Archive for category: VIEWPOINT
The Floyd rebellion is changing the world before our very eyes. What type of change and to what degree it will shift the balance of forces between rulers and ruled, haves and the have-nots remains to be seen. What is clear is that there is an active and open political contest to shape the outcome. For the moment, the right wing and the Republicans have been relatively sidelined in this debate. The real contest as it stands is between the liberals and Democrats on the one hand and the radical mass that has taken the streets all over the country and the world, which is increasingly examining and advancing critical left demands emerging from anarchist, communist, revolutionary nationalist, and socialist analytical and organizing traditions, such as police and prison abolition, economic democracy, and decolonization. This debate is being played out in the streets, in mainstream media, and through social media.
Following trends in all of these venues, it appears that the liberals and Democrats have gained some significant ground in the narrative war, the war of position, on several points. One critical point is making distinctions between “good protestors” and “bad protestors”. The dominance of this narrative will have consequences, negative consequences. Some of these negative consequences include: (1) narrowing the focus of the rebellion, (2) reasserting the myths of “democratic” reform and capitalist correction that only reinforce the perpetuation of the system, and (3) limiting the scope of the revolutionary possibilities and potentialities of the current rebellion.
The net effect of the positional gains of the liberals is that the rebellion is showing some clear signs of being defused, such as the serious policing of the movement on the streets that is occurring in many places. This is starting to isolate the left in many critical ways and put it and its proposals on the defensive. This is best expressed in the hardcore efforts to water down the abolitionist demand of “defunding” and “abolishing” the police, to which we will return shortly. The aim of the liberals and the Democratic party is to redirect this mass movement towards electoral politics, particularly the 2020 elections, and a limited set of cosmetic corrections and reforms.
Where the liberals and Democrats appear to have made the most significant advance is narrowing the scope of the rebellion in the mainstream media. If you believe them, this is fundamentally just about reforming the police and the articulation of an obscure iteration of the “Black Lives Matter” demand framework. This downplays the clear calls to eradicate white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and settler-colonialism that have been on clear display. Without addressing this it is hard to make sense of the removal of all the statues and symbols edifying settler-colonialism and enslavement, or the targeted acts of redistribution that have occurred, and the forced dismantling of the institutions of repression, exploitation, and gentrification. Their reasoning should be obvious. The liberals and Democrats do not support revolution. They have no interest in dismantling the systems of oppression that confine humanity. Their interest is doing what is necessary to preserve the existing capitalist system. To this end, they are willing to bend a few things, as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break or alter the social relations that shape society, particularly who owns and controls the means of production. The distorted “Black Lives Matter” framework they are pushing is about trying to shore up their electoral base for the 2020 elections, particularly amongst Blacks and Latinos, who they have to rely upon to have any chance of winning. Thus they can support police reform, while condemning the effort to dismantle the institution and its social function as absurd.
On the demand of “defunding the police” or “abolishing the police,” it must be noted that this question is being raised in the absence of a revolution — which the current moment is not, not yet anyway. Most of the responses are being cast in this light as well: “What will happen to communities without police?” This question assumes that capitalist relations of production and social reproduction will continue to exist — i.e., the same ole shit. Neither capital nor the state have been dismantled or destroyed, and few are proposing this possibility (i.e. revolution) or preparing for it in the present moment. If the fundamental social relations don’t change, then this reform could only serve as a temporary appeasement measure, which the operatives of the state would quickly attack and undermine. They would turn it into a fiasco to create a negative example to dissuade folks from thinking that an alternative is possible. In any case, anything the ruling class giveth, it can take away.
And if you don’t think that this is the case, there are several historic and ongoing examples of how the capitalist and imperialist system has successfully twisted limited efforts to break out of the system and turned them into propaganda tools through various means of strangulation and negation to create the impression that there is no alternative. This is how they use the examples of Haiti, Cuba, and now Venezuela, Chiapas, Rojava, etc., as whipping posts.
To be clear, I think the demand for abolition should be raised to heighten the contradictions. But, it must be accompanied by the call for revolution, and the organizing effort to dismantle the entire system. Short of accomplishing that, the empire will strike back. Of that there is no doubt.
Again, the consequences of this narrowness should not be downplayed. State agencies all over the country are waiting for the rebellion to subside so they can hunt down thousands of young partisans and put them in jail in the name of justice and restoring law and order. This history should be instructive. Following the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, the Los Angeles police and sheriff departments hunted down and arrested over 15,000 people who were captured on footage breaking the so-called “rules.” So, if they succeed, it will be the effective negation of the rebellion.
We on the left — anarchists, communists, indigenous sovereigntists, revolutionary nationalists, and socialists — have to resist the elevation of the liberal and Democratic party narratives and positions. We have to assert a counter-narrative in all arenas — one that aims towards transforming the Floyd rebellion into something potentially transformative. This must include upholding autonomous action (with principle), the diversity of tactics, the sanctity of life over property and profits, and the building and execution of instruments of dual power to transform social relations and the balance of forces. And let it be known that should we fail, the left will be the first victims of the targeted execution of the state’s hammer, which is here and will advance whether we like it or not.
Despite the challenges we are confronting in this contest of power, the alternative of revolution yet remains. A pathway to revolution does currently exist. In my view it rests with the advance of a strategy anchored by the further politicization of the mutual aid, food sovereignty, cooperative economics, community production, self-defense, people’s assemblies, and general strike motions that already existed and that emerged in embryonic form in the midst of the pandemic. This could be harnessed through democratic efforts to federate these initiatives on a mass level to lay the foundations of dual power.
Cooperation Jackson and the People’s Strike coalition we’ve been working to build with various organizations and allies are working to advance a program of this character to interject left counter-narratives into the mass movement. One of the central things we are proposing as our next contribution to the movement is the call for mass People’s Assemblies. Building on experiences from the Occupy movement, Assemblies have started spontaneously developing in New York city, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle. These are groundbreaking developments. But, we need more. The People’s Strike is calling for Assemblies to be held everywhere, and in particular calling for a first strike national day of action on July 1st. What we have been proposing, and will offer in this process, is that we organize and build towards the execution of a general strike. The beginning of a general strike under current conditions starts with People’s Assemblies in the streets debating and voting on having a general strike. This is how a largely street protest movement can blossom into an instrument of dual power that could radically transform society.
Unite and Fight, Build the General Strike!
Before it was even built, Barclays Center in Brooklyn was a matter of contention: it was opposed by grassroots groups, which correctly feared that it would end up further driving the racist gentrification of an area already undergoing rapid change. These groups further denounced the $1.6 billion in public funds swallowed up by the project, and Barclays was generally hated by drivers who saw the enormous construction site transform Atlantic Avenue into a years-long nightmare. These days, Barclays has become a hot site of conflict again. For the past week, an ever-growing crowd of protesters, young and multiracial, has been gathering in the square in front of Barclays like clockwork, every day at 6pm. While initially there were official announcements, most days people simply went to Barclays at 6pm, trusting that a crowd would be protesting there even in the absence of an announcement. They have not yet been disappointed.
On June 4th, the Barclays meeting point appeared to undergo the legendary transformation of quantity into quality, possibly as a consequence of the repeated contact and exchange, over the course of days that felt like months, among protesters on the ground. In fact, at Barclays on June 4th, one could glimpse the first signs of a political subjectivity emerging through still-embryonic and spontaneous processes of self-activation. Around 6pm, as groups of people continued to join the 500-strong crowd, the gathering rapidly morphed into a sort of improvised general assembly or open mic: speeches followed one after another, but these were not the routine and often predictable speeches of members of political groups at organized rallies. They were mostly spontaneous expressions of rage, love, solidarity, hope, gratitude, and radical political analysis, from random protesters, people at their very first experience of struggle, and a few leftist veterans. Among the cheers of the crowd, which was carefully listening despite the absence of an amplifier, a homeless Black man in his fifties gave a perfect materialist analysis of the dynamics of the social unrest: “For the first time in years we are seeing a mass revolt of white people in support of our struggle, and this is happening because of the economic crisis, because white people are now getting declassed.” A brown transwoman passionately addressed brown cismen: “If you can’t stand for your trans brown sisters, get the fuck back home. Our enemy is the same, we need to stand in unity.” Her speech was welcomed with an enthusiastic ovation. Had someone organized this open mic? Most likely not, or at least no leadership was recognizable except for the leadership of young Black and brown women and men organically emerging over the course of the evening from the protest itself.
At 8pm, a crowd of 3000 people joined with a splinter march from as far south as Sunset Park, and started chanting in unison: “Fuck your curfew.” The intention was clear to everybody there: they would hold their ground and stay in the streets as long as possible, until mass arrest if necessary. With this intent, the march started to move, changing direction at every turn, playing a game of cat and mouse with the police. The more the NYPD tried to get ahead of the march in order to kettle, disperse, or arrest protestors, the more unpredictable its route became, from Barclays to Cobble Hill, back to Barclays and then Fort Greene, and finally Clinton Hill. Who was leading it? Probably a group of protesters who had been going to Barclays over the past several days, who had then decided to take charge of the tactical coordination of the protest. Perhaps a provisional affinity group. Maybe simply a collection of individuals who decided to take charge for the evening.
At Barclays a group of protesters had a little table with fruit, snacks, legal information, Gatorade, and hand sanitizer; others had bags filled with care packages (with a face mask and hand sanitizer in addition to food and energy drinks) which they distributed liberally to the crowd. At some point during the march, a car arrived out of nowhere and stopped in the middle of Atlantic Avenue, and a Black man descended and opened a trunk filled with cartons of water. More people could be seen distributing water and energy drinks in the streets of Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, and Boerum Place. Who had organized this impressive mutual aid infrastructure, which made sure that protesters would have the energy to carry on for as long as possible in New York City’s terrible humidity, and the vitamins to fight off Covid-19? Nobody and everybody: it was likely a combination of the work of some grassroots groups, a spontaneous expression of solidarity with the protest, and the coming together of groups of friends, acquaintances, and comrades to raise funds, prepare care packages, and position themselves along the ever-changing route of the march.
This collective act of care — or of radical (and mobile) social reproduction from below — was matched by the overwhelming solidarity expressed by the city itself. Cheers welcomed protesters from every building of every street through which they marched, and people stood outside of their homes, in defiance of the curfew, to watch, raise their fists, and be as noisy as possible. An ambulance stopped in the middle of the street and the Black first responder in it grabbed the intercom to salute the march and chant. An artist arrived with her car to distribute beautiful black-and-white signs, and then left. And, then, in a bizarre and ambiguous moment, a traffic police in a tiny little car honked her horn and threw her first up, encouraging protesters to ‘keep going. As the march kept snaking through the streets, hour after hour, the whole city seemed to want to embrace it, salute it, give it strength, tell the protesters that they too would be in the streets if it were not for the pandemic, if they had not already been at another of the multiple daily NYC marches, or if they did not have kids at home. And then there was the comic absurdity, the situationism, and the creativity (from absurdist outfits to hilarious signs) that only gets unleashed in moments of collective liberation, where capitalist normality gets suspended and people get a taste of a different kind of freedom. Beauty was back in the streets.
These ten days, which are shaking the country in a way that has not happened for fifty years, have condensed and accelerated time: it is only ten days, but it feels like ten months. The state of suspended tension of the long months of the lockdown has given way to collective exhilaration, rage combined with beauty and love: for fellow protesters, for the more than 100,000 dead of the pandemic, for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jamal Floyd and the countless Black lives taken away by a militarized and racist state, and for our future, which we thought had been stolen from us and which we are now re-appropriating for ourselves through the struggle.
And yet, the challenges ahead are many, and difficult to tackle. Barclays saw the spontaneous emergence of the conditions of possibility for a collective process of self-organization and subjectivation. But these are only conditions of possibility, potentialities to be realized. Self-organization, however, is key to the durability of this social revolt, to its expansion to additional social sectors (beginning with organized labor and workplaces in general), to its capacity for self-defense against brutal repression, and to its ability to maintain political autonomy from the forces of cooptation and absorption that will inevitably try to tame the revolt and perhaps transform social rage into votes. While another Trump presidency would be a disaster, not least because of its galvanizing effect on the far-right worldwide, from India to Brazil, it is also the case that ten days of social revolt have done more to dismantle institutionalized racism than eight years of Obama’s presidency. It is this collective power that is being rediscovered by this social revolt. And it is the political autonomy of this collective power that we must zealously preserve.
