Posts Tagged ‘Max Weber’

Laurence Davis: “Only a Bold and Popular Left Radicalism Can Stop the Rise of Fascism”

March 11, 2017

Written by Laurence Davis and published on Open Democracy, 12 February 2017

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition.


Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, Heidelberg, 1964. Wikicommons/Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Some right reserved.

Two new worlds are now struggling to be born amidst the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation. The first is the waking nightmare now unfolding in the United States in the glare of the international media. A reality show with a cast of horrors, its politically successful mix of faux right-wing populism and neo-fascism has inspired and emboldened autocrats everywhere and threatens in the absence of an effective counter-power to become our new global reality.

The second, a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist world, may be detected in what Colin Ward once described as scattered ‘seeds beneath the snow’. Deeply rooted in a rich soil of ideas and grounded utopian imagination nourished by countless counter-cultural critics of capitalism, industrialism and grow-or-die economics from William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus to Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Murray Bookchin and Ursula Le Guin – as well as a long history of popular movements from below working together to resist regimes of domination and develop progressive and sustainable alternatives to them – the tender shoots of another world are emerging all around us.

They are visible in a wide range of grassroots practices, movements, and practical utopias, from Buen Vivir in the Andes, Ubuntu in South Africa, Ecoswaraj in India, Zapatismo in Mexico, and the budding degrowth movement in Europe to solidarity economies, commoning activities, permaculture projects, re-localisation movements, community currencies, transition towns, co-operatives, eco-communities, worker occupied factories, indigenous people’s assemblies, alternative media and arts, human-scale technologies, basic and maximum income experiments, debt audit movements, radical democratic movements such as Occupy and democratic confederalism in Rojava, and emerging anti-fascist fronts and coalitions uniting immigrant solidarity groups, anti-racists, feminists, queers, anarchists, libertarian socialists and many others.

The great danger we now face is that newly empowered forces of reaction will use that power to repress progressive alternatives before they are able to coalesce as an effective counter-power, sowing seeds of hatred and intolerance instead.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic or centre-left political persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and suggested that the most effective antidote to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to social democracy and market globalisation with a ‘human face’. Rather than seek to understand the complex mix of reasons why American citizens voted for a demagogue like Trump, they blame an undifferentiated ‘populism’ and advocate more elite democracy instead.

The breathtaking naivety of this commentary is perhaps matched in recent memory only by Francis Fukuyama’s equally naïve and now risible prediction in 1989 of an ‘end of history’, i.e. an end to mankind’s ideological evolution with the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.

Walter Benjamin, Paris, 1939

Now more than ever, it is vital that we recognise and articulate careful ideological distinctions between competing right and left wing varieties of populism, and that those of us committed to values like equality, democracy and solidarity take urgent action to oppose Trumpism and the rise of fascism not with more of the same failed elite-led liberal democracy, but with a bold left egalitarian and inclusive radicalism.

The Trump campaign gave voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political establishment. It castigated the elitism and corruption of the system, emphasised its ineffectuality in the face of sinister threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could ‘make America great again’. It succeeded by peddling false solutions and scapegoats for real social problems generated by the governance of interconnected political and economic elites.

By contrast, a bold and inclusive left populist radicalism would expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. It would offer a generous vision of a better world, and a sweeping programme for revolutionary social change that can be translated into everyday practice.

This will require a reconnection with revolutionary roots. Historically, revolutionary ideas and social movements have tended to emerge out of, and give ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

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

KPFK Interview on Eros and Revolution

April 17, 2016

PO_SCSS86_01 (3)-1

On April 11, I was invited to speak with Chris Burnett, host of the Indymedia on Air program (KPFK 90.7, Los Angeles), about my forthcoming book, Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse.  The recording of our conversation can be found below.

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

After the Climate Movement: Ecology and Politics in the 21st Century (1/2)

September 12, 2014


[This is part one of a two-part interview. The next part is forthcoming.]

Also published on Counterpunch, 15 September 2014

Edited by Counterpunch regular Alexander Reid Ross and newly published by AK Press, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab assembles a formidable collection of articles and reports written by scholars and activists from North and South alike who are concerned with the distressing acceleration of massive land-expropriations executed by capitalist interests in recent years. Otherwise known as the “New Scramble for Africa,” the “New Great Game,” or the “Global Land Rush,” the global land grab has involved the acquisition by foreign power-groups of anywhere between 56 and 203 million hectares of lands belonging to Southern societies since the turn of the millennium. The corporations responsible for this massive privatization scheme hail from both wealthy and middle-income countries: India, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China, and the U.S., among others.

