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.
Are we heading for another economic crash?
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.
Is democracy working?
Is democracy working? No. And yes.
What we have inherited as an idea of democracy, representative democracy under capitalism, is not working, cannot work, and was never intended to work.
Real democracy, however, participation where people feel heard and seen, where our ideas matter and have direct influence, effect and affect, is growing – and doing so from below – expanding and taking on new meanings as it moves further to the left – the affective left, where the heart resides, as the Zapatistas remind us.
The foundation of the United States, for example, the country where I live, explicitly warned against the ‘covetous majority’ in the founding documents of the nation – arguing for the need to keep the majority under the control of the minority land owners (white men). This intention has remained the same for over 200 years. Systems of voting for people who represent this class system do not create democracy. There can be better and worse representatives, and it is always preferable to have the better, but it does not result in rule by the people.
On the other hand, there is an ever-increasing dissatisfaction with this lack of democracy – read as participation in the things that matter in our lives – and in response people have been taking to the streets, squares, workplaces and universities to create alternatives – manifesting the sort of democracy desired. Having been long ignored by those who claim to represent us, and no longer looking to those institutions of power, people are looking to one another to defend ourselves and meet our needs.
Millions are doing things such as taking over workplaces by the hundreds in Argentina and dozens in Uruguay and Southern Europe; creating autonomous health care in Greece; alternative forms of adjudication from Chiapas and Guerrero, Mexico and Rojava; taking back tens of thousands of homes in Spain and over 17 million acres of land in Brazil, and on and on. Each example is organising horizontally, with direct and participatory democracy, autonomy and self-organisation – creating the desired future in the present – not asking for democracy, but making democracy real.
What is the biggest challenge facing women today?
If I had to summarise in a slogan the greatest challenge women face today, I would say that ‘taking feminism back’ is the one. From the 1990s onwards, contrary to the past, in a number of countries formal gender equality and the recognition of formal rights for LGBTQ people has ceased to be a taboo. Even right-wing political forces have started to adopt some form of ‘feminist’ discourse to justify their policies. The most notable phenomena in this sense are those recently labelled as ‘homonationalism’ and ‘femonationalism’, that is, the mobilisation of ideas of gender and sexual equality stemming from feminism and gay liberation struggles in order to justify military aggressions.
This, of course, is not a novel phenomenon as women’s bodies and ‘liberation’ have been instrumentalised by colonial forces already before. But neoliberal capitalism has managed to both exhume and greatly expand this practice. Besides this adoption of feminist slogans by nationalist and neoliberal forces, we have also witnessed an increasing capacity of right-wing or conservative parties to endorse women’s leadership: Sarah Palin, Marine Le Pen, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Giorgia Meloni are only some examples of this phenomenon, which shows all the limits of a formalistic approach to gender equality and the representation of women in elected institutions.
The candidature of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election of 2016 also marked the impasse of the liberal feminist approach to gender equality. Hillary Clinton, in fact, embodied the kind of lean-in feminism that privileges the experience and aspirations of upper middle class women, while leaving the rest behind. Her candidature also symbolised the disconnection between women’s representation in elected institutions and the improvement of the large majority of women’s lives.
The challenge we face today is, therefore, to retrieve feminism as a force of social transformation for all women – starting from the liberation of working class, migrant, trans women and women of colour – and as a form of critique of social relations in their complexity, starting from capitalism and its effects on women’s lives. Together with other feminist authors and activists I have labelled this anticapitalist and antiracist feminism as ‘feminism for the 99%’, by which we understand a class-based feminism capable of being a force of transformation not just for women, but also for what we understand by class struggle, and for the life on this planet as a whole.
How has Marx influenced your thinking?
This year, when Marx’s 200th Birthday is remembered, I am already 80 years old. After a long life of working in the universities of different countries, learning and teaching, continuously studying and rereading Marx, I can summarize that I can hardly imagine any useful scientific work in the social sciences and philosophy, at least for myself, without Marx.
