Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Longuest Duree: On Kojin Karatani's The Structure of World History

Reports of the death of grand narratives, ambitious frameworks that seek to sketch out the entire social field, have been greatly exaggerated since the 1980s. The last decade alone has witnessed the publication of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, The Making of Global Capitalism by Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. And now Kojin Karatani has produced The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke 2014), which covers more ground than even Graeber’s 5,000 years, and arrives with blurbs from Graeber and Fredric Jameson. Although deeply indebted to Marx and Marxists, Karatani prefers the concept of mode of exchange to mode of production, on the grounds that the latter assumes a determinant base in production on which a less significant superstructure hangs. He instead believes the mode of exchange should focus on the terrain of circulation, what sorts of exchanges are stimulated, and what political and ideological structures facilitate the exchanges. I will leave it to marxologists to quarrel with this formulation. I am more concerned with how much light can be shed by a theoretical perspective. In this case, I would say a good deal.

For Karatani, there are four, or perhaps four and a half modes of exchange. In Mode A, the means of circulation is the gift. It is exemplified by what is called clan society, the first settled forms of human life. Vendettas, in which competing clans repeatedly take revenge on each other, are part of this “gift giving” form of exchange. In this mode, although there is inequality, social classes do not emerge and reproduce themselves. That occurs only in Mode B. Mode B is the state form, in which security is exchanged for goods and loyalty to the state. The law is the signature political achievement of Mode B. Vendettas, a form of “gift” exchange, are ended, replaced with the law of an eye for eye. Mode C is defined by money mediating commodity exchange. Mode D constitutes the utopian return of repressed Mode A to the the more complex class societies of Modes B and C. Since Mode D is a utopian return, it lacks the concreteness of the other modes. The half mode referenced above is the nomadic hunter gatherer mode that precedes Mode A. Karatani notes the extreme difficulties in understanding much about this earliest mode, and that what seem like people who have survived with this form of life may actually be people who have opted out of Modes A or B.  For Karatani, the modes generally coexist, although one is likely to be dominant in particular times and places. His exploration of the ways these modes interact and are reinstatiated at a higher level is particularly potent for the modern world, as exemplified by the Capital-Nation-State knot, described below.

The book is loosely organized chronologically, dashing through the emergence of the different modes of exchange before focusing on the modern world in a little more detail. Several themes recur. One is the role of political structures in propelling the transition from one mode of exchange to another. While it is sometimes claimed, in line with notions  of an economic base and a political-ideological superstructure, that empires were built atop complex forms of irrigation agriculture, Karatani argues the opposite--that it was the existence of states, endowed with a religious and military apparatus, that were capable of organizing the labor needed for such agriculture. Similarly, the transition to capitalism is usually attributed either to the outcome of class struggles or the growth of trade in cities, while Karatani instead highlights two crucial roles states played. The absolutist states eliminated “feudal” elements that combined political and economic power, including the power of both lords and churches,  creating  a more even terrain for the functioning of mode C. And far from being a laissez-faire “night-watchmen,” the British state should be seen as playing a crucial role for creating the conditions for the emergence of industrialization, both in its external role in the world and internally in facilitating transformed class relations and a powerful driver of demand. The British state thus resembles so-called “late industrializers” like South Korea, whose use of the state to facilitate the growth of industry is more often highlighted .

Another key theme is the importance of margins, or the “submargins,” Karatani’s term for the more far off portions of empires. The greek city states were at the submargins of world-empires of the ancient world. Western Europe was in the submargin as the Roman Empire collapsed and moved its capital to Byzantium. Although Karatani doesn’t put it this way, this remained the case throughout the modern period. The Dutch Republic, the United Kingdom, the United States and now China were all fairly marginal not long before their precipitous ascents.

The role of religion is also highlighted throughout, particularly the transition from animism, where the spirit is endowed in all sorts of objects during mode A, to the centralization of power and religion in a priestly caste, with the ruler a fusion of king and god,  in mode B. In turn, the world religions, which break a pattern of exchange in which worship of a god is premised on receiving favors from that god, are seen as a Mode D bid to restore mode A in the context of mode B: “in the process of empire formation, there is a moment when, under the sway of mode of exchange B, mode of exchange C dismantles mode of exchange A; it is at this moment, and in resistance to it, that universal religion appears, taking the form of mode of exchange D.” Eventually the world religions are captured by empire forces: “what we now call “world religions” rarely extended beyond the former domain of a single world empire.” Even so, the critique remains, in the rhetoric of asserting a “true Christianity” against the failure of the existing church centered order. Later Karatani highlights the utopian heresies of the middle ages, noting they had largely been repressed before Luther led a successful reformation that called for the repression of the peasantry. 
He misses one crucial aspect of the world religions. That is their historic role of fostering economic development, combining capital, land, and labor in monastic institutions, as noted by Randall Collins in his underappreciated contribution to the transition to capitalism debate.  To put it in Karatani’s framework, they ironically propel societies towards mode C. Such a perspective might highlight the role of Protestants in privatizing church lands, opposing the Catholic order in which saints paralleled the power of the feudal lords, and undermining the corporate structures in the cities, in which guilds were protected from free markets in labor and goods. I was also a little disappointed that he did not historicize Marxism as a secular faith, although he does make the very suggestive comment that it was adopted by the persistent Russian and Chinese empires because its class ideology could help hold together multinational empires otherwise threatened by the rise of nationalism.

Although the work is not a detailed history (how could it be?) striking notions abound. He draws attention to Ionia, rather than Athens, as the birthplace of liberatory philosophy. “(In Ionia) the colonists broke with their clan and tribal traditions, abandoning both the constraints and privileges that these had entailed, to create a new community by covenant. By contrast, Athens, Sparta, and other poleis were established as confederations (by covenant) of existing tribes and were more strongly colored by earlier clan traditions....  If Athenian democracy is the forerunner of todays bourgeois democracy.. Ionian isonomy provides the key to a system that can supersede it.” He sees the innovation of Judaism not in the unification of the twelve tribes under a single god, according to him fairly typical of Mode A transitioning to Mode B, but in the fact that the Jews remained loyal to their god after they had been defeated and found themselves in the “Bablyonian captivity”, paving the way for the claim that theirs was the only legitimate God. When the Mongols under Ghengis Khan not only unified a massive portion of the known world under the direct rule of empire, but also created a viable international framework in the context of reciprocal gift giving, this was the return of the clan approach of Mode A (from which the Mongols emerged) reinstantiated at a higher level.

