One Question
Democracy

One Question
Democracy

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:

Is democracy working?

President Trump

Jeremy Gilbert

The question of whether democracy is working obviously depends on what we mean by ‘democracy’ and what we mean by ‘working’. But let me answer the question as naively as possible. By ‘democracy’, let us mean the existing institutions of liberal representative multi-party democracy in most countries that have such institutions. By ‘working’ let us mean ‘doing the thing that they are hypothetically supposed to do’. The definition of the latter is obviously itself contentious, but let us agree that if they are supposed to do anything, those institutions are supposed to translate the express wishes and desires of electorates (insofar as they can be measured) into the programmes enacted by their governments.

From this perspective, it is clear that they are not working and have not been, across much of the globe, since the 1970s. The general neoliberal programme has never enjoyed a clear majority mandate anywhere (except perhaps in parts of Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of state socialism).

It has been implemented by governments from the notional Right, elected by an electorate who believed that they would enact socially conservative measures that would slow down processes of social dislocation and cultural change; those governments may have passed some reactionary measures, but they slowed down nothing.

It has been enacted by governments from the notional left, elected by electorates who for the most part expected them to restore and extend post-war social democratic settlements; those governments may have passed some measures to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality, but they have rarely passed a measure that would have been recognised as social democratic by even the most right-wing members of their own parties just a decade or two previously.

Such a situation cannot be described as ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense. READ MORE

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn

To commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of historian and activist Howard Zinn, we republish the interview we conducted with him in January 2007.

Howard Zinn
24 August, 1922-27 January, 2010

You once wrote that direct action ‘encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations’.  What methods do you find at our disposal today?  And what limits does your imagination impose upon them?

Howard Zinn: Direct action means acting directly on the object of your protest or the source of your grievance, as opposed to petitioning or lobbying for your elected representatives to act. We see it in strikes, both historically and today, which are a form of direct action against corporations that, for instance, exploit their employees, or manufacture war weapons. Another form of direct action is non-violent (that is, avoiding violence against human beings) action, including forms of sabotage.

Around 1980, ‘ploughshares’ groups (turn our swords into ploughshares) began invading companies that made weaponry, and committed minor acts of sabotage to protest the actions of these companies. Only recently, a group of religious pacifists calling themselves ‘The St. Patrick’s Four’ poured blood on a marine recruiting station to protest the war in Iraq. Boycotts are another form of direct action. The national boycott of grapes, carried on in the 1960s by the farm workers of California against the powerful growers, brought about better conditions for farm workers. The desertion of soldiers from immoral war, or the refusal of men to be drafted for war, are also forms of direct action.

You say that our problem is civil obedience, not civil disobedience.  ‘Both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country command’, states Socrates; and these words, you claim, have been impressed on our minds.  You find in history many instances of submission to authority even in the face of terrible injustice, and very few of rebellion.  Why do people submit so readily to injustice? 

HZ: People submit to injustice for two reasons: one is that they do not recognize it as injustice. A young person submits to the exhortation to join the military without recognizing that he or she may go to a war which cannot be morally justified. The media and the educational system may not educate them about historical examples of resistance to injustice. Or people will submit to an injustice because they feel they have no alternative, that if they refuse they will be punished, perhaps by loss of a job, perhaps by being sent to prison. They may submit because people they have been taught to respect and trust – the President, their minister, even their family – may tell them they must submit to injustice because they owe something to their government, or their church or their family (as Plato had Socrates saying in The Crito, he couldn’t escape from his death sentence because he owed something to his government). READ MORE

Kathi Weeks
The Work Ethic, Gender and a ‘Postwork’ Future

Kathi Weeks
The Work Ethic, Gender and a ‘Postwork’ Future

Economic realities in recent years have begun to highlight problems with dominant attitudes to work. The idea of paid work as an ethical obligation or an inevitable part of daily life is called into question as decent, stable work becomes harder to find and maintain. But there is still a long way to go before this challenge to common assumptions can have a real political impact and change the social distribution of work. In her work, Kathi Weeks deals with such issues, from how the modern work ethic functions ideologically to how gender division and the family unit remain central to the meaning of work and how it is valued. She also considers the future of work, and the kinds of measures necessary to tackle the on-going crisis. The following interview focuses on these important issues.

Kathi Weeks is a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her primary interests are in the fields of political theory, feminist theory, Marxist thought, the critical study of work, and utopian studies. She is currently working on a genealogy of U.S. Marxist feminist thought. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects (Cornell UP, 1998; Verso, 2018) and The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011), and a co-editor of The Jameson Reader (Blackwell, 2000).