Most influential was his insistence on contradictions as the driving force of all development. This discovery allows you to stop thinking in the boring and also dangerous patterns of enemy and friend, good and bad, and instead to study driving forces, form alliances, and intervene in changes by changing things yourself. Thereby you no longer think of history as a collection of dead facts, but can see fights, forces and counterforces, and even how you yourself are part of it, not just an object. This was especially influential in my life working with women and for women’s liberation, because they are far too often seen or see themselves as passive victims of men, of capitalism, of relations outside of them, as though they can do nothing themselves.
If you look at my writings you can easily see that one of my first internationally influential essays, ‘Women: Victims or Actors’, followed by my method of ‘memory-work’, bear witness to my energetically studying Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ over and over again, transferring them into research and politics for women’s liberation at the same time.
If you study Marx’s questionnaire for workers, you can criticize it because it has far too many questions and thus takes too many hours to respond. But at a second glance you see his invention, that he does not make workers objects of research by asking for their superficial opinions, but immediately makes them researchers of their lives, their workplaces, their situations, and their position in society. I adopted this procedure in my sociological seminars in adult education with great success. Not only did I get more insight into the issues at hand, but at the same time included students and changed their attitude towards learning – the possible use of their studying for all, and thus at the same time their self-confidence.
Most influential for my own research, therefore, were Marx’s dialectics. Dialectic ceased to be a strange and unknown word with a higher meaning for some insiders. It became the method of studying everyday life, as well as social developments at large. It meant looking at how everything is in motion, studying the side that was facing the direction of the process and trying to support it. This is how you can effectuate change and thereby change yourself. And this is how I still teach and do politics with Marx.
How Should We Remember 1968?
We should combat the hegemonic, whitewashed historical misrepresentation of 1968. That year was one of upheavals across the globe, yet dominant discussions are of white college students taking over universities and mostly white people protesting against the Vietnam War.
Understanding 1968 as part of a period from 1966 whose arc reached into the mid-1970s, we should remember Indigenous people’s struggles, new formulations of Black Power, poor people’s campaigns, women’s liberation and queer movements, and, beyond North America and Europe, we should remember uprisings and ongoing practices of decolonisation across the African continent, Asia, Australasia, and Latin America.
It is significant that 1968 and now 2018 call for reflections on the lives of freedom fighters. This year Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx would have been 200. Nelson Mandela would have been 100. We lost such fighters as Mamma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of Azania/South Africa, the Black Liberation Theologian James Cone, the great physicist Stephen Hawking, the Corsican liberationist Ghjuvan’Teramu Rocchi, the revolutionary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and so many more in the first half of 2018.
We should reflect on the global demand for freedom, marked by struggles for liberation and social justice. This requires also thinking through mistakes of what is generally called ‘the left’. While ‘the right’ unabashedly pursued power in their counter-revolutionary endeavours, an unfortunate development since the late 1960s is the left’s seeming allergy to power. This has had a catastrophic effect of the right seeking and acquiring rule with the left locked in a pattern of reaction in the form of protest as the primary expression of political life.
Power is the ability with access to the means to make things happen. It is crucial to understand that protest without power is ineffective. A both-and approach is needed. Disempowering fascism, new forms of colonisation, and unbridled capitalism, whose reach now threatens the ecological welfare of life on our planet, requires embracing positive power – empowering – through the building of institutions conducive to dignity, intelligence, and material conditions of freedom.
What is the future of Gaza?
The ongoing siege on the Gaza Strip was interrupted by three major Israeli wars: in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, with a total death toll that exceeded 5,000. Tens of thousands were wounded and maimed, and hundreds more were killed in the in-between, so-called ‘lull’ years. Coupled with a hermetic blockade, Gaza cannot rebuild most of its destroyed infrastructure, leading the United Nations to conclude that the tiny but overcrowded enclave will become ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. In many ways, however, and tragically so, it already is.
