By Danny Haiphong
Michael Jordan embodies the kind of athlete and Black leader that the U.S. ruling class has gone to great lengths to cultivate.
Michael Jordan is perhaps the best player to ever set foot in an NBA arena or any arena for that matter. His achievements have inspired generations of fans and players alike. The Last Dance is a tribute to the greatness of Michael Jordan. In typical Disney fashion, Jordan’s legacy is framed as a tale of perseverance and hardship on the road to the American Dream. The documentary is a reminder that the making of Michael Jordan has always been a celebration of Malcolm X’s American Nightmare, and that this nightmare has come at great cost to Black America and the lives of working people all over the world.
Jordan’s documentary coronation comes amid a global pandemic that has exposed the wretched contradictions of U.S. imperialism. U.S. imperialism is mired in a self-inflicted economic collapse and popular trust in the system has reached a low point. The decision to celebrate Michael Jordan is thus a political one. As the U.S. crumbles under the weight of its own contradictions, ESPN expedited the documentary knowing that Jordan has served as a reliable ambassador of U.S. capital. Michael Jordan’s legacy embodies the kind of athlete and Black leader that the U.S. ruling class not only accepts but has also gone to great lengths to cultivate since the Black liberation movement was brutally disbanded in the 1970s.
The Last Dance demonstrates that Jordan and his class operate within a “win at all cost” framework. While the Last Dance celebrates Jordan’s dedication to winning, it largely avoids any real scrutiny of the human cost of his endeavours. Jordan alienated teammates such as Horace Grant, punched Steve Kerr, and bullied role players to “motivate” them. He refused to back Harvey Gant for Senator of North Carolina against segregationist Jessie Helms in 1990. The Last Dance portrays Michael Jordan’s shortcomings as sacrifices made for the greater good of winning six championships in eight years and becoming the best basketball player in the world.
Sound familiar? Winning at all cost is what U.S. imperialism has been doing for centuries and lies at the foundations of American exceptionalism. The Last Dance offers nothing more than the American Dream repackaged in the Jordan brand for a 21st century audience. Sacrifice, determination, and cutthroat competition offer no social purpose beyond the crowning of the individual. As Jon Jeter remarked in an earlier issue of Black Agenda Report (BAR), “Jordan embodies the immolation of an African-American dialectic that married commerce and community, modernized the state, and exalted the individual only inasmuch as he or she helped to lift up the people who produced them.” In other words, Jordan very much represents the anti-thesis of Black leadership (and working class leadership generally) that concerned itself not with careerism and individual gain within an unjust social order but in measuring any notion of success to how much an individual dedicated themselves to the well-being of the people.
The Last Dance offers nothing more than the American Dream repackaged in the Jordan brand for a 21st century audience.
Jeter correctly characterizes Jordan as the anti-Mohammed Ali. Ali was a world class athlete who spoke out against injustice wherever the U.S. happened to spread it. The Last Dance inadvertently places a spotlight on the reactionary trend of the post-Ali era in American politics. Michael Jordan is the prize, an all-American patriot who places gold trophies above his teammates’ contract disputes or efforts to shed light on the state-sanctioned racist oppression of Blacks in America. Few corporate media pundits noticed that Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges’ attempt to organize a boycott of the 1991 NBA Finals in protest of Rodney King’s brutal beating by the LAPD was completely left out of the documentary. Michael Jordan collaborated with Magic Johnson to suppress Hodges’ effort and likely played a role in hindering the sharp shooter’s ability to find work after the 1992 season .
Such a stark omission from the documentary is no accident. The American Dream component of the ideology of American exceptionalism is dependent on the erasure of historical memory to maintain legitimacy. Michael Jordan’s image as a triumphant agent of capitalism provided working class people, especially Black Americans, with a carefully groomed social compass to follow in the age of neoliberal capitalism and the fall of the socialist bloc. As U.S. imperialism moved quickly to destroy and privatize independent nations significantly weakened by the fall of the Soviet Union, capitalists waged an intensified war on workers in the U.S. and Western world. Monopoly capital decimated labor unions. The absence of a Black liberation movement allowed the domestic and international machinations of white supremacy to fester and grow. Michael Jordan’s individualism and disregard for anyone and anything that endangered his personal success became increasingly attractive within a social order that suffocated revolutionary possibilities in their crib.