Gerd Arntz

At the beginning of your book, The Problem with Work, you question why so many people still seem willing to work so hard, and why work is still so often valued above other pursuits. As you say, ‘The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs.’[1] But do you think that at least certain alternative ideas about work, such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), are beginning to gain mainstream traction? Are the contradictions between the ideal and the reality of work becoming too great to ignore?

Kathi Weeks: I do think that at least some of the key problems with work are becoming more legible within mainstream public discourse. Of course, the many contradictions between the ideals and the realities of work are longstanding, if not, to one degree or another, inherent to capitalist political economies. One way to approach this terrain would be to distinguish between the problem of quantity and the problem of quality.

First, there is the perennial contradiction between a political system of income distribution that revolves around waged work and an economic system that does not provide an adequate number of jobs. This quantitative contradiction may well be intensifying: although the system’s health has always depended on a margin of unemployment, not only did the crisis of 2008 expand the pool of unemployed and underemployed workers, the inclusion of more economically and/or occupationally privileged people in these ranks has resulted in a little more mainstream attention to the issue.

Second, there is the equally familiar problem of the quality of the employment available to us: a contradiction between, on the one hand, what it is we imagine that work should be like and what work should do for us as individuals, family members and citizens, and, on the other hand, the interminably stultifying and dreadfully demeaning realities of the daily grind in most jobs.

This general contradiction may also be sharpening insofar as the dominant mythology of work continues to expand its claims about how we should “do what we love,” “love what we do,” and cultivate an intimate relationship to work as a site of personal development and social belonging. But whereas the problem of quantity may be more visible in public discourse, it seems to me that the problem of quality is still too often ignored in these venues.

Although I think a basic income guarantee should be advocated as a response to—though certainly not a cure for—both the quantitative and qualitative problems of income generating work, my sense is that it is most often considered by the popular media lately in relation to the prospect of further technological unemployment rather than as a way to improve the qualities of our lives by lessening our dependence on work. READ MORE

One Question
Economic Crash

One Question
Economic Crash

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:

Are we heading for another economic crash?

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

One Question
Fascism (Part Two)

One Question
Fascism (Part Two)

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:

Is Fascism making a comeback?

The second set of responses is collected below. Click here for Part One.

Is Fascism making a comeback?

Laurence Davis

Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, the spectre of fascism is again haunting the globe. The important questions we should be asking are why, and what can be done about it.

The evidence of history suggests that fascism thrives in periods of severe capitalist crisis by redirecting fear and anxiety about socioeconomic dislocation onto easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, who must be brutally repressed in order to reaffirm society’s ‘natural’ hierarchies and enable national rebirth. Just as Mussolini and Hitler capitalised on the economic and political crises of their time, so too contemporary fascists are endeavouring to tap into a deep and racialised popular anger that has emerged out of the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and insisted that the most appropriate response to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to market globalisation with a ‘human face’. I maintain, to the contrary, that the only effective antidote to emerging forces of fear and hate is not less popular democracy but more.

Whereas contemporary fascists are giving voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political and economic establishment, an egalitarian and inclusive left popular radicalism can and must expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. In practical terms, this will require grassroots democratic organising of the sort exemplified by political forces currently leading the struggle against fascism and working to construct viable community-based post-capitalist alternatives, such as in Rojava and Greece.

At the level of ideas, it hinges on a reconnection with radical democratic revolutionary roots. Historically, the revolutionary ideas and social movements that are the very antithesis of fascism, and the only sure defence against it, have tended to emerge out of, and given ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as a warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late. READ MORE

One Question
Fascism (Part One)

One Question
Fascism (Part One)

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:

Is Fascism making a comeback?

The first set of responses is collected below. Part Two will be published tomorrow.

Is Fascism making a comeback?

Chiara Bottici

In fact, fascism has never gone away. If by fascism, we mean the historical regime that created the name and embraced the ideology explicitly, then we have to conclude that the concept is only applicable to the political regime that reigned in Italy between 1922 and 1943. This, however, amounts to little more than a tautology: ‘the Italian fascist regime’ = ‘the Italian fascist regime’. History clearly never repeats itself, so any attempt to apply the category of fascism outside of that context would be doomed to fail. That may be a necessary cautionary remark for historians, but how about social and political theorists? Can fascism be a heuristic tool to think about and compare different forms of power?

If by fascism we mean a political model that was only epitomized and made visible by the Italian kingdom during 1922-43, then we arrive at a very different conclusion. Consider for a moment the features that characterize that form of power: hyper-nationalism, racism, machismo, the cult of the leader, the political myth of decline-rebirth in the new political regime, the more or less explicit endorsement of violence against political enemies, and the cult of the state. We can then certainly see how that form of power, after its formal fall in 1943, continued to exist in different forms and shapes not simply in Europe, but also elsewhere. We can see how fascist parties continued to survive, how fascist discourses proliferated and how different post-war regimes emerging world-wide exhibited fascist traits without formally embracing fascism.