Ultimately the theoretical framework culminates in a description of the modern world, and, here, Karatani’s outline should be productively modified. For Karatani, the key to understanding capitalism is the creation of labor as a commodity. In turn, capitalism is distinct because labor purchases the goods that it produces, in distinction to other modes of exchange. Capitalism emerges in the context of absolutist states, Mode B, that, as they become stronger, seek to eliminate all in-between vestiges between themselves and citizens (the powers of feudal lords, clergy, etc), creating the context for the triumph of Mode C. But as they do, the monarch himself becomes vestigial, and the Nation emerges as a reassertion of the reciprocity of Mode A. And so the “Borromean knot”, a Lacanian term for a set of intertwined rings, of capital-nation-state is constituted as the central political form of the modern world economy. Karatani insists on the reality of each element of the triad. States are not simply an expression of capitalist power. They continue to function in Mode B, exchanging security for citizens for tribute, and engaged in a power struggle with other states that cannot be reduced to capitalist interests. As the reassertion of a horizontal community of Mode A, the nation cannot be dismissed as false consciousness, as Marxists often have. The Borromean knot helps explain why revolutions have changed the world less than hoped. Just because socialist revolutionaries might appropriate the capitalists does not change the fact that the state continues to exist in a larger state system, and indeed, pressure from outside states on the revolutionary state intensifies, distorting its development. Meanwhile, fascism is conceptualized as a struggle of the nation against the state, and Karatani provides intriguing evidence for an affinity between fascist movements and anarchist thinkers. He also highlights the concept, drawn from Marx, of bonapartism. When the state suffers a crisis of legitimacy, and these are not infrequent, a quasi-monarchical figure often emerges to act as the unifier of national interests. This process has most recently been repeated in Egypt.

Influenced by Wallerstein, Karatani identifies a pattern of hegemonic states--the Dutch, the British, and the United States. Each state is associated with the predominance of different commodities--woolens, textiles, durable consumer goods (cars, etc).  Karatani says information is next.  When hegemonic states are strong, they advocate increased free trade. As they decline, geopolitical competition and protectionism becomes the norm. Notwithstanding all the talk about neoliberalism, Karatani claims we are in a new period of geopolitical competition. However, he offers no real evidence for this assertion, beyond that it fits the pattern he has outlined.

Karatani grounds the philosophical underpinnings of the struggle for a better world in the modern era not in Marx, or even Rousseau, but in Kant. This is likely to be dismaying for Marxists, but is not entirely surprising, as Karatani is  a scholar of Kant. Kant’s assertion of the singularity of people cannot be reconciled with the homogenizing impact of the transformation of labor power into a commodity. Karatani writes sympathetically of Marx, but, to some degree, as a stick to poke at Marxists. Although some evidence for locating the revolutionary tradition epitomized by Lenin and Trotsky can be found in Marx, according to Karatani, Marx later repudiated these formulations. He sees Marx as an advocate of producer owned cooperatives rather than a state controlled economy. Karatani emphasizes the limits of the struggles of labor unions and revolutionary governments. Regarding the former, although they are fiercely resisted at first, capitalists, or at least the state managers acting in capitalists’ interests, allegedly come to realize that they are a productive element in guaranteeing that the demand for commodities remain robust. This may be news to American readers, since private sector unionization is now below 10%, yet a substantial portion of the ruling class appears to be devoted to wiping out unions altogether, and, even when the liberal wing of politicians epitomized by Obama is in charge, there is little pushback from the state. The October revolution led by Lenin is depicted as a betrayal of democratic principles, since the Bolsheviks represented a minority within the Soviets. As it failed to become a world revolution, the descent into dictatorship was sealed. Karatani does concede that there was a certain logic to revolutionary state leaders substituting themselves for the nationalist capitalists these states lacked, but this is something altogether different from liberation from capitalism. Karatani asserts the need for world revolution to break the logic of capital-state-nation, and talks a bit about 1848 and 1968, but is vague on specifics. He does see the UN, particularly the aspects of it devoted to fostering discussion of the environment, women’s rights, etc, as a positive development. He recommends consumer boycotts as a key tactic, arguing that consumers, rather than workers, can take a holistic view and act in the general interest, while workers are likely to be limited by the interests of their particular enterprises. So as not to repeat the logic by which revolutionary states get sucked into the interstate competition, he calls for a transformation of the state system into a global federation defined by a gift economy, for example, technology transfers from wealthier states to poorer ones.

Three crucial elements are missing from Karatani’s discussion of the modern world--first, the core/periphery divide, and its ideological justifications, race and orientalism, second, the centrality of modern science to the ideological framework of the world system, and third, a theory of system-wide social change that would include both a broader conceptualization  of world revolutions and the role of world hegemonies in consolidating change. I believe adding these to the discussion can produce a richer understanding of where we are and might go.

Regarding the first element, the absence of any systematic treatment of the core-periphery divide and in particular its ideological elements, it is a little surprising and dismaying. This is usually a central theme of world historical theorizing of this sort. Karatani seems to make too much of the unequal power generated by seemingly equal exchanges (for example, labor power of a worker for wages from a capitalist) to recognize that these exchanges are not the only form that labor is secured in the modern world. Perhaps the most telling example here is that Atlantic slavery, a sui generis product of the modern world, and increasingly central to histories of American capitalism, is not mentioned in the work.

