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Jodi Dean
Comrade

Jodi Dean
Comrade

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

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

Jodi Dean

How do you define the term ‘comrade’?

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

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

One Question
Greta Thunberg and
the School Climate Strikes

One Question
Greta Thunberg and
the School Climate Strikes

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

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

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

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

Greta Thunberg

Simon Pirani

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

The concept of ‘identity politics’ is central to a great deal of mainstream political discussion, both on the left and right. On one side, it is a form of politics that asserts the rights of marginalised groups against entrenched cultural (white male) privilege. On the other, it is an elitist drive to curtail free speech and undermine traditional values. But how does it relate to a more radical left-wing project? Has identity politics become a politics of the establishment? What kind of role must it perform in a mass movement for radical social change? In his new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider considers the history and modern form of identity politics, and what it means for the development of collaborative social movements. In the following interview I discuss some of the important points he raises.

Asad Haider

Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018)

How was the emergence of identity politics in the 1970s important as a critique of the socialist politics of the time? Does modern identity politics continue to perform the same function?

Asad Haider: I advocate being very specific about terminology, so I associate the emergence of the term identity politics with the Combahee River Collective’s statement in 1977, which posed an essential challenge to the class reductionism of past socialist movements – that is, the assumption of these movements that economic exploitation was experienced in a unitary way, that other forms of domination were peripheral, and that struggles against other forms of oppression were subordinate to class politics. It was also a challenge to the black liberation movement and the feminist movement, because the specific position of black women was not taken into account. ‘Identity politics’ in this case meant producing a more radical struggle against all forms of oppression.

In my book, I jump from the introduction of that term to its usage during the 2016 primaries in the US, during which it was used to defend the Democratic Party elites and their agenda against challenges internal to the party, but which were riding the wave of previous social movements. ‘Identity politics’ in this context was seen in opposition to socialism, which was represented as necessarily exclusionary. This was not an attempt to enrich socialism and realise an emancipatory potential that had been suppressed by exclusion; it was a weaponised deployment of identity to prevent a shift to the left.

The point is that, like any word, the meaning of ‘identity politics’ is highly contested, and that its usage today is frequently diametrically opposed to its original usage. I am sympathetic to those who want to reclaim its original usage, but it seems to me that this will be very difficult, because the whole apparatus of the media and the liberal intelligentsia have appropriated the term, and have reshaped its meaning in such a way that it carries new effects; it will never simply return to its ‘pure,’ original usage, but will now also carry with it the resistance to coalitions, the opposition to socialism, the reduction of politics to a demand for recognition by the state. My intention in the book is to recognise the valuable and necessary contribution of the founders of the term, while criticising its contemporary appropriation and beginning to look for other languages that can carry on that emancipatory project. READ MORE

One Question
Gaza

One Question
Gaza

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

This month, we ask:

What is the future of Gaza?

With responses from: Ramzy Baroud; Richard Falk; Sara Roy; Abdalhadi Alijla; Norman Finkelstein; Huwaida Arraf; Toufic Haddad; Atef Alshaer; Helga Tawil-Souri; Hagar Kotef; Joel Beinin; Magid Shihade; Ran Greenstein; Richard Hardigan; Salman Abu Sitta.

The future of Gaza

Ramzy Baroud

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. READ MORE

One Question
1968

One Question
1968

One 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 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we ask:

How Should We Remember 1968?

With responses from: Lewis Gordon; Rachel Harrison; Françoise Vergès; Daniel A Gordon; Max Elbaum; Robyn C Spencer; Gabriel Rockhill; Stephen Milder; Sarah Lincoln; Eric Mann; Ron Jacobs; Nadia Yala Kisukidi; R A Judy; Leo Zeilig; Catherine Samary; Stephen D’arcy.

Internationale Vietnam Konferenz 1968

Lewis Gordon

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. READ MORE