The future of Gaza will follow the same path of horrific wars and a suffocating siege if no new positive factors are injected into this dismal equation. Without a regional and international push to force Israel to loosen its grip, or to find alternative routes to assist the isolated Strip, misery will continue, even beyond 2020. ‘Uninhabitable’ or not, Israel has no plans to allow Gaza’s 2-million inhabitants, mostly refugees from historic Palestine, today’s Israel, to lead normal lives.
It is important to note that Israel is not solely responsible for Gaza’s current fate; Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are also culpable, each with its own agenda. Egypt, which shares the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, wants to ensure that Hamas, which it perceives as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, is isolated and weakened. The PA, which is controlled by the largest Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) faction, Fatah, is also hell-bent on defeating Hamas. Fatah lost a parliamentary election to Hamas in 2006, and does not wish to repeat that perceived folly by allowing another democratic election to take place.
Thus, the Palestinian political rift is important for all parties involved: Israel needs to demonise Hamas and, by extension, all of Gaza; Egypt wants to marginalise any strong Islamic political tide, and the PA in the West Bank wants to keep its rivals at bay. Despite Hamas’ regional politicking, it has so far failed to break away from its isolation. Gaza is, therefore, not a victim of Israel alone. True, the latter owns the largest shares in Gaza’s desolation, but other Arab and Palestinian parties are greatly invested and equally keen on keeping the hapless Strip on its knees.
If the status quo persists, a backlash is on the way, not just in terms of another deadly Israeli war to ‘downgrade’ the defenses of Palestinian resistance, but also in terms of social and political upheaval in Gaza and the West Bank. The large protests against the PA in Ramallah in recent days were violently suppressed by PA police and thugs, but West Bankers are growing angry over the subjugation of their Gaza brethren. Meanwhile, the mass rallies at the Gaza-Israel fence are an indication that Gazans are seeking alternative methods to fight back, even at the price of a high death and injury toll, as has been and continues to be the case.
Do we need a Universal Basic Income?
Danielle Guizzo & Will Stronge
The introduction of a basic income represents an important first step in the separation between wage labour and income. From an economic standpoint, this separation would mean a drastic change in the way capitalism currently reproduces itself: by commodifying one’s labour force into a tradable good that can be sold in the market for a price (a wage), capitalism has linked labour to the provision of the necessary means for living. Indeed, the adoption of a basic income system can offer two important aspects that would fundamentally change our current economic system.
First, basic income is ‘redistributive’: it represents a potential solution for some of the problems faced in advanced capitalism, namely stagnating wages, rising income inequality and the productivity puzzle: unilateral cash transfers would work as a safety net against the most immediate effects of in-work poverty (low pay, long working hours and poor working conditions), thus increasing bargaining power.
Second, basic income offers individual and collective ‘autonomy’: it reduces the ‘disciplinary complex’ that work currently offers (Guizzo & Stronge, 2018) and increases our free time. How many people would continue to work as much as they do if they had a source of income separated from work? A basic income could remedy the problem of economically necessary versus socially accepted jobs, offering the opportunity for people to dedicate themselves to socially valuable activities that are not (or very poorly) remunerated (e.g. housework, child care, looking after the elderly, starting a new degree, learning a new skill). Then, basic income could also be framed as a way to reduce gender and intra-generational inequality by remunerating traditionally undervalued and ‘feminised’ forms of work.
However, there are important caveats to such a redistributive and autonomous basic income system. First, it should not be seen as a replacement for the welfare state, or as an alternative for social benefits – on the contrary, basic income would only offer positive results as long as it is attached to a strong presence of the state and its system of social provisions. Second, a basic income system needs to be accompanied by a set of economic policies that seek to promote the socialisation of economic outcomes and social equality. Without these, it is unlikely that basic income can offer satisfactory results to the economic and social issues faced today.
Is the United Nations still relevant?
