Jodi Dean
Comrade

Jodi Dean
Comrade

The term ‘comrade’ has a long history in socialist political movements, and in the twentieth century came to be used by millions around the world. But what are the specific values and expectations placed on us when we call each other comrade? Is the word still relevant today and able to help unify current left-wing struggles? In her new book, Comrade, Jodi Dean argues that the rehabilitation of the concept of comradeship, as a relationship of political belonging that must be built, sustained, and defended, is a crucial task for the contemporary Left. In this interview, we discuss some of the book’s key ideas.

Jodi Dean is Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author or editor of thirteen books, including The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012), Crowds and Party (Verso, 2016), and Comrade (Verso, 2019).

Jodi Dean

How do you define the term ‘comrade’?

Those who are on the same side of a political struggle. I’m interested in the way that being on the same side impacts those who share it, the way this belonging functions to generate expectations.

Etymologically, comrade derives from camera, the Latin word for room, chamber, and vault. The technical connotation of vault indexes a generic function, the structure that produces a particular space and holds it open. A chamber or room is a repeatable structure that takes its form by producing an inside separate from an outside and providing a supported cover for those underneath it. Sharing a room, sharing a space, generates a closeness, an intensity of feeling and expectation of solidarity that differentiates those on one side from those on the other. Comradeship is a political relation of supported cover. READ MORE

One Question
Greta Thunberg and
the School Climate Strikes

One Question
Greta Thunberg and
the School Climate Strikes

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This time, in reference to the title of Greta Thunberg’s book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, we ask:

How have Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikes made a difference?

With responses from: Simon Pirani; Johanna Fernández; Matthew Huber; Seema Arora-Jonsson; Hester Eisenstein; Steffen Böhm; Geoff Mann; Hannah Holleman; Julian Brave NoiseCat; Ashley Dawson; John Foran; Alison Green.

Greta Thunberg

Simon Pirani

Greta Thunberg and the school strikers are not trying to convince the world’s governments with good arguments in protest letters or petitions. Their starting point is that the governments have failed to act on climate change, despite scientists explaining the danger in the 1980s – more than two lifetimes ago, for school students. The strikers know they are dealing with hypocrites and liars, and the power relations of which they are part. Striking is their first, proportionate, response. In this way, they have shifted the narrative.

Since the international climate talks began in 1992, the rate at which fossil fuel burning pours greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has risen by more than 60%. One function of the talks has been to create a self-justifying discourse: governments would use ‘market mechanisms’ to deal with the problem (while subsidising fossil fuels to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars); civil society would be represented by NGOs protesting at the summits. This ‘dialogue’ was about patronising, incorporating and smothering social movements. Of course this is now being tried on Greta Thunberg and the school students. But it will be difficult to silence a movement of tens of millions of people that way.

The organisers of the strikers’ demonstration in London on 20 September focused on allying with movements in the global south, where flooding, drought and other climate change effects are already facts of life. The London crowd cheered the announcement that school strikers were on the streets of 40 cities in Pakistan, and welcomed Brazilian and Bolivian speakers. If ‘climate justice’ is seen in this way, as bound up with social justice, then those who propose individual sacrifice, or state-imposed austerity – rather than to change society – can be put in their place.

Can activists and radical thinkers of earlier generations contribute anything? Only if we learn how better to communicate our hard-won experience. It is not enough to turn up with placards saying ‘system change not climate change’. What system change? What types of technological change could break the fossil-fuel-dependent economy? Can they be achieved under capitalism?

Answers from the ‘Left’ are too superficial. For example: the Labour party conference declared for a ‘green new deal’, but some Labour politicians interpret this to mean investment in electric cars. This false techno-fix may help car manufacturing companies and their shareholders, but it will not substantially reduce carbon emissions. It certainly obstructs the necessary transition to zero-carbon cities where we live and work meaningfully, and where car-based transport systems, traffic jams and other fossil-fuel-intensive urban infrastructure are things of the past. The school strikers deserve more compelling, more coherent visions for the future. READ MORE

PRESS RELEASE
Ideology and the Virtual City:
Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism

PRESS RELEASE
Ideology and the Virtual City:
Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism

How do virtual cities reflect our modern social realities?

 
Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism by Jon Bailes.

Publication date: 27th September 2019 (UK), 1st October 2019 (US). Published by Zero Books.