The post Of Beauty and Rage: Dispatch from a Protest in Brooklyn appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.
In April 1920, Italy was in crisis. The previous month at the Fiat auto factory in Turin, management had set back the clock hands of the factory for daylight saving’s time, without asking permission from the democratic workers’ councils that had been spreading throughout Italy’s factories. A chain of work stoppages had popped up in protest. But as tense negotiations continued, with a massive lockout by management, it became clear that what was really at stake was the existence of the factory councils themselves. 1 The whole city entered into a general strike in defense of the councils, which Antonio Gramsci would hail later that year in a report for the Comintern as “a great event, not only in the history of the Italian working class but also in the history of the European and world proletariat,” because “for the first time a proletariat was seen to take up the fight for the control of production without being forced into this struggle by unemployment and hunger.” 2
This was a peak moment in Italy’s biennio rosso, the “two red years” of 1919-1920, which saw not only mass strikes but also occupations of factories by the workers’ councils, which experimented with self-management of production. Rising during the red years, L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order), both a newspaper and a political tendency which Gramsci helped found in Turin within the Italian Socialist Party, reflected on the greater meaning of these struggles. In the pages of L’Ordine Nuovo Gramsci introduced a phrase he would repeat throughout his life: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” 3
The L’Ordine Nuovo tendency based itself on the model of the Russian Revolution, and saw the factory councils — which Gramsci understood to be the equivalent of the Russian “soviets” — as the foundation of the coming revolution, and the workers’ state which that revolution would establish. After the bureaucracies of the Socialist Party and its affiliated union, the General Confederation of Labor, obstructed the further development of the general strike in a revolutionary direction, a contradiction which would resurge around the factory occupations in the fall, Gramsci’s tendency, along with other elements on the left of the party, split off to found the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. In reaction to the upheaval of these struggles and their emancipatory possibility, fascist violence intensified, leading to the ascendancy of Benito Mussolini. The fascist regime outlawed the Communist Party, and in 1926 Gramsci was imprisoned. He would die in prison in 1937.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” has become one of the classic clichés of politics. It is supposed to suggest that one should have clear-eyed recognition of how bad things are, without losing hope; it means the conscious volition for changing the world nevertheless.
Nevertheless, it might be wise to be somewhat suspicious of a slogan which seems so reassuring, applicable to every context without modification. That it is attributed to Gramsci does not really help matters. Due perhaps to the difficulty and complexity of Gramsci’s writings, often attributed to the need to write esoterically under the watchful eye of the fascist prison censor, contemporary commentators have sometimes appropriated them in a vague and decontextualized manner. It is common to see Gramsci invoked to advocate gradualist programs of reform, with the language of “war of position,” or to see him turned into a cultural critic who advocated building “counter-hegemony” in the academy — his ardent enthusiasm for the insurrection of the workers’ councils seems to drop out of the picture.
These days we need to cheer ourselves up, but without pretending that coronavirus and climate change aren’t real. As Fiat workers today go on strike over the safety risks of coronavirus, compelling management to shut down the plants in Italy and North America, what better authority than Gramsci, martyred by fascism and writing between two devastating world wars, to lend his approval to our desperate bid for optimism?
Removed from the very specific context in which he initially wrote these words, however, and the very different contexts in which he would later repeat them, this motto resembles nothing more than a poster on the wall of a middle-school classroom.
The line is not originally Gramsci’s; he drew it from the French left-wing writer Romain Rolland (who would later campaign for Gramsci’s release from prison), in a 1920 review of Raymond Lefebvre’s novel The Sacrifice of Abraham. 4 Gramsci first used the phrase in his “Address to the Anarchists,” published in L’Ordine Nuovo in April 1920, just as the situation in Turin was accelerating towards the general strike.
It must be noted from the outset that anarchists had played an absolutely fundamental role in the organization of the strikes and councils, and had produced some of the movement’s most effective and dedicated militants. 5 In making his case for the superiority of Marxist theory, then, Gramsci had to bend the stick rather far. Anarchism, he argued, in its abstract opposition to the state, failed to grasp that true freedom for the workers would only come from the establishment of a workers’ state, the determinate form of human action which had been demonstrated and guaranteed by the Russian Revolution. He introduced the slogan “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” specifically to sum up “the socialist conception of the revolutionary process.” 6 According to the anarchists, Marx’s “pessimism of the intellect” saw the conditions of workers as so miserable that the only possible change would come through an authoritarian dictatorship; but Gramsci replied that “socialist pessimism” had been confirmed by the horrors of the First World War and the extreme poverty and oppression that followed. The proletariat was geographically dispersed and disempowered by its deprivation, and formed unions and cooperatives out of sheer necessity, not as free political action. Its activity was totally determined by the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist state. It was thus was purely an illusion, he concluded, to expect these oppressed and subjugated masses to “express their own autonomous historical will.” 7
In other words, the pessimism of the intellect demonstrated not just that the situation was bad, but that the basis for revolutionary action did not already exist. It could only be brought about by “a highly organized and disciplined party that can act as a spur to revolutionary creativity.” 8 The optimism of the will, then, was not merely the belief that it was possible that things could get better, but the very specific and concrete form of action which was the vanguard party and its mission of establishing a workers’ state.
Gramsci, in other words, was operating squarely within the Leninist problematic. We are past the point today of the forced choice between caricaturing this problematic or dogmatically asserting its supremacy. Rather, we can try to situate it historically and understand its validity and limits. As Christine Buci-Glucksmann writes in her classic study, Gramsci and the State, emphasizing the character of Gramsci’s thought as a “continuation of Leninism, in different historical conditions and with different historical circumstances”: “to continue Lenin means a productive and creative relationship that can never be exhausted in the mere application of Leninism by studious pupils, but involves its translation and development. This nuance is of capital importance, underlining the fact that the only ‘orthodoxy’ permissible is that of the revolution.” 9
In 1902 with What Is to Be Done? V.I. Lenin repeated, for Russian conditions, the orthodoxy of the German Social Democratic Party. According to this orthodoxy, left to their own devices workers would only engage in the immediate, everyday struggles to better their conditions. The consciousness that this class struggle had to be taken further, to the level of the conquest of political power, would have to be introduced from the outside, by intellectuals. Politics would come not from spontaneous action by workers but the organization of a vanguard party of revolutionaries.
Lenin’s articulation of this thesis was divisive, to say the least. The orthodox theory saw this process as happening by virtue of historical laws, drawing more and more people into the industrial working class, gathering them into unions, and eventually allowing them to achieve a majority in parliament. Lenin’s writings from What Is to Be Done? to The State and Revolution in 1917 show him formulating a conception of politics which could not be reduced to historical laws. Lenin advanced the thesis that politics is not just always there, but develops under specific conditions. As Gramsci said in his early, “voluntarist” text “The Revolution Against ‘Capital,’” this constituted a refutation of the reigning mechanistic interpretation of Marxism, which, “contaminated by positivist and naturalist encrustations,” insisted that “events should follow a pre-determined course.” The Bolshevik revolution, Gramsci argued, demonstrated the necessity of “active agents” of politics, “to ensure that events should not stagnate, that the drive to the future should not come to a halt.” 10
The first Leninist condition of politics was the vanguard party, that group of dedicated militants which would erase the distinction between intellectuals and workers in a collective leadership. The party would be capable of recognizing the revolutionary potential of spontaneous movements, and could bring them the socialist consciousness which would realize this potential. But by 1917, Lenin came to see the party as existing alongside another site of politics: the soviet. Anticipating Gramsci’s account of the political role of knowledge, we can say that this new site of politics went beyond the restricted intelligence of the militants who composed the vanguard party to the mass intelligence of the radically democratic councils, the soviets. The orthodox theory had sought to enter the parliamentary state and use it as an instrument for the interests of the working class. In Lenin’s vision the soviets would actually take the place of the previously existing state, allowing ordinary people to participate in the administration of society. The soviet would be the form of genuine self-governance, a higher form of democracy than every previously existing form of a parliamentary democracy.
What happened instead is that the centralized authority of the party became the state, and subordinated the mass intelligence of the soviets to the principle that only the party thinks. Lenin, in the paradoxical position of state revolutionary, called for a society in which “every cook can govern” (to adopt C.LR. James’s optimistic rendering of Lenin’s phrase), but in practice it was the party-state which reigned.
For the remainder of the twentieth century emancipatory politics would have to refer to this exemplary instance in which bourgeois political power was overturned by the party becoming the state. Leninism was a moment in the history of emancipatory politics, but over the course of its history it found itself running up against the limits of the party-state; we are still in search of an emancipatory politics which goes beyond the party-state.
Today Gramsci’s motto is widely repeated, but it appears to have become completely detached from the underlying strategic and organizational questions that framed Gramsci’s use of the phrase in L’Ordine Nuovo, where it was repeated a few times with consistent reference to the problems of party organization. 11When Gramsci first invoked “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” in 1920, in Russia the party had already displaced the mass intelligence of the councils. Gramsci’s enthusiasm for the councils alongside his insistence on the rigidity of the vanguard party — the latter coming increasingly to displace the former in his thinking between the defeats in Turin and the formation of the Communist Party — registered a dilemma which he would later revisit and clarify in his Prison Notebooks. 12
What makes Gramsci so confounding to read and allows his writing to be so easily appropriated in irreconcilable ways is also potentially a source of great insight, if we understand the tensions in his thinking as aspects of a contradictory reality rather than merely extrinsic obstacles to interpretation. To understand Gramsci’s later deployment of the slogan, we will have to investigate the relevant concepts of the Prison Notebooks, informed by scholarship drawing on the critical edition; and to interpret what is theoretically and politically at stake in Gramsci’s evolving conceptions of pessimism and optimism, we have to examine the categories of “intellect” and “will” to which they are attached.
