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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

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
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
Universal Basic Income

One Question
Universal Basic Income

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:

Do we need a Universal Basic Income?

With responses from: Julie Wark; Doug Henwood; Peter Frase; Heikki Patomaki; Danielle Guizzo & Will Stronge; Karl Widerquist; Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora; Alyssa Battistoni; Danny Dorling; Francine Mestrum; Daniel Raventós; Louise Haagh.

Universal Basic Income

Julie Wark

Understanding that the ‘we’ in the question includes everybody then, from the human rights perspective, I say yes. A big yes because, if human beings have any valid claim of need at all, it is the basic right to a dignified material existence without which all other rights are impossible. Accordingly, human rights don’t float around outside political economy but must be grounded in social institutions and guaranteed by real mechanisms.

In the neoliberal system, human rights are given with declarations and snatched away by the real world. As great fortunes are made, human rights are trashed. And there’s a racist skewing here. Most victims are dark-skinned (just look at the world’s twenty poorest countries) but are subsumed as a colour-free group called ‘the poor’.

If we’re not already living in a dystopia, it’s just around the corner. You only have to read the recent (almost zombie-genre) Davos reports talking about rich people in strongholds and chaos reigning outside. States have created so many scapegoats: black kids who get shot by white cops, ‘bad-hombres’ immigrants, Muslim ‘terrorists’, homeless ‘felons’, ‘traitor’ journalists… Extreme injustice and cruelty, for example in the treatment of refugees, is normal. The planet itself is threatened.

Any struggle against this awful situation will require a political economy aiming at guaranteeing the right of existence for everyone, real freedom, and a decent standard of living (housing, education, health, culture, environment, etc.). Nobel laureate Herbert Simon writes that social capital belongs jointly to all members of society, so the producer should get a small share of the profits and the rest should be taxed and redistributed as an unconditional universal basic income. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that the universal sense of basic income is that it could help to transform the way we treat our whole (social and physical) environment.

Basic income is possible. It can be financed. Any obstacle isn’t a problem of economics but of politics. So far, basic income is the best mechanism on offer for any project of trying to make real the three essential principles of universal human rights: justice, freedom and human dignity. And it holds out a viable means for attaining this. So the next question is, do we care enough to try? READ MORE

One Question
Marx at 200

One Question
Marx at 200

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

This month, to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on 5th May, we ask:

How has Marx influenced your thinking?

Responses from: Ursula Huws; Sven-Eric Liedman; Terrell Carver; Jayati Ghosh; Wolfgang Streeck; Frigga Haug; Lucia Pradella; Neil Faulkner; Lars T Lih; Esther Leslie; Guilherme Leite Gonçalves; Michael Roberts.

 

Ursula Huws

Marx helped me understand how capitalism works. There are many developments he did not predict, but he bequeathed us tools to unpick the business models and explain the processes by which capitalism continues to expand and develop, and the creative-destructive way it lurches from crisis to crisis, transforming labour and everyday life along the way. As he put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones’.

Using his concepts, we can see how the continuous need for expansion drives a voracious appetite to seek out new sites of accumulation and how this sucks more and more aspects of human activity within the scope of the market, opening up new opportunities for making money out of them. To quote again from his Communist Manifesto, ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’.

For me, the concept of ‘commodification’ is key to understanding these dynamics. In Marx’s day, industrialists took activities that were previously based in the household, such as weaving, sewing, making cleaning materials and preparing food, and, turned them into standard commodities, forming the basis for huge new industries. New machines played a key role in this. In our own times, new commodities are being generated from art and culture and the exploitation of the natural world, as well as many other aspects of daily life and sociality. We are turned into customers, even for such basic aspects of subsistence as health, clean water and the ability to communicate. This locks us into an ever-greater dependence on the market. To change this situation we will have to find a collective way to say ‘No’! 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