Up to the present, the model that labor is paid to consume the products it makes does not fit well with peripheral states and peoples. Recall that until the recent crash,US demand was driving the world economy. There simply was not sufficient demand in China, increasingly the “workshop of the world”, let alone in South Asia or Subsaharan Africa, to absorb the goods being produced. This tremendous inequality in spending power should make us sober about the limits of consumer boycott strategies. Some have much more potential to carry these out than others. And those who can have more of a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Even in the present, quite a bit of labor in the periphery hovers around slavery, indentured servitude, and other coercive forms, with immigration enforcement and incarceration often providing a means to limit workers’ rights and force them into unequal exchanges. Furthermore, while the modern world economy has the character of a decentralized system of competitive states, it has also always had a character of being composed of a handful of empires as well. It was only about forty years ago that the last (also practically the first) of the formal modern colonial empires, Portugal, collapsed. Since World War II, the US has played the role of a neo-colonial empire, maintaining a relatively small (albeit real) collection of colonies, but using military force, intelligence agencies, bribery and more to try to do what formal empires have always done--reproduce a subordinate periphery. His claim that core periphery relations are maintained through “equal exchanges” of commodities for money should thus be taken with a large grain of salt.

The ideological justifications of empire, both formal and informal, have been the same. The world population is divided into races, and all are found wanting compared to the white race. Although the history of the modern world has been a history of competing states and empires, race has lent a certain solidarity to the European project. A similar role has been played by Orientalism, in which different cultures, particularly once powerful non-European empires, are compared to Europe and found inferior.  As our present world evolves into one characterized by a division between “the planet of slums” and “the gated communities”, both within core and peripheral countries (with the latter simply containing many more slums, as well as still substantial if declining rural populations), these discourses continue to organize governmental and individual interactions, notwithstanding the blurriness of racial and cultural categories in the present. Virtually all the contemporary wars involving major powers amount to the US and whatever allies are at hand attacking some territory on the other side of the race/orientalism/core/periphery divide. Race and orientalism both bisect any constitution of national working classes and expand beyond national borders to envelope the globe. In Karatani’s framework, one should note the way racial and culturally subordinate groups try to revive discourses of Modes A and B to counter their subordination in the context of the dominance of Mode C.

Regarding the ideological foundations of the modern world, Karatani overemphasizes nationalism at the expense of everything else.This is particularly unfortunate, because in the premodern context he offers many provocative insights into the evolution and uses of religion. The key point here about the modern world is that the chaos triggered by the religious wars of the sixteenth century opened up space for the emergence of atheism, the permanent demotion of the clergy as a leading force, and the triumph of science and the invigoration and legitimation of science-based status groups, namely professionals. The particular form of science that was legitimized is mechanical, reductionist, quantitative, ahistorical, decontextual. It marginalized both traditional religious perspectives in which a patriarchal god was responsible for the world as it is and other versions of science that are non-reductionist, organic rather than mechanical, complex. Just as the king needed to be beheaded for the modern state as a full fledged, abstract, total institution to emerge, so God, even as a presence, needs to be waved away in favor of a panopticon reducing the world to quantitative phenomena mechanically interacting, what James Scott called “seeing like a state.” The process of eliminating kings and expelling god was slow, uneven and never entirely complete, but it was real nevertheless.   

It was in the context of the rising prominence of secularism that marxism emerged in ways that parallel the earlier great religions. As with the earlier religions, the context was also defined by the increasing pervasiveness of money, this time in the context of the rise of industrial capitalism. First thinkers appeared, using scientific and secular rhetoric to condemn the ruling order of their time, just as earlier prophets had turned the authority of god against the ruling order of their times. Marxism was first and foremost a faith of intellectuals, much more unevenly penetrating the “proletariat” it idealized as subject. Eventually, it was adopted as the ideology of persistent empires, namely Russia and China, as Karatani notes, as well as certain post-colonial states, in the context of revolutionary wars where the celebration of the proletariat was shelved in favor of an alliance of whatever discontented groups could be found. As Collins might add, the ideology also fueled combinations of land, labor and capital, i.e. “building communism,” “socialism in one country,” “the great leap forward...” These created a larger proletariat and infrastructure, deepening the penetration of Mode C when they were eventually privatized. Marxism became part of, and further accelerated, the dominance of technocratic science, now promising economic growth which would benefit everyone. When the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed, the church structures of Marxism--existing communism, and the Third International, and even related strands of “Marxist-Leninism” largely collapsed with it. However, as with the great religions, the insistence on the prospect of “true Marxism” constituting a critique of Marxism in power allows it to continue as a field of thought and perhaps even reconstruct itself as an ideology. The empires whose revivals were once midwifed by Marxism, Russia and China, are now increasingly confident about shedding Eurocentric ideology, heterogeneously melding modern tactics to older ideological structures (Iran and India are also moving in a similar direction).

Meanwhile, the technocratic dream continued largely unscathed, although there was now a greater emphasis on attaining the consumer paradise through private enterprises and engagement with the world market. This is the case notwithstanding all the critical forces unleashed from 1968 onward, that have pointed out that the technocratic dream is one dimensional, stifling of cultural diversity, ecologically suicidal, etc. This is, more or less, the ideological impasse we are at.

Karatani is correct that transformation of the nation-state is a dead end given the global status of the state system. He embraces the concept of world revolution, and references, following Wallerstein and others, the events of 1848 and 1968. While it is useful to think in terms of global, rather than national change, these year-long “world revolutions” are only a part of a larger picture. Instead, one should see fairly lengthy periods of political instability as “world revolutions.”  Both 1848 and 1968 were of great importance. But they were also a distinct sort of phenomena, a series of interrelated nationally based revolts. In 1848, these revolts were largely confined to Europe, making the “world revolution” phrase particularly misleading. In 1968, they were more genuinely global, crossing through the “three worlds” divide. In both cases, they produced nothing resembling a durable revolutionary seizure of state power anywhere. Both were turning points of sorts, where one sort of left was ending its dominance, and another was emerging. In 1848, it was Republicanism that was producing its last hurrah, while proletarian revolt was just starting to emerge. In 1968, Communism and related national liberation ideologies were exhausting themselves, while leaderless, culturally diverse, ecological and feminist lefts were just starting to emerge.