My initial response is to suggest that our current concern should be less on ‘whether relevant’ and more on ‘how relevant.’ If the question is put in this way, then I would suggest that the UN is less relevant, especially on peace and security and human rights issues, than it was in the years after it was established in 1945.
There are two different kinds of interpretation of UN relevance that seem helpful at this stage. If we look at the UN from the perspective of big global challenges in an ever more inter-connected world, then the need for a stronger UN is greater than ever before. It is difficult to envisage successful approaches to climate change, global migration, extreme poverty, and nuclear disarmament without a robust UN that enjoys the support of its leading members.
However, if we consider the UN from the perspective of current geopolitical trends, then it seems to have declined almost to the vanishing point with respect to overarching challenges that states acting on their own cannot hope to overcome. There is a global trend away from internationalism, with a renewed emphasis on ultra-nationalist approaches to a range of concerns including international trade, refugee policy, and security issues. It is not only the UN as a global problem-solving mechanism that is in decline, but the UN Charter as a guide to the limits on the behavior of sovereign states.
During the Cold War the ideological tensions between the West and the Soviet Bloc often paralysed the UN in the peace and security context. In the present global context, considering such issues as the Syrian and Yemen wars, the whole diplomatic process seems to depend on the contradictory policies of states concerned with the outcomes, with the UN a helpless spectator even in the face of sustained, unlawful, aggressive interventions that cause massive human suffering. The inability to protect the Palestinian people from the apartheid policies and practices of the Israeli state is another illustrative failure of the UN that makes a mockery of the claim to protect vulnerable people.
Despite these recent disappointments, it remains essential to appreciate the contributions that the UN continues to make in promoting human wellbeing. In countless ways that are not reported in the media, the UN contributes to our knowledge on health, education, culture, children, the environment, and human rights, in particular helping countries struggling to meet the basic needs of their citizens. Also, the UN is important in shaping Legitimacy Wars by assessing grievances and highlighting wrongdoing from the perspective of international law and morality. In this regard, the UN has helped the Palestinians gain the upper hand with world public opinion in their struggle for national self-determination, despite the geopolitical pressures mounted by Netanyahu/Trump seeking to extinguish their basic rights once and for all, and declare victory for Israel.
In sum, the UN has declined in current relevance due to the rise of ultra-nationalist leadership in many leading states at the very time when its role in providing human global governance is most urgently needed. The future of the UN, and of world order, depends on the progressive activism of civil society to attain a sustainable and desirable future world order, which must include enhancing the relevance of the UN for present and future generations.
What does class struggle mean today?
Both ‘class’ and ‘class struggle’ are key, though contested, terms among Marxist scholars and revolutionary activists whose project is to dismantle the power of the bourgeoisie as the dominant class in capitalism. Classes are not accidental or readily shifting aggregates of people stratified along lines of employment, rank, income, or life-chances. Class, in Marxist theory, provides dividing lines not only in the distribution of economic power but also in epistemology, ontology, ideology, philosophy, and politics.
From this perspective, class struggle involves much more than economic conflict between workers and capitalists. It is argued, in fact, that workers’ struggles for economic welfare alone offer nothing more than a perpetuation of capitalism and therefore the (re)production of capitalist social relations. Furthermore, it is imaginable, and to some extent achievable, to gain racial, sexual, or gender equality under capitalism, but it is not conceivable to eradicate racism and sexism without waging a class struggle against the racialised capitalist patriarchy.
Today it is ordinary to read about the extraordinary misery of life. The rise of theocratic fascism, within capitalist imperialism, is experienced globally; from famine, to the reemergence of slavery, to the public rape of women to mass migrations and incarceration. It is common to name such horrors as ‘dispossession,’ ‘expulsion,’ or ‘displacement.’ Naming these conditions, though it is a necessary and crucial step, remains inadequate for explicating why, how, or who, and does not help us to comprehend the entanglement of relations that make the appropriation of wealth, oppression, and exploitation possible.
