct sickle-cell anemia testing, give polio vaccinations, and so forth. Such programs accomplish a great deal in the way of demonstrating to the community how the clinic is directly meeting the people’s health needs and will hopefully encourage them to make financial contributions. Clinic staff must maintain face-to-face contact with key staff personnel at local hospitals.

Doctors are persuaded to donate their services free of charge because they see that the clinic is satisfying a need that hospitals fail to meet. Registered nurses and other medical employees may be asked to help organize the clinic’s medical supplies or set up a Child Health Care Program. The utilization of their services gets them involved (BPP, 24).

As a nurse this kind of activism obviously appeals to me, and it is not hard to imagine how such programs could be crowd-funded today- although it is all too easy to see how the fear inspired by increased regulation could prevent any professional involvement. If none of this sounds very much like it is anywhere near the demand to develop sociotechnical potency I think we should step back and consider that nursing itself is already a field of sociotechnical skills and knowledges. Today’s nurses are far afield from the idea of the doctor’s handmaiden. For instance I work in a setting where there are no doctors on staff and when they come in it is usually to be advised by nurses about what medication patients require. If this stil l doesn’t convince you we should consider that the Panther’s weren’t limited to the application of social and scientific knowledge in nursing and medical interventions. The ambitions of the Party went much further than this. Again, the Panther themselves report that in 1971 the Party established a national research body:

to test and create a cure for sickle-cell anemia (a deadly blood disease that affects primarily Black Americans)… the Sickle-Cell Anemia Research Foundation informs people about sickle-cell anemia and maintains a national advisory committee of doctors to research this crippling disease. In conjunction with the People’s Free Medical Research Health Clinics, the Sickle-Cell Anemia Research Foundation to date has tested nearly half a million people throughout the country in the last three years. While more research is needed to discover treatment and a cure for the disease, people must first be informed about it and tested to see if they have it or its side effects. To accomplish this, the Sickle-Cell Anemia Research Foundation publishes and disseminates brochures and other printed materials with facts about sickle-cell anemia (BPP, 24).

In this short paragraph we get a heavily compressed stream of information about the Research Foundation. Among the functions listed are that of a public health information program, which itself would also be a demographic survey; the dispensing of advise, that must have been both social and scientific, in the manner of what might today be thought of as a think-tank or policy lobbying unit in the mode of a scientific charitable organization like the Rowntree Foundation; a nation-wide blood taking and testing program requiring trained phlebotomists, sterile medical equipment, access to laboratories and knowledge to allow for the analysis of blood work and the interpretation of  results; a system of recalling people to inform them of these results via functioning medical clinics; and all of this alongside and through the development of a body capable of assembling, publishing and distributing medical texts that would be clear and understandable to a population often deprived of access to education.

If one has never worked in a healthcare organization or taken part in the establishment of an autonomous space then you might not realize just quite how incredible the Panther’s achievements here were. The equipment required for all of this alone would have been staggeringly expensive and require training to operate, right down to the “mimeographing machines” that printed their medical texts. All of this is even more compelling when we consider only a few of the details of sickle cell anaemia’s fascinating history.

Sickle cell anaemia wasn’t identified as a discrete pathology until 1910. In part this was because it mostly affected the black surplus population and only rarely touched whites during a time of incredible racial segregation, and when slavery and imperialism were still open facts of existence. Sickle cell anaemia is also one of a cluster of diseases that closely resemble one another and there was little desire to disentangle these syndromes. Crucially it wasn’t until after the invention of the microscope that micro-organisms, organelles and cells could be seen. It wasn’t until some perfectly ordinary confluence of determinants prompted James Herrick to examine a patient’s blood under the microscope in 1910 that the strange pear shape of the red blood cells was noticed. The medical profession quickly saw this was a condition inherent to blacks and feared its transmission through the white population. The beginnings into testing, understanding and treating were therefore highly racialized biopolitical operations intended to “save” the white race from the menace of contaminated black blood. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s, after Linus Pauling’s discovery of the molecular pathology involved in the red blood cells, that attempting to understand the mechanisms of action and transmission in sickle-cell anaemia would come to have scientific and social cache.