It would be better to define a longer period for  world revolution, perhaps between 1917 and roughly 1979. Arguably there was an earlier one between 1776 and 1848, but the most prominent forces gaining power at that time were the European propertied classes, although there were incipient efforts to create a Mode D renewal of the classless society in the most intense period of the French revolution and the slave revolts of the time. Although most of the revolts that take place in these periods are contained within capital-nation-state spaces, their significance bursts the bounds of the state and resonated throughout the system. It might be more accurate to characterize the world revolt of the twentieth century as “refolution,” combining reform and revolution, since some aspects of it involved reformist projects like the American New Deal or Indian independence, while others were more revolutionary, involving the overthrow of traditional ruling classes in Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam, among others. It was as much inspired by geopolitical conflict as by capitalism. For example, mobilizations for world wars tended to lead to increased rights for the working class, who were needed to fight, and the loss of the war destroyed the legitimacy of the Russian ruling class. African Americans were able to throw off Jim Crow first in the context of WWII, when the US agreed to desegregate defense industries to keep domestic peace during war time,  and then in the context of the Cold War, when the segregated South had become a huge liability worldwide.  The chaos of WWII fatally wounded the colonial empires of France and Great Britain.  In a tense and competitive working relationship with the Soviet Union, the US was able to keep chaos in the periphery within the bounds of capital-nation-state. At the same time, a formal international institutional framework (the UN, IMF, World Bank, etc)  was consolidated, including military security aspects, finance, but also a number of social features such as UN agencies devoted to health, labor, etc. The US also sought greater global economic integration, but slowly, aware of the strength of working classes and state-led developmental aspirations world wide. In the fifties and sixties, there were notable, if unsuccessful, efforts to break the bonds of the capital-nation-state, such as Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, and the non-aligned movement.

The world refolution left the world in some ways dramatically changed. Formal colonialism was mostly ended, and protections from the deprivations of the market enjoyed greater legitimacy than at any time in the history of the modern world. These gains have to some degree even survived the neoliberal counterrevolution. Furthermore, old empires, including Russia and China, also Iran and India, have been able to regain their footing, and this transformation has probably been permanent, regardless of the fate of the Marxist ideology which midwifed this development but then exhausted itself. At the same time, the capital-nation-state knot survived this entire revolution, as did the core-periphery divide and the technocratic ideology. Changes to the global ruling structure--the liquidation of landed classes, the shift to American power, the loosening of racial boundaries--were reformist rather than revolutionary. Notwithstanding all the international organizations, the principle of state sovereignty remained intact.

As indicated in this brief description of the world refolution of the twentieth century, the accomplishments of world revolutions are consolidated by world hegemons, in this case the United States. Unfortunately, Karatani adapts a fairly conventional view of world hegemons as the most powerful and economically prosperous states of their time. He misreads and dismisses Giovanni Arrighi’s perspective, which is more dynamic, seeing hegemons, in Gramscian terms, as leading new class blocs and perhaps institutions to consolidate their power. Hegemonies build on the strength of emergent classes and their struggles. The US attempted to embody universal demands for development, facilitating the globalization of state system to largely vanquish colonialism, and creating the institutional framework of the UN and related agencies. In this perspective, any future hegemony would build its power on the absorption of demands generated from below, by newer movements.

The context for such movements would be the neoliberal counter-revolution of the last forty years and the declining capacity of the US to maintain its hegemony. Neoliberals seized on the contradictions generated by this system, using debt to try to resubordinate peripheral states, capital flight to undo the power of working classes, and promoting an ideology that suggested everyone must turn themselves into competitive human capital.  Even before the financial crash in 2008 which seemed to signal the eclipse of US world power, this situation was producing pushback. The mobilizations between 1999 and 2001 against international institutions--the IMF/World Bank, WTO, etc suggested the prospect of networking together forces around or across the confines of the capital-nation-state. These forces, epitomized by the Zapatistas, often revived Mode A style non-hierarchical exchange internally, even as they networked globally. The consolidation of these forces in the World Social Forum both engaged with the social elements of the UN system and critiqued them.  The World Social Forum and similar institutions have been productive sites for the launching of global demands on the most powerful states, such as mobilizations for a debt jubilee, or, more recently, global warming. If the competitive state system is to be transformed into the gift economy Karatani hopes for, it is likely to be in the context of these sorts of mobilizations.
The mobilizations of 2011, perhaps another  year-long “world revolution” (the Arab Spring, the Greek and Spanish movements of the squares, the Occupy movement in the US, and more), in dramatic contrast to those of 1999-2001, were all addressed to particular national situations. The main players were members of a middle class in crisis. Deeply integrated into Mode C, they had little memory of Mode A forms of integration outside of the market, and these had to be invented from scratch in the often troubled context of “the general assembly.” Typically defeated in the short term, it is hard not to imagine they will return in new forms over the next few decades, perhaps adopting ideas about producer cooperatives, as did the similar movement in Argentina in 2001. That this movement recurred the next year in Brazil and Turkey, countries not typically imagined as being in crises of either scelrotic authoritarians or economic decline, demonstrated that the struggles tapped a deep and pervasive vein of discontent. Less heralded have been major strike waves in East and South Asia, and signs of the renewal of class struggle in the global north as well. These are likely to be major elements in struggles over the next few decades--demands for global change interacting with the proto-world federation institutions of the United Nations, revival of surviving Mode A and B formations, and the reinvention of Mode A relations by global middle,working, and slum-dwelling classes.  Interstate struggle may intensify, but it is not clear that the era of drone warfare and cyber attacks will provide a similar dynamic of creating spaces for popular struggles as the mass armies of the previous period. Whether a new hegemon might emerge to construct an order out of these elements, or whether such an order might emerge without a center (and whether either of these might result in something worth describing as Mode D, the classless Mode A reinstantiated on a global scale), or whether the global order might disintegrate into chaos cannot be determined in advance.

Karatani’s work is immensely valuable for fully thinking through the present. The rigid break between the modern and that which came before, so central to Marxism and most modernist social theory, is blurred. And this is crucial for a moment when it is apparent that many memories of Modes A and B are likely to continue to shape and constrain action. If I find weakness in his evasion of the core-periphery divide of the modern world, his failure to theorize the role of science in the ideology of modernity, and undertheorization of world revolution, it is only to be expected that one work won’t include everything. But there is a lot to build on here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beyond Internationalism

The world Social Forum, the most important institution of transnational activism to date
Ever since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels encouraged workers of the world to unite, internationalism has been a point of pride for the left. Various gestures--the Bolsheviks repudiating World War I, participation in the Spanish Civil War, Soviet Russia and its allies around the world defeating Nazi Germany, solidarity with anti-colonial and/or communist revolutions, boycotts of South Africa and lately Israel--serve as touchstones, reminders that people can act in ways that have consequences for others beyond their national boundaries. Yet most of the time the reference point for acts of solidarity were the politics of particular states. Can we stop this state from going to war? Can we demand a war to stop that state? Can we do something to stop that government from falling? Can we strengthen that insurgency? Can we force that government to change by expanding the suffrage, ending colonialism, etc?