Available from: JohnHuntPublishing.com; Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk

ISBN: 978-1-78904-164-4 (Paperback) £9.99 $14.95

EISBN: 978-1-78904-165-1 (e-book) £7.99 $11.96

Ideology and the Virtual City

Ideology and the Virtual City is an exploration of modern society and the critical value of popular culture. It combines a prescient social theory that describes how ‘neoliberal’ ideology in today’s societies dominates our economic, political and cultural ideals, with an entertaining exploration of narratives, characters and play structures in some of today’s most interesting videogames. Through this analysis, the book takes readers into a range of simulated urban environments that symbolise the hidden antagonisms of social life and create outlandish resolutions through their power fantasies. In doing so, it shows how interactive entertainment can help us better understand the different ways people relate to the modern ‘common sense’ neoliberal background, both in terms of absorbing its assumptions, and questioning them.

Endorsements:

“Videogames are gradually recognized as a new cultural form which reaches far beyond mere entertainment: they enact new forms of subjectivity and temporality. However, this fascination with the new form should not render us blind for the fact that, in their content, even at its most magic, videogames are firmly rooted in our neoliberal capitalism and faithfully mirror its antinomies. This is where Bailes’s book enters. Through a detailed analysis of selected games, from Grand Theft Auto to Persona, he demonstrates how they reproduce the key dimensions of a modern megalopolis: the City as Playground, as Battleground, as Wasteland, as Prison… Ideology and the Virtual City is not only insanely readable; in its combination of vivid descriptions with theoretical stringency, it provides an unsurpassable introduction into the deadlocks of our real life. In short, an instant classic for everyone who wants to understand not just games but our reality itself.” — Slavoj Žižek READ MORE

Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

In 21st century capitalism, Marxist theory remains a crucial means to interpret the socioeconomic present and potentials for political change. But Marxism as a method is also important culturally, in understanding the ideas, attitudes and beliefs that exist today, and how they have developed historically through various social forces. In her recent book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto, 2019), Barbara Foley aims to emphasise the continuing value of a Marxist analysis of literature and culture, and introduce core concepts – historical materialism, political economy, ideology critique – to a new generation seeking to comprehend the ongoing class struggle. In this interview, I discuss with her some of the ideas she raises in the book.

Barbara FoleyBarbara Foley is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. Her research and teaching focuses on US literary radicalism, African American literature and Marxist criticism. Throughout her career, her work has emphasised the centrality of antiracism and Marxist class analysis to both literary study and social movements. She has written six books and over seventy scholarly articles, review essays, and book chapters. Her previous books include: Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (University of Illinois, 2003); Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Duke University, 2010); Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution (University of Illinois, 2014).

Why did you feel a new book about Marxist literary criticism, and specifically an introductory text, was important at this time?

Barbara Foley: For two reasons. First, because there haven’t been any introductions to Marxist literary criticism in many years – since Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976 ) and Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977). (I consider Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) to be seminal; but it is a difficult book, hardly an ‘introduction’.) Second, because there’s clearly a revived interest these days – especially among young people – in left ideas, as these pertain not only to culture but also to economics, politics, and history.

Since even the very useful works noted above largely take for granted the reader’s prior acquaintance with fundamental principles of Marxist analysis, though, I decided that my book should outline key features of historical materialism, political economy, and ideology critique before addressing Marxist approaches to literary criticism and interpretation. Besides, since there’s a good deal of confusion these days about what constitutes a ‘left’ political position – or a ‘left’ act of cultural analysis – I wanted to clarify where Marxism overlaps with but is also distinct from a more broadly leftist critical orientation. READ MORE

One Question
Gilets Jaunes

One Question
Gilets Jaunes

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This time we ask:

What is the significance of the Gilets Jaunes movement?

With responses from: Nonna Mayer, Gabriel Rockhill, Samuel Hayat, Maia Pal, Philippe Marliere, Julian Mischi, Enzo Traverso, Aurélie Dianara, Prabhat Patnaik, Ivan Bruneau, Diana Johnstone, John Mullen, Richard Greeman, Sophie Wahnich, Joshua Clover.

Gilets Jaunes

Nonna Mayer

The trigger of the Yellow Vests movement, last November, was the 80km/h speed limit on country- side roads and the ‘carbon tax’ raising the price of the diesel fuel – the last straw in a country where 75% of the working population use their car to go to work. But the deeper undercurrent was social insecurity. The protesters are not the worst off. Most of them have a car, a job, a home, and they pay taxes, yet they struggle to make a living. While the elites focus on ‘the end of the world’, their concern, as their posters say, is ‘the end of the month’.