In part, the global land grab can be explained by the progression of ecological degradation, particularly through climate change, as combined with the desire of the ruling classes of these countries to ensure food security for their populations—the fate of local populations in the countries whose lands are colonized for export-oriented production be damned. Another factor has to do with the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the transnational financial aristocracy, who are lending out capital less readily now during the Great Recession than before, such that they have more capital on hand with which to invest in overseas land ventures. However, not all the territory which has been usurped by corporations and banks of late is to be dedicated exclusively to food production; much of it instead will be directed toward the cultivation of agrofuels (biofuels) that are slated to replace petroleum to a limited extent as a base or transitional fossil fuel, with this being a situation that can be expected greatly to exacerbate food insecurity and starvation in the countries whose governments welcome (re)colonization. The scale of investment in agrofuels is truly staggering, in light of plans to occupy almost 6 percent of the territory of Liberia and 10 percent of that of Sierra Leone with African palm plantations; a similar if more immediately acute dynamic is unfolding in Indonesia and Malaysia, whose vast swathes of tropical rainforests are being expeditiously torn down in favor of palm oil crops. Summarized briefly and correctly by Sasha and Helen Yost, this process is one whereby land-based communities are dispossessed in order to “feed the industrial nightmare of climate change.”

The focus of Grabbing Back, as the title suggests, however, is not exclusively to analyze the machinations of global capital, but rather much more to investigate a multitude of forms of resistance to the land grab, from militant ecological direct actions to port strikes and land occupations (or decolonizations). Bringing together such dissident writers as Vandana Shiva, Silvia Federici, Benjamin Dangl, Andrej Grubačić, Noam Chomsky, Max Rameau, scott crow, and Grace Lee Boggs, Grabbing Back presents a number of critically important perspectives on resisting the land grab in particular and global capitalism in general. It is with great pleasure, then, that I have had the opportunity to interview Sasha on the magnificent volume he has edited.

Sasha, your editorial introduction to Grabbing Back frames the collection of essays within a tour de force overview of what you see as the most important factors driving the global land grab. You list these origins—quite rightly, in my view—as climate change, financial speculation, the “Great Recession” of 2008, resource scarcity and extractivist policies and orientations, as well as established imperialist history. Of these, I would like to examine the last of these concerns, in light of the clearly neo-colonial implications of mass-capitalist land expropriations today.

Given that empire is yet to be abolished, analyses of past experiments in European colonialism are quite germane to the present predicament, as you observe, like Hannah Arendt did before you in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The madman capitalist Cecil B. Rhodes, who sought to found a “Red” (or British) Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to the Nile Delta, is famous for his saying that he would “annex the planets if [he] could.” The domination and enslavement of peoples of color seen in formal colonialism, coupled with the mass-suffering, deprivation, and super-exploitation of said peoples for which neoliberalism and the “Mafia Doctrine” are responsible, has severely constrained the latitude which Southern societies have been able to exercise in terms of alternatives to capital in the modern and postcolonial periods.

Within the schools of political economy and critical development studies, this problematic is known as the “path dependence” imposed by historical circumstance:1 for humans “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852]). Please discuss examples of resistance to the imposition of thanotic capital, as examined in Grabbing Back and beyond.

The three discursive positions of the Mafia Doctrine, Dependency Theory, and Marxism that you cite are extremely important in breaking down, or attempting to understand, the critical movements against land grabs around the world, and they each encircle one another in a growing overview of the processes at work. I think we can approach this triad with a claim that resistance to the Global Land Grab, and the capitalist process of accumulation outlined above, might counter the dominant paradigm with a three-part response.

1. From what I have observed, virtually every position against the current swathe of land grabs formulates itself as a small community-led movement, linked to one another by a generalized refusal of the schema of globalization. Not every movement has achieved the kind of generality necessary to comprise a mass rejection of the system, as with the People Power movements that swept through the Asia Pacific in the 1980s and the rise of Latin American populism in the late 1990s, but they all reject the position of North Atlantic hegemony. 

2. Neocolonial dependency is at the heart of the Global Land Grab, which is essentially becoming a hegemonic struggle over resources between the growing BRICS sphere of influence and the NATO bloc. As has been shown in the Central Africa Republic, both during the Scramble for Africa and today, Imperialist countries are perfectly happy to watch a country implode, as long as their resources stay out of the hands of Imperialist rivals. Resistance to the Global Land Grab, therefore, can emerge within a developmentalist paradigm as a kind of radical synthesis of a movement that is antithetical to globalization. This is what we see in Bolivia and Ecuador today, where Indigenous peoples are rising up against the developmentalist model forwarded by governments who seek to remain independent from the North Atlantic, but cannot maintain their integrity as sovereign nations without making concessions to capital.