To this day, this is the main way in which responsibility beyond national boundaries are interpreted. Along with the aforementioned boycott of Israel, intended to force Israel in line with international norms of a non-discriminatory state, one hears of calls for solidarity with activists in Mexico after the murder of 43 students, or solidarity with the new Syriza government of Greece and its struggle against austerity. Important journals like Jacobin and New Left Review encourage a certain cosmopolitanism among their readership, epitomized by reports on the political economy of states around the world. To be on the left is to have familiarity with, or at least curiosity about the politics of states around the world.

But what of the larger environment in which these states exist? How does one get from solidarity with some movement within a particular state to Marx and Engels original injunction for the workers of the entire world to unite? Not so long ago, there was a popular image of that environment on the left, an image of a powerful core of wealthy states exploiting poorer nations, sometimes through colonial rule, sometimes a little more indirectly, through "neocolonialism." This image valorized anticolonial, sometimes socialist revolutions that attempt to stake out independence or autarky for a state to be better able to mobilize capital and labor and develop.

 This process dead-ended in the eighties, and in the nineties, a new image emerged, globalization. In the left version, although there were still wealthy and poor countries, the emphasis in descriptions of power shifted to international institutions such as the IMF, WTO and the World Bank, all dominated by the US and Western Europe, and multinational corporations, mostly based in the wealthier countries although seemingly operating everywhere. There was a powerful image of capital bursting the bonds of the nation-state and floating all over the world. In the most important formulation, Empire (the world just described, with international institutions, multinational corporations, and capital covering the entire globe, creating a "smooth" space) would be contested by multitude, a singular, non-homogeneous concatenation of people and movements. At the various "global justice" mobilizations between   1999 and 2001, the multitude seemed to be a reality, as anarchists, union members, environmentalists, and other groups all mobilized together and employed nascent internet technology to network themselves, even as they used a diversity of tactics during the protests themselves. The World Social Forum, which began meeting in 2001, institutionalized this practice.

The movement had perhaps already peaked when the attacks of 9-11 dramatically shifted the subject. Now the focus would be on national governments claiming to protect their populations by any means necessary. But then in 2003, international protests against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the US were hailed as the arrival of "the second superpower," global opinion, by the New York Times. People around the world stood together against the arbitrary projection of military force by the most powerful state in the world. However, global opinion, in this sense, did not become a recurrent a feature of world politics.

In the next ten years, a new image replaced globalization. This was the image of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), a loose alliance (actually invented by a Goldman Sachs analyst) of rising non-western states. Not especially radical, BRICS, which also can stand for a more general assertiveness of non-western countries that are not included in the acronym, nevertheless collectively posed something like an alternative to the neoliberal order reigned over by the US. BRICS typically opposed military interventions by NATO and the US, and were less dogmatic (more honest?) about state intervention in the economy. South-South economic connections between countries traditionally a part of the colonial world was also a hallmark of BRICS. The neoliberal world claimed to be advancing values of human rights, sustainability, poverty reduction, etc even while mostly getting serious about "structural reforms"  that enhanced the power of local and foreign oligarchs and corporations. BRICS, epitomized by China's trade diplomacy, tended to avoid both the rhetoric and the practice in favor of deals between sovereign states to advance their economies. By 2014, BRICS had begun to set up their own institutions, like development banks. Some on the left continued to assert that the bulk of global power remained firmly in the hands of US based institutions, and that geopolitical conflict between BRICS and the US and its allies was overstated. At this writing, it is unclear who is correct.

Beginning around 2009, shortly after the world economy tanked, a new phase of social struggle emerged.  This phase included riots in Greece and accelerated with the Arab Spring and movement of the squares, indignados, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011,  This phase often used the hashtag #globalrevolution, suggesting links between all these struggles. While the global justice phase had typically targeted multinational institutions, all the struggles in this phase were basically confrontations within specific nation-states perceived as dominated by oligarchs. The struggling force was very different from the multitude. Rather than a movement of movements, the defining image was of citizens coming together to try to democratically decide how to move forward and struggle through general assemblies.   There was a certain amount of movement to movement solidarity, as when Egyptians ordered pizzas for those occupying the state capital in Wisconsin. There is a great deal of awareness among activists that these sorts of rebellions and practices are occurring all over the world. Nevertheless, this is very much a country-by-country wave.

Now we seem to be entering a new phase, where these movements are to some degree morphing into struggles for state power. The key moment here is the election of Syriza in Greece, with Podemos in Spain waiting in the dock, and similar moments likely in many other countries (I suspect we may even have one in the US in the next decade, if a Democratic outside of the Wall Street network that has retained a stranglehold on the party for the last thirty years were to win the nomination. I know this is hopelessly reformist in the eyes of many of my friends, but if such a candidate were to win the presidency, it would put US politics into unknown terrain). Even Toni Negri, the guru of the nineties anarchists, says it is now time to talk about power. Yet such struggles can no longer plausibly assume a move to the old model of socialism in one country. As it is, Syriza has more modest goals--getting relief from its debt burden, and putting the Greek oligarchs in their place--and it is less than clear that they can achieve such limited goals in the current climate. Syriza must resist the power of the European Central Bank, the IMF, and Germany, but why exactly does this Troika continue to exist? Either Syriza must trigger some kind of generalized rebellion within the EU, leading to a reversal of policies by the Troika, or Greece must exit the Eurozone, a rocky process in the best circumstances, which would likely also leave Greece at the mercy of whoever it could find to offer some assistance--I have heard Russia offered up as one idea.