A recurring theme in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks is that all people are “philosophers,” or “intellectuals,” even though the division of manual and intellectual labor in society makes it such that only small groups of people are recognized as being capable of thought. 13 For the Gramsci of the Prison Notebooks, as long as this division existed, the task of those socially recognized as intellectuals would be to build a revolutionary culture and assume a revolutionary leadership: “there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders, in other words, without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people ‘specialised’ in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.” 14
Yet at the same time, the role of political organizations would also be to cultivate mass “intellectualities.” 15 This peculiar term, which appears to be suspended between “intelligence” and “intelligentsia” in prevailing translations, throws the relation between the two into question. But despite its seeming obscurity, as Panagiotis Sotiris argues in a brilliant commentary, the notion of “intellectuality” refers us to very concrete “questions referring to organization and its role in the transformation of modes of thinking, in the confrontation with antagonistic ideologies, in the articulation of learning practices.” It refers us to the problems of the production of knowledge involved in the “elaboration of strategies.” 16
Gramsci’s conception of mass intellectualities reframes the question of political leadership. To follow another line of his reasoning in the Prison Notebooks, the fact that there are leaders and led is an inescapable fact of politics; but the question is whether leadership is oriented towards preserving this distinction for eternity, or generating “the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary.” 17 This is why, for Gramsci, “for a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world, is a ‘philosophical’ event far more important and ‘original’ than the discovery by some philosophical ‘genius’ of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals.” 18
We have to distinguish Gramsci’s approach from those ideologies of so-called “Western Marxism” which revolve around consciousness. As Buci-Glucksmann points out, for these ideologies the intellectual’s “specific function” is to give the working class “its homogeneity, unity, and vision of the world.” In contrast, Gramsci’s “refusal of a potential dissociation between philosophical class consciousness and its real agent, the proletariat, rules out any problematic of the intellectuals that would transform them into the depositories of class consciousness (as in the young Lukács) or into guarantors of the critique of the capitalist mode of production.” This is why, she elaborates, for Gramsci it is not “the intellectuals as such who enable a subaltern class to become a leading and ruling class, a hegemonic class.” Rather, “this function is performed by the modern Prince, the vanguard political party as the basis from which the intellectual function has to be considered afresh, together with the relationship between research and politics, and their reciprocal tension.” 19
As Peter Thomas points out in his detailed and rigorous study of the Prison Notebooks, The Gramscian Moment, this was already what was at stake in the biennio rosso. L’Ordine Nuovo was “a paradigmatic experiment of young intellectuals who sought to redefine their relationship with the working class in active, paedagogical terms—a relationship in which they were more often the ‘educated’ than the ‘educator.’” 20
In his 1930 reflections in prison on the Turin experience, Gramsci responded to accusations that the movement was “spontaneist.” He replied by insisting on “the creativity and soundness of the leadership that the movement acquired.” It was not an “abstract” leadership, and “did not consist in the mechanical repetition of scientific or theoretical formulas.” Crucially, “it did not confuse politics — real action — with theoretical disquisition.” Rather, the leadership of the Turin movement “devoted itself to real people in specific historical relations, with specific sentiments, ways of life, fragments of worldviews, etc., that were outcomes of the ‘spontaneous’ combinations of a given environment of material production with the ‘fortuitous’ gathering of disparate social elements within that same environment.” This “spontaneity,” Gramsci argued, “was educated, it was given a direction.” The education and direction of movement sought “to unify it by means of modern theory,” but it did so “in a living, historically effective manner.” By speaking of the “spontaneity” of the movement, its leaders emphasized its historically necessary character, and “gave the masses a ‘theoretical’ consciousness of themselves as creators of historical and institutional values, as founders of states.” 21
Gramsci displaced the question of consciousness towards that of knowledge, and its material constitution in organizational forms. This is the originality of his reading of Lenin, which, Buci-Glucksmann emphasizes, he describes as “gnoseological.” 22 Thomas contrasts this explicitly to “epistemology,” which would be the abstract problem of the production of knowledge. “Gnoseology,” as Gramsci uses it, “refers more generally to the effective reality [Wirklichkeit] of human relations of knowledge.” 23
Gramsci’s reinterpretation of Leninism in terms of the effective reality of human relations of knowledge structures his understanding of the politics of the intellect. At a methodological level, Gramsci scrutinized the classical Marxist claim that people “acquire consciousness of structural conflicts on the level of ideologies.” This should be understood, he argued, “as an affirmation of gnoseological and not simply psychological and moral value.” Lenin’s “greatest theoretical contribution” to Marxism — the “theoretical-practical principle of hegemony” — had a “gnoseological significance.” Lenin, Gramsci wrote, “advanced philosophy as philosophy in so far as he advanced political doctrine and practice.” He located knowledge in what Gramsci called a “hegemonic apparatus,” which, “in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of forms of consciousness and of methods of knowledge: it is a fact of knowledge, a philosophical fact.” 24
By embedding knowledge in the concept of the “hegemonic apparatus,” Buci-Glucksmann argues, Gramsci clearly differentiated the theory of hegemony from a pure theory of consciousness or culture. He underscored its material reality “as a complex set of institutions, ideologies, practices and agents (including the ‘intellectuals’).” This was not, however, the same thing as a liberal study of static institutions, “for the hegemonic apparatus is intersected by the primacy of the class struggle.” 25
Elaborating on this point, Thomas adds that “a class’s hegemonic apparatus is the wide-ranging series of articulated institutions (understood in the broadest sense) and practices — from newspapers to educational organisations to political parties — by means of which a class and its allies engage their opponents in a struggle for political power.” In the specific relations of force between classes, “a class’s potential for political power therefore depends upon its ability to find the institutional forms adequate to the differentia specifica of its own particular hegemonic project.” 26
The totality of Gramsci’s work points us, in other words, to the problem of finding new organizational forms, political parties which are “historical experimenters” with new kinds of knowledge. 27 In this regard Sotiris underscores the Gramscian image of the party as a “laboratory,” rather than “the general staff of the proletarian army.” Gramsci rather points us to “a political process for the production of knowledges, strategies, tactics, and forms of intellectuality.” Thus from Gramsci’s perspective the party is not a predetermined structure which would subordinate various social movements to its authority. It is rather the name for the laboratory in which, as Sotiris puts it, a “plurality of processes, practices, resistances and collectivities” can be unified into a “common hegemonic project,” a project which combines “new and original forms of struggle, of resistance, blockage, reappropriation and emancipation.” This “potential unification requires thinking the party or the organization as a laboratory producing intellectualities, strategies, tactics, but also as a hegemonic practice. It is a constant encounter between practices, experiences and knowledges.” 28
Let us bring this exegetical detour back to Gramsci’s early statement of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” It should be clear that Gramsci was in fact grappling, albeit in a hasty and triumphalist manner, with the tension between the underlying recognition that all people are intellectuals, and the conditions for politics in which those with the social function of intellectuals play a leadership role. The continuity of these questions in Gramsci’s evolving political thought form the essential context for understanding his deployment of pessimism and optimism in the Prison Notebooks, where it is most frequently encountered.
To understand the reappearance of the phrase in the Prison Notebooks, we will turn theoretically from the intellect to the will, which is not only a key axis of the complex development of Gramsci’s thought, but also a pillar of the contemporary repetition of the slogan. Now, it seems, the phrase is meant to discourage us from dreaming of utopias, downplaying defeats, or dismissing dangers. But we would not want to give the impression that this emphasis on a sobering pessimism leads us to quietism and surrender. Optimism of the will then becomes the necessary supplement for something that is missing in the original pessimism; it allows us to be comfortable with pessimism, to disseminate pessimism to those who cling to illusions because they would otherwise be incapable of coping with the hopelessness that pessimism brings.
But this abstract assessment of sentiments rather obscures what was at stake for Gramsci as he repeated the phrase in his Prison Notebooks, where it represented a detailed and systematic reflection on the strategic and organizational questions of his revolutionary experience. The historical background has drastically changed: by 1926 revolutionary politics in Italy had been defeated and fascism had consolidated its rule. In his Prison Notebooks Gramsci was thinking through politics anew. As Buci-Glucksmann puts it, “after the failure of the revolution, and the consolidation of dictatorship, new strength can come only from knowledge.” 29
It was probably one footnote in the standard English volume, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, which popularized the slogan among Anglophone readers in 1971. The context was a discussion of the history of Italian politics and political thought written from 1930-32, in which Gramsci was reflecting on “the effectiveness of the political will” which has “turned to awakening new and original forces rather than merely to calculating on the traditional ones.” 30 His inspiration was Machiavelli, whose fundamental recognition that “politics is an autonomous activity” provided a necessary supplement to Marxism, which in conditions of defeat had the tendency to lapse into a mechanistic economic determinism. In its belief in the inevitable and predetermined coming of revolutionary conditions, this determinism resembled nothing more than a religious fatalism. 31
For Gramsci what was important about Machiavelli was his realization that the historical transformations announced by the Renaissance could not be achieved without the formation of a national state, and some historical agent was required which could represent the “collective will” and achieve this historical task — the Prince. 32 But the Prince was not an already-existing person; in writing The Prince, Machiavelli was trying to call this agent into being. He thus bridged between the preceding tendencies of political thought to either dream of utopias, or engage in disinterested scholarly analysis.
So Machiavelli’s “concrete will” to bring about a new order could not be reduced to utopias and daydreams, as skeptics like his aristocratic associate Guicciardini had charged. The skeptical attitude which dismissed any possibility for historical change had to be distinguished, Gramsci wrote, from a real “pessimism of the intelligence, which can be combined with an optimism of the will in active and realistic politicians.” 33
At this point the editors and translators of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks added a footnote referring to another portion of the notebooks from 1932, an independent fragment on “daydreams and fantasies.” Gramsci wrote that daydreams and fantasies were fundamentally passive, imagining that “something has happened to upset the mechanism of necessity,” and therefore “one’s own initiative has become free.” 34 As a political orientation this was in stark contrast to Machiavelli’s concrete will, which applied itself, he wrote elsewhere, to the “effective reality” and aimed at “the creation of a new equilibrium among the forces which really exist and are operative.” 35
Here he repeated the decisive phrase: “On the contrary, it is necessary to direct one’s attention violently towards the present as it is, if one wishes to transform it. Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” 36
This language is striking, yet incomprehensible without understanding the way Gramsci was using Machiavelli to elaborate on the problems of revolutionary strategy that had preoccupied him before prison. Machiavelli, embedded in his particular historical moment, represented the formation of a concrete will “in terms of the qualities, characteristics, duties and requirements of a concrete individual.” For Gramsci, the “modern Prince” — which had the historical task of bringing about the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry that would be capable of initiating the process of transition to a workers’ state — could not “be a real person, a concrete individual.” It rather had to be “a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognised and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form. History has already provided this organism, and it is the political party — the first cell in which there come together germs of a collective will tending to become universal and total.” 37
Thus for Gramsci the pessimism of the intellect constituted the refusal to conceive of politics in terms of the ahistorical dreams of utopias. This did not mean simply resigning oneself to the equilibrium of the effective reality: optimism of the will was the application of the autonomy of politics to the really existing and operative forces which could bring about a new equilibrium. But this will was not simply a matter of individual determination; it was nothing other than the party, whose organizational processes brought about the formation of a concrete and collective will.
As Sotiris writes, Gramsci’s reflection on Machiavelli “encapsulates the necessity of the political party, in opposition to other forms of organization exactly on the basis of a need not only to form a collective will but also to enable it to articulate and execute a political project.” Just as Machiavelli “sought the person that could function as the catalyst for a process of national unification of the fragmented Italian space, and the modern political party,” Gramsci believed that the communist party “should also function in this unifying way, articulating the fragmented and ‘molecular’ practices and aspirations of the subaltern in a common political demand for radical transformation..” Thus Gramsci treated the communist party as “the terrain par excellence for the elaboration of a collective will capable of being the protagonist of a process of social transformation.” 38 But as Thomas points out, while Gramsci saw the political party as “the historically given form in which the decisive elements of organisation, unification and coordination had already begun to occur,” the re-elaboration of this form into a “non-bureaucratic instrument of proletarian hegemony” would require “an ongoing dialectical exchange with the popular initiatives from which the ‘modern Prince’ could emerge and into which it would seek to intervene.” 39
Let us recall that these reflections on the possibility of organization were taking place under conditions of defeat. It is in this context that Gramsci brought the strategic and organizational question of the party towards the problem of politics as an autonomous activity. As Thomas writes, “the ‘modern Prince’ for Gramsci, imprisoned for being a member of a Communist party, was a collective body constituted as an active social relation of knowledge and organisation” which could initiate the formation of a collective will. But “just as its Machiavellian predecessor, Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’ remained no more than a proposal for the future, not a concrete reality, in his time—or in our own.” 40
In this very concrete sense Gramsci is our contemporary. What we miss in reducing “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to a sensibility is the practical importance of Gramsci’s reflections. In the absence of an organizational form which can operate as the organizer of a concrete and collective will, politics has become unavailable to us. To recall Gramsci’s formulation, we require theories and practices of organization which are oriented towards awakening new and original forces, rather than calculating on the traditional ones.
We cannot entirely separate the organizational question of politics as autonomous activity, which runs continuously from L’Ordine Nuovo to the Prison Notebooks, from what we might call the ethical disposition of those who participate in politics. However, these problems of ethics should be distinguished from the psychological and moral level, which is also the level of consciousness, that Gramsci clearly demarcated from the gnoseological. Gramsci’s writings propose new ethical principles, each marked by fundamental lines of demarcation, which appear in passages which were not included in the initial English translation (but made available in the larger edition edited by Pete Buttigieg’s father Joseph), and in his letters.
In a portion of a longer passage from 1929-30, Gramsci wrote that Marx’s “catastrophism” was a valid reaction to “the general optimism of the nineteenth century.” Marx “poured cold water over the enthusiasm with his ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.’” Gramsci criticized the optimistic tendency to imagine utopias, which led people to fantasize about “easy solutions to every problem.” “All the most ridiculous daydreamers,” he wrote, “descend upon the new movements to propagate their tales of hitherto unrecognized genius, thereby casting discredit on them.” Instead, he said, “it is necessary to create sober, patient people who do not despair in the face of the worst horrors and who do not become exuberant with every silliness. Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” 41
In another independent fragment in the notebooks from 1932, titled “Optimism and pessimism,” he noted that “optimism is nothing more than a defense of one’s laziness, one’s irresponsibility, the will to do nothing,” and is therefore “also a form of fatalism and mechanicism.” Optimism meant relying “on factors extraneous to one’s will and activity.” What was necessary instead was a reaction which took “the intelligence for its point of departure.” Gramsci rejected the enthusiasm resulting from the exaltation of factors extraneous from one’s will and activity, which was “is nothing more than the external adoration of fetishes.” And yet, there was also a “justifiable enthusiasm,” which could only be “that which accompanies the intelligent will, intelligent activity, the inventive richness of concrete initiatives which change existing reality.” 42
We cannot avoid noticing that the binary oppositions of the slogan have been displaced. There is an optimism tied to the “will to do nothing,” which is contrasted to an “intelligent will.” A certain kind of “optimism of the will,” then, is not only the counterpart of fatalism and mechanicism, but also a form of utopian daydreaming. This is not simply because pessimism is needed to correct the optimism of the will. The alternative Gramsci actually describes is instead a fusion of intelligence and will, the “intelligent will,” which is accompanied by a justifiable form of “enthusiasm.” With this he recalls the slogan printed in a box under the title from the very first issue of L’Ordine Nuovo: “Educate yourselves because we will need all your intelligence. Rouse yourselves because we will need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we will need all your strength.” 43 Enthusiasm is the first new ethical principle.