3. The problem with transforming the diplomatic relations of a nation state lies in the continuing failure of the model of the nation state, itself, which is what Marx points to in the 18th Brumaire. So the last position that I would say that many resistance movements take to the Global Land Grab is one of tacit refusal, not only of globalization and of developmentalism (or extractivism), but of the idea of diplomatic relations as they stand today. It is as impossible for the idea of the nation state to move “beyond capital” as it is for the modern field of geo-politics (developed at the turn of the 20th Century by German nationalists) to recognize alternative forms of power. For this reason, I would argue, many formations of resistance to the Global Land Grab share characteristics of what Maia Ramnath calls a kind of “decolonizing anarchism.”2

So this triad of (1) resistance to neoliberalism, (2) formulation of alternate diplomatic articulation, and (3) rejection of the geopolitical paradigm is somewhat interpenetrating, moving, it would appear, from generality to particularity in one perspective (generally against globalization, specifically towards the slogan “a new world is possible”) and then in the opposite direction from another perspective (specifically against globalization and generally in favor of what Chatterjee calls “timeless” liberation outside of historicity).3

Ward Anseeuw and Mike Taylor’s essay in Grabbing Back on “Factors Shaping the Global Land Rush” identifies the Weberian tendency toward neo-patrimonialism as contributing to the “corruption” of the authorities who facilitate land expropriations in the global South, and they furthermore point to a lack of decentralization of power; a widespread institutional disregard for the customary, informal, and usufruct property regimes utilized by the majority of the world’s rural denizens; statist ideological and policy biases against small-holder agriculture in favor of industrialization and the maximization of growth; and a brutally business-oriented global governance structure—as manifested for example in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the myriad treaties on investment, and the machinations of international commercial arbitration bodies—as other key drivers of the present land grab. Concluding their article, Anseeuw and Taylor close by highlighting the greatly accelerated trend toward foreign expropriation of territory in the global South since 2005, and they grimly observe that “today’s enhanced investor interest in land resources is unlikely to go away for the foreseeable future” (my emphasis). Would you say that you agree with such an assessment? In one of your editorial sections, you do write that “[w]hat we have to look forward to, then, is a twenty-first century full of oil palm land grabs.”

It is a pretty terrible situation, and I can’t pretend to predict the future. In Thailand, just a few months after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected, populist government of Yingluck Shinawatra [in May 2014], the military junta installed a new constitution, put into place a fully-military cabinet, abolished the farm subsidy program, and announced an agricultural switch to palm oil plantations in the South where most of the insurgency is happening. At the same time, people in countries like Liberia and Indonesia continue to fight the spread of multinational corporations’ oil palm land grabs on their land, while the REDD+ climate accords seem to be opening the door for more transformation of biodiverse forests into monocrop palm oil plantations. In the US, something like half of agricultural land is going to be put on the market over the next 20 years, and Wall Street is more than interested. As long as palm oil is seen as a solution to the climate crisis, the demand will increase, and so will the number and size of plantations. As long as the financialization of markets, the deregulation on derivatives and speculation on commodities continues, food crises and the accumulation of capital will continue apace. It’s not just a question of resource scarcity; it’s about waste, overproduction, and the unequal distribution of knowledge and power through capitalism.

In her essay for Grabbing Back, “Women, Land-Struggles, and Globalization: An International Perspective,” Silvia Federici highlights the global participation of women in forest-defense and reafforestation struggles—Chipko in northern India and the “Green Belt Movement,” for instance—and she notes the crucial contributions made by the world’s female subsistence farmers, who ensure that billions of our sisters and brothers survive while instituting organic, anti-capitalist practices that hold great promise as regards the cause of self-management. Similarly, in “Black Women on the Edge,” Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha converse on a black women’s uprising for land and housing rights in Gamboa de Baixo, Brazil, which has resulted in a process that has significantly expanded ordinary women’s economic and sexual freedoms in that community. How do you see militant feminism and women’s liberation movements intervening to disrupt the vast concentrations of power and wealth of our day?

I think that these movements for gender and sexual liberation are absolutely essential. What Keisha-Khan Y. Perry and Cristina da Silva Caminha show us in their discussion is that the fight for land binds these women together through a shared sense of place, giving them greater power within their community to stand against patriarchy not only in the city, but in their small enclave. Really, I think that like Mike Taylor and Ward Anseeuw say, the struggle against extractivism has become a struggle against neo-patrimonialism as well as patriarchy; it is a struggle, in Uganda for instance, against the combination of witch trials and antihomosexuality laws that are instigated and encouraged through US religious-right groups like the abhorrent International House of Prayer (IHOP).4

In her essays, Federici shows that women are so often in the lead as to become the object of repression when the corporation or State (or both) want to take over, and as Fanon noted in Wretched of the Earth, adulterated tradition often becomes the fulcrum by which colonial power is able to deploy a “native” population against itself. The sense of standing up on one’s own, being joined by a community of participants, and working to establish a sense of place and self-management is really what is at the heart of the resistance movements that we are discussing in Grabbing Back, and the leadership of powerful feminisms of Vandana Shiva, Helen Yost, Federici, Perry, and da Silva Caminha have been important in guiding my own thought and action.