There is the obvious question of why states that might try to pursue sober and reasonable policies will quickly find themselves targeted by powerful institutions, and perhaps the target of international sanctions and boycotts. They can perhaps turn towards BRICS, but this grouping ultimately is an agglomeration of state interests, and none of the present day leaders can be said to embody the values of the left. Even if they did, would we want to leave international policies up to ad hoc alliances?  This is where, I think it is necessary to rethink the concept of internationalism, and start to conceptualize a genuinely global left.

Here we should detour a little and note the familiar left critique of prefigurative, local struggles. The image being critiqued is of people who have given up on politics, which involves convincing more people to join your struggles, and instead try to build small scale utopias--community gardens, anarchist bookshops, etc. These efforts are seen by some as basically a distraction from the real work of building institutions of class struggle or electoral politics. I've never agreed with this critique. Many of these small scale institutions are not created as retreats from the world, but as sites to launch struggles, to experiment with new forms of social relations that can hopefully be replicated or scaled up, etc. Even if they don't succeed, they often make their immediate surroundings a little more pleasant, which probably shouldn't be downplayed too much. Mass movements cannot simply be conjured out of thin air as an alternative to small scale experimentation. What I would like to suggest here is that the left should begin to prefigure global society by developing projects that involve border crossing participation. I am not sure what such projects would look like, but I am thinking of something very different from the shared project of targeting one's relevant nation state and then reporting to international comrades about the state of the struggle that still constitutes the horizon of internationalism for the left much of the time. I could imagine research and activist projects, and even non-profit entrepreneurial ventures, all crossing national borders, being launched. Perhaps they already are. This would create a density of experience with acting transnationally that could become the launchpad for the transformation of the larger world environment, either through a march through the existing institutions (IMF, UN, EU, etc) or their subversion and replacement by others, or both.

One relevant model for what I am thinking of are the UN conferences on topics such as women, racism, poverty etc. There is a left critique of the UN as a tool of the US (a somewhat ahistorical critique, given that the US helped found the UN at the high water mark of left influence within the US, and since then at various intervals even the liberal internationalist wing of the US ruling class has viewed it with deep suspicion), but these conferences are in fact embraced by a broad spectrum of activists, including many on the far left and sometimes boycotted by the US. They provide a forum for activists to talk without necessarily thinking in terms of their national identities. Of course, so does the World Social Forum, also of importance here. For that matter, many conversations on Facebook are prefigurative of global society in this sense. That communicating across borders is now costless is crucial to the current situation. Not long ago, communicating within a nation-state was not particularly expensive, but costs were often prohibitive for communicating across borders except for the most endowed, i.e. the capitalist class. Under such conditions, it was possible to create a relatively cohesive "imagined community" of the nation-state. No longer.

The nation state is loosing its status as the focus of people's hopes for remaking the world into something better. Everyone intuits the limited capacities of states, even quite large ones. No amount of rhetoric about how states remain important to the neoliberal project will change this.Although I am very sympathetic to such electoral vehicles as the Chavistas in Venezuela and Syriza in Greece, I seriously doubt they will become vessels for launching a thorough remaking of their respective societies along anything remotely resembling the "socialism in one country" that was the defacto project of the twentieth century left. The nation state no longer has the cultural or economic cohesiveness to contain such hopes. In response, many people focus on local efforts where they think they can develop new sorts of social relations or otherwise improve things. The left puts a lot of energy into berating these, implicitly, or even explicitly, hoping people will renew their focus on the state. The left would do better to look for ways to create solidarities beyond the state and across national boundaries.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Social Movements in 2014: A Report

What follows is a survey of American social movement activity in 2014. It is based on searches through what I posted on facebook throughout the year. The complete list of what I found can be examined here. Although it is not exhaustive and a little heavy on New York City, where I am based, I think it accurately captures the major actions and drift of things. I found six major foci of activity throughout the year--labor, pushback against austerity (somewhat divisible into urban struggles and higher ed), climate change, boycott/divestment and sanctions on Israel, Black Lives Matter, and feminism. Black Lives Matter, better known before October or so as struggles against the New Jim Crow, police violence, and mass incarceration, turned itself into a genuine mass movement which may profoundly reshape the political landscape in the US. But BDS also dramatically grew in its public profile. I suspect activists involved in fighting climate change and challenging rape culture also felt that it was mostly a good year. The fight for fifteen campaign of fast food workers grew, while many other labor campaigns bubbled below the radar. Although barely noted in the mass media, anti-austerity struggles around public schools, water, and higher education also escalated. Below I will review these developments and assess the prospects for these movements to merge, build off each other, and inspire additional struggles.

Quantitatively, labor struggles are only exceeded in my wrap up by the New Jim Crow/Black Lives Matter activity. This may seem surprising in light of the endless, and serious, handwringing about the decline of the labor movement and its inability to change the political and social climate that is suffocating it. Perhaps it is just a bias on my part. But it is also the case that unions remain large organizations capable of launching and supporting highly consequential struggles--there aren’t too many things more important to most people than how much they are paid and the conditions they work under. Notwithstanding the sad UAW defeat at a Tennessee plant where Volkswagen had made clear it wouldn’t oppose the union, there are real signs of a fight back culture both within unions and within parts of the working class. Even at that Volkswagen plant, the UAW went on to form a minority union, rather than slink away as it probably would have ten years ago. But there were more significant signs of what I am talking about. Most notably, there is the Fight for Fifteen campaign of fast food workers. Since it was initiated in 2012, the campaign has remained maddeningly slow building--no reports of marches spontaneously swelling as low wage workers simply jump onboard. Instead, it has grown one participant at a time, marked by carefully planned, media friendly protest (“strike”) days. And yet it has influenced American society as no labor campaign in recent history, fueling numerous struggles for higher minimum wages throughout the country. It has also continued to evolve, this year reaching out to other low wage workers such as home care workers, and engaging in civil disobedience. The Fight for Fifteen campaign also seemed to inspire Walmart workers to step up their game, after being on the defensive against retaliations by their employers for the last couple of years. In May, “Walmart Moms” staged a walkout. In November, workers staged civil disobedience protests and also engaged in a sit-down strke at a store in California. Drivers and longshoremen at the ports on the West Coast, truly a strategically located work force, given the heavy dependence of the US economy on imports, engaged in a protracted struggle for recognition which ended in victory in January, although contract issues remain unresolved. Airport workers at low wage concessions staged protests in New York and Minneapolis. Teachers elected foes of corporate education reform to head their unions in a number of large cities. Efforts of low paid adjuncts to unionize around the country picked up steam.  SEIU won $15/hour for teaching assistants in Los Angeles schools. The “sharing” economy was also the site of struggles, as Uber drivers struck and Lyft drivers burned the pink mustaches that adorn their cars. Meanwhile, Facebook shuttle bus drivers joined the teamsters.   This brief summary gives a sense of the terrain of US labor struggles--low paid service work, transportation (in many variants), and education are among the key foci.  