It is thus important to remember that Malcolm X said he did not see an American Dream, but an American Nightmare . The COVID-19 pandemic is another example of how the nightmare of U.S. imperialism inevitably leads to social and economic crisis. The ruling class’ coronation of Jordan is a symbolic celebration of the American Nightmare. There would be no Michael Jordan without COINTELPRO, mass incarceration, mass unemployment, and the evisceration of social solidarity in the U.S. mainland. The chaotic response to COVID-19 on the part of U.S. imperialism has plunged the masses of people into a state of precarity worse than the Great Depression , especially for Black America. Just as the U.S. spreads its repressive military apparatus all over the globe to maintain its waning dominance, so too The Last Dance projects Michael Jordan’s individualist and capitalist leadership to maintain the waning legitimacy of an economic system that rewards the rich at the expense of the rest of us.
Michael Jordan’s achievements in the game of basketball are undeniable. It is also undeniable that the unsavoury way Jordan approached his teammates and the game was the product of much bigger forces at play in the United States. Abstract competition is not a force for exploitation in and of itself. Under capitalism, however, competition is a mechanism for the concentration of capital and the extraction of surplus value (unpaid labor). U.S. capitalism is a racist economic arrangement by design, and Michael Jordan’s talent has always been exploited to deify the capitalist class and white rule generally.
On May 19th, revolutionaries around the world had the chance to celebrate the birthday of Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, Yuri Kochiyama, and Ho Chi Minh. If Michael Jordan is the anti-Ali, then each of these revolutionaries could be characterized as the anti-Jordan for the sacrifices they made for the collective liberation of oppressed people worldwide. Ho Chi Minh wrote extensively on the critical need for socialists to reject the individualism that so heavily shaped Michael Jordan’s brand. In a 1958 speech on revolutionary morality , “Uncle Ho” dissected the problems of individualism as such:
In order to survive, man must also produce to get food and clothing. Production, too, must rely on the collective, on society. Alone, the individual cannot produce.
Our era being a civilized, revolutionary era, one must rely all the more on the force of the collective, of society, in all undertakings. More than ever the individual cannot stand apart, but must join the collective, join society.
Therefore, individualism goes counter to collectivism; collectivism and socialism will certainly prevail while individualism will surely disappear.
The Last Dance certainly indicates that individualism is here to stay in the United States so long as society is governed by an imperialist state. However, the documentary also shows that Michael Jordan and the rest of his class are finding it more and more difficult to cover up the horrors of their social order. The documentary has already caused controversy in the NBA world for its treatment of key complimentary players to Jordan such as Scottie Pippin and Horace Grant . Debates are raging about the utility of Jordan’s leadership style in the current era. Under capitalism, basketball is a business; and Michael Jordan represents the protype “businessman” in his unapologetic rejection of the broader concerns of humanity.
The Last Dance was aired at a time when workers and oppressed people find themselves facing a multitude of crises and lacking the collective power to address them. The good news is that most would disagree with Jordan’s approach to basketball or politics. Majorities of the U.S. population want universal healthcare, a habitable environment, and a living wage. The appetite for Jordan’s war-like posture abroad is small, yet white supremacy has kept U.S. militarism well-oiled and protected from mass protest.
Michael Jordan’s talent and skill has brought joy to millions of people across several generations, but it is a joy that reifies rather than challenges the established order. The moment calls for much more than what currently exists under the American Nightmare that Michael Jordan holds so dearly. It calls for the people to collectively organize a “last dance” for this rotten system. Luckily, basketball will survive long after the system of imperialism is put to rest.