Graham Peebles presents a moving anti-authoritarian analysis of the Ethiopian State’s forcible displacement (“resettlement” or “villagization”) of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from the southwestern Gambella region and the Lower Omo Valley to make way for massive foreign-owned export-oriented agricultural schemes and a hydroelectric megaproject named Gibe III, respectively, in “Destructive Development and Land Sales in Ethiopia.” Indeed, in some ways this essay brings to mind the chapter James C. Scott dedicates in Seeing Like a State (1998) to the mass-forcible resettlement campaigns engaged in by Julius Nyerere’s authoritarian-socialist government in Tanzania (1973-1976), which are not so different the State-led agricultural collectivization imposed by the Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in Ethiopia itself (1974). Yet Peebles closes his report for Grabbing Back by hailing the prospect of a legal case against the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for its contributions to the financing of the Gibe III project, and he waxes almost utopian about the obligations which all involved parties—the Ethiopian State, foreign investors, DFID, and the World Bank—have as regards the people whose fundamental rights they are violating through dispossession. My question to you in this case, as in the case of the land grab more generally and naked power politics or Realpolitik broadly conceived, is what potential—if any—you see in legalistic and incrementalist approaches to accountability for corporate and State crimes and the larger struggle for anti-systemic social change?

I’m glad you brought up Julius Nyerere. It is hard to disagree with Scott. I believe very strongly, as he does, that it is important to create dewesternizing models of power. The difference between Nyerere’s villagizaton project in Tanzania and what we are seeing in Ethiopia now is that the former was an attempt to modernize and generate a technical base for the subjective engagement in global hegemony, such that the IMF and World Bank could be avoided. It did not work, in the end, but Nyerere stood out as a symbol of resistance to the debt crisis when much of the Global South had been submerged in crisis.5

In a way, Nyerere’s ideal was a kind of autogestion, but of course its failure was that the government cannot mandate autogestion. I would almost venture to say that the neo-Sandinistas are closer to Nyerere’s ideals, although they have followed it up with a far less modernist (and more egalitarian) appraisal of how to “do” land reform. Of course, on the other hand, when you think of Nicaragua today, you think of the huge canal that a Chinese aristocrat has decided to cut through the land, which would have drastic consequences for Lake Cocibolca and the Rama and Garifuna communities. This is why state politics is always “dancing with dynamite,” in the phrase that Ben Dangl uses.

Is there the possibility for some accountability for egregious offenders through state and international entities? Yes, but only when it’s “in their interests.” Take the trial of the leaders of the RUF [Revolutionary United Front, i.e. anti-government opposition in Sierra Leone], for example. The trial was not controversial in the North Atlantic. Clearly these people had engaged in the training and deployment of child soldiers, and numerous atrocities were executed in their names. Yet, the trials came only after the leaders disarmed the RUF and engaged in a successful peace process; how unheard of is it to undergo a peace process in good faith, and then try and convict the leaders of the combating force?6 Yes, they are international violators of human rights and should be convicted, but it seems as though that frame of mind only works when you also have to look at the hypocrisy of the countries involved in the convicting—do the leaders of the US and EU not have war crimes executed in their names? Should they not also be held accountable? If there is such a thing as justice, then of course they should.

This is the same argument that Ahjamu Umi makes in Grabbing Back about people of color, mostly African American youths, sent to prison for emulating the gangsterism of the bankers, lobbyists, and politicians—did they do something wrong? Yes. But what about the rich who are getting away with the same kind of crime, only on a far grander scale? It goes back to the British imperialist Benjamin Disraeli’s famous missive, “what is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.” The racist prison industry and militarization of the police is part of the transformation of the spatial composition of the city and the disempowerment of communities of color, which has been going on since the 1970s, and is precisely what we are seeing with police harassment in places like Furgeson. The same paradigm goes on in the diplomatic arena for all to see when the US points out a humanitarian crisis (Libya in 2011, for instance) that it’s in its interests to solve (through more civilian bloodshed, of course).

The problem of universal justice is where the flaws in international institutions always lie, and why it is critical to maintain organizational distance from them, even when working within or with them. Who defines justice, freedom, virtue, liberation?—these are all questions that boil down to hegemony. But I don’t see a complete separation from state apparatuses as exigent; if I believed that, I would say our movement doesn’t need lawyers or professors, workers who practice their values on the shop floor, and so on. You have written about Robespierre in the past; do you believe in an antagonistic force against the state, or do you believe that a “State of Virtue” can be established, as he did?