In a 1929 letter to his brother Carlo, in which he recalled the experience that both of his brothers had in conditions of war, Gramsci reflected on hardship and deprivation and rejected “those vulgar, banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism.” His state of mind, Gramsci said, “synthesizes these two emotions and overcomes them: I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” He claimed that “in all circumstances” he thought “first of the worst possibility in order to set in motion all the reserves of my will and be in a position to knock down the obstacle.” At the same time, he said, “I have never entertained any illusions and I have never suffered disappointments.” But he did not end by reiterating the slogan. He shifted, instead, to different words: “I have always taken care to arm myself with an unlimited patience, not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance.” 44
Perhaps between the Prison Notebooks and this letter, the gnoseological level and the psychological and moral level appear to be conflated. Here Gramsci does not appear to be speaking of knowledge which is embedded in the hegemonic apparatus, the organizational level of the formation of the concrete and collective will. Yet these letters cannot be reduced to a mere indication of Gramsci’s psychological and moral state; his personal situation is precisely the historical and political condition of defeat he set out to theorize, defined by the political void that no modern Prince was available to fill. If we rush quickly to conflate the psychological and moral with the gnoseological, we run the risk of abstracting the personal will, in the manner that Gramsci criticized in his notes on daydreams, by detaching it from the organizational processes that can actually form a concrete and collective will.
Despite beginning with the oppositions between pessimism and optimism, intellect and will, in this letter Gramsci in fact redirects them towards “perseverance,” a unitary category which is tied not to optimism or pessimism, but to “patience.” In a certain form, Gramsci wrote in a 1930-32 note, perseverance is enabled by the mechanistic philosophy of history: “For those who do not have the initiative in the struggle and for whom, therefore, the struggle ends up being synonymous with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a formidable force of moral resistance, of cohesion, of patient perseverance.” It allows one to say: “I am defeated, but in the long run history is on my side.” In other words, this kind of perseverance is an “‘act of faith’ in the rationality of history transmuted into an impassioned teleology that is a substitute for the ‘predestination,’ ‘providence,’ etc., of religion.” However, Gramsci argued that despite this belief in mechanical determinism, in reality “the will is active; it intervenes directly in the ‘force of circumstances,’ albeit in a more covert and veiled manncr.” When those who are accustomed to being defeated become historical protagonists, “the mechanistic conception will sooner or later represent an imminent danger, and there will be a revision of a whole mode of thinking because the mode of existence will have changed.” 45
Revising the note in 1932-33, Gramsci emphasized that it was never really the case that the subaltern was inactive; in fact, “fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position.” This is why it was necessary to “demonstrate the futility of mechanical determinism,” which “as a naïve philosophy of the mass” could be “an intrinsic element of strength,” but would, if “adopted as a thought-out and coherent philosophy on the part of the intellectuals,” become “a cause of passivity, of idiotic self-sufficiency.” This happens when intellectuals “don’t even expect that the subaltern will become directive and responsible”; but in fact, “some part of even a subaltern mass is always directive and responsible.” 46
Hence perseverance cannot be a political principle if it is attached to future prophesy, but rather embodies the patient capacity to recognize the active will that persists beyond one’s personal psychological and moral state; it requires patience, and also courage. In a 1930-32 notebook entry on “Military and political craft,” Gramsci observed that “staying for a long time in a trench requires ‘courage’—that is, perseverance in boldness— which can be produced either by ‘terror’ (certain death if one does not stay) or by the conviction that it is necessary (courage).” 47 Perseverance is the second new ethical principle.
Perseverance is irreducible to the level of the individual, because it is at this level that, as Gramsci was ultimately forced to conclude, the dialectic of pessimism and optimism breaks down. In a letter to his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht in 1933, months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany, Gramsci revisited his slogan. “Until a while ago,” he wrote, “I was, so to speak, pessimistic in my intelligence and an optimist in my will.” But he could no longer sustain his synthesis of pessimism and optimism: “Today I no longer think in this way. This does not mean that I’ve decided to surrender, so to speak. But it means that I no longer see any concrete way out and I no longer can count on any reserve of strength to expend that I can draw on.” 48 His body failing him, he saw no escape from his prison cell.
Without an organized, collective body to sustain it, the individual body falters. When the political condition of the party can no longer be taken for granted, and optimism of the will has become a daydream, pessimism of the intellect does not yield knowledge. We are required instead to persevere in the interregnum between the previous moments of emancipatory possibility and the unachieved discovery of a new concrete hegemonic political form.
Both perseverance and enthusiasm have to be separated from mechanicism and fatalism, and refer instead to the concrete will that applies itself to the effective reality. In order to do so, they must be based in the collective body, and not the individual consciousness. As psychological and moral categories, both pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will run counter to the ethical disposition that is articulated in the margins of Gramsci’s text.
Pessimism of the intellect confirms itself in the experience of defeat, severing the personal body from the collective body which is required for us to persevere. Persevering in politics is difficult, and requires a patient and courageous commitment which does not depend on forecasts of the future.
Optimism of the will obscures the problem of organizational forms and forecloses their enthusiastic investigation. It means clinging to traditional forces, rather than creating and organizing new ones, and is thus incompatible with the intelligent will which is defined by enthusiasm for concrete initiatives which can change the existing reality.
Enthusiasm and perseverance emerge as Gramsci’s ethical principles. But now it is time to conclude, by revisiting pessimism and optimism.
I believe that our current moment shows us that Gramsci’s insights are not well represented by the slogan, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In fact, we will better understand our situation if we precisely reverse it.
Optimism of the intellect, because we have to start by recognizing that all people are capable of thought, that they are able to not only form conceptions of the world but also to experiment with new possibilities. There is no emancipatory politics without recognizing this universal capacity for thought. Gramsci never failed to emphasize two essential points: that all people are philosophers, and that this mass intelligence is the basis for a future society; and that despite the political division between leaders and led, rulers and ruled, it is possible to engage in forms of political action which abolish this distinction rather than preserving it. This is quite distinct from an optimism about the future, regarding which we must pass over in silence. Our optimism of the intellect is the one which says that it is possible for people to govern themselves, and in every act of collective resistance this capacity is confirmed.
But pessimism of the will, because we know that the will has to take a material organizational form, and that across the history of revolutionary politics the classical form assumed by the young Gramsci is no longer available to us. We lack the concrete basis for organizations on the model of the twentieth century revolutions, and we know from the history which followed these revolutions that the emancipatory potential of the party seizing the state has been exhausted. Gramsci never abandoned the insight of Lenin that politics develops under conditions and that the political will must take an organizational form. He deepened this line of thought for a situation of defeat in which that organization of wills was not available. He was not afraid to grapple with the problem of the conquest of political power, which still remains with us, but could not have incorporated into his analysis the exhaustion of the party-state and the closure of its emancipatory horizon which frames our present. We are still faced with the necessity of politics as autonomous activity, the formation of concrete and collective wills, but it must take a material form which is adequate to the present. What we need now is not a voluntarist dedication to repeating old models, but laboratories which can observe new forces and experiment with new forms.
Our subjective horizon is the optimism of the intellect; our objective, structuring condition is pessimism of the will. Without optimism of the intellect, we have the party without the people. Without pessimism of the will, we have the illusion of power. Until we recognize this there is no path for action.
Appendix: “Where Is the Socialist Party Going?”
The following unsigned editorial, attributed to Gramsci, appeared in L’Ordine Nuovo on 10 July 1920.
The direct action of the masses can only be eminently destructive. If the masses take up the slogan which leads them to the exercise of control over the public and private activity of the capitalist class, their action can only culminate in the complete destruction of the state machine. The proletariat took up the slogan: it was necessary to control traffic to stop arms and munitions intended for the enemies of the Russian revolution, to stop goods destined for the Hungary of the land magnates, to prevent the movement of troops intending to reactivate the war in the Balkans and in all of Europe; it was inevitable that this would lead all the way to the events of Ancona, to the armed insurrection.
The direct action of the working masses is revolutionary precisely because it is eminently destructive. Since the working class has no power over industrial governance, it is natural that it reveals the acquired economic power in tending towards destroying industrial discipline and all industrial discipline; since the working class occupies the same position in the army as it does in the factory, since in the factory just as in the army the working class must submit to a discipline and a law that it has not contributing to establishing, it is natural that it would tend towards destroying the discipline of the army, and destroying it completely; since the whole bourgeois state apparatus is completely extraneous and hostile to the proletarian masses, it is natural that every revolutionary action to directly control governmental activity would ultimately lead to the complete destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, to the armed insurrection.
The communists are well persuaded that this must happen, that it could not happen any other way; therefore the communists are not afraid of the direct action of the masses and the inevitable destruction that comes with it. One is afraid of the unpredictable and unexpected, not of what is expected as a necessity and which one tries to advance: which we try to advance to be able to dominate the reality which is expected to arise, to ensure that destruction already consciously contains the elements and the will for reconstruction, to ensure that violence is not a sterile outburst of blind fury, but is economic and political power that liberates itself and sets the conditions for its own development.
The slogan for control of governmental activity led to railroad strikes, to general strikes resulting from the railroad strikes, leading to the insurrection of Ancona. Since the General Confederation of Labor (i.e. the acting secretary) has an English gardener’s conception of workers’ control, since the General Confederation of Labor wants well-behaved control, which respects liberty, order, and democracy, the Confederation immediately issued this circular: “For Hungary and for Russia we can only do what we can and not what we might want. It seems to us that the derailing of every railcar, in addition to being practically difficult, would bring consequences (!) and complications (!?!). Your action must therefore be limited to what is possible, to everything that is possible while avoiding complications.” The economy precedes politics; since the reformists and opportunists have the whole mechanism of the Italian labor movement in their hands, the reformists and opportunists have the power of the Socialist Party in their hands, imposing direction and tactics on the Party: the action of the party has collapsed, the mass movements have served the parliamentary group, to allow it to reap victory after victory, they have served to allow the reformist deputies to consolidate their positions and to make easier, and therefore more laden with laurels, a rise to governmental power. So it happens, due to the political incapacity of components of the leadership, that every day the Italian Socialist Party loses more of its strength and its organizational power over the masses, so it happened that the Anarchist Congress of Bologna had such importance for the proletarian masses, so it will happen, if the communist groups do not react energetically, that the party will end up losing every control over the masses, and the latter, having no guide, will in the unfolding of events be driven into a situation worse than that of the masses of Austria and Germany.
We of L’Ordine Nuovo and the Turin socialists in general were presented to the Italian proletariat, after the April movement, as a fanatical, agitated, and undisciplined rabble. Since the leaders of the central offices do not concern themselves with what happens among the industrialists and what happens among the workers, because they see history as unfolding through the operation of ideological abstractions (classes in general, the party in general, humanity in general), and not through the action of real men who are named Peter, Paul, and John and are what they really are, and not through the action of determinate urban and rural communities in space and time, which change (and change rapidly in the current period) with the changing of places and the passing of months and even weeks, these leaders foresee none of this, and end up seeing the tail of the devil in every event, and end up unloading their historical responsibility onto the shoulders of the multiplying undisciplined and anarchoid groups. Meanwhile the Turin socialist section had the merit of formulating an action to take control of the union movement away from the reformists, predicting (easy prediction) that in the final moment the union bosses would have sabotaged the will of the party and of the masses: this action did not have the results it should have had because of the very intervention of… the Party leadership. The Turin section, accused of indiscipline after the April movement, had already before the movement prepared its report to the National Council in which it harshly condemned the leadership for not having devoted any concern to revolutionary organization and the establishment of a strongly centralized and responsible discipline. Unfortunately the report of the Turin section is still relevant; the latest events are the aggravated repetition of the April events in Turin. It has become more relevant than we could have believed, including this paragraph: “The political party of the working class justifies its existence only to the extent that by powerfully centralizing and co-ordinating proletarian action, it counterposes a de facto revolutionary power to the legal power of the bourgeois State and limits its freedom of initiative and manœuvre. If the Party fails to unify and co-ordinate its efforts, and reveals itself as simply a bureaucratic institution, with no soul or will, the working class will instinctively move to form another party and shift its allegiance to the anarchist tendencies, the very ones that bitterly and ceaselessly criticize the centralization and bureaucracy of political parties.” 49
The Party lacks organization and propaganda for revolutionary organization, which corresponds to the configuration of the proletarian masses in the factories, in the barracks, in the offices, and is capable of training the masses with every revolutionary leap. The party, insofar as it does not seek to fuse vitally with the proletarian masses, continues to conserve, in its assemblies which meet only occasionally and cannot effectively control the action of the union bosses, the figure of a merely parliamentary party, which is afraid of direct action because it is full of unforeseen events, which is forced to take more steps backwards every day and permit the rebirth of the most pompous and flimsy reformism and the most foolish collaborationist propaganda.
