Newsletter #14: Building Left Power in Disorienting Times, with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown

by William Harris

What sort of times are we living through? As legal scholar Aziz Rana puts it in a blockbuster new Dig interview that also features fellow Dig superguests Nikhil Pal Singh, a historian, and Wendy Brown, a political philosopher, we live in a moment “consumed by history.” Nostalgia suffuses our politics. Myths of a vanished world of white, male breadwinners benignly lording over devout nuclear families propel an ever-zanier series of endless culture wars. “Critical Race Theory,” trans people using bathrooms, the politics of mask-wearing and vaccine mandates — the Right has become incredibly adept at politicizing manufactured controversies to strip away or capture the institutions of representative democracy, from local school boards to the Supreme Court, the gerrymandering of electoral districts to draconian voter ID laws.

These particular culture wars are at once, as Singh reminds us, “ruptural,” or genuinely new political phenomena, and “continuous,” part of a long American postwar story. With this in mind, our guests try to figure out how exactly to conceive of our moment. Does the Right have a positive political project, or is it now merely destructive? How should the Left respond to a disorienting culture war terrain in which the stage seems always set by the Right? And in a time of ecological devastation, US imperial decadence, and democratic erosion, the age-old question still presents itself: how can the Left build power?

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown here.

Building Left institutional power requires taking stock of the existing institutional landscape. Our guests map the major institutions within the broad left-of-center field and debate which ones, if any, might allow us to push forward socialist politics. Real disagreements arise — over how much primacy to afford the labor movement, and over how the Left can organize the unorganized — and we end up without “easy answers,” as Singh wrote on Twitter. But two takeaways stand out.

We come away with a rare synthetic view of the present, equally attendant to the longue durée of neoliberalism and the insane rush of the day’s news cycle. We come away, too, with a rare sense of hope. We live in a time “consumed by history,” to quote Rana again, when the “past order has broken down, and yet we don’t really have an idea of what’s going to come next.” This can open the door to useless and even reactionary nostalgia, but it can also invite us to learn anew from the dreams and achievements of past Left movements — and to feel our own time, despite its bleakness, as up for grabs.

Further Reading

Two recent essays discuss complementary issues. As Dan references in the interview, a new New York Times essay by Corey Robin analyzes why Biden’s presidency has left us with “a sense of stuckness . . . that no amount of social spending or policy innovation can seem to dislodge.” At Tribune, Anton Jäger explores how we traveled from the post-political years of neoliberalism’s heyday to a new age of “hyper-politics,” in which everything is politicized but very little leads to political organization.

For related Dig listening, check out Wendy Brown’s interview on her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism and Nikhil Pal Singh and Joe Lowndes’s debate on the US right.

Newsletter #13: A Path Forward for Workers in Rust Belt America, with Gabriel Winant

by Benjamin Feldman

Between the recognition of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1937 and their 116-day strike in 1959, Pittsburgh’s steelworkers fought for — and won — health and disability insurance, pensions, consistent wage increases, and a slice of decency and dignity on the job. Sixty years later, steel is only Pittsburgh’s sixteenth largest employer, and roughly one out of every five workers in the Steel City works in health care or social assistance. 

That service work has eclipsed manufacturing across the Rust Belt is well-understood. Less understood is the argument at the center of Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America: that the industrial economy created the care economy. Reconstructing the “social world” that Pittsburgh steel made, Winant shows that “as the industrial basis of this world began to collapse, its inhabitants … drew on the resources they had, embedded in the relationships and identities they had already built. …Their world was melted down and recast,” Winant writes, “but it was still made from the same materials.”

Pittsburgh’s economy was built and maintained through a series of compromises, which temporarily defended the economic citizenship of a mostly white and male cohort of union workers in part (but only in part) through the exclusion of large numbers of women and African Americans. Winant shows that, as manufacturing crumbled, these excluded workers found jobs in the area’s rapidly expanding network of hospitals and nursing homes — an expansion made possible by financialization and necessitated by the increasing health care needs of a mid-century labor force prematurely aged by the ravages of a lifetime in the mills. The low wages paid to this mostly non-union, and disproportionately Black and female, workforce have led to Pittsburgh having one of the highest African-American poverty rates in the United States.

Beyond untangling the roots of the increasingly precarious, contingent, and uncertain economy of the twenty-first century, Winant suggests a possible path forward — one that does not rely on nostalgia for the mid-twentieth century’s industrial labor force. Instead, Winant offers a vision of a shared politics wherein both those receiving care and the essential workers providing that care unite in struggle for a more inclusive social citizenship. 

Further reading

Winant has written on the relationships between labor, political economy, and care work in the age of COVID for n+1, and The Intercept. You can hear him discussing these and related essays on The Dig.    