I think this “State of Virtue” is a very interesting idea. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Robespierre’s youthful lieutenant in the Committee of Public Safety, famously desired virtue and reason to come to be instituted by popular custom, rather than merely be mandated from above—as from the Committee of Public Safety itself! Idealistically, Robespierre and Saint-Just believed the people to act as a sort of reservoir for reason and virtue, such that history is not indefinitely compromised if the counter-revolution is seen to be hegemonic. One must contrast the hopes that the most radical Jacobins and the members of the Committee had for France as well as European and world history with the disagreeable means they resorted to in self-defense—in defense of the Revolution, or simply for self-preservation, depending on your perspective—particularly during the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794. In more than a few cases, the punishments meted out by the Revolution in this period were undeniably disproportionate, as anti-government insurgents of Lyons and Nantes would learn after being defeated by Jacobin forces. Certainly, Robespierre and Saint-Just had a point in emphasizing natural law, freedom, human happiness, and Enlightenment progress as guiding principles which were embodied to varying degrees during the Revolution—yet their facile resort to the guillotine and centralization forever mar their example, particularly when we think of Robespierre’s elimination of rival left-wing currents shortly before his fall: Georges Danton and his followers the Dantonists, in addition to the Hébertists, who subscribed to the thought of enragé Jacques Hébert—himself executed like Danton. That Robespierre and the Committee were overthrown by the Thermidorian reaction shortly after performing such purges is quite telling. Personally, I find the example of Gracchus Babeuf and the members of the Conspiracy of Equals, who drew up plans for insurrection against the Directory two years after the fall of Robespierre, far more inspiring than the Jacobin experience while in power—even though Babeuf and his co-conspirators admittedly were arrested before the planned uprising could be carried out, such that the “post-revolutionary” legacy of Jacobins and Babouvists can in no way be compared.

To return to present rather than historical questions of inequality and revolution, though—in “Biofuels, Land Grabs, Revolution,” you quite plainly note the “biofuel boom [to be] truly an extension of a prolonged colonial affair designed to displace subsistence, food-based autonomy for global commodity production,” and you show how international capital has little to offer the peoples of the world other than “sweat shops and extractive industries, make sancrosanct by International Financial Institutions and global trade partnerships.” I definitely agree with you, though I would argue that instead of calling them biofuels we refer to them as agrofuels, for there is certainly nothing biotic about this blight on humanity and nature—if we return to the etymological origins of the word βίος (bios), or life!

You point out the macabre relations imperialism and international finance have had with the meteoric expansion of agrofuel production in recent history, particularly in the case of Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia and Lever and the United Africa Company (UAC) in West Africa. However, in spite of the disconcerting implications the “agrofuel boom” has had for forest ecosystems and biodiversity in Malaysia especially—think of the fate of the orangutan (“person of the forest”) as a stand-in for the hundreds of thousands of species similarly imperiled by agrofuel-driven deforestation—you discuss the case of Madagascar, where the people overthrew the government after learning of its handing over of nearly half of the island-nation’s arable land to foreign investors, and of the Somali pirates as promising countercurrents. How do you see resistance trends developing effectively to check the suicidal trajectory of agrofuel expansion and capitalist imperialism more broadly?

Agrofuels, as you call them, are something that drive me up the wall. But it’s hilarious, because you can get someone from the oil industry talking about how bad land grabs are and how agrofuels don’t help the environment, but then you ask them about the tar sands, and a halo on their head glows a bit brighter. They act like the tar sands are just as clean as God’s toothbrush. Of course there’s lots of resistance to all of these things throughout the world, but they’re all different and shouldn’t be romanticized.

For instance, I’m not sure I would call Somali pirates “promising.” First of all, the shift of piracy is taking place towards the Gulf of Guinea, which has a direct relationship both to the peace agreements with MEND and the increasing amount of commodities shipped out of West Africa. They are better than some so-called “resistance movements,” but I would generally take note of them as a kind of necessary internality of the current system of global trade.

This is generally how resistance works, as Baudrillard tries to explain apropos terrorism—terrorism is not some sort of external enemy that attacks capitalism but rather is a product of capitalism almost to the same extent as a commodity is the product of capitalist exchange. Baudrillard claims that through its very totalization, capital creates a necessity within its structure for explosive events of difference. Through its dismissal and repression, it generates a kind of sublime internal enemy.

Insurgency is similar, but somewhat different, because insurgency represents not a media strategy to attract attention to a greater violence through a smaller act of seemingly random violence (which terrorism is in its basic form), but a more generalized and networked opposition that takes place on deeper, cultural levels. This is generally the response of colonized people to colonialism, which is why counterinsurgency arose during the British colonial experience in Malay and Kenya and the French colonial experience in Algeria, and it explains the proliferation of counterinsurgency operations throughout the world, not just by the US, but also Brazil, Russia, and Israel as a result of the global land grab. The more “multipolar” the global matrix of hegemony becomes, the more land grabs are resisted both internally and on the periphery.