An enormous effort must be made by the communist groups in the Socialist Party, which is what it is, in the final analysis, because Italy is as a whole an economically backward country. The slogan: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” must become the slogan of every communist conscious of the efforts and sacrifices that are demanded of those who voluntarily assume the post of militant in the ranks of the working class.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Gwynn Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Italian Communism (London: Pluto Press, 1975), 203-8.|
|2.||↑||Antonio Gramsci, “The Turin Communist Movement,” International Gramsci Journal, 2:2 (2017): 40. This is a more accurate version of the text also published in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, ed. Quintin Hoare and trans. John Mathews (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988).|
|3.||↑||The phrasing which appears in the published translations, “pessimism of the intelligence,” is more precise; but the slogan has circulated widely with the word “intellect,” which produces a perhaps more mellifluous sentence. I have simply used them interchangeably.|
|4.||↑||Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 1, trans. Raymond Rosenthal and ed. Frank Rosengarten (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 300.|
|5.||↑||Williams, Proletarian Order, 28, 193-9.|
|6.||↑||Gramsci, “Address to the Anarchists” in Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, 188.|
|9.||↑||Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, trans. David Fernbach (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), 12.|
|10.||↑||Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, 34.|
|11.||↑||See especially “Officialdom” and “Against Pessimism” in Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), but also the earlier untranslated text “Dove va il Partito socialista?” in L’Ordine Nuovo, 10 July 1920. A translation of this text is included as an appendix.|
|12.||↑||See Williams, Proletarian Order, chs. 9-11.|
|13.||↑||Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks [SPN], trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1992), 9, 323. In references to the original Quaderni del carcere [Q], ed. Valentino Gerratana (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), I follow the international convention of giving the notebook number followed by the note number, then the page number: 12§1, 1516; 11§12, 1375. Where applicable I also refer to the three English volumes of the Prison Notebooks [PN], trans. Joseph A. Buttgieg and Antonio Callari and ed. Joseph A. Buttgieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).|
|14.||↑||SPN, 334; Q 11§12, 1386.|
|15.||↑||SPN, 335; Q 11§12, 1387. Translation modified.|
|16.||↑||Panagiotis Sotiris, “The Modern Prince as Laboratory of Political Intellectuality,” International Gramsci Journal, 3:2 (2019): 2.|
|17.||↑||SPN, 144; Q 15§4, 1752.|
|18.||↑||SPN, 325; Q11§12, 1378.|
|19.||↑||Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 29, 31.|
|20.||↑||Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony, and Marxism (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 408.|
|21.||↑||PN 2, 50; SPN 198; Q 3§48, 330.|
|22.||↑||Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 349.|
|23.||↑||Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 97n34.|
|24.||↑||SPN, 365–6; Q 10II§12, 1249-50. Translation modified.|
|25.||↑||Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 48; see also 63-8.|
|26.||↑||Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 226-7.|
|27.||↑||SPN, 335; Q 11§12, 1387. Translation modified.|
|28.||↑||Sotiris, “The Modern Prince,” 28, 32, 34.|
|29.||↑||Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, 24.|
|30.||↑||SPN, 174; PN 3, 73; Q 6§86, 761.|
|31.||↑||SPN, 168; Q 13§23, 1611-12; see also 9§40, 1120.|
|32.||↑||SPN, 129; Q 13§1, 1558.|
|33.||↑||SPN, 175; PN 3, 73; Q 6§86, 762.|
|34.||↑||SPN, 175; Q 9§60, 1131.|
|35.||↑||SPN, 172; Q 13§16, 1578.|
|36.||↑||SPN, 175; Q 9§60, 1131.|
|37.||↑||SPN, 129; Q 13§1, 1558; see also PN 3, 247; Q 8§21, 951.|
|38.||↑||Sotiris, “Modern Prince,” 19-20.|
|39.||↑||Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 437.|
|41.||↑||PN 1, 172; Q 1§63, 75; see also Q 28§11, 2331-2.|
|42.||↑||PN 1, 12; Q 9§130, 1191-2.|
|43.||↑||PN 19, 71; Q xlviii.|
|44.||↑||Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 1, 299; Antonio Gramsci, Lettere dal carcere, ed. Sergio Caprioglio and Elsa Fubini (Turin: Einaudi, 1973), 310.|
|45.||↑||PN, 353; Q 8§205, 1064.|
|46.||↑||SPN, 337; Q 11§1, 1388-9.|
|47.||↑||PN, 236; Q 4§62, 508.|
|48.||↑||Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 2, 299-300; Lettere dal carcere, 785.|
|49.||↑||Gramsci, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party” in Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, 193.|
The following text is adapted from the contribution of Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes to a panel at the Historical Materialism conference in London. The text has been published here and on Notes from Below.
The uprising of the YVs (Yellow Vests or the “mouvement des gilets jaunes”) and its persistent tenacity mark a point of no return. In our opinion, there is a before and an after the YVs. At least in Europe and in terms of class struggle.
Ten days ahead of its first anniversary, we are here in London to present a viewpoint that is situated and immanent to the emergence of the YVs, based on our militant practices and interventions. We do so, therefore, with our eyes turned back, to the last 12 months, to tell you what has happened so far, but with our hearts and heads set towards the future; the future not only of this new and powerful movement, but – more generally – the future of class struggle in Europe.
The YVs are indeed the strongest movement that has emerged on the scene of the old continent between the late 1970s and today. Moreover, the YVs make for a movement that has crystallized and exploded many of the contradictions that exist in today’s world, anticipating several issues that concern our future.
The YVs movement is first and foremost an autonomous movement – that is, a movement that was born, has taken shape and has grown outside any institutional framework. Also, it is an anti-crisis movement – that is, it gives substance to a self-organized response from below against the brutal deterioration of the living and working conditions of the middle and lower classes, and against the authoritarian turn of the state machine. Since the crisis of liberal democracy, the crisis of capital and the crisis of the institutional left do not seem to be fading away, the emergence of the YVs speaks not only of our recent past and present, but also largely of the near future and our political tasks.
After four decades of neoliberal reaction and after the radicalization and strengthening of processes of neoliberalization following the 2008 crisis, the YVs were the only movement, at least in Europe, to win victories in the cycle of struggles that began in 2011: Emmanuel Macron, “the President of the Rich,” had indeed to withdraw the carbon tax, concede a series of more or less symbolic measures, but above all exceed the budgetary limits imposed by the Brussels “golden rules”. Even worse, Macron had to slow down, or in some cases defer, the agenda of neoliberal reforms – which has further increased the tensions already existing among the European ruling class, between the supporters of the federalist turn and the supporters of the confederalist perspective, as is particularly clear within the European Central Bank (ECB) board.
That said, by way of introduction, it is very difficult to account for the richness and variety of a movement like the YVs in 20 minutes, for several reasons. First of all, because it is an extremely heterogeneous movement. Its social composition – transversal to the poor or impoverished – is not only closely linked to the spatial composition of the different parts of the country that mobilize, but it can change rather significantly between assemblies that are not too far apart geographically. At least, this is what we were able to notice when we joined the popular assemblies of Paris and its suburbs (as MIP (Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes) we are present in five different assemblies). Moreover, the movement is present throughout France, so you understand the difficulties of mapping the YVs. However, if we want to sketch out a somewhat wild socio-geographic radiography of the movement, we can say two things. From the point of view of social composition, it is not the lower strata of society or the middle classes that are at the forefront of the dynamics of the movement, but rather the social segments in between, that is, those impoverished workers who are going through major downgrading processes of worsening of their social conditions, and who see the future in a darker way than they could ever have imagined before the crisis. From the point of view of spatial composition, it is neither the working-class districts nor the city centers that are most active, but the peri-urban areas, the inner suburbs, the diffuse peripheries, i.e. these semi-rural and semi-urban spaces that constitute a limbo from both a socio-economic and political point of view. Finally, with regard to its subjective composition, it should be added that this is a fairly old movement (the average age of the YVs being between 45 and 50 years), with a strong female presence, i.e. women, and middle-aged women in particular, still playing a very important role.
The second difficulty is that this is a movement that has been going on for a year, i.e. it now has a certain longevity. During this time, the movement has mutated and gone through different phases, depending on the evolution of its organizational process, but also on the tactics put in place by the government to contain, divert, repress it, etc. The movement thus experienced peaks in intensity (the first four weeks, 16th March, 14th July), moments of decline (during the election campaign for European elections, in August, in October), moments of high contamination (on 5th February and 1st May with grassroots trade unions, the anti-racist and suburban marches of February and July, in September with the ecological protests). That is, the movement has continued to be important for supporting ongoing struggles, whether local and linked to a territory, or sector-specific and labor-related. And November 2019 is a month full of events: the movement is in fact far from over…
Third, it is difficult to report in 20 minutes on this movement because of the plurality of its forms of action. The YVs have thoroughly renewed the practices of blocking, assembly and demonstration, while practicing self-inquiry in an extremely interesting way. Beyond the occupations of the buildings known as People’s Houses (Maisons du Peuple), and beyond the free-toll (péage-gratuit) actions, what characterized the movement were four forms of actions:
- circulation blockades, also in particularly strategic roundabouts as far as the flow of commodities or the flow of people are concerned – the issue being not only economic blockage, but also visibility and exchange with other citizens
- the transformation of these blockades into occupations, and the proliferation of assembly spaces, which immediately became the focus of the movement’s self-organization and places of sociability, mutual aid and solidarity
- it is within the occupied roundabouts and local assemblies that the YVs have constantly discussed among themselves, drawn up questionnaires, compiled lists of grievances (cahiers de doléances), put forward their revendications: in short, in these spaces the YV have carried on practices of militant self-inquiry, by way of improving overall political perspectives and constantly organizing actions, the spectrum of which ranges from sabotage and offensive practices to peaceful and symbolic initiatives
- the transformation of the classic demonstration (the marches established in agreement with the police prefecture) into a weekly riot meeting in the rich districts of French metropolises, where looting of shops can go hand in hand with urban guerrilla warfare with an almost insurrectional content.
Of course, this plurality of forms of action must always be considered within precise spatio-temporal coordinates. In short, the practices of the movement vary in time and space.
However, if we want to try to politically synthesize this subjective, social, spatial, temporal and practical multiplicity, we can say – this is our thesis – that the movement has produced the inseparable unity of the social question and the political question; it has said loud and clear that the social is political and that the political is anchored in the social. More money and more direct democracy, or – we could say – more income and more autonomy. If we want to reduce the movement to its core, we could risk to claim what follows: according to the YVs, the material problems of the production and reproduction of life must be dealt with collectively, and direct democracy cannot be limited to the simple liberation/circulation of speech. The refusal of representation and delegation, the demands for fiscal justice and Macron’s dismissal, the politicization of ecological issues, but also the rediscovery of human warmth, social ties and fraternity, all this shows well that, within the movement of the YVs, only through the involvement of oneself, in the first person, in a community of struggle can one hope to change the relations of power in force today. The staggering unleashing of juridical, police and also symbolic violence against the movement (let us think of the contemptuous and arrogant treatment reserved by the media to the movement) clearly shows that the YVs have succeeded in turning these power relations upside down like no one before them – at least in Europe since the 1970s!