For a deeper investigation into the Strike of 1959, see “Conflict and Consensus: The Steel Strike of 1959 and the Anatomy of the New Deal Order,” written by Winant and historians Kristoffer Smemo and Samir Sonti. Both this article and The Next Shift draw on Jack Metzger’s classic memoir Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered. Serving as guest host for The Dig, Winant recently interviewed Alex Press, Jonah Furman, and Victor P. Bouzi here on the upsurge in labor militancy during the fall and winter of 2020. 

 

Newsletter #12: Money Is Inherently Political, with Stefan Eich

By Mack Penner 

For the truest believers, cryptocurrency promises utopia. Following Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto, their central claim is that decentralized currency beyond the control of states and banks promises a utopian economic life beyond politics. This is, of course, entirely false — and not just in the sense that crypto actually functions as yet another instrument for financial speculation. 

The anti-political utopian claims made on behalf of cryptocurrency, political theorist Stefan Eich argues, are rhetorical cover for what is ultimately just a recent episode in a long history of ideological battles over money, which is always political. 

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Stefan Eich here

Contemporary debates over crypto can be traced back, at least, to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. Bretton Woods was a system of international monetary arrangements and financial regulations that included stringent capital controls and “fixed but flexible” exchange rates where currencies were pegged to the dollar and the dollar was tied to gold. This system effectively ceased to function in 1971 and formally ended in 1973 as a result of the inflation crisis. To tame that crisis,  Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker jacked interest rates sky high — a shift that, among other things, helped break the power of American unions and usher in decades’ worth of skyrocketing inequality. The “moderate” fiscal policy ushered in by Volcker lasted until the 2008 financial crisis. Within weeks of the crash, Nakamoto published the initial proposal for Bitcoin. 

Between the end of Bretton Woods and 2008, intense political battles over money played out. As a precursor to crypto, Eich focuses on the proposals of neoliberal paragon Friedrich Hayek for a “denationalized” private money that would liberate money markets from the influence of states. The monetary policies that emerged after Bretton Woods, influenced by thinkers like Hayek, clearly worked in the interests of wealthy capitalist states at the forefront of neoliberalism; structural adjustment programs imposed on poorer countries by the International Monetary Fund, which made loans conditional upon their implementing neoliberal policies, proved devastating.

Leftists today should recognize the interests that are served by schemes for anti-political money, to effectively counter them. In rejecting cryptocurrency, we have an opportunity to confront the deeply unjust post-Bretton Woods order — and build a left politics of democratic money. 

 

Further Reading/Listening

Eich’s interview is the second in a two-part series on cryptocurrency. Listen to the first episode in the series, with Edward Ongweso, Jr. and Jacob Silverman, here

The book chapter on which Eich’s interview is based can be read here. The collection it appears in, Regulating Blockchain, is published by The Dig sponsor Oxford University Press. Eich’s book, The Currency of Politics, will be out in 2022. 

Historian Tim Barker’s interview on inflation is excellent accompanying listening, as are past interviews with Adom Getachew (whose book Worldmaking After Empire comes up in Eich’s interview) and Quinn Slobodian. Also mentioned in the interview is Greta Krippner’s Capitalizing on Crisis, the best book out there on the relationship between the crises of the 1970s and the rise of financialization.

For an expansive resource on all things crypto, check out the Crypto Syllabus. For a brief primer on the myriad problems with crypto-politics, read this entry in Adam Tooze’s Chartbook. Finally, in the spirit of knowing the enemy, Friedrich Hayek’s Denationalisation of Money is available from (shudder) the Mises Institute

 

Newsletter #11: The False Promises of Cryptocurrency with Edward Ongweso, Jr. and Jacob Silverman