In Madagascar, the resistance was generated through alternative structures, which were the traditional basis for the community sense of responsibility and justice (very different from our understanding of such a concept), and it spread through the rural areas into more generalized unrest. I see this happening in the US as well; while most geographers look to the metropolis as the center of unrest, I think there is a much more open field of resistance in the world today, partly as a result of extractivism, which is transforming the demographics of the world. It is relatively clear to me that we have environmentalism on the side of class consciousness on the one hand fighting things like oil trains, tar sands, and fracking, and then on the other hand, we have the forces of capital and extractivism in the forms of the ultra-right tea party, logging and oil companies, and ranchers.

Against all neoliberal Hegelianism and capitalist apologism, Andrew Herod in his Grabbing Back essay on “Ports as Places of Stickiness in a World of Global Flows” details the profound revocability and contingency of the capitalist monster, as revealed through an autonomous-Marxist or anarcho-syndicalist analysis of the great potential that workers—particularly dockers—have for impeding the smooth movement of capital flows. Like Chomsky, Herod sees solid community support as an important precondition for the successful intensification of worker militancy against the capitalist everyday. Indeed, his discussion of the sustained resistance engaged in by workers belonging to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) calls to mind the general strike organized by Occupy Oakland in November 2011, and his examination of the mutual aid shared between Australian and South African unions to resist formal Apartheid on the one hand and the anti-labor legislation contemplated by the Australian government in the 1990s on the other illuminates the fundamental reality that proletarian struggle is necessarily internationalist—as Marx and the (other) anarchists knew well. We can hope that coming waves of increased worker militancy will come to affirm the ecological general strike advocated by the Environmental Union Caucus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW EUC), so as to unite radical ecology with proletarian self-management in a militant struggle to defend nature and humanity. Keeping in mind the encouraging recent example of the blockades of the Israeli Zim ship on the U.S. West Coast in the wake of the Zionist State’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, what can you say about the future promise of such “logistical” approaches to anti-capitalist struggle?

I think it’s critical to remain open to tactics, but I think that you’re onto the right strategy. I don’t think it’s responsible to talk about land grabs without also talking about global trade, which is synonymous with the capitalist world-system. The simple truck and transport of so many useless manufactured goods and raw materials from one port to another to another is an important contributor to climate change in and of itself, but ports and shipping networks have also become central to the global land grab and extractivism.

You mention the port shutdown in Oakland, and I’d like to add the Longview, Oregon, cooperation between Rising Tide and the ILWU, which has been shut out of a bargaining agreement for a grain terminal. These two groups, ostensibly with little in common, have joined to shut down the port of Longview twice now, not only because of the grain terminal, but because of a prospective oil terminal to ship Bakken shale oil out through the West Coast. The ILWU respects their allies in the working class climate movement, and also thinks of the “bomb trains” as a hazard to the community.

There’s a point of collective interest that centers around both environmental concerns and the treatment of workers that has created a much needed and fully beneficial alliance. We do need more local systems of production and consumption, and we need greater emphasis on use value, rather than a constant system of symbolic exchange that effectively “borrows from itself” (as Adorno said of Heidegger’s philosophy). With this in mind, we need to develop those systems of social and ecological value that can translate into an equal or greater value than the capitalist paradigm, and that can only happen by sharing ideas, mobilizing together, and building community roots.

In the meantime, I think workers and ecologically-minded people (who are usually also workers!) need to organize together to build global resistance to the demented regimes of apartheid in Palestine as well as here in the US. In recent months, we have seen solidarity work magic through national protests against police brutality and military brutality abroad. Of course those things go together, and it’s that kind of double movement that will bring class consciousness (really also the consciousness of the urgent, historic task with which we are charged) that can bring us out of this “imperiled life,” as you describe it.

Apropos titles, what can you say about the conception of Grabbing Back‘s title? To me it is reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine’s song “Take the Power Back.”

Well, I was corresponding with Sam Moyo who teaches in South Africa and Zimbabwe, because I wanted to include some of his work in the compilation. Moyo’s work on postcolonial Zimbabwe illustrates the very complex hegemony that emerges out of decolonization and land reform. Incidentally, Johannes Wilm’s work chronicling land reform in Nicaragua is similar. Decolonization is not a process of leadership switching hands; it is a very intense transformation of a society, right down to the individual level, and this involves a kind of centripetal force that drives a postcolonial nation surging towards further liberation, land reform, and land occupations. When governments, like the Algerian coup [executed by Houari Boumédiène against Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965], try to control the surge of popular liberation, they are often met with widespread resistance, and then postcolonial countries become dragged down into dynamics of power and control.

So “grabbing back” is related to this complicated internal and external struggle of popular liberation movements fighting to take land back from multinational corporations by any means necessary, and then often fighting the new governments in a continuing and often frustrating rupture. It is not a kind of wishful or abstract thinking that puts all land grabs on the side of evil, but is in fact a complex power struggle where land is grabbed, grabbed back, territorialized and deterritorialized.