But let us return to the origin of the movement and its different phases. To be realistic, the genealogy of the YVs must begin a little more than a month before the 17th November 2018, which was the inaugural date of the mobilization. This movement does not emerge from social spaces that are constituted a priori, and this is the first element that makes of it an autonomous movement, in the sense that from its origins it is separated from a pre-existing organizational base. Very early on, even before the movement appears as such in the public space, on the local scale forms of organization are put in place, in parallel with the diffusion of slogans that circulate on social networks – such as the one that will give the movement its name, the yellow vest, intended to be placed in front of the cars of angry users against a new fuel tax. These kinds of problems, which are generally dealt with by (right-wing) associations defending motorists, are here invested in a much more global way, by a much broader social base than the one we usually see at work in this kind of circumstances. Therefore, what is invested from the beginning in the YVs movement is not access to the road, or claims over a driving practice, but the very possibility of using the car as a working or reproductive tool that is absolutely essential in the diffuse peripheries that we mentioned above. Once this has been said, it is extremely difficult not to read the yellow vest movement as the emergence of a social conflict linked to extractivist practices of the state in the field of taxation, but also as the socialization of an essential means of production such as the car.
However, it was not until 17th November 2018 that the movement really emerges as a political force in the sense that it begins to embody a level of antagonism that has not been seen in France – and more broadly in Europe – for several decades. 17th November is placed under the sign of blockage as a mass political practice: it is the first investment of the roundabout, reclaimed by the YVs to become both an organizational space but also a blockage point for the commercial and industrial zones that mark the fabric of peri-urban and rural France – even the Arc du Triomphe, one could say, is a roundabout…!
It is in parallel with this exacerbated conflict that the movement’s slogans widens, totally contradicting the thesis of a Poujadist movement: the movement demands the return of the wealth tax abolished a few months earlier by the government, and the dismissal of the President himself, to immediately turn to address a much broader spectrum of demands. It is as a result of this powerful mobilization – which brought the riots to places where they had been absent since the Paris Commune – that the French government makes its first concessions: “They were content to drop a ridiculous suspension of fuel taxes for the year 2019, amounting to 4 billion, which represents an offering of 6 cents for diesel and 3 cents for gasoline”.
From this point on, the YVs movement has continued to reinvent itself to the point that the story of each phase would take several hours to be detailed. We can say that, at first, the movement is deployed according to a double temporality, spatially determined: the occupations and blockages take place throughout the week and throughout France, and the demonstrations unroll in the beautiful districts of Paris (and other cities) on Saturday mornings and afternoons. The absolute autonomy of the movement and its political agenda, combined with a very high degree of participation and antagonism, has prevented the government from finding real “exit strategies for the crisis,” forcing it to constantly change its tactics, which – in turn – has been at the root of many shifts in the practices and perspectives of the YVs.
To stay always in the early phases of the movement, one of the first slogans of the YVs has been the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (CIR). The investment of the YVs with this slogan must be understood above all as a consequence of the permanent articulation of the social and political struggle rather than as a trademark of the movement’s supposed sovereignism, or its purely formal attachment to democracy. The criticism of much of the radical left, which consisted in putting forward the idea that “it is not the CIR that pays the bills,” only deepened its separation from the YVs movement. As for us, as MIP, we preferred to avoid the double pitfall of Marxist vulgate (“money before CIR,” “le fric avant le Ric”) and political sociology (the procedural aridity of the CIR), to treat it from a point of view immanent to the movement, its composition and its tactics, which in these early phases have entirely been under construction.
In this respect, it is important to be very clear on one point: the right, the Front National (FN), the followers of a dubious Frexit, and small neo-fascist groups, have definitively lost all hegemonic aspiration on the movement from February onwards. And this has not been the result of leftist criticism of the movement, but the fruit of collective intelligence that has matured in the daily practice of direct democracy. Beyond the physical expulsion of neo-fascist and reactionary groups from the streets and assemblies, what shifted the movement’s support to other fronts of social and anti-racist struggles, is on the one hand the exercise of sharing the experiences of protest and blockage, of freeing speech, and of incessant confrontation within assemblies; and on the other hand the unparalleled detestation of the police due to the countless mutilations committed by police forces. From this point on, in the landscape of French parliamentary politics the centrality of the question of the police and of the “support for the police” has been decisive in separating the YVs from sovereignist entrepreneurs – both from right and left.
Then, since the very beginning of 2019, when the insurrectional power of the movement has begun to resize, the prospect of a confederation of assemblies launched in Commercy (a small village in northeastern France) has been increasingly emerging. This initiative, inspired by Kurdish democratic confederalism, has brought together up to 300 local assemblies to discuss the political lines of the movement in four occasions (in January, April, June and last weekend). While continuing to guarantee “all power to local assemblies,” the AoA (Assembly of Assemblies) has immediately appeared to be an extremely important framework to be invested for structuring the movement. The size of the AoA offers the possibility of a national meeting beyond the Saturday “acts” in Paris or in other major French cities, and it constitutes a very interesting political space, both as a tool for knowledge among the different local experiences, and as a tool for harmonizing the practices and perspectives of the whole movement. To give just one example, during the AoA held last weekend in Montpellier, which brought together more than 600 delegates from 300 local assemblies, seven working tables were set up, on:
- the improvement of the organizational structure of the AoA itself
- the relations to be developed with the rest of the population
- the identification of our enemies or opponents
- the preparation of the first anniversary of the movement, that will take place next weekend
- how to act in the context of municipal elections
- how to relate to other movements (including the environmental movement and the trade union movement)
- the renewal of internationalism at a time when powerful popular revolts are breaking out all over the world
As we can see, the political subjectivation of the YVs and the forms of counter-power that the movement has been able to develop so far seem to us to have great political potential. In this respect, following the success of the last AoA, a week before the first anniversary of the YVs, shortly before the next youth climate strike, on the eve of a strike movement against pension reform that promises to be quite significant, in a transnational context of social upheaval, it seems to us that the situation is and remains, at least in France, highly explosive. And the fact that the Montpellier AoA has produced three calls (to invest on November 16-17, to celebrate this anniversary all over the world, to commit to the strikes of December against pension reform) seems to us a very promising political fact!
The post Back to the Future: The Yellow Vests Movement and the Riddle of Organization appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.
Edward Burtynsky, Lithium Mines #1, Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Chile
What would it mean to implement a Green New Deal? The question is not, what balance of forces would we need (as though we were playing some kind of board game). Not, what policies would we need – we already have truck-loads of plans and proposals. But what would the result of a Green New Deal be? To answer this we need to engage with the Green New Deal as both a specific set of policies and as a broader tendency. We need to go beyond questions of “what we can do with the State”, and work through a deeper material analysis, one attentive to the material world: energy flows, raw materials and mine sites, oceans, engines, roads, and lives. It means not being either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Green New Deal, but rather engage with it in order to be clear about the radical transformations we need while blocking or resisting the worst aspects and outcomes of the Deal. We are no longer in an epoch of “fixing” climate change, nor are there very many good answers to ecological questions we face. We are in a period dominated by the politics of the least bad option.
Much ink has already been spilled on the Green New Deal, almost all of it focused on two things: what it should include and whether or not it’s possible. Debate has worked through the question of financing, of land reform and union power; on how to include the oceans, agriculture, how to foreground care and social reproduction, and efforts to constrain corporations and mobilize taxation on both them and the rich more generally to pay for the Green New Deal. This has reached a peak in Europe, with the foci of policy work around the Green New Deal being the UK, and the Labour Party in particular, where the party recently adopted the Green New Deal – or rather, what it also calls the “Green Industrial Revolution” – as one of its central platforms.
Debate has also asked if it’s possible at all. Whether or not the economic and material growth required within a capitalist world-system is possible, whether the ruling class (or fossil fuel corporations) will allow it, whether reactionary social forces (or even just existing trade unions) will oppose it, if there is a social actor that can drive it forward, and finally if there is the time and the raw materials to make it happen.
The Green New Deal Tendency
Often both questions are framed in the same way – as though what was being debated was something yet to be adopted. As though the Green New Deal was a proposal, one yet to be sufficiently fleshed out or implemented as a strategy. But despite the resurgence in talk around the Green New Deal, as a tendency it has been in development for at least a decade now. The Green New Deal is not something to be chosen, but something already being implemented in an ad-hoc piece-meal fashion across a range of governing institutions around the world. Distinguishing the brand from the tendency is useful for two reasons. The first is that being clear on the character of the tendency means we can more easily distinguish actual Green New Deal proposals and policies from neoliberal greenwashing. The second means we can examine the trajectory of the idea and its implementation, and outline what the Deal is, who it is between, and what the Deal means politically.
It sounds odd to set out the Green New Deal as not only a tendency but one already being implemented, but this is exactly what it is. It is an approach to making policy and framing politics that seeks to solve the problems of the on-going effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the socially damaging effects of neoliberalism and climate change, and is one of the core elements of the current neo-Keynesian political revival taking place. The promise of this broad tendency – one that is very much still a contested field and yet to be firmly defined – is that climate change can be used as a means of producing a socially just future, one built on social democracy as a social framework, where there is work and security for all.
The idea of mobilizing a “green Keynesianism” in order to tackle environmental issues and produce sustainable jobs dates back to the mid-90s within policy circles, with a number of think tanks, economists and NGOs all producing detailed documents setting out how environmental limits could be reconciled with job creation and other social policies. It moved from the margins to the mainstream after the 2008 financial crisis where its emphasis on building new ‘green’ infrastructure was hailed as a solution to the Great Recession. From Deutsche Bank to Lawrence Summers, green Keynesianism became part of the broader economic policy debate. In the UK, a Green New Deal Group formed to campaign for the policy’s adoption, while the economist Lord Stern authored a key review of the economics of climate change for the UK government just prior to the government formally adopting legislation to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 that argued for a massive green Keynesian project as the best way to tackle climate change. Other iterations of the Green New Deal as a tendency can be found in UK government documents, UK’s then-opposition Conservative party policy documents, UK Trade Union Congress documents on the need for a ‘“Just Transition,” on to examples such as South Korea’s “green growth” strategy and Obama’s ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program, Spain’s PSOE’s Transformación Ecológica, and within the details of Yannis Varoufakis’s pan-EU party DIEM 25’s program.
How the Green New Deal as a tendency continues to unfold will be a consequence of the struggles, alliances, accidents and crises, and how human and non-human actors resist or engage with them. It will also be a question of how it unfolds within the context of a global economy that has yet to recover from the 2008 recession (and by many accounts is unlikely to any time soon), and the effects of already-existing climate change. It’s important to understand that even the most ambitious programs and policies for both a Green New Deal and “net zero” carbon emissions legislation aim to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030. And while that sounds – and is, in policy terms – radical, this still means at least 1.5C of climate change. If what we end up with is a mix of all of the above, and some significant part of the world’s economy isn’t “zero carbon” by then, it’s far more likely we will end up with more than 2C of global warming, as holding climate change to 1.5C requires the entire world go zero carbon by 2030: to switch off most of our existing carbon infrastructure – cars, power stations, and so on – and just walk away from it. This possibility is profoundly unlikely if not near impossible to achieve.
Let’s not forget that 1.5C is the ‘danger’ threshold of climate change as set out by the IPCC and UN, and an amount of global warming that would result in more intense, and more frequent hurricanes, storms and weather events, increased flooding and droughts, reductions in crop yields, decreases in fish and seafood stocks (so less food all round), sea level rises that will force migration from low lying regions and island nations, increased extinction rates, and increased desertification. Climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths per year, as well as many of the effects described above, and 1.5C has been described as a death sentence for many indigenous and island nation peoples. 1.5C of climate change is a catastrophe and not some ‘acceptable’ level of global warming.
As the Green New Deal already exists as a tendency, we should approach it as a field of struggle, one more favorable to radical agendas than other contemporary political tendencies that engage with ecological crisis, such as various ‘net zero carbon emissions programs’ or the rise of climate apartheid regimes.1 This is not to say we should wholeheartedly embrace the Green New Deal. As it stands, the Deal promises to combine jobs for all with massive carbon reductions. But it can’t reconcile these as the “green growth” it relies on is impossible. Ultimately it may very likely deepen the exploitation of the Global South, intensifying the global extractive industry, while failing to produce either the jobs or the carbon emission cuts it promises. In what follows, I analyze the contradictions of the Green New Deal in order to navigate them, to distinguish between those elements that push in the direction of establishing a new, and, as I will argue, impossible regime of “green growth,” and those that are compatible with a just and not-too-catastrophic near future.
Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution
If we are to work our way through the implications of the Green New Deal as a set of policies, then we should do so starting with the most radical proposals we have, starting with the most ambitious rather than the most compromised vision. In the current moment that means the Green New Deal plan of the UK’s Labour Party.