In 1971 the US President Richard Nixon declared that the fight against sickle cell anaemia was to be considered on a par with cancer. Of this disease he said that

It is a sad and shameful fact that the causes of this disease have been neglected throughout our history . We cannot re-write this record of neglect, but we can reverse it.

What could cause the conservative and racist President , who had used the Southern strategy to win an election, turn towards settling up an disease that overwhelming affected black populations as a problem on the scale and importance of cancer? In his history of the disease, from which I’m drawing extensively, Keith Wailoo suggests that a confluence of black radicalism, the recent (1965) Voting Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination in voting practices, and the emergence of specifically black health advocacy campaigning groups, rounded off with white liberals watching TV specials featuring Sidney Pottier and- a public knowledge of pre-sexual assault- Bill Cosby to feature in tales of strong black men in some way fighting the illness, led to an insatiable political pressure for the government to act. Nixon was nothing if not a sensible opportunist (Wailoo 166).

In this brief post I can’t do justice to the entire history of the disease, nor really give an appreciation of the continued racism that accompanied discourses of the “control” of the disease and its population, but what is clear is the role the Black Panther’s played in this health activism and advocacy. As Howard Caygill often remarks, it is questionable whether this activism would have been as successful without the Panther’s strategic use of the theatrical spectacle of open militant hostility against a white establishment.

Historians such as Wailoo emphasize the biopolitical reversal effected by the Black Panthers in taking a disease that had connotations of the genetic inferiority of black populations, and which was tightly linked to the policing of black-white sexual relationships, justifying segregation and quasi-slavery policies under-pinned by appeals to prevalent xenophobic anxieties, and turning it into something they themselves could attempt to understand, treat and aspire to cure. The Panther’s were trying to save black lives in a practice that directly asserted that black lives matter, whilst rhetorically able to appeal to others about the necessity of having to do so because of the racist exclusions of people of colour from concern over healthcare. The appeal to healthcare is always a potent political strategy as there are few people who would deny a basic right to health and the alleviation of suffering.

The Panther’s didn’t simply refuse a biopolitical problem and its attendant technological and social knowledge but took it upon themselves at a time when testing for genetic disorders was almost all but impossible. Rather than refusing a sociotechnical problem the Panthers subverted it in order to act autonomous whilst also demanding the end to practices of medical segregation. Wailoo states that the Panthers

appropriated sickle-cell anaemia- a malady that had often been seen as a malady of inherited black weakness- and turned it into a focus of community pride, strength, and self-sufficiency, uplift for the oppressed, and coalition building for revolutionary social change (Wailoo 183).

The  Black Panthers demanded health and in so doing coupled that demand to an entire sequence of political demands and to practices of working class black autonomy that bolstered the capacity to act and could be integrated into the provision of a universal national health service open to black people.

In her book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Alondra nelson shows how the health activism of the Panthers emerged out of a history of black health activism. In the book she also discusses how the campaign linked images of physical and social sickness together in a way that frankly makes our own denials of any relation between social pathology and psychopathology pathetic. The Black Panthers wouldn’t have said there was no link between gun crime and mental illness, they would have pointed it out as the former as a symptom of the latter and established their common cause in the socioeconomic determinants of exclusion, anomie and oppression. They would have gone on to demand better mental healthcare, begun providing it themselves, whilst also showing what mechanisms lead to the emergence and/or exacerbation of psychopathology in the first place. In an interview on the subject of the book she writes that

The situation of the conditions that lead to the creation of the Black Panther Clinics can be thought of in two ways. One was the actual experience of the membership and the leadership of the rank and file members of the party. Their actual individual experiences [were] with the mainstream medicine, so we have to understand that part of the response to medical discrimination was not dissimilar from their response to police harassment. So, we might want to think of them as the Black Panther Party engaged in medical self-defense.

So, like with police harassment, the Party starts initially policing police. They were also sort of identifying the inadequacies of mainstream [medicine], of how the poor in black communities … of how these people were being treated unfairly, mainly at [the] hospitals and clinics they went in, because they were black or because they were poor, or both.~

Of course any future-oriented leftist movement would need to go beyond self-defense, but it would be a good place to begin. If the example of Syriza gave hope to many on the left there were those of us whose eyes were trained on the Solidarity Movement and the fact that here were people attempting to produce sustainable popular leftist infrastructures and organizations, whilst simultaneously attempting to expand their ability to influence the and integrate with existing healthcare whilst pushing it in a progressive direction. I spoke to one of the people who set up a free clinic in Athens who told me that whilst they were trying to provide basic healthcare to people denied any access to it because of their unemployed status they were also establishing greater working links with state hospitals and trying to influence government policy through strategic media appearances.

