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One Question
The New Decade

One Question
The New Decade

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

This time, at the beginning of 2020, we ask:

Are you optimistic about the new decade?

With responses from: Leo Zeilig; Zillah Eisenstein; Prabhat Patnaik; María Pía Lara; Minqi Li; Lindsey German; Doug Henwood; Dario Azzellini; Heikki Patomäki; Henry A Giroux and Ourania Filippakou; Richard Falk.

The New Decade

Leo Zeilig

Two major developments will be central to the next decade – and consequently for the rest of the century.

The last decade ended as it began, on the streets, in occupations and in revolutionary possibilities. The constant grind of capitalism ensures that nothing settles for long. No counter-revolution is secure, but nor is the mighty political riposte from below. The movements of popular classes across the world, in strikes, protests and uprisings, will continue to take place in societies riven by economic, political and increasingly ecological crises that not only generates terrible human misery but recurrent rebellions.

The arch of protest that we saw at the end of the decade, emerging first from Sudan, then Algeria, and breaking out elsewhere, Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, will continue this decade. However, popular forces must generate the new organisations and politics that the radical Left need, and that can power these uprisings and revolutions to create real anti-capitalist alternatives. If this does not happen, as we have seen repeatedly in the past, the movements will, at best, only yield a recycled elite – a renewal of austerity, under new leadership. A genuine alternative for the world will require action, agency and intervention.

The second major development, not unconnected to the first, will be intensification of climate activism in the 2020s. September last year saw seven million people strike together to insist on action to save the world from a climate emergency. While the major protests were in the Global North, activists also mobilised across Africa and the Global South. From 20-27 September, there were protests in Nairobi, Cape Town, Kampala and Lagos. Demonstrators marched and petitioned in their hundreds, and occasionally thousands.

In the protests in Africa many made the fundamental point that although the continent has caused little of the climate crisis, it is extremely vulnerable to its effects. The economic system of boundless consumption and ecological exhaustion is at the heart of the climate crisis and must end this decade – but like all things, it will only end with pressure from mass movements and activists prepared to take on the polluters and their government backers.

The life and death of millions will depend on these two possibilities – radical anti-austerity revolutions and uprisings, linked to militant anti-capitalist environmentalism. There have been few decades as decisive as the one we now face. READ MORE

Hadas Weiss
The Ideology of the Middle Class

Hadas Weiss
The Ideology of the Middle Class

The concept of being middle-class remains an important rhetorical tool in modern capitalism. The ideal of the middle class symbolises financial responsibility, to which the majority of citizens are supposed to aspire. Politicians target their speeches at middle-class voters, promising to create the conditions for them to thrive. In conditions of economic instability, the middle-class ‘squeeze’ is cause for great concern.

But what does it actually mean to be or want to be middle-class? What kind of politics and worldviews does the use of the term inspire? In her recent book, We Have Never Been Middle Class: How Social Mobility Misleads Us (Verso, 2019), anthropologist Hadas Weiss explores how the nebulous idea of the middle class functions as ideology, motivating individuals to continually chase investments within a system that increasingly fails to deliver. I spoke to her about some of the themes in the book.

Hadas Weiss

Hadas Weiss is a social anthropologist and academic nomad, currently based at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Study. She studies social aspects of contemporary capitalism and publishes primarily in anthropology journals. 

 

What is it about the way the concept of the middle class is used in politics, the media and elsewhere that makes it ideological?

Hadas Weiss: The middle class is a manifestly inclusive social category as well as a vulnerable one: anyone can, in principle, join its ranks, just as anyone can fall out. Its inclusiveness stems from a notion of social mobility that is driven by each person’s own efforts. The category is used in political and popular discourse to suggest, in this light, that one’s sacrifices and investments, primarily in property and education but also in professional training, retirement savings, insurance policies and social networks, will lead to success and forestall failure; and that by implication, people who do well owe their good fortune to these sacrifices, and that those who do not must have invested poorly or insufficiently.

Experience often affirms this notion with respect to relative advantages. For example, if everyone is jostling to buy real estate in a certain area, its prices rise to the benefit of early buyers, and if good jobs are scarce, those with more expensive credentials have a better shot at them. But in fact, the value of a house, a financial asset or a credential don’t always end up justifying the effort, time or money invested in them, as made clear when property bubbles burst, pension accounts deplete, and academic degrees have no pull in the job market.