I do frequently have that line running through my head where Zach de la Rocha screams, “Take it back y’all, take it back y’all, take it back, take it back, take it back y’all!” I was actually in an anti-Arpaio march with him back in 2009, but he was up front I think. It was that infamous march where everybody got pepper sprayed, but that was my 15 minutes of habanero-eyed fame.

Many if not most of the essays collected in Grabbing Back explore direct action as a critical resistance measure, whether taken to block infernal industrial-capitalist megaprojects—as throughout much of rural China, where thousands of socio-ecological “group events” or mass disturbances have surged in the decades since trade liberalization, among the Mi’kmaq peoples resisting the “gas grab” in eastern Canada, and as instituted by members of the Wild Idaho and Portland Rising Tide chapters who have physically blockaded the movement of tar-sands megaloads—or as a means of land- and eviction-defense, as seen in Portland (Blazing Arrow and allied organizations), post-Katrina New Orleans (N.O.H.E.A.T.), and Haiti and South Africa (Take Back the Land and Abahlali Basemjondolo). Do you see all these direct actions made for the sake of humanity and nature as somehow coalescing in the future into a generalized anti-systemic multitude, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have theorized?

This is really a deeply philosophical question. I like Negri and Hardt very much; they are such wonderful people! Insofar as they are positing the multitude into the future, I think that they see a kind of avenire, “time-to-come,” as a futurity in the sense that [Ernst] Bloch talks about the “not yet.”

In his writings on Spinoza, Negri takes a route past reaction towards a sense of joy that is distinguished through an active coexistence: “For Spinoza, time exists only as liberation. Liberated time becomes the productive imagination, rooted in ethics. Liberated time is neither becoming, nor dialectic, nor mediation, but rather being that constructs itself, dynamic constitution, realized imagination. Time is not measure but ethics. Imagination also unveils the hidden dimensions of Spinozian being—this ethical being that is the being of revolution, the continuous ethical choice of production.” Together, Negri and Hardt write about “autonomous times” that are produced in the process of being together, which is very similar to what Grubačić’s essay in Grabbing Back refers to as “exilic spaces.”

In Declaration, Negri and Hardt write, “You can’t beat the prison, and you can’t fight the army. All you can do is flee… Since security functions so often by making you visible, you have to escape by refusing to be seen. Becoming invisible, too, is a kind of flight. The fugitive, the deserter, and the invisible are the real heroes (or antiheroes) of the struggle of the securitized to be free. But when you run, think of George Jackson and grab a weapon as you go.” This returns us to the Pan-African style of direct action written about by Ahjamu Umi and Max Rameau in Grabbing Back as well—not a flight of cowardice, but self-defense. This is how we ultimately have to view scott crow’s essay about Common Ground as well—a kind of radical space of exile that brings together people from all over the world to help others who are also struggling with their forced removal. This is what presents itself as liberation in time and space, a kind of being-for-others, which spreads through attraction.

But with this, are we not also assuming a kind of utopian futurity, which requires a different way of presenting ourselves in the here-and-now? Jürgen Habermas calls Bloch a “Marxist Schelling,” but I really think we have to understand the importance of [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte here as well to turn utopia into action. Fichte writes that freedom “is always posited into the future… to the extent that the individual himself is posited into the future.” Noting an ethical crisis of the individual in time, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, “Ethics for Fichte deals with the internal conflict which arises within each person between his natural impulse for self-preservation and his rational impulse to secure freedom through conformity to the moral law. The two impulses must be reconciled in such a way that rational freedom will prevail, and the individual will do his duty and fulfill his vocation. This can never be completely achieved in time, so the individual is immortal so that he may achieve his infinite duty.” We have this sense of the “future anterior,” the problem of what “would have been” that accompanies both the “not-yet-present” and the “alteriority of the past.” Our ethical task is to expiate our conscience through the present action of being, playing, and working together. This effectively generates what Katsiaficas calls the “eros effect,” the mass-spreading of autonomous struggle.

No stranger to such autonomous struggle, King continues in his philosophical contemplation of Fichte: “Man’s behavior is not only reactional. And there is always resentment in a reactionTo educate man to be actional, preserving in all his relations the basic respect for the basic values that constitute a human world, is the prime task of him who, having taken thought, prepares to act.” So the action, or the active life, brings us to a behavior consistent with liberation and hope, and a collective uprising of freedom becomes a matter of assuming a dignified role in history.

While the resilience identified by Grace Lee Boggs and company in their Grabbing Back essay exploring the life-affirming possibilities for a new, post-industrial Detroit is quite inspiring, one is struck by the proposal so rapidly to convert this historical center of industrial capitalism into a self-sufficient urban-agricultural oasis. Given the saturation of the city’s soils by the heavy metals emitted by all the polluting industries formerly concentrated there, does this recommendation not run the risk of worsening health outcomes for Detroit residents? Capitalism Nature Socialism editor Salvatore Engel-di Mauro has warned about this possibility, especially in his Ecology, Soils, and the Leftas elsewhere.