by Maia Silber
The global market in cryptocurrency currently has a market cap of more than $2 trillion. Celebrities from Kim Kardashian to Elon Musk to Spike Lee have touted the benefits of decentralized, digital forms of money, promising that they will democratize finance by freeing ordinary investors from the tyranny of Wall Street and central banks.
But far from liberating them, argue journalists Edward Ongweso, Jr. and Jacob Silverman, “crypto” distributors entrap their users in speculative gambits akin to multilevel marketing schemes.
Digital asset exchanges make use of blockchain, a publicly distributed ledger that records transactions with encrypted data that cannot be retroactively altered. Some early boosters hoped that blockchain’s combination of transparency and privacy (the identities of individual users are not recorded) could be harnessed for socially beneficial means — for instance, to facilitate government or corporate whistleblowing. Mostly, though, crypto companies have exploited the technology for the creation of highly speculative markets in private money.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Edward Ongweso, Jr. and Jacob Silverman here.
Unbacked by governments and unattached to real commodities, the “value” of crypto derives entirely from the fluctuating demand for its artificially limited supply. Crypto promoters often advertise explicitly speculative schemes such as “pump and dumps,” where users are encouraged to rapidly buy up a currency in order to inflate its value before offloading their stash — schemes in which it is not uncommon for the organizers and some participants to have secretly bought in early.
The winners of such risky games are rarely ordinary users. More often, they are a small number of connected and highly capitalized individuals, some of them backed by major investment firms.
Ongweso and Silverman see crypto’s false promise of egalitarianism as one of its most pernicious aspects. In an advertisement for the digital currency machine company Coin Cloud, Spike Lee urges viewers to reject the government currency that “systematically oppresses” and join the “digital revolution.” While funk music plays, he addresses himself to the millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, who are unbanked and underbanked — never mind that investing in an extremely volatile asset is hardly advisable for those who are financially insecure.
Like welfare privatization and the gig economy, then, crypto promises to equalize “opportunity” while removing public protections so that the already-rich can get even richer. This is no new digital utopia, argue Ongweso and Silverman, but the old story of enclosure, further dispossessing the already dispossessed.
This is the first installment of our two-episode series on crypto. Next week, political theorist Stephen Eich situates crypto in the long history of political fights over money.
 
Further Reading/ Listening
Silverman and Ongweso both write regularly on cryptocurrency and digital technology more broadly; you can follow Silverman’s work in the New Republic, and Ongweso’s in VICE. Ongweso also co-hosts the podcast “This Machine Kills.”
Previously on The Dig, Fred Turner has discussed the surprising origins of today’s techno-utopian neoliberalism in the counterculture of the 1960s. And if you need some assurance that we’re not just “fiat shills,” listen to (or read) Tim Barker on US monetary policy as class war.
 

Newsletter #10: How Neoliberalism Creates Right-Wing Reaction, with Rodrigo Nunes

By Mack Penner

As far-right movements have proliferated across the globe, often on the strength of popular support significant enough to win elections, the relationship between neoliberalism and the politics of reaction has become an urgent problem for the Left. Decades of neoliberal governance, deeply undemocratic in their own right, have helped create an openly anti-democratic politics that is often hateful and violent.

The second of back-to-back episodes on Brazil (you can listen to the first, with historian Andre Pagliarini and sociologist Sabrina Fernandes, here), The Dig’s interview with Rodrigo Nunes takes the politics of Bolsonarismo as a case study for assessing these developments. In a pair of essays published last year, Nunes argues that core to neoliberalism’s creation of widespread right-wing reaction is a kind of “denialism.” 

While neoliberalism has created increasing political and economic dissatisfaction among large groups of people, that dissatisfaction has not exclusively or even primarily led to the emergence of a new anti-capitalist common sense around which left movements can readily mobilize. Instead, politicians like Jair Bolsonaro and other reactionary populists have capitalized on popular discontent and directed it towards reactionary ends. 

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Rodrigo Nunes here.

The denialist sword is double-edged: people in an unconscious denial about the causes of their problems become eager consumers of conscious denial, happily supplied by reactionaries like Bolsonaro. As Nunes puts it at the conclusion of an essay in Radical Philosophy, denialism “seals an alliance between those gearing up for surviving in worsening conditions and an elite increasingly at ease with the idea that ‘the earth no longer has enough room for them and for everyone else.’”

 

Further Reading

Nunes’s interview with The Dig is the latest entry in a series of episodes about neoliberalism, democracy, and the social politics of the Right. Previously, political theorist Wendy Brown has discussed her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, about how neoliberalism has legitimized anti-democratic politics. Historian Quinn Slobodian was interviewed about his book Globalists, which traces the fear of democracy through the intellectual history of neoliberalism. And in a classic episode, sociologist Melinda Cooper talks about her book Family Values, on the symbiotic relationship between neoliberals and social conservatives. 

If you’d like a general and wide-ranging introduction to the thought and practice of neoliberalism, you can hardly do better than the edited collection The Nine Lives of Neoliberalism, an e-version of which is available for free from Verso. 

In addition to the suggestions on Brazil that you can find in Newsletter #9 and the books mentioned above, you might read Aldo Madariaga’s or Daniel Zamora and Niklas Olsen’s recent pieces in Jacobin.

 

Newsletter #9: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro Is a “Major Threat to Life on the Planet”

By Micah Uetricht

Observing Brazil from the United States, especially during the Trump years, it was hard not to be struck with a sense of déjà vu. Watching populist far-right president Jair Bolsonaro often feels similar to watching former president Donald Trump: the corruption is so unabashed and complete, the incompetence so absurd, leftists often have remind themselves not to be distracted from the actual substance of their governance, a horror show of cruelty and misery that both men have inflicted upon their respective countries and the entire world.