Coming close to our times, we can see how Trumpism, as an ideology, embodies a neoliberal form of fascism that presents its own peculiar features, such as the respect of the formal features of representative democracy, the combination of free-market ideology and populist rhetoric, and the paradox of a critique of the state accompanied by the massive recourse to its institutions. But it also exhibits features, such as the extreme form of nationalism, the systematic racism, the macho-populism, and an implicit legitimation of violence, which are typical of fascism. In sum, we should consider fascism as a tendency of modern power and its logic of state sovereignty, a tendency that, like a Karstic river, flows underneath formal institutions but may always erupt in its most destructive form whenever there is an opening for it. READ MORE

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Mobile phone apps, social media platforms and videogames play a major role in shaping activity in modern consumer societies, and help fulfil a great range of desires. But to what extent are the desires themselves created or enhanced by the technology, and what interests influence the kinds of desires created? In his new book, The Playstation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown explores such issues. Using concepts based in psychoanalysis, he perceives how digital technologies direct our consciousness, especially towards goals that naturalise corporate capitalist social structures. He also considers the social importance of reimagining these technologies for progressive political ends. In what follows, I discuss with him some of the main points he raises in the book.

Alfie BownAlfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He has written two books on psychoanalysis and technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and his new book The Playstation Dreamworld, just out with Polity. He writes for many online publications as well, including The Paris Review, The LA Review of Books, ROAR Magazine and The Guardian. He is currently working on co-editing Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (forthcoming with Punctum).

One of the arguments in The Playstation Dreamworld is that using today’s entertainment technology, especially apps, games and social media on mobile phones, can alter our desire, enjoyment, and even consciousness. For example, you suggest that games such as Pokémon GO or apps such as Uber, JustEat and Tinder do not so much allow us to fulfil desires through the phone as create desires in us. Could you explain how this works and what you see as its potential political and economic repercussions?

Alfie Bown: I do think that mobile phones are powerfully transforming consciousness itself. My book is primarily influenced by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the answer to your question hinges on a Lacanian approach to enjoyment. For Lacan, enjoyment (both jouissance and plaisir in the French, which are two very different sides of enjoyment) is at the very centre of social life. Despite this centrality of enjoyment to our modes of living, Lacan felt that enjoyment was the thing that existing modes of philosophy and psychology had most consistently failed to account for. In this way we could describe his project as primarily concerned with working out how to understand enjoyment in relation to political and social life. In this spirit, I look at new forms of technology – mainly mobile technologies – which connect us to the objects of our desire (whether that object is a Pokémon, a lover or a delicious meal) and analyse the ways in which the enjoyment and pleasure produced via our technological relationships to objects and humans are changing the way we desire and the way we fit together as a society.

With even a very limited amount of research you can discover some amazing patterns here – similarities in the front- and back-end systems of food apps and dating apps for instance, or shared ownership of apparently diverse and unrelated forms of technology. Patterns are emerging in which increasingly large portions of social life (from games to travel to food to love) are organized by a small group of powerholders with shared interests and shared technological tactics, and I wanted to make some of this visible. These stakeholders are working towards new forms of social organization by going to work on the very ways in which we think and feel.

In fact, this connection between the way we relate to a Pokémon and the way we relate to a lover is what I’m hoping to work more on in the future, as bizarre as that sounds. I want to trace the transformation of love in the age of Silicon Valley and in the world of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Readers can see a bit of where I am going with it in this recent article. In short, phones don’t just help us get what we want easily and efficiently, they change what we desire and how we relate to desire itself. The problem is that they don’t do so innocently or accidentally, they do so with state and corporate interests in mind. READ MORE

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward S HermanEdward S. Herman – 1925-2017

To mark the passing of leading media and political analyst Edward Herman, we republish our interview with him from our book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. We were fortunate to have Ed’s thorough and enlightening contribution to our project. He will be missed.

 

Margaret Thatcher referred to publicity as the oxygen of terrorism, and this is quite a widely accepted idea; the implication being that terrorism requires mass media coverage to gain support, legitimacy and sympathy.  What would you make of this point in regards to state terrorism?