There are lots of ways of bringing soil back to health, which you can find in various permaculture books. Composting makes soil that is perfectly healthy, and some cities have compost programs that collect people’s food waste with the garbage, makes compose, and sells it back to people as soil for cheap. Other than this, lots of communities experiment with humanure, which actually creates tons of nutritious soil in a relatively short time period. In reality, this outdated notion of defecating in clean water in the midst of climate changed induced droughts should be viewed with the utmost shame and contempt, and our societies should be learning about how to live resilient, natural systems.

I am skeptical that composting and humanure can effectively negate the effects of heavy metals accumulated in soils.

Of course I share your opinion that cities aren’t just going to turn into utopias overnight, nor should we focus all of our efforts on the metropolis, as thinkers have tended to wish for in the past. There is a lot to be said for supporting rural movements that do not abide by the status quo, and for taking land away from the huge agribusiness cartels and (1) returning it to the Indigenous peoples; (2) if it’s possible, given the amount of affective trauma caused by the settler population on the Indigenous peoples and land, restoring the tradition of local farming in the US. I just don’t believe in a movement driven by white settlers in the US—it will turn out like the populist movement of the late 19th Century: horribly racist, politically opportunist, and cursed by its leaders to dissolve into the mire of party politics. You can call me a raging skeptic or a sunny idealist on that issue, but I would rather take that as a compliment than believe that we can overcome the colonial legacy through white leadership.

In an article examining Israel’s genocidal “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, acclaimed Guardian columnist Nafeez Ahmed presents the thesis that the latest Zionist pogrom finds its basis in the Israeli State’s desire to “uproot Hamas” to make way for the exploitation of the estimated $4 billion worth of gas deposits discovered off the coast of Gaza in 2000. Personally, I find such a view to typify “vulgar Marxism,” or economic determinism, the idea that all actions taken by States and capital are based in crass material interests. Of course, materialism is critical for understanding the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and mass-colonial land expropriation, as it is for the struggle to overcome Zionism altogether, as through BDS, direct action, and armed struggle—yet to rely solely or even largely on such a type of analysis would seem crucially to overlook the psychological, subjective, and ideological reasons for the perpetuation of Israeli racism and fascism toward the Palestinians, other Arabs, and Africans. What are your thoughts?

I think Nafeez Ahmed is a terrific and responsible journalist, and there are many dimensions to the fight in Gaza. In this case, he might be approaching the problem from a more old-fashioned geopolitical side, but in any case, you’re right to assert the many psychological dialectics of colonialism. I rely principally on the tremendous works of feminists like Valentine Moghadam (who even writes about Earth First!), Lila Abu-Lughod, and Saba Mahmood who provide some of the critical nuances on the impacts of globalization and diaspora on the consciousness of peoples, and whose observations on the dialectics of religion, gender, and postcolonial hegemony offer a kind of understanding that is very difficult to find in contemporary discourse.

We all know so little about the extent of suffering, the need for action, and the capacity to collaborate; there has been so much violence, so much hatred all in the name of this little, tiny place on a map, and why? Much of it is based on strange, spiritual conceptions of the sacred, even for people living thousands of miles away—simply because that’s what they were taught in their respective place of worship. For that reason, I think it’s important to maintain a materialist analysis of place, Indigeneity, and human dignity that resists a kind of religious claim to universalism, but I also agree that we are not going far enough when that materialism boils down to natural resources.

The settlers during the internal colonization of the US did not simply move to Oregon because of its natural resources; they moved there, because they believed they were on a spiritual mission to take land from the Natives and produce civilization. The hard Zionist right-wing represented in the Knesset is like this—as Moshe Dayan’s famous saying goes, “we are fated to live in a permanent state of fighting against the Arabs… for two things: the building of the land and the building of the people.” Just like most analyses of Tahrir Square and Diren Gezi Parki do not boil down to qualitative analyses of consumer economics, our analyses of “the other side” should not be so monolithic. In particular, we need to analyze the rise of populism throughout the world today, whether religious or cultural, and note how deterritorialization of the marketplace and “hegemonic masculinity” (to use Moghadam’s term) is leading to a backlash that Samir Amin likens to the rise of a new fascism.

1 Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo, Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999).

2 Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle, (Oakland: AK Press, 2011)

3 Partha Chaterjee, “For an Indian History of Peasant Struggle,” Social Scientist 16, no. 11 (1988): 15.

4 See the unsettling film, God Loves Uganda, dir: Roger Ross Williams (Pull Credit Productions: Brooklyn, 2013)

5 See Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso: New York, 2012)

6 For an interesting insight into this trial, see the film about Issa Sesay, War Don Don, dir: Rebecca Richman Cohen, Racing Horse Productions, Naked Edge Films, 2010