But in Brazil, these horrors have come after some of the greatest advances for the poor and working class that any society on the planet has seen in the past half century or more, carried out under wildly popular Workers Party leader and former (and possibly future) Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In 2011, historian Perry Anderson called Lula “the most successful politician of his time.” 

But the series of events that played out in Latin America’s largest country over the next few years were dizzying: Lula’s successor Dilma Roussef was impeached in what many deemed a “constitutional coup”; Bolsonaro won the presidency, producing a cavalcade of anti-working-class, homophobic and misogynist, ecological, and public-health disasters; and Lula was imprisoned for a year and a half on bogus corruption charges, a victim of a supposed anti-corruption campaign that was later revealed to be simply a tool of right-wing political warfare. 

Brazil’s politics can be difficult for outsiders to understand. Luckily, for this episode, we have two Brazil scholars as our guides: Andre Pagliarini, a historian at Hampden-Sydney College, columnist at Brazilian Report, and author of a forthcoming book on Brazilian nationalism; and Sabrina Fernandes, a sociologist, postdoctoral fellow at the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies through the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and lead editor for Jacobin Brasil.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Pagliarini and Fernandes here.

Fernandes sums up Bolsonaro’s presidency succinctly: “He’s a major threat to life in the country and, if we consider geopolitical issues and ecological issues, to life on the planet,” 

This episode is the first of two Dig episodes on Brazil and Bolsonaro. You can listen to the next episode on Bolsonarismo with Brazilian leftist scholar Rodrigo Nunes here.

 

Further Reading

Jacobin has covered Brazilian politics and history closely over the years. Subscribers can explore this vast archive here, and everyone can read Sabrina Fernandes’s piece “Bolsonaro Is Criminalizing the Brazilian Left.” If you read Portuguese, you can also examine Jacobin Brasil. Andre Pagliarini’s most recent article for Brazilian Report is “Climate Negotiations With Bolsonaro a Lost Cause.” 

For another Dig interview on Brazil, check out this 2018 interview with Alfredo Saad-Filho. And for those in search of a concise introduction to Brazilian history since the 1964 dictatorship, including the rise and fall of Lula and the ascent of Bolsonaro, you can’t do much better than Perry Anderson’s Brazil Apart: 1964-2019.

 

Newsletter #8: Cuba’s Key Role in Fighting Apartheid in Angola Is All but Forgotten Today

By Michal Schatz

The term “Cold War” is a misnomer. While open conflict never broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union directly in the roughly four decades after World War II, the two superpowers fought bloody proxy wars across the Global South, from Korea and Vietnam to Ethiopia and Southern Africa. Recent scholarship on decolonization in the twentieth century has shown that, contrary to conventional narratives which depict countries like Cuba as pawns working towards the Soviet Union’s ends in the Third World, the reality on the ground was far more complex. 

In The Dig’s most recent two-part interview, Piero Gleijeses discusses this complexity in examining Cuba’s role in the Angolan War, based on extensive interviews and archival research he conducted for Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991.  

The protracted war in Angola became the key battleground for influence in Southern Africa between the US and the Soviet Union from the mid-1970s until just before the Soviet government’s collapse in 1991. Cuba, too, deployed troops to Angola in 1975 — the country’s largest overseas military deployment in its history — at the invitation of the Angolan government, then controlled by the socialist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). This was not Cuba’s first time supporting revolutionary forces in a decolonizing African country: Cuba had provided support to the Front National de Liberation (FLN) in Algeria in the early 1960s, as well as sent troops to the Congo. 

Drawing on sources from US, South African, and Cuban archives, Gleijeses argues that Cuban involvement in these African conflicts was motivated, above all, by a commitment to anti-imperialism, revolutionary internationalism, and, in the case of Angola, what Fidel Castro referred to as “the most beautiful cause”: anti-apartheid. 

Listen to The Dig’s two-part interview with Piero Gleijeses here and here. You can also check out these maps as a visual reference. 

Having learned from their experience in the Congo, which they entered unprepared in their attempt to support revolutionary forces there, the Cubans understood the political situation in Angola far better than the Soviet Union and frequently disagreed with the Soviets on strategy and action. Gleijeses demonstrates how the Cubans did not make the same mistake again: Cuba played a crucial role in preventing US-backed apartheid South Africa from conquering Angola.

This Dig interview also invites a discussion on socialist internationalism today. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of an international socialist project has waned. Despite periodic outcries against US imperialism, the resurgence of today’s US left has overwhelmingly focused on domestic politics. Gleijeses’s work asks some key questions for today’s leftists: What should a global socialist movement look like? And what types of material commitments and sacrifices might it take from those of us in the heart of empire?