Edward Herman: First, I should note that Mrs. Thatcher’s point is very misleading.  For one thing it obscures the fact that terrorists often resort to violence, and seek publicity, in response to grievances of marginalized and weak people that cannot be addressed through the mainstream media or existing political or judicial processes.  So they may need that publicity “oxygen” to gain desperately needed attention and to breathe at all.  A second point that Mrs. Thatcher evades is that the state often uses the terrorism of the weak (which I have labeled “retail terrorism,” as opposed to “wholesale” – large-scale – terrorism, carried out by the state) in order to create fear, so as to divert the population from unpopular economic policies or to justify the abridgement of civil liberties and arms buildups and war.  The George W. Bush administration in the United States was notorious for regularly using terrorist scares for electoral advantage or to justify some military or political action, scares that were in virtually every case based on trivial, out-of-date, or manufactured incidents.  It is also not true that retail terrorist actions usually create support or legitimize those who engage in them – almost always the publicity given to the terrorists is negative and their cause is not advanced by these acts.[i]

State terrorism may be used either at home or to pacify people abroad, the latter often done indirectly through proxy forces.  If a state is using terror to crush its own people, it needs to make the threat known to the populace to make them acquiesce through fear.  So in this case a certain amount of publicity “oxygen” would serve state terror, although the state may deny and limit information on its terror in order to avoid damaging publicity abroad.  At home not much publicity may be required, given that policy actions, such as people being shot or dragged out of houses and “disappeared,” and word-of-mouth information flows, may suffice to alert and terrorize the populace.

Where state terrorism is carried out abroad, directly or through foreign proxies, publicity in the home country is of course undesirable.  Supporting state terrorism abroad, if described honestly, would be deemed immoral, so truthful publicity would be avoided by the state and discouraged for the media.  The publicity itself would be deemed “unpatriotic,” and in the case of the Reagan administration’s support of the terrorizing Guatemala government in the 1980s, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were harshly condemned by administration officials for alleged exaggeration, but also for providing aid to the enemy insurgents and populace under terrorist siege.[ii] READ MORE

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Many past and present revolutionary movements that have used violence to achieve their ends have drawn inspiration from Karl Marx.  Yet when we scan the many books written on Marx, it becomes clear that few examine the place of violence in his revolutionary theory.  Here I discuss with Nick Hewlett Marx’s position on violence and ask how it might guide us in the twenty-first century.

Nick Hewlett

Nick Hewlett is Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. He is author of Blood and Progress. Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, 2016), The Sarkozy Phenomenon (Imprint Academic, 2011), Badiou, Balibar, Rancière.  Re-thinking Emancipation (Continuum, 2007), Democracy in Modern France (Continuum, 2003), and Modern French Politics. Analysing Conflict and Consensus since 1945 (Polity, 1998).

How would you define ‘violence’?

Nick Hewlett: In order to make the subject manageable, I define violence narrowly, as follows: ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others’; political violence is therefore ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others with political goals in mind’. This type of violence is sometimes described as personal, or agent-related violence, where the perpetrator or perpetrators are often easily-identifiable. However, it is also necessary to take into account what is sometimes described (after Galtung[1]) as ‘structural’, or society-related violence, meaning harm inflicted, for example, as a result of particular conditions of work, or harm as a result of uneven distribution of resources in society, perhaps resulting in ongoing pain, illness or premature death. Inequality and structural violence are often closely related – the one frequently leading to the other – and it becomes highly relevant when discussing, amongst other things, the ethics of violence in revolt compared with the ethics of established states and governments which may be deemed responsible for structural violence. I should add that I do not include damage to property in my definition of violence, so smashing the windows of a government ministry building or cutting down a fence surrounding a military airbase are not forms of violence, although burning crops or destroying a person’s house might cause so much hardship and suffering that it becomes a form of violence. Certainly, the boundary between violent and a non-violent forms of action is not always clear-cut, nor is the difference between agent-related and structural violence. READ MORE

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

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

This month, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we ask:

What is the relevance of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to us today?

Their responses are collected below.

Russian Revolution

Lars T. Lih

Author of Lenin (2011) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ In Context (2006). Adjunct Professor at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.

In 1917, Russian elite society committed suicide. The educated elites were fanatically committed to a war that was in the most direct sense indefensible: it could not be justified in terms that the Russian people (narod) would accept. The people had reluctantly obeyed orders when the centuries-old traditional government demanded it, but after February the tsar abdicated not only for himself but also (as it turned out) for his entire dynasty, thus leaving Russia suddenly without any source of legitimate authority (vlast).

The continuing war meant that the elite could not restore order in the usual repressive way nor could they refrain from further alienating the people. In these circumstances, ‘All Power [vlast] to the Soviets!’ meant ‘using the forces of the people to do the job the elite is failing to do’ – namely, respond to the national crisis in a way favourable to the great mass of the people (workers, peasants, urban lower classes).

As we might expect, taking on this task led to mistakes, absurdities, and outright crimes. Today, looking back, we should not focus so exclusively as we do on the crimes and absurdities, but rather appreciate the huge dimensions of the challenges handed to the new and untried regime, and the often admirable energy and creativity shown in responding to them. READ MORE