As labor has shown more interest lately in connecting with other struggles, it blends a little into our next category, pushback against privatization and deterioration of public services. Here we would put Moral Mondays, initiated in 2013 in North Carolina, but spreading throughout the South and even further afield in 2014. Moral Mondays is rooted in the NAACP and builds alliances of labor and community groups and progressive activists to push back against right wing agendas at state houses. One major demand in 2014 was for states that have avoided doing so to fund the expansion of medicaid under Obamacare. Public education was another site of some of the most urgent struggles in this category. In Brooklyn, teachers at one school refused to administer standardized tests. In Newark, students repeatedly protested against the “One Newark” school reform plan. In Chicago, students protested school closures. In Compton, teachers held a sick out. In Philadelphia, thousands protested when the School Reform Commission unilaterally cancelled teachers’ contracts. In Detroit, city efforts to cut the water service of individuals said to be delinquent (but not major corporations, who were allowed to be laggards about paying their bills) were confronted by protests, leading to a reprieve, which, last I heard, was no longer in effect. The Ferguson protests crossed over with this category. Moral Mondays made an appearance during Ferguson October. In December, Philly students staged a die in to protest a student who died as a result of a lack of a nurse at school. In Baltimore, protesters shut down a meeting of the school board, declaring “Black lives matter.”

Some movements at universities should be noted in this context as well. At the University of Southern Maine, an administrative effort to savage a bunch of departments with faculty layoffs led to a student occupation of university buildings, and an eventual reversal. In November, The University of California was also the site of resurgent struggle--perhaps the most intense since 2009--against an effort to raise tuition via student fees. Do struggles against commencement speakers like Condeleeza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and Bill Maher fit into this category? Such speakers are chosen by administrators to bring the image of the campus in line with dominant neoliberal and neoconservative trends.

Renascent feminism turned its attention towards violence against women in 2014, although I also picked up a report on networks of activists connecting women who live in the expanding areas of the US where it is impossible to get an abortion with providers. In May, dominant narratives of the UCSB shooter Elliot Rodgers as being all about mental illness or gun control were disrupted by social media demands that his misogny, indistinguishable from that of online subcultures like “Mens Rights Activists” be understood as the context for his rampage. Later in the year, considerable attention was focused on the issue of rape on college campuses. The state of California adopted “affirmative consent” as the standard at the state’s colleges and universities. Perhaps the most visible protest of rape was that initiated by rape victim Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, who carried her mattress around campus as a symbol of the burden of violence. In turn this led to “collective carries” of the mattress by those who shared the sentiment, and this gesture was replicated around the US and even further afield.   

Climate change activism was divided into roughly two phases. During the first half of the year, activists protested the Keystone XL pipeline, including civil disobedience at the White House and a “Cowboy-Indian alliance” of ranchers and Native Americans. Additionally, the movement to boycott fossil fuels picked up energy, with the Unitarian Church voting to divest. The second phase was defined by the People’s Climate March in September. Criticized widely on the far left for its failure to raise specific demands, the march did incubate, in the context of a conjoined conference, the People’s Climate Summit, climate justice activism rooted in working class communities. Although not really mobilizing 300,000 participants as some overenthusiastic voices claimed, the march itself was huge, and, along with the aforementioned climate justice groups, also featured the participation of labor unions, who have not always been quick to join environmental coalitions. The Monday following the march, activists “flooded Wall Street,” reviving direct action tactics that had been largely absent from New York City since the demise of Occupy Wall Street. Following the March, climate activism was relatively low profile, although a lively struggle in upstate New York against a proposed Seneca Lake gas storage facility should be counted. Anti-fracking activists in New York state chalked up a victory as Andrew Cuomo banned fracking.

Movements challenging Israeli policies and US support for those policies, most notably the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,  also raised their profile in 2014. This is a movement with a particularly tough road, given the lack of anything resembling liberal allies in electoral politics or the mainstream media. Such movements have few options but to try to raise the status of their issue to a public controversy, which is what this movement has begun to do. In fact, 2013 was a fairly successful year in this regard, and much of the activism at the beginning of the year involved fending off repression of the movement responding to this success. In February, an anti-BDS bill that would have seriously impinged on academic freedom was fended off in New York state. In April, Northeastern University was forced to end its suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine. But the real turning point came with the Israeli assault on Gaza. Even as much of the mainstream media seemed more constricted than ever, movement activity escalated.  Most notably, the group Jewish Voices for Peace rapidly expanded, and protests erupted within the Jewish community. For example, protesters were arrested at the Philadelphia Jewish Federation. This culminated in October with the Open Hillel conference, which challenged the major Jewish campus organization, notoriously for shutting out debate about Israel, but facing growing dissension from within. Another very notable aspect of activism was the blockading of ships seeking to unload goods from Israel in Oakland and Florida. But perhaps the most dramatic surge was related to the revoking of a job for Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Although people have been punished within academia before for speaking out about Israel, the Salaita case generated an unprecedented level of pushback. While he has not been rehired, he is now a prominent national figure for the movement and UIUC’s reputation has taken a hit. The case continues to reverberate throughout academia and has fueled more talk about participating in BDS.  We should not conclude this section without noting that the two most prominent standard bearers for progressive electoral politics, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have both been targeted for protests, given their uncritical support for Israel, and both took small steps away from the most reactionary positions in response.