 

Further Reading

Cuba’s history and present are often wildly misrepresented in US popular media. For an accessible overview of Cuban history, read this interview with historian Antoni Kapcia or listen to it here. While Gleijeses’ book Visions of Freedom focuses specifically on Cuba’s foreign policy in relation to Angola, his previous book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, tells the story of the country’s revolutionary internationalism in the first fifteen years after the revolution. To learn more about imperialism and foreign policy, past and present, check out The Dig’s vast interview archives

 

Newsletter #7: The Immense Possibilities at the Heart of Our Past and Present, with David Wengrow

by William Harris
At a time when academia was becoming more and more hyper-specialized, the late David Graeber was a rare generalist. He was a committed activist and scholar who believed we could understand the kind of better society humans are capable of building by telling vast stories and asking daring questions about our lives together in the past, present, and future.
This is what led him to become an anthropologist. He wanted to study existing social forms in all their diversity, from his doctoral fieldwork in rural Madagascar to his polemic against the braindead hellscape of twenty-first-century “bullshit jobs,” while also writing expansive histories that show us how the world wasn’t always the way it is now — and therefore might be different in the future.
After completing the monumental Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber spent much of the last decade of his life researching an even more ambitious project alongside his friend and intellectual inspiration, the archaeologist David Wengrow. The fruit of that research is a new co-authored 700-page epic by Wengrow and Graeber, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity — and also the subject of a mind-expanding new episode of The Dig guest-hosted by Astra Taylor.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with David Wengrow here.
At its most sweeping, the mainstream view of human history goes something like this: we once lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. With the rise of agriculture, these bands gave way to complex forms of hierarchy, class structure, and bureaucracy. This is a myth, Wengrow argues. Exploring an incredible range of sources, from French Enlightenment texts to Native American folklore and understudied archaeological sites in Mexico and Ukraine, Wengrow and Graeber uncover a history of revolutionary contingency, in which slave-holding hunter-gatherer societies develop next to egalitarian ones, diverse regional social networks are replaced by the narrower social worlds of cities and nation-states, settlements full of palaces and temples are felled in favor of the large-scale construction of spacious social housing, and the seeds of the Enlightenment lie not in Europe but in the rich cultures of debate and persuasion found among Indigenous societies in the Americas.
The real human story, Wengrow argues, is one of immense variation in social organization — and therefore one of immense possibility.
 
Further Reading and Listening
There have been numerous tributes to David Graeber written in the year since his death, all testifying to his brilliance, warmth, and importance to left thought. At Salvage, James Meadway wrote one of the most wide-ranging of these tributes, which along with Benjamin Kunkel’s review of Debt in the London Review of Books serves as a great introduction to Graeber’s work. To explore further this week’s look into indigenous history in the Americas, check out guest host Astra Taylor’s Dig interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
 

Newsletter #6: US Workers Are Pissed Off and Striking Back

By Michal Schatz
Is the United States in the middle of a strike wave? The question saturated news and social media throughout October, as US workers from disparate industries across the country did something very few workers have done in recent years: walked off the job.
We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves in examining these walkoffs: relative to its historical corollaries like the Great Depression–era strikes that established the labor movement as we know it, or even the recent teachers strikes that kicked off in 2018, today’s strike wave is miniscule. Decades of neoliberal policies have gutted organized labor’s power and weakened workers’ strike muscles. But as Alex Press, Victor Bouzi, and Jonah Furman emphasize in this week’s Dig episode, the industrial actions sweeping the United States indicate a shift in workers’ sense of their own power. The urgent task for both union members and the Left is to understand what has led to this renewed worker confidence — and how to harness it to rebuild the labor movement.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Alex Press, Victor Bouzi, and Jonah Furman here.
“Striketober” may be over, but the labor upsurge that kicked off last month isn’t: UAW members at John Deere shocked their management and union leaders when they rejected a second tentative contract agreement on November 2; Kellogg’s workers are in their second month of striking; and over 30,000 workers at Kaiser are on the brink of a strike. As Gabriel Winant and Jonah Furman recently highlighted in The Intercept, workers in entertainment, manufacturing, the food industry, and beyond are no longer willing to work exorbitant hours for minimal pay while their companies’ profits skyrocket. For John Deere, Kaiser, and Kellogg’s workers, today’s labor demands are not simply about immediate material gains, but about correcting neoliberal policies like two-tier wage systems that have weakened unions for three decades and made compensation worse for workers across the United States.
We’re far from any credible declaration of unions’ revitalization. But if labor is going to rebuild power, it will take much more of the kind of militant action we’ve seen in recent weeks.
Further Reading
This interview is the latest addition to The Dig’s extensive archive of labor interviews. As Alex Press pointed out in Jacobin, labor reporting largely disappeared from local and national media during the 1990s and 2000. But it has slowly been rebuilt in recent years, and the current strike surge has benefited from detailed reporting.
Jonah Furman has provided excellent coverage of the ongoing John Deere strike on his Substack Who Gets the Bird?and for Labor Notes, most recently writing about how workers forced Deere management back to the table. For Jacobin, Alex Press has written extensively about the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ (IATSE) ongoing negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), showing that even before Halyna Hutchins was horrifically killed on the set of Rust due to poor labor conditions, many members were unsatisfied with the terms of AMPTP’s contract proposal. And in The Nation, Dave Leshtz recently contextualized Deere workers’ fight in Iowa.
 