While the solidarity movement and the Panther’s might look like folk-politics it is arguable that they were elements of a bold and expansive movement that refused to secede biomedical knowledge, skill and power to those who used medicine as a regime of biomedical control. These were necessary if insufficient moments in a broader progressive vision of social struggle. If only in terms of rhetoric we can see how these forms of activism are powerful, threatening to the establishment and incredibly difficult to deny. Take this from a 1971 statement from Huey P Newton:

If, in fact, participating in the democratic process in America were in the interest of the Black community there would be no need for a Free Breakfast Program, there would be no need for Free Health Clinics or any of the other programs we have developed to meet the people’s needs. The rights of the minority are “protected” by the standards of a bourgeois government, and anything which is not in their interest is not permitted. This may be democratic for the majority, but for the minority it has the same effect as fascism. When the majority decreed that we should be slaves, we were slaves-where was the democracy in slavery for us? When the majority decreed that we should pay taxes, fight and die in wars, and be given inferior and racist education against our interests, we got all of these things. Where is democracy for us in any of that? Our children still die, our youth still suffer from malnutrition, our middle-aged people still suffer from sickle-cell anemia, and our elderly still face unbearable poverty and hardship because they reach the twilight period of their lives with nothing to sustain them through these difficult times. here is the democracy in any of this for Black people? Democracy means only that the majority will use us when they need us and cast us aside when they do not need us. A true understanding of the working and effect of American democracy for Black people will reveal most clearly that it is just the same as fascism for us. Our true interests and needs are not being served.

Here we see one of the founders and the visionary of the Panthers’ linking questions of need and democracy, health and freedom, and utilizing the multiple sicknesses afflicting the black population as a weapon to identify American democracy with fascism’s extreme exclusionary logics and practices, invoking the terror of that logics culmination. At the same time this speech positions black people as the particular that is denied by the American social order, the group included only on the basis of its exclusion, and takes the singularity of the black experience to implicitly position it as the negative image of false universalism. The demand that health be the health of black people as well as whites is at the same time a clear and obvious political demand for the achievement of a universalism that is created by the articulation of that demand (newton, 212).

This forgotten side of the Black Panther Party is integral to their understanding of survival. Their’s was a survival still tied to the future even as it was immersed in the catastrophic present of black experience. The futural aspect of the Panthers’ is registered in the fact that these operations were coded as “survival until the revolution”. The Party didn’t pretend to know when that would be. The crucial aspect for us is that the Party called upon, used, and recontextualized the history and application of biomedical knowledge and techniques. The Party’s medical activism constituted an enormous undertaking of sociotechnical literacy that placed scientific knowledge of disease and the use of cutting-edge medical technologies in to the context of the history of colonialism and slavery in the USA.

In all of these aspects the Black Panther Party appears to have deployed concepts of survival and health that were explicitly comfortable with assuming the position of scientific and technical expertise in order to launch a politics of counter-hegemony. It is for these reasons that I wonder what a progressive leftism has to learn from the Panthers.

This was clearly no horizontalism afraid of demands, and it certainly didn’t wish to remain at the local scale. If this politics was a form of “self-defence” it certainly couldn’t be said to be reactive or defeatist. The Black Panther Party shows us that it is possible to think survival amid catastrophe without that thought being defeatist, conservative and frightened of the future. This was a biomedical, sociotechnical survivalism. The value of such a politics is less in its reproduction today, than in how it might be updated for the age of automation, algorithm, and mass psychological distress.



Black Panther Party (BPP). 2008. The Black Panther Party Service to the People Programs. Albuquerque: University of new Mexico Press.

nelson, Alondra. 2013. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. University of Minnesota Press.

newton, Huey P. The Huey P newton Reader. London: Seven Stories Press.

Wailoo, Keith. 2001. Dying in the city of blues: Sickle cell anaemia and the politics of race and health. Carolina: University of north Carolina.

7 responses to “sociotechnical survivalism

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