Still, indebted homeowners, insecure pension savers and struggling college graduates up the ante by investing more, encouraged by the vague belief in the investment-driven self-determination that being middle class implies. This is the sense in which the category is ideological. It deflects attention from the punishments of an economic system to which everyone is subjected (albeit with different stakes), by engrossing all but the most dispossessed in a race for relative advantages and in a struggle to guard against personal misfortune. All the while, the investments it inspires feed and reproduce the very system that so dominates them.

How does the middle class as a category change how we view the politics of class?

HW: Today’s politics of class is largely implicated in an ideology of middle classness. It is driven by the impulse to help everyone – however disadvantaged – become middle class in the sense of having their investments pay off as they ostensibly had in the past, or as they still seem to for the privileged. It seeks, in other words, to level the playing field and create a true meritocracy. This is attempted, for example, by giving scholarships to promising students, loans to workers with aspirations, and by advocating for a safety net that would allow everyone to recover from misfortune and soldier on. Much of the scholarship that diagnoses a ‘middle class squeeze’ promotes such measures.

This kind of class politics is ultimately ineffective because it is blind to the systemic imperative – enforced by a capitalist dynamic of endless accumulation through competitive for-profit production – for every group of people who have attained an advantage to protect its value by withholding it from the next round of investors. It is equally blind to the systemic imperative for every person to keep investing lest their competitors nullify the value of their prior attainments. And it is blind to the insecure and generally declining value of everyone’s investments.

The ideology of middle classness underlines all of the ways in which we’re divided as competitors over property and human capital, locked in a zero-sum game in which advantages and disadvantages are relative to and at the expense of others. Conversely, it occludes what unites us as people who have to work for a living, namely our common domination by a system that exploits our work and conscripts our relationships for the production of value that escapes us.

In order to fight the system that so exploits and dominates us, we need a politics of class that builds on these unifying features, regardless of differences in how much we earn or own. Such politics would target this system in its most comprehensive and universal manifestations, rather than merely trying to help this or that group do better for themselves within existing constraints. READ MORE

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
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
The European Left

One Question
The European Left

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 are the challenges and opportunities for the Left in Europe?

With responses from: G M Tamás; Donatella Della Porta; Josep Maria Antentas; Thomas Fazi; Françoise Vergès; Alen Toplišek; Philippe Marlière; Bice Maiguashca & Andrew Schaap; Benjamin Opratko; Antonis Vradis; Catherine Samary; Andrzej Żebrowski; Marco Vanzulli; Catarina Príncipe; Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

The Left in Europe

G M Tamás

Like so often in history, judging the present is made difficult by established attachments and enmities. The European Left today is preoccupied still with the ancient struggle against globalisation and neoliberalism – the aftereffects of which can still be felt, granted – and cannot adapt its strategies to the new epoch of protectionism and ethnicism (the latter term defined in my ‘Ethnicism after Nationalism’ in Socialist Register 2016), resulting in the resounding victories of the far Right almost everywhere.

There is not much about the European Union a person on the Left might love. It is an institution of capitalism just as much as the nation-states are. It is highly imperfect: it is unfair and chaotic, being led as it is by short-sighted philistines. But it is being undermined by frankly reactionary governments, especially from the former Habsburg empire, abandoned by England and subjected to the unremitting hostility of the new regime in the United States and of Putin’s Russia.

This fundamental fact makes it unlikely that an anti-European Left is possible: the thrust of the attack of the main enemy – the extreme Right – makes the hostility among many of us felt towards the European Union futile at best, suicidal at worst. The League of Nations was unloved, too, but its dissolution led to Munich and to the Nazi conquest of Europe. It is always self-defeating when the Left allies itself with, or allows itself to be the dupe of, nationalist, ethnicist, xenophobic or racist forces of whatever nature, and it has also been frequently dishonourable.

This historical rule of thumb is shown to be valid again in the most burning issue of the moment, the refugee crisis, specifically, and the migration problem generally, caused by global and regional inequality, by war and by the ecological disaster. Migration has been used efficiently by the far Right everywhere to take power and to change political opinion into one dominated not simply by authoritarianism as such, but by a veritable passion of inequality, aiming – like fascism – at the obliteration of the whole heritage of Enlightenment and at a preventive counter-revolution against a possible socialist renewal.