Newsletter #5: Desire Is Political, with Amia Srinivasan

by Maia Silber

Conversations about the politics of sex often focus on the presence or absence of consent. For feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan, this is a profoundly inadequate framework — one that leaves us ill-prepared to interrogate the power dynamics that shape even the sex we freely choose, and suggests carceral remedies likely to harm society’s most vulnerable members.

Searching for alternatives, Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century reaches back to the “sex wars” of the 1970s, when feminists fiercely debated how power informs our desires. In those debates, she often finds more questions than answers. Can we treat sex as political without subjecting ourselves and others to an authoritarian moralism? Can we reject the sexual shaming so often weaponized against women, queer, and gender non-conforming people without succumbing to the fantasy that our desires are wholly natural?

In a wide-ranging conversation on The Dig, Srinivasan brings these questions to bear on contemporary debates about sex on college campuses, pornography, and sex work. She argues, for instance, against critics who claim that teachers who enter consensual relationships with students don’t deserve our censure, while insisting that institutional responses do more to protect universities from liability than young people from abuse. She urges us to take seriously the power of pornography to shape not only sexual actions but also sexual affects and urges in harmful ways, even while recognizing the medium’s potential for inspiring radical modes of pleasure and sexual agency.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Amia Srinivasan here.

The titular essay in The Right to Sex controversially examines the claims of “incel” (involuntarily celibate) men to sexual entitlement. While Srinivasan insists that there is no right to sex, she takes seriously incels’ contention that sexual attraction is distributed unequally along hierarchies of race, class, and conventional attractiveness.

Incels hypocritically lament the ways these hierarchies harm them even while they subscribe to their valorization of certain kinds of bodies: the rich, thin, white women they call “Stacys.” Srinivasan thinks that we can take inspiration instead from queer and Black women who have asked us to critically interrogate who and how we desire. For Srinivasan, this isn’t about repression — it’s about openness to the forms of sex and love that are blocked by our current power structures.

Further Reading and Listening

Srinivasan has examined some of the themes in this week’s episode in essays published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. For more left-feminist thought on The Dig, check out Melinda Cooper on the convergence of neoliberalism with “family values” social conservatism, Sophie Lewis on the global system of racialized labor exploitation that undergirds both the commercial surrogacy industry and “natural” reproduction, and Nancy Fraser on why our analysis of capitalism needs to extend beyond the realm of production to the homes, schools, and hospitals that enable its functioning. Harkening back to feminism’s Second Wave, check out Barbara Erenreich’s canonical 1976 essay on socialist feminism, republished in Jacobin with a new introduction.

 

Newsletter #4: The Long, Disastrous History of US Intervention in Afghanistan, with Tariq Ali

By Ben Feldman

“What is most important to the history of the world[:] The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Empire? A few crazed Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski asked rhetorically in a 1998 interview. He was justifying the United States’ partnership with religious reactionaries, which helped lead the Soviets to overextend themselves financially and militarily, and hastened the collapse of America’s rival hegemon. Absent from Brzezinski’s musing was any mention of the Afghan people themselves. Whether in 1979, 1998, 2001, or 2021, Afghans are ignored by US-policymakers and media, trudged out only when their suffering can be used as a cudgel against those who oppose war and occupation.

In a collection of essays written over four decades, The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold (Verso, November), Tariq Ali reconstructs the history of American intervention in  Afghanistan. Beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, the United States — with the help of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan — mobilized an international network of anti-Soviet Islamic fighters. In doing so, the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies helped create a generation of militants whose “deracinated fanaticism” helped them to emerge from the second Afghan Civil War (1992-1996) as the dominant power in the country.

The Taliban’s rise was the unintended consequence of America’s Cold War foreign policy: decades of funding, training, and propping up right-wing forces throughout the world. Five years after the Taliban captured Kabul, they were swept out of power by the United States and its allies. What began as a war of revenge, a punishment for having harbored Osama Bin Laden — lasted twenty years, ending with the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban’s retaking of Kabul on August 15, 2021. In the interim, a quarter of a million people lost their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some nine million Pakistanis and Afghans have been displaced by the War on Terror.