They don’t mobilise the have-nots and the wretched like the ‘poor people’s movements’ analysed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Rather they express the revolt of a lower middle class at risk of poverty, resenting the rich above, who do not fear tomorrow, as well as the ‘undeserving’ poor below, on social welfare, whose anger finds no outlet. The feeling that nobody hears them, that nobody cares, drives them against mainstream parties and elites, either towards the extremes or away from politics altogether. The same discontent fuelled the surprise victory of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or the record score of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election. However different Brexiters, Trumpists and LePenists may be, they belong to a squeezed middle class afraid of losing the little it has, feeling at the edge of the precipice.

The declining numbers of the French Yellow Vest demonstrators and of their imitators in Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain), do not mean that the revolt is near its end. Its roots go back to the mid-70s. The end of the post war economic boom marked the return of social insecurity, with the development of mass unemployment, new forms of poverty and atypical precarious employment. Globalisation and then the Great Recession of 2008 exacerbated these trends. And a new risk is developing fast: automation. It first hit industrial blue-collar jobs that could be easily replaced by robots. Now intelligent machines and algorithms are threatening routine white-collar jobs.

These workers, with mid-level skills and education, could be a potential reservoir for future disruptive protests such as the Yellow Vests, and also, to a certain extent, to support the radical Right. Our study in eleven European countries shows that the electoral impact of automation is conditioned by the perceived economic situation. The most likely to vote for radical right parties are individuals in occupations at risk of automation who feel they are still coping financially with their present income, but fear status loss and downward mobility. While those who, facing the same risk of automation, say they cannot cope, do not even bother going go to the polls. READ MORE

One Question
Social Media

One Question
Social Media

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Have social media become a divisive force?

With responses from: Paolo Gerbaudo, Christian Fuchs, Lizzie O’Shea, Geert Lovink, Eva Anduiza, Joss Hands, Zizi Papacharissi, Alfie Bown, Panos Kompatsiaris, Eugenia Siapera, Eran Fisher, Dal Yong Jin, Tanja Bosch.

Social Media

Paolo Gerbaudo

It is fair to say that there has been a 180-degree turn in the debate on social media and politics. At their inception in the late 2000s, there was much hope about their democratic potential. The US Department of State Internet Freedom agenda pursued by Hillary Clinton in particular stressed how social media could be the harbinger of freedom of expression and democracy in many authoritarian countries. The Arab Spring in 2011 and the wave of movement that ensued from the Indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street in the US seemed to be proof of that idea.

These were indeed movements that were largely organised and mobilised on social media, hence the rather cheesy moniker ‘Facebook revolutions’ was not all that misplaced. These movements had realised the political potential of a time in which internet and social media access, for long the preserve of a tiny minority of scientists, artists, and journalists, was eventually becoming more of a mass space for ordinary people, with average income and education levels, to join the fray.

Yet in recent years, social media seem to have become in the public imagination much more a weapon for the extreme right. Notably Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and other right-wing populist insurgencies have had a very strong social media component. Furthermore, we have become aware of how much social media platforms are conducive to fake news, extremist political cultures such as the alt-right, forms of aggression and symbolic violence of all sorts, and how they embolden fanatics who were previously isolated and marginalised.

Faced with this situation it is important not to fall to prey to the ‘liberal panic’ that has become common in commentaries about the present situation, and which leads to a very pessimistic and ultimately self-defeating posture. We need to realise that we now live in a ‘plebeian’ internet, one that is more representative of the actual sentiments and views of society, including some that we as progressives would have preferred not to be too exposed to.

Rather than retreat and disengagement, or wholesale condemnation of the internet ‘deplorables’, what is required from Left activists is a great effort of political education both online and offline that may counteract the tide of right-wing populist hegemony. Young alt-right bloggers and YouTubers that are now often dominating attention need to be met with a new generation of socialist bloggers and YouTubers that may explain complex political ideas in simple way that is persuasive to social media publics, and thus turn against the present tide of resentment and xenophobia. READ MORE

One Question
Bernie Sanders

One Question
Bernie Sanders

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Should the American Left unite behind Bernie Sanders?

With responses from: Doug Henwood; Judith Butler; Charlie Post; Bill Fletcher Jr; Zillah Eisenstein; Eric Mann; Lester Spence; Marina Sitrin; Eric Blanc; Juan Cruz Ferre; Eljeer Hawkins; John Bachtell; Rand Wilson and Peter Olney.