The Labour Party adopted the Green New Deal as party policy at its annual party conference in September 2019, along with a raft of other progressive measures and plans for government. This comes off the back of numerous supportive statements by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in favour of what he calls the Green Industrial Revolution. McDonnell’s framing is specifically focused on combining economic and environmental justice, on not treating “flippantly the fears of working-class communities whose past experience of economic transition has been overwhelmingly disruptive”.2 He argues that the transition to a green socialism must “reject the economic model which privileges economic growth ahead of sustainability, [but] also reject the grim Malthusianism creed that the alternative is to limit people or their living standards…There are environmental limits, but the limits to what we can achieve within them are principally political, not natural.” This contradictory combination of environmental measures and a rejection of limits, articulated as a defense of existing living standards in the Global North, runs throughout the Green New Deal tendency.
Whereas the Sunrise Movement has been instrumental in mainstreaming the Green New Deal in the US, the Green New Deal as a solution goes back further in the UK and Europe, to the Green New Deal Group that formed in 2008, and included members from the New Economic Foundation (NEF), the Green Party (who have long supported the Green New Deal and been instrumental in spreading the proposal across Europe and around the world), environmental NGO campaigners from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and a number of economists including a senior Guardian newspaper economist, Larry Elliot. The interconnections between this cohort, the Labour Party and a number of unions mean that UK and European iterations of the Green New Deal are far more well-developed as policies and plans than those in the US.3
The Labour Party Deal, while inspired in name by the US Green New Deal debate, is part of a longer tradition of political thinking attempting to tackle both environmental concerns and the legacy of neoliberalism and deindustrialization in the UK through a combination of investment, legislation on carbon emissions and job creation. The Labour Party has backed action on climate change since the mid-2000s, well before Corbynism, implementing legislation mandating emissions reductions of 80% by 2050, establishing a green investment bank, and adopting, in opposition, a raft of other strong policy positions. Since Jeremy Corbyn has become the Labour Party leader there has been an increase in policy traffic between left-wing circles and think tanks, most notably the NEF, as well as an infusion of social movement proposals and ideas via an influx of new members into the Labour Party and the cross-pollination of ideas between the Labour Party’s official annual conference and “The World Transformed” fringe conference that has taken place at the same time for the past three years. Over the past year the emergence of social movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the School Climate Strikes, and the network Labour for a Green New Deal, led to the Labour Party formally adopting the Green New Deal as a motion, in effect consolidating much of the pre-existing work into a singular, branded policy framework.
In spite of the concerted push from an established network of actors, the Labour Party’s climate plans revealed considerable internal party tensions. Numerous unions and party members attempted to block the adoption of the Green New Deal at the 2019 party conference using their votes and through direct physical intimidation tactics. Significant political differences within the Labour Party will make for radically different approaches to the GND’s implementation (or lack thereof). However, much can be learned by looking at the motion that the Labour Party adopted in order to see what it would mean and, critically, ask who the deal in the Green New Deal is between and what the deal actually is.
There has been a substantial amount of work on financing the Green New Deal, and what sort of institutions need to be created to realize it. The Green New Deal will be funded through a combination of finance and investment spending, progressive taxation of the wealthiest, including the “100 companies” most responsible for climate change. It will also involve nationalizing power and transportation companies. As important here is what is left unsaid – who pays for the deal with their jobs, with their land through decarbonization, and with their lifestyles.
While calling for a “greening” of existing jobs, there are many jobs that cannot be made carbon neutral or sustainable and will have to be abolished. Thousands of jobs will have to be phased out in polluting industries in order to reduce carbon emissions, affecting both workers directly and entire communities and regions dependent on these industries. These industries are not only ones such as coal mining or energy generation, but include haulage and logistics companies, airports and airlines, as well as all those industries and sectors that largely rely on the spending of the wealthy such as the luxury good sector which employ over 150,000 people directly. In the UK, the fossil fuel industry provides direct employment to 40,000 people, and indirect employment to 375,000. The aviation industry, another industry that can’t be made sustainable and must largely be phased out, directly and indirectly employs 500,000 people. We would also need to massively reduce the number of trucks carrying freight on the road in favour of rail and a reduced number of electric vehicles, meaning some of the 60,000 truck and lorry drivers’ jobs are at risk. The automotive industry employs 180,000 people directly and another 640,000 indirectly. Add all of this to some of the various batshit and bullshit jobs beyond those mentioned that should be phased out, and we are talking about hundreds of thousands if not over a million jobs directly affected, with many more indirectly affected. A “just worker-led transition” means existing jobs that are abolished will be replaced with other skilled, well paid “green” jobs, but it is far from clear that this is possible to do, especially given the sheer numbers of workers, communities and industries involved. One approach to this has been to suggest we need to replace high carbon jobs with low carbon jobs, especially those in the care and reproductive industries. While this is crucial, we also need to note that low carbon isn’t no carbon, and no carbon is where we need to go. The second thing to note is that it’s unlikely we can just swap out manufacturing jobs for care jobs. Not just because they are very different forms of work, or because of cultural or social barriers, but because given the scale of the transformation needed there likely aren’t enough green jobs to go around. Regardless, the main problem remains that even a switch from high to low carbon jobs still means carbon emissions will be increasing year on year.
One way most iterations of the Green New Deal, both as tendency and actual policy plan, tackle the problem of employment is through the notion of “green growth”: forms of economic growth that do not cause environmental destruction or produce carbon emissions. This is clear from the Labour Party’s preferred title for their Deal, the Green Industrial Revolution, and from its clear emphasis on the creation of new industries and new jobs, alongside massive investment programs in both new infrastructure and expanded social services. There has long been an emphasis in Labour Party policy on green growth as a means of delivering both environmental protections as well as job creation, from the Climate Change Act policies to current Party environmental documents. Within proposals circulating within the US, hitching the Deal to green growth is often explicit, as with the work of prominent supporters such as Mariana Mazzucato and Robert Pollin, and implicit with the Green New Deal tabled by Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez.4 Ultimately they all suggest that we can grow the economy, creating jobs for all, while reducing its environmental impact, producing economic growth while reducing carbon emissions.
Any program that relies on growth relies on the idea that you can decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. This is not possible. There is no such thing as green growth. It has never happened at a global scale and there is no credible evidence it ever could. While it has been suggested that economic activity in the Global North has been effectively decoupled,5 this ignores how the global economy has shifted manufacturing to the Global South, outsourcing the problem carbon emissions. In order to reduce carbon emissions, and deal with other pressing ecological issues, economic growth itself has to be targeted as a key problem.
While an immediate transition to a low carbon economy will inevitably negatively affect some workers, it’s clear who the Deal indicates will pay the most for the transition: the wealthy, through taxation and nationalization of privately held assets. They will also lose access to the most blatant luxuries of a high-carbon lifestyle, such as flying – in the UK the richest 1% of the population take 20% of all international flights, with the wealthiest 10% taking half. There is a massive disparity in consumption emissions between the rich and poor in countries like the US and UK, with the wealthiest 10% emitting five times as much per household as the poorest 50%, so targeting the wealthy will achieve huge reductions.
However, there are two issues here with significant ramifications. Even with an emphasis on the rich, everyday consumption in the Global North needs to be tackled to make the necessary carbon emission reductions to fulfill international climate justice commitments. Second, the development of and “bringing on-line” of renewable energy technologies requires the continuation and intensification of dangerous and environmentally destructive mining practices to secure the resources needed to undertake decarbonization.
Why does general and everyday consumption in the Global North (and within the richer demographics in some parts of the Global South) need to decline? After all, isn’t the problem the rich and their corporations? To a large degree yes. The world’s wealthiest people, the vast majority of whom live in the Global North, consume much more than anyone else. Around half of all lifestyle consumption emissions are produced by the wealthiest 10% of the global population, with the next 40% responsible for 40% of the remaining emissions. The poorest half of the world emits effectively nothing. This inequity is repeated within countries, where the richest 10% often consume three to five times as much per household as the poorest 50%.Targeting the wealthy and their emissions – which should be the cornerstone of any Green New Deal – would make a huge, immediate impact. Reducing their emissions to the level of the average European would cut around a third of current consumption carbon emissions, which, while significant, falls far short of what’s needed.
However, the problem isn’t just the rich. Cutting the emissions of the next 40% – meaning most of the people living in the Global North – means tackling everything from transport emissions to the fashion industry (which is responsible for around 8% of global carbon emissions), agriculture and diets, and services. This latter catch-all category of “services”, everything from gym memberships to eating out, is responsible for around a quarter of household emissions. Getting to “net zero” as set out in the Green New Deal requires making cuts across the board. Getting to net zero in time, something that is crucial and really not negotiable, and having to do so with the scarce resources that we have, means reducing consumption within the Global North.
At this point the argument appears as the standard environmental story of overconsumption: there is too much being consumed, both directly by household and indirectly through production processes. What needs to be stressed is that most people are “locked” into high-carbon social reproduction. The problem with stories of overconsumption is that consumption is made out to be a matter of choice. Discretionary income – the portion of your money left over after paying for everything you need – increases the richer you get. Most people’s discretionary income is next to nothing. Most people really don’t exercise choice over their consumption in any meaningful way. What they can choose from is largely determined by large transnational corporations.
We can call this structural consumption. This focuses attention on what needs to change so people can live differently: those “100 corporations” mentioned in the Labour Party’s Green New Deal are the companies that actually determine how things are produced and what impact they have on the Earth’s biosphere. While this point is politically crucial and should inform our strategies, the reality is that levels of general consumption in the Global North still have to be reduced, while at the same time ensuring that those people in the Global South dependent on work that fuels the high-consumption lifestyles of people in the Global North aren’t further impoverished by any changes and reductions.
There is very little detail in any of the current Green New Deal proposals however to address consumption. If we look into the various statements and policy documents within the broader Green New Deal tendency, we find more discussion of consumption, though not much more detail on how it will be tackled. The focus has overwhelmingly been on reducing energy demand through efficiency and insulation programs for homes, electrification of transport and, more tellingly, through plans to increase public, rather than private, wealth. This latter point implies that there will likely be a reduction in individual consumption, but one compensated for by free and better public services, such as free public transportation.
The reduction of individual consumption is often left understated, sometimes snuck in via a reduced working week which produces reductions through reduced consumption, both at work and at home, or through the progressive taxation regime, or through behavioral change which ignores structural consumption. All in all, what we find is a combination of non-disruptive changes coupled to what can only be called a kind of wishful thinking – that less work and more leisure time, coupled to behavioural change programs, will mean fewer emissions as people “choose” to consume less. It appears as though there is no faith amongst Green New Deal proponents (or environmentalists more generally) that a mass movement or electoral victories – both needed for the Green New Deal – can be built on the basis of a demand for a forced lowering of consumption. At best, lowered consumption can be snuck in through the backdoor, and it has to be coordinated with rewards like increased leisure time and improved public services. Given this, it’s unlikely that the vast majority of consumers in the Global North will be asked to pay very much at all in terms of reducing their consumption, not at least in the short term.
Who pays, globally?
The Labour Party’s Green New Deal motion calls for a program of total electrification of the rail and road fleets. For the UK to meet only its electric car targets by 2050 – that is, excluding the transformation of energy production, public transport and logistical systems, and other manufacturing processes, and not counting the programs and efforts of every other country in the world undertaking the same process – for just the UK to meet its electric car targets global production of cobalt would need to double, the entire global production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium production and half of the world’s copper production would all be required. It would also require a 20% increase in electricity supply just to power the cars. Wind farms and solar panels require the same raw materials. Building enough solar panels to provide electricity for electric cars would require 30 years of current global annual tellurium production. If we consider for a moment other countries, there is simply not enough raw material to go around, and it is currently not being produced fast enough. Due to accelerating demand, the existing supply is becoming more expensive, provoking both a rush of investment and new forms of extractivism and an intensification of forms of neo-colonialism.6 There is, in all likelihood, not enough “carbon space” to enable a transition for everyone. Any transition that includes building up massive amounts of new infrastructure – electric cars for example, as called for by the Green New Deal, involves not only more production and more mining (itself very carbon intensive), but huge amounts of steel and concrete, all of which means more carbon emissions. At a certain point these new emissions effectively undermine the efforts at carbon reduction.