Of course, the biggest break-out movement of 2014 was the series of protests against police killings, and, more generally, the criminalization of African Americans and others, now known as Black Lives Matter. This movement has escalated so dramatically since the protests following the killing of Mike Brown in August that it can be forgotten that it has actually been building for some time--recall the national protests after Trayvon Martin was killed and then after George Zimmerman was acquitted, in 2012. In January, there were protests following the not guilty verdict for the officers involved in killing White mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas in California. In April, incarcerated workers in Alabama struck. Also in April, #mynypd, a hashtag encouraged by the NYPD, backfired as people used it to link to videos of police violence and tell their stories. In May there were protests against a killing in Albuquerque as well as in East Salinas. In July, rallies were held immediately following the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island. Cecilly McMillan, an Occupy activist sentenced to three months in jail on a preposterous charge of assaulting an officer, spoke out about conditions at Rikers.

But it was in August, when protests exploded in Ferguson in response to the killing of Mike Brown, that the movement decisively expanded. Several developments were notable--the emergence of a young generation of activists, including many women in leadership roles, uninterested in being led by more established figures such as Al Shaprton.  A second was the high visibility of the militarized police response, which failed to quell the protests. A third was links made by protesters to the struggle in Gaza. Because of the intensity of the protests, they generated national attention and sympathetic protests as the movements around Kelly Thomas, Eric Garner, and others had not. New Orleans residents took over a police station in solidarity with Ferguson. Howard students staged a memorable photo of hundreds doing the “hands up” pose. Ferguson seemed to generate increased attention and protest to other forms of police abuse as well. For example, in the wealthy, mostly white neighborhood of Park Slope Brooklyn, there was an outcry over police using speakers on their cars to shoo African American youth out of the neighborhood. In Ohio, protests in response to the police shooting of John Crawford also escalated along with police violence in response. Activists held “Ferguson October,” encouraging people from around the country to converge on Ferguson to protest and strategize. Connections were forged with Moral Mondays, and new targets of protest like Emerson Electric and Walmart were identified, even as a new killing by the police in St Louis fueled more protests.

When grand juries failed to indict Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, in late November, and Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner, in early December, the movement intensified to another level. Suddenly Eric Garner was a national figure, rather than a New York City story. It was around this time that activists started shutting down highways around the country, too numerous to mention. As this corresponded with the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, there were protests at the Thanksgiving Parade and also at numerous shopping malls. The Bay Area was the site of multiple actions, including shutting down a Bart Line, shutting down the Oakland Police Department, and an intense wave of protests some described as insurrectionary.  Large marches were held in NYC and DC on December 13. At the DC march, held under the auspices of Al Sharpton’s organization, young activists rushed the stage in frustration at their voices being marginalized by the more established leadership. Prominent athletes also wore t-shirts and/or delivered the “hands up” gesture, sometimes earning the ire of various administrators. It should also be noted that the wave of protests in December included New York City council members, congressional staffers in DC, and public defenders in NYC. In other words, as well as a vibrant, confrontational mass engaging in street protests, the movement has supporters within the system. Those supporters were thrown on the defensive when, on December 20, Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore, drove up to New York City, and killed two police officers. Under fire from the police union head, mayor Bill de Blasio called for a halt in the protests until after the officers’ funerals and was echoed by other liberal politicians. Protesters ignored this call, and continued as they had. For their part, the police used the funerals of their colleagues as an occasion to protest the mayor, and initiated a work stoppage that had the effect of increasing debate as to whether “broken windows” policing, with its punitive approach to minor offenses when committed by poor, non-white people, is actually necessary, since halting it did not result in a major crime increase. Cracks, which likely have some resemblance to racial divides, have also widened within the police force, with reports of a shoving match between supporters of union leader Lynch and his opponents at one meeting. Elsewhere in the country, the shooting of the officers didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the movement.  But street protests at the fever pitch of December never last forever, and the movement will undoubtedly evolve in 2015.

In a widely circulated column, Mark Bittman raised the possibility of movements flowing together and strengthening each other, quoting Reverend William Barber of Moral Mondays to that effect. Bittman emphasizes the way all the struggles of low wage workers have begun to converge and have increased pressure nationwide to raise the minimum wage. He also noted that these movements had converged a bit with Black Lives Matter, perhaps not surprising, since the categories of low wage worker and the overpoliced overlap a lot. Although he doesn’t mention it, energy from Black Lives Matter has also been spilling over into education and related anti-austerity  struggles, such as the disruption of the Baltimore board of education meeting noted above. Other struggles are harder to imagine simply merging. For example, most climate activism around Keystone and fossil fuel divestment appears based among the college educated activist strata, although some indigenous groups are also involved. Struggles around Israel are largely conducted by a mix of this “traditional” activist strata and students of Middle Eastern descent. The labor unions have been organizing the campaigns of low wage workers, but the still substantial portion of the American workforce presently in labor unions is mostly not low wage. Campus struggles around rape may also seem remote. The divide between a largely white activist strata that typically cuts its teeth on campus activism and a increasingly active, largely African American, urban-based population echoes class and racial divides in the larger society. But things aren’t all that cut and dry. Blacklivesmatter has mobilized diverse groups, reaching deep into many campuses (especially, but by no means only, historically black ones), and cutting across racial lines within cities. Based on photographs, it appears that the Walmart struggle has mobilized more whites than non-whites nationwide--”low wage workers” is actually a very racially diverse group of people. As noted above, the People’s Climate March involved coalition building with labor unions and environmental justice groups, both aimed at demographics outside the largely white activist subculture. Ferguson activists recently visited Palestine to affirm their solidarity. Although many of the higher ed institutions besieged by budget cuts and fee hikes  are largely white, the basic logic of what is happening is not much different from attacks on public education in the cities. Adjuncts are simultaneously white college educated (and not infrequently teaching in disciplines that are relatively left) and low wage workers; increasingly, they are union members as well, which may have implications for the larger labor movement. The organized labor force may not be low wage, but they are obviously under siege and would be well advised to pay attention to disruptive and media friendly tactics others are using if they do not wish to be low wage soon. In other words, there are grounds for connecting and unifying struggles, if people are willing to pay attention to what others are doing and struggling about, and think through ways that everything is connected.