Bernie Sanders

Doug Henwood

Can we go mostly out for Bernie Sanders instead of all?

I completely understand the temptation to put all our eggs in the Bernie basket. With his 2016 campaign, he almost single-handedly introduced a seriously social democratic programme into American political discourse, and even made the word ‘socialism’ charming, no mean feat in this reactionary political culture. He inspired thousands of mostly young people to enter politics and caused the membership of the formerly moribund Democratic Socialists of America to soar. He forced mainstream Democrats to admit just how wedded to the corporate agenda they are.

Without his candidacy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who was largely responsible for getting people to talk about a Green New Deal and a top tax rate of 70% almost overnight – wouldn’t be in Congress, neither would her colleagues Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Ditto many fresh faces in state legislatures. Thanks to all these campaigns, there’s a serious left campaign infrastructure operating across the US – not merely around elections, but a variety of issues, from housing to wages to police brutality. For someone who matured in politics like me, when a meeting of the Left consisted of seven weirdos in a ramshackle space, the transformation feels other-worldly.

So, I completely understand the draw of trying to do it again. A second Sanders campaign could bring even more people into left politics, deepen the organising infrastructure for the future, and offer rich opportunities for political education. All true. But it still worries me.

It worries me for several reasons. One is that there’s a bit of a repetition compulsion about it – the Bernie campaign worked so well last time, why won’t it again? But things are quite different this time. He’s not coming out of nowhere, surprising an unprepared establishment. He’s running against a small army of other candidates, not just one who was a perfect symbol of a discredited status quo. Were he by some fluke to win, he would face a hostile Congress and ruling elite, who would frustrate him at every turn. It might be better to build strength from below, in city councils and state legislatures, and maybe even a governorship or two, before scaling the summit. It feels like people on the Left are looking to Sanders as some sort of magic, almost redemptive figure.

Which isn’t to say one shouldn’t work on Bernie’s behalf. It is to say, keep some powder dry. READ MORE

One Question
Open Borders

One Question
Open Borders

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

What is the Left case for open borders?

With responses from: Tithi Bhattacharya; Joseph Carens; Harald Bauder; Parvathi Raman; Viewpoint Magazine Editorial Collective; Sandro Mezzadra; Céline Cantat; Justin Akers Chacón; Carol Farbotko; Christine Leuenberger; Paolo Novak; Dalia Abdelhady; Alex Sager; Michael Huemer; Nandita Sharma.

Borders

Tithi Bhattacharya

Borders exist in order for capital to

(a) control the global distribution of labour power and

(b) ideologically shore up the nation state for the ‘native’ working class, thereby legitimising and reinforcing that control.

Any support for border control, no matter how minimal or provisional, is a support for this set of political technologies.

If it appears, then, that the case for open borders is an easy one for the Left, this is far from the truth. Historically, the organised Left, in both its social democratic and Stalinist iterations, has had a murky record on border control and support for migrants. And today, as neoliberalism falters ideologically after the crash of 2008, several social democratic regimes across Europe have made anti-migrant rhetoric their distinct political signature.

In Greece, Syriza, who had promised to close migrant detention centres, now oversees such centres where migrants lack basic resources to battle hunger, harsh winters and social isolation. This in addition to the government doing a deal with neighbouring Turkey to stop the flow of migrants into Europe. In France, the leader of the radical Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has long been opposed to free movement even within the EU. Events in Germany perhaps best distil this political tendency. In September 2018, Sarah Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, prominent left-wing politicians of Die Linke, with support from sections of the international Left, launched Aufstehen, a movement openly committed to imposing immigration controls in the name of prosperity for German workers.

It is not my purpose here to produce a list of betrayals by various traditions of the Left. Rather, it is to contend that for an anti-capitalist Left, the question of open borders is not one issue amongst many. For instance, one cannot be advocating for universal healthcare for a section of the global working class, marked as ‘citizen’ simply by geographical accident, while denying that same provision to the rest of the class.

Anyone who has crossed international borders knows that leaving home is not an easy or trivial decision. Most people seeking refuge in Europe have been forced to do so because of the numerous violent wars Europe has waged on their homelands. In the United States, it is families from Latin America, ravaged by dictatorships backed by the US, or devastated by economic policies of the IMF and World Bank who are forced to seek out a better life across the border.