Ali’s essays illustrate how the Afghan people have borne the costs of imperialistic hubris, Cold War rivalry, and America’s post-9/11 need for vengeance. Throughout, the reader is reminded of a basic point that eludes so many journalists and politicians: the crises facing Afghanistan today are the product of decades of policies which prioritized the political needs of U.S. elites over the safety, security, and independence of the Afghan people.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Tariq Ali here.

Further Reading

The end of America’s longest war occasioned numerous reflections, including recent pieces by Tariq Ali in New Left Review and The Nation. Challenging the post-hoc defense of the invasion of Afghanistan as a war to liberate women, Anand Gopal writes about the experiences of Afghan women living outside of Kabul. In a conversation hosted by Jewish Currents, Marya Hannun and Mejgan Massoumi also center the experiences of Afghans, and in Jacobin, historian Alfred W. McCoy takes on the “hubris of American empire.”

From The Dig’s archives, check out Dan’s conversation with Adam Johnson and Eric Levitz on the media’s bloodthirsty offensive against the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. For more on the War on Terror, listen to our interview with military historian Andrew Bacevich and the recent-three part interview with Spencer Ackerman here, here, and here.

 

Newsletter #3: Imagining Utopia in a Time of Climate Disaster with Kim Stanley Robinson

By William Harris

By now you’ve seen the signs, planted across the liberal meadows of our nation’s lawns with a solemn pledge: “In this house, we believe: science is real.” Framed by this oath, science becomes an apolitical set of facts blindly assented to — which then easily translates into yet more grist for the neverending culture war between rational Democrats and troglodytic Republicans.

How should today’s Left approach science? Few approach this question as thoughtfully as legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hailed by the New Yorker as perhaps “our greatest political novelist,” author of many books — from the Mars trilogy to 2019’s Ministry for the Futureand our guest on a provocative new episode of The Dig hosted by pod-comrade and Berkeley sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen.

For Robinson, science is a utopian project that the Left should claim. A “modest” way of knowing the world, importantly available to specialists but also to all of us, science lives out an always-incomplete story full of dynamic adaptation, democratic debate, and messy engagement with the material world. If science has historically been a project shot through by warring interests — too often colonial and corporate — one of these competing interests has been the idealist, Left-aligned objective of improving the world for all.

Robinson comes to these reflections as a novelist who’s spent his career telling stories that entwine ecology and social justice. We live amid climate disaster; for science, that means that now is a time when, in considering technological fixes to climate change, “it all has to be put on the table.” Controversially, he insists, that means rethinking ecological and political approaches from geo-engineering to nuclear energy to Green New Deal-prompted quantitative easing.

Robinson’s broad-tent openness to a range of scientific possibilities to save our planet also comes from his experience as a novelist. His novels play out possible futures and dramatize a range of leftist and scientific debates, giving narrative shape to our most pressing ecological and political questions. Amid a growing body of criticism indicting contemporary literature for its failure to come to imaginative terms with ecological disaster — from Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book The Great Derangement to Rithika Ramamurthy’s recent takedown of the “Climate Anxiety Novel” — Robinson’s work stands out as compellingly original approaches to possible climate futures. His latest epic Ministry for the Future imagines how a plausible “best-case scenario” under climate change future might come about, raising difficult questions of left ecological politics that he discusses with Cohen.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson here.

This episode joins an extensive archive of Dig interviews on climate politics. Check out our conversation with Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen on why we need a Green New Deal and how realistic yet imaginative narratives might help us get there, or our interview with Nick Estes on the long history of indigenous resistance to settler-colonial ecological devastation.For further reading on this episode’s themes, check out Jacobin’s ongoing Green New Deal series, a debate in New Left Review on the ecological politics of growth versus degrowth summarized by Lola Seaton in “Green Questions,” and two books: Holly Jean Buck’s work on left geo-engineering, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration, and Fredric Jameson’s magisterial Marxist study of science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, which concludes with a chapter on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

 

Newsletter #2: Occupy Paved the Way for Today’s Reborn Left

By Mia Schatz

It is hard today to remember the sense of desolation that plagued the American left a decade ago. Demoralized, disempowered, disorganized, the Left seemed to have no answer to the 2008 housing market crash and the Great Recession — until Occupy Wall Street.

Although the movement only lasted two months, Occupy left its mark on American politics, putting the potential for a meaningful left movement back on the map. In the years since, many participants have argued that Occupy failed: its horizontal structures didn’t work; it had no actionable demands; it was too white, too affluent, and unable to put a real dent in finance capital’s power. And yet, as Astra Taylor points out in this week’s episode of The Dig, Occupy reframed American political discourse around class, laying the groundwork for the highly effective messaging of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and compelled both veteran and budding organizers to rethink a problem the Left had struggled with for years: power.