And we see the likes of Sahra Wagenknecht – one of the most influential leaders of the German, and hence of the European, Left – mouthing xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-European platitudes in the by now customary ‘left populist’ style that I consider a menace. This does not help to address the chief peril – the post-fascist domination of politics and the new decline of bourgeois liberalism – to the world and to ourselves. READ MORE

One Question
Class Struggle Today

One Question
Class Struggle Today

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 does class struggle mean today?

With responses from: Dario Azzellini; Cinzia Arruzza; Jeffery R Webber; Adam Hanieh; Shahrzad Mojab; Guilherme Leite Gonçalves; Immanuel Ness; Demet Şahende Dinler; Cenk Saraçoğlu; Justin Akers Chacón; María Pía Lara; Terrell Carver; Charles Umney; Raju J Das.

Class Struggle

Dario Azzellini

Class struggle, that is, the struggle between labour and capital, is not at all a concept that belongs to the past. In a world of growing inequality, it is a reality more pertinent than ever. A recent study has revealed that since 2008 the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average of 6% a year, while the wealth of the remaining 99% of the world’s population has been growing by only 3%. By 2030, the world’s richest 1% will control nearly two-thirds of the world’s wealth.

With the victory of neoliberalism, governments have stopped acting as mediators between capital and labour with the aim of mitigating inequality. Hence, in the Northern hemisphere, unions that are still based on the idea of social partnership are often unable to wage offensive struggles. At best, they fight to maintain the status quo and, even then, more often than not, they are unsuccessful.

This does not mean that offensive struggles are not possible anymore; on the contrary, they are possible and necessary. Some unions, mostly pushed by the rank and file, have come to realise this fact and to radicalise their struggles. Some newer or smaller unions, along with self-organised workers around the world, have waged successful offensive struggles. Moreover, in many countries of the global South, where class compromise has never been an option advanced by capital, unions have always been more militant.

If workers are to become empowered and fight capitalist exploitation, it is fundamental that they avoid the trap of division along national, gender or ethnic lines. Class struggle cannot be successful unless it is transnational and antiracist. To fight transnational and global capital, workers have to coordinate across borders, as they have recently done in strikes at Amazon and Ryanair.

And considering that production and reproduction are two sides of the same medal, women’s struggle cannot be separated from class struggle. Working class women all over the world are proving this fact: from the female fast food workers at McDonalds in the US, who last September went on strike against sexual harassment in ten cities, to the five million women that went on strike in Spain on March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day, to denounce gender inequality, the wage gap, sexual discrimination and domestic violence.

Last but not least, company takeovers by workers who run their workplaces under self-management also demonstrate how class struggle can point beyond the wage relationship, towards the construction of a new world based on different values. The class strikes back. This is just the beginning. READ MORE

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is primarily considered an economic logic which promotes ideals of ‘free trade’, and reduces the role of government to a facilitator of deregulation and privatisation. But accompanying the economics has always been a particular worldview or ideology, and neoliberalism in fact relies on a whole social system of support and legitimation.

In his new book, Neoliberalism’s Demons, theologian and social theorist Adam Kotsko considers neoliberalism as a form of political theology, to understand how it functions in societies not only as a mode of economics, but also politically and culturally as a moral order. In this interview, I discuss with him some of the core ideas in the book.

Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons (Stanford University, 2018) and The Prince of This World (Stanford University, 2016), and the translator of many works by Giorgio Agamben. Visit his professional site for more information about his work, including links to articles and interviews.

Adam Kotsko

In your book, you approach neoliberalism from the perspective of political theology. What does political theology bring to the analysis of neoliberalism?

Adam Kotsko: Political theology has meant many things since the term was coined in the early 1920s by the German jurist Carl Schmitt, and so I was aware going into this project that I was at the risk of trying to explain the unknown by the unknown. In the book, I try to define the term in a way that is faithful to the intentions of earlier political theologians like Schmitt, while also making it more broadly useful. Ultimately, I view political theology as the study of the structures and sources of legitimacy – of the ways that people attempt to answer the question of who should be in charge and why.

A lot of times, people think of political theology as a discipline that points out parallels between theological and political structures – for instance, the sovereignty of the executive branch bears comparison with the sovereignty of God – but I think that the focus on legitimacy allows us to account for why those parallels exist: namely, because both the theological and the political orders are asking for our trust, for our faith. Neoliberalism is no exception to that, though most analyses of neoliberalism as a system do no foreground those questions of how the system legitimates itself. READ MORE

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