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

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

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

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

Newsletter #5: Desire Is Political, with Amia Srinivasan

by Maia Silber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading and Listening

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

 

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

By Ben Feldman

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

 

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

By William Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Mia Schatz

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

 

Newsletter #1: The War on Terror Made Our World

Dig supporters,

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

Best,
Dan

The War on Terror Made Our World

by Micah Uetricht

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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