There is a logic and an order in the capitalist imperialist world order. First, capitalism has to voraciously spread its economic and social relations through modes of being, doing, and thinking world over. Second, in this rapid movement, it intensifies a major contradiction: capitalism socialises production, that is, it absorbs the majority of women, men, and children in its perpetual production of profit. But, capitalism also privatises the profit produced by the toil of the working class. It is this process that produces class power.
The bourgeoisie, the owners of the means to produce and appropriate wealth is the class in power. The working people, constituting the 99%, are the actual producer of the wealth, but constitute the subordinate class. The question, therefore, if we understand capitalist class formation in this dialectical way, is how should we envision a revolutionary project to dismantle these power relations?
If class was the only source of social inequality, then revolutionary projects would likely be less complicated. Societies are also divided along the lines of gender, race, sexuality, language, religion, nationality, and ethnicity, to name only a few historical cleavages. Even more significant is the interlocking of these contradictions in ways that both threaten and strengthen the (re)production of class power.
Although the trinity of race-gender-class appears in the literature, one strong tendency in recent years has been a ‘retreat from class’ and ‘descent into discourse’, identity, language, desire, or performativity. Today, more than ever, the exclusion of class analysis has obscured the ways in which the social and economic formation of capitalism draws the contours of the struggle for power. In the absence of class perspectives, race and gender theories (best represented in intersectional analysis) make some aspect of capital imperialism endurable but will not be able to bring an end to this nightmare.
What are the challenges and opportunities for the Left in Europe?
Josep Maria Antentas
The Left in Europe undoubtedly faces innumerable challenges. We can perhaps boil these down to the need to build an internationalism of the 99%, which requires developing a coherent criticism of the EU, engaging in cross-border political activity, and shaping a plural political and social subject that fits our societies marked by growing fragmentation and diversity.
European integration has served as a lever for permanent neoliberal restructuring, for reinforcing the neoliberal goal of social de-politicisation and the emptying of politics itself. However, the European Left continues to have difficulties in articulating a convincing critique of the EU project, in a scenario where the xenophobic far Right has made frontal attack on the EU one of its key issues.
There exists a double strategic danger for the Left: leaving the monopoly of criticism of the EU to the far Right or, conversely, adopting the latter’s political frame of rejection of the EU on the exclusive grounds of national sovereignty and, therefore, entering a playing field favourable to reactionary forces. For this reason, internationalism must be an inseparable part of any strategy for opposing the EU. Solidarity and international cooperation should not be dissociated from national sovereignty, and any proposal of disobedience towards, and disengagement from, the EU should go parallel with the perspective of new models of integration and cooperation among European states.
In terms of the terrain of struggle, the challenge is to articulate dialectically the local, national or state (when the two do not overlap), and international scalar levels. It is not a question of opposing all these levels of action binarily, but of seeking to combine them in organisational, operational and programmatic terms through what Daniel Bensaïd called a ‘sliding scale of spaces’. The current phase of resistance to austerity policies has been dominated by the primacy of the national-state arena and internationally coordinated mobilisations and campaigns have been limited, despite some important initiatives, such as the meetings of Plan B and the campaign against TTIP (although the latter only took root in the domestic policy of certain countries). Strengthening the cross-border capacity for action and common thinking is a strategic priority.
Internationalism also has an ‘internal’ dimension – that is, building collective solidarities in societies that are increasingly plural in racial, cultural and linguistic terms, and increasingly individualised and fragmented. The positions from the Left that favour stricter regulation of immigration and asylum, which flirt with nativism, only serve to further divide the workers and dig a trench between ‘natives’ and immigrants. Although they are put forward with the argument of fighting the far Right they actually serve to generate a favourable framework for it. Made in the name of the working class, in fact, they constitute the very negation of genuine class politics. Racism is deeply embedded in the history of capitalism and an anti-capitalist or anti-austerity Left that it is not anti-racist, is in reality, empty of real emancipatory strategic potential.