The answer to “who pays” here is less clear than the rich versus workers narrative would suggest. The Green New Deal would require an expansion in primary industries of mining and, if biofuels become ascendant, agriculture, two sectors which rely upon the exploitation of lands and peoples largely in the Global South. It’s not hard to see how this will play out as the climate crisis intensifies. Massive land and water grabs are already underway and there are innumerable conflicts taking place around access to resources. Biofuel production and drought played a critical role in the 2007-09 and 2010-2012 food price crises, both of which contributed to inciting the social movements, rebellions, and revolutions of that period. The real limitations of existing resource reserves are already leading to new more destructive mining processes including deep-sea mining, doubling down on the environmentally destructive legacies of extractivism. In other words, in addition to poor peoples and nations, nature will pay for the Green New Deal. The fact that the Green New Deal is designed to green the nations which implement it should not lead us to presume that it will green the planet in the process.
While there is some discussion in Green New Deal debates about what happens to people beyond the UK, much of this can only be considered wishful thinking. An increase in climate finance, technology transfers, and capacity building (education and training) are only useful if there are the materials available to build new renewable energy systems. There won’t be. Support for climate refugees is welcome, but given the Labour Party’s existing positions on limiting the freedom of movement of migrants and the rise of xenophobic far-right politics in the UK and globally, we should assume that this won’t translate into anything close to the opening up of the UK’s borders, let alone a sufficient program for dealing with the thousands (if not millions) of people, largely in the Global South, who are already being displaced due to climate change. While the Labour Party have committed to dismantling some of the worst aspects of the current brutal border regime, the immigration and border regime will continue.
Who will bring about the Green New Deal? The Deal will be enacted by the state through a program of investment and regulation, as well as nationalization, focused on the energy system. It will also be a product of collaboration between “trade unions and the scientific community.” The entire document speaks to the idea of a worker-led just transition, one that gives existing trade unions a central role, as is to be expected in a party where trade unions still wield huge influence despite the best efforts of neoliberal elements within the party. In addition, the GND motion includes a clause that states the 2030 net zero emissions target should be put into law only “if it achieves a just transition for workers,” a result of pressure from some trade unions. Unions will only support Green New Deal policies if they involve job creation or the “greening” of existing jobs.
We can also expect NGOs and think tanks to continue to play an influential role in shaping the Green New Deal, as they do with Labour Party policy more generally. What is missing is that there are few powerful social movements and non-state institutions that could act outside and against the state and capital to force particular changes or programs to be enacted. This marks out the Green New Deal as starkly different from the original New Deal in the United States and similar social democratic programs around the world, which counted on actors such as the IWW and the Communist Party to pressure the state. Indeed, while the Green New Deal is undoubtedly raising expectations, it is unclear whether it is helping bring about a combative constituency, a social power rooted in workplaces and communities, or whether it simply restoring faith in parliamentary politics and the effectiveness of voting.
We can transform the question of who acts into the question of who are the parties to the Deal. The Green New Deal will be a compact between states and their citizens, a deal brokered by political parties, environmental NGOs, think tanks, and unions. It is not, despite the internationalist rhetoric, a deal among states at a global level, nor between the state and humanity more generally. It is between the UK government and UK citizens.
Crucial here is who is and is not included. This is not a deal resulting from massive social, labour or civil unrest, so it must include business as part of the parties to it in some way. And while business stands to lose out in the Deal, some businesses will potentially make huge profits: border, security and migrations industries, mining companies and international shipping companies will benefit substantially. So will industries producing renewable energy infrastructure and electric cars to ones manufacturing desalination plants and flood defenses and so too will everything from the insurance industry to a whole host of disaster recovery and management companies. In the absence of fierce class struggle, capital can assert its interests in the form of the transition to a greener regime of accumulation. But if capital can help enable a Green New Deal, it does not enable all aspects of it equally. A return to industrial policy and public housing? Perhaps. A radical reduction of work time, a vast program of taxation and nationalization and lowering of private and industrial consumption? Unfortunately much less likely.
The Deal is not a deal with other nations or peoples, so it excludes the question of international climate justice as driven by anything other than volunteerism. And it is not a deal with the more-than-human world. It is part of the new “environmentalism without nature” – a form of environmentalism that is focused not on “saving” the natural world but saving “us” from the ecological catastrophe produced by capitalism, a sharp break with the history of environmentalism.
To do what?
What is the Green New Deal aiming to do? At the center of the deal, we find a series of proposals that set out a broadly Keynesian social program nationalizing power production, rolling out programs of housing insulation, increasing renewable energy production, and essentially electrifying all road transport, all of which is meant to reduce carbon emissions and create jobs. There will be an increase in the provision of universal services, possibly including some kind of universal basic income, as well as an increase in the social wage (improving health care, public housing, free public transport, etc.). There will also be programs focused on tackling farming and agricultural practices.
The essence of the Deal can be found in the overriding emphasis on jobs, and the weak commitment to tackling consumption emissions. The emphasis on the electrification of road transport is the cornerstone of trying to square the circle of jobs vs. the environment. Electrifying road transport seems like a way of protecting (and creating) a huge number of jobs, of not having to fundamentally alter too many aspects of the UK’s economy (including logistical systems, shopping and therefore retail patterns, how people get to work, etc.) and at the same time reducing emissions from the transport sector – the sector responsible for the largest share of carbon emissions. There are a number of problems here. The first is electric cars still embody a huge amount of carbon, both through the production process and due to the mining of the resources needed for them. The second is that electrifying all road transport will massively increase demand for electricity by anything upwards of 20% according to some estimates, increasing demand again for those scarce resources necessary for producing renewable energy sources. It also doesn’t address the huge amount of waste created by all of the processes involved in the production of cars, batteries, etc. The third is that it does nothing to address all the other ways car culture produces environmentally unsustainable ways of life – from urban sprawl and endless road building to particular modes of high-carbon consumption. It’s this latter point which is the most insidious. Electrification speaks to a desire to change as much as possible in order to change as little as possible. The reason to electrify cars and trucks is therefore to preserve the social and economic systems they enable and create. To maintain manufacturing as a key employment sector – or rather, to increase manufacturing – in order to preserve jobs despite the need to consume and produce less.
The hedging around the question of consumption, and the emphasis on the job creation aspect of the ‘jobs and climate measures’ part of the motion, tells us all we need to know about what the Deal is. The Deal is to maintain – as much as possible – the current economic system we have, and the current lifestyles, while taking some action on climate change to minimize it as much as possible without compromising living standards. The Deal is that people outside of the Global North, who live in countries who do not have the geopolitical or economic power to compete for what are scarce resources, will be left out of the transition to a low-carbon economy and will, in effect, be sacrificed for the new mines, biofuel plantations, etc. that will enable the transition to renewable power for the new green economic system.
Keeping things the same
Working with the best the Green New Deal has to offer makes it clear that the ultimate aim of the Deal is to try to keep things as they are as much as possible with one caveat – to change the current distribution of wealth, and return to something like the golden days of social democracy (that also happens to be the golden age of capitalism). It is a program of full employment, of renewably electrifying existing lifestyles, of making strong commitments to international climate justice while massively increasing resource extraction and maintaining strong-enough border controls. The Deal being proposed by the Labour Party is “vote for us and we will find a way to deliver better jobs and social security while tackling climate change.” But they won’t be able to do both effectively, and so the tacit agreement is that they will only introduce climate measures insofar as they can be made to reconcile with job creation.
As the contradictions between reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs mount, the tendency will be to produce jobs and protect lifestyles rather than reduce emissions. We can only hope and organize for ever-bigger, ever more militant climate movements, but this is far from given, and the political tendency within the Left will be towards addressing social and economic injustices as a priority, making it likely that the Green New Deal will become a field of struggle between ‘environmentalists’ and ‘the left’, rather than the terrain on which they meet.
Ultimately what we see is the base conflict between what is scientifically necessary and what is politically realistic. Part of the danger of the Green New Deal is that it is seen as the solution, rather than a partial attempt to remake an entire national political economy. The problem here is if it is seen as ‘the’ solution, the left will find itself caught up in a policy struggle, one where compromise and the creep towards more ‘realistic’ proposals comes to dominate as the struggle becomes one not to reduce emissions but to save the Green New Deal itself as a policy.
We need to be clear however, that insofar as the Green New Deal isn’t ‘the’ solution, it’s also not a stepping stone to one. Expanding and intensifying extractivism, deepening the exploitation of the Global South and implementing new forms of ‘green’ imperialism, further trashing the biosphere and continuing to emit carbon pollution – none of these can be understood as steps to a better future. Beyond the brutal political realism that would justify the further sacrifice of life and lives for a greened form of sustainable consumerism, the future promised by the Green New Deal isn’t one where climate change is arrested before becoming calamitous.
Even though the Green New Deal isn’t the solution, this doesn’t justify ignoring or opposing it. The Green New Deal is both a policy and a tendency. As a policy, it is a raft of measures that can be engaged with or fought against, in the interest of moving it in a more positive direction. As a tendency, it needs to be engaged with in order to shape what form it takes but also in order to create something else, something that takes us beyond the limitations of efforts to reform the system we have and build something that ensures a rich and abundant life for all of us and all life in general.
There are two immediate tasks. The first is to work to expand those parts of the Green New Deal that enable or enact a degrowth agenda with justice.7 These include reducing working hours, increasing social services, decommodifying essential services: essentially working towards disconnecting income from work, and ensuring our reproduction is not precariously predicated upon waged labor. We also need to ensure above all else we abolish the rich and their privileges which will make a huge and immediate impact. And any assault on the rich will also have the effect of weakening their power to oppose us.
But it will not be enough to push existing demands further. We will also need to militantly oppose and work to block the development of new and existing fossil fuel infrastructure and new extractivist projects, especially those in the Global South. There can be no just transition that relies on expanded neo-colonial extractivism. And there can be no rapid decarbonization without shutting down existing fossil fuel infrastructure. By blocking both, the state (as well as capital) will be forced to pursue other avenues for energy generation, decarbonization, and production. If the various histories of fossil capitalism have shown us anything, it is that energy and economic regimes are produced as much by our resistance and refusals as by the needs of capital and through technological innovation.
We also need to be mindful that not all degrowth is equivalent. We need a radically egalitarian, communist degrowth. Recent years have thrown up numerous scientific papers all essentially calling for the end of capitalism. To some extent, science calls for nothing less than full communism. But not the communism of that part of the left that is only interested in communizing consumerism instead of ending it, of redistributing the profits and spoils of extractivism without changing the economic system it supports. And while desire and the values attached to consumerism as a form of life must be interrogated and politically transformed, ultimately the foundations of consumerism are structural, and there is no shift to a sustainable form of life without looking to build out new infrastructures and environments that enable our autonomy from the capitalist market.
Degrowth as a way of producing a radical abundance must become a core part of left politics. We can start by returning to the critique of consumer capitalism that flourished during the 1960s and 70s, and by acknowledging that consumerism mostly benefits the wealthy few. For the vast majority of the world’s population degrowth can and will only mean a better life. It is not enough to try to cut emissions while keeping everything else the same – the only possible way forward is to radically change everything. It’s the only realistic proposal at this point.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||On this point see Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011) and Todd Miller, Storming the Wall: Climate Change Migration, and Homeland Security (San Francisco: City Lights, 2017).|
|2.||↑||John McDonnell, “A Green New Deal for the UK,” Jacobin Magazine, May 30, 2019.|
|3.||↑||This development has reached a crescendo with the recent work of the relatively new think tank Common Wealth, who have put together a comprehensive Green New Deal policy package.|
|4.||↑||See, for instance, “McDonnell pledges green revolution jobs,” BBC News, March 10, 2019, and McDonnell, “A Green New Deal for the UK.”|
|5.||↑||See, for instance, Nate Aden, “The Roads to Decoupling: 21 Countries Are Reducing Carbon Emissions While Growing GDP,” World Resources Institute, April 5, 2016.|
|6.||↑||See, among others, Asad Rehman, “A Green New Deal must deliver global justice,” Red Pepper, April 29, 2019, and “The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism,” The Independent, May 4, 2019.|
|7.||↑||On this, and the debate between degrowth and the Green New Deal, see Mark Burton & Peter Somerville, “Degrowth: A Defence,” New Left Review, II/155 (January-February 2019). For a nuanced discussion of degrowth see Chertkovskaya, Paulsson, Kallis, Barca & D’Alisa, “The Vocabulary of Degrowth: A Roundtable Debate,” in Ephemera 17 no. 1 (2017): 189-208.|