As Occupy faded, hundreds of former occupiers from across the country joined or formed organizations focused on housing, debt, healthcare, and climate change. Today, there is a growing American left energized not only by organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter and stirrings in key parts of the labor movement, but also by left-aligned elected officials at national, state, and local levels who are challenging the power of capital.

Occupy offered critical lessons about how a political movement can build power without losing sight of its core principles. If, as Astra argues in this week’s interview, the Left of a decade ago was allergic to power and electoral politics, today’s Left has found the antidote in strong, well-organized institutions that are increasingly capable of holding its leaders accountable. These are essential questions that are still at the heart of left organizing today — and will only become more urgent as the post-Occupy left keeps growing.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Astra Taylor here.

Further Reading

Occupy’s recent tenth anniversary inspired a wave of reflections and analyses. During Occupy, media attention focused heavily on the demographic composition of occupiers. As Dan and Astra discuss, labor scholars Ruth Milkman, Penny Lewis, and Stephanie Luce interviewed occupiers on the ground at the New York occupation in Zuccotti Park. Sarah Jaffe, host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast, recently interviewed Ruth Milkman and Nastaran Mohit, an organizer and one of the study’s interviewers, about their reflections on the movement a decade on. For Jacobin, Doug Singsen reminds us of unions’ critical and often underplayed role in various OWS occupations across the country, while Ross Barkan argues the media was too quick to deem Occupy a failure.And questions still linger about Occupy’s most influential political currents. Former occupier and current Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval and Intercept columnist Natasha Lennard recently discussed whether Occupy was more socialist or anarchist in nature in The Nation.

 

Newsletter #1: The War on Terror Made Our World

Dig supporters,

We’re  pleased to be sending you the first weekly Dig newsletter, which will  be written by a number of different writers. Jacobin deputy editor  Micah Uetricht will be editing the newsletter, and also  occasionally contributing himself. Here’s the first edition. Please send  us feedback when you have any to offer.

Best,
Dan

The War on Terror Made Our World

by Micah Uetricht

Twenty years since September 11, 2001, the War on Terror’s catastrophic effects can’t be overstated. Hundreds of thousands (at least) in the Middle East are dead; trillions have been funneled to the military-industrial complex; our already desiccated democratic institutions have been further weakened; a Pandora’s box of barbarous reactionary currents have been unleashed in the United States and abroad. Our world has been grotesquely deformed by the War on Terror.

Yet somehow, that war receives scant attention these days. Little of the voluminous mainstream discourse on the rise of Donald Trump mentions it. Even Bernie Sanders did not make opposition to the War on Terror central to his presidential campaigns. And when the war does grab headlines, as during Joe Biden’s recent pullout from Afghanistan, the obvious lesson — that the war cannot be won — escapes mainstream pundits. A grinding, decades-long, amorphously defined global military campaign with disastrous consequences and no real end in sight has been largely flushed down the memory hole.

Which makes Spencer Ackerman’s new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking) essential reading. Ackerman, a longtime national security reporter who writes the Substack “Forever Wars” and won a Pulitzer at the Guardian for his reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations, traces the violence and toxicity unleashed by the twenty-year War on Terror: nativism, Islamophobia, erosion of civil liberties, militarization of police powers at home, indefinite detention abroad, torture, expansion of “anti-terrorist” military action far beyond the Middle East, the roles played by a bloodthirsty Republican Party convinced of its ability and right to reshape the world through violence and a Democratic Party that shamefully capitulates to the GOP’s framing of the war, the successful harvesting of the worst of these developments by Donald Trump, and much more. He discusses all of this in a three-part conversation with The Dig.

Listen to part one of the War on Terror series here, part two here, and part three here

We’re known for extended conversations on politics, but this Dig series with Spencer Ackerman goes even deeper than usual. That’s because we can’t understand the United States today — its cruelties abroad, the rot it has accelerated at home, its normalization of the illegal and immoral in the name of national security — without understanding the War on Terror.

Further Reading

Ackerman’s book is a crucial starting point, but the twenty-year anniversary of September 11, 2001 has brought numerous retrospectives on the War on Terror. Leftists, of course, have long denounced the war and did so again on the anniversary: Branko Marcetic writes for Jacobin about how 9/11 could have provided an opportunity to reflect on blowback to US imperialism but was squandered, and the Nation’s September 20/27 issue focuses on the spectacular failures of the War on Terror, including the explosion of Islamophobia at home and the hellish experiences of former Guantanamo detainees. Predictably, mainstream outlets were more ambivalent, but some liberal columnists like the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg denounced the war stridently.

We at The Dig have covered the War on Terror closely over the years. Take a look in our vast archive for similar further coverage, such as our conversation with Nikhil Pal Singh on the connection between war abroad and war at home, our two-part interview on “petro-capitalism” with Timothy Mitchell, or our conversation with historian Andrew Bacevich on our wars that never end.