If these families are at the borders of countries whose governments have colluded to deprive them of a life of dignity, then the borders should be opened wide, not because the West needs to be compassionate – but because it is the right of these families to demand from western governments what was taken from them.

In the coming years, capitalist ravages upon our planet will force more people to leave their homelands as the very air and soil turn against them. Migrants cannot be welcomed on liberal grounds because they bring fresh labour or creativity to the West. That is capital’s logic predicated upon regimes of work. The Left must hold to all people’s inherent right to free movement because borders only exist to assist capital accumulation. Sometimes just crossing a border is a political act of defiance.

‘Workers of the world, unite’ is not a meaningful political call unless it is filled with practical solidarity between all workers. While capital erects barbed wire fences, miles long border walls and militarises the waters, it is the task of the Left to dismantle – above all the hostile tension between the ‘immigrant’ and the ‘worker’. A migrant caravan is a working class on the move. Active support for free movement is therefore a strategic disruption of capital’s narrative.

Open borders is not a ‘blind spot’ that can be ignored, it is what restores sight to the Left, allowing us to see the mechanisms by which capital hierarchises abjection. READ MORE

Catherine Rottenberg
Neoliberal Feminism

Catherine Rottenberg
Neoliberal Feminism

In recent years, it has become increasingly uncontroversial in parts of mainstream discourse for women to identify as feminist. In much of popular culture, feminism is no longer depicted as a marginal, radical ideology and has instead become a desirable ethical stance promoted even by the elite. But what is actually meant by ‘feminism’ in these instances, and how does it relate to a project to improve the rights and freedoms of women in general?

In her 2018 book, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, Catherine Rottenberg explains how the popular concept of feminism that has emerged actually tends towards supporting the status quo and the dominant rationality of competitive individualism. In the following interview I discuss with her the ideas and issues she raises in the book.

Catherine Rottenberg

Catherine Rottenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent book is The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (Oxford University, 2018). She is also the author of Performing Americanness: Race, Class and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature (UPNE: 2008) and the editor of Black Harlem and the Jewish Lower East Side: Narratives out of Time (SUNY, 2013). Her research interests span 20th-century American literature, feminist theory, cultural studies, feminist media studies, and critical race studies.

 

What are the core characteristics of ‘neoliberal feminism’?

Catherine Rottenberg: In a nutshell, I understand neoliberal feminism as a particular variant of feminism that has emerged and become dominant on the Anglo-American cultural landscape in the past decade.

This feminism is a hyper-individualising feminism, which exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve ‘a happy work-family balance.’ It also incites women to perceive themselves as human capital, encouraging them to invest in themselves and to be empowered and ‘confident.’ Ultimately, it produces a new feminist subject who is incessantly pressed to take on full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care.

This feminism can and does acknowledge the gendered wage gap and sexual harassment as signs of continued inequality, which, I suggest, distinguishes it from what Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill call postfeminism or a postfeminist sensibility. Yet, the solutions it posits to such inequalities are also individualised – such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse – ultimately eliding the structural undergirding of these phenomena. Neoliberal feminism is thus a form of feminism that not only disavows the socio-economic and cultural structures shaping our lives, but one that has abandoned key feminist terms such as liberation and social justice.

READ MORE

One Question
2018

One Question
2018

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

In 2018, we have used this format to bring together over 100 different contributors, to discuss some of the most important political, economic and cultural issues facing us today. The following is a selection of responses from all of this year’s posts.

2018

Are we heading for another economic crash?

Wolfgang Streeck

I’m not a prophet. But there is no capitalism without the occasional crash, so if you will we are always heading for one. Inflation in the 1970s was ended by a return to ‘sound money’ in 1980, which begot deindustrialization and high unemployment, which together with tax cuts for the rich begot high public debt. When public debt became too high, fiscal consolidation in the 1990s had to be compensated, for macro-economic as well as political reasons, by capital market deregulation and private household debt, which begot the crash of 2008.

Now, almost a decade later, public debt is higher than ever, so is private debt; the global money volume has been steadily increasing for decades now; and the central banks are producing money as though there was no tomorrow, by buying up all sorts of debt with cash made ‘out of thin air’, which is called Quantitative Easing. While everybody knows that this cannot go on forever, nobody knows how to end it – same with public and private debt, same with the money supply. Something is going to happen, presumably soon, and it is not going to be pleasant. READ MORE