Newsletter #27: Local Debts and Global Narratives, with Destin Jenkins
Newsletter #26: Life Under Inflation and Price Chaos, with Rupert Russell and Isabella Weber
The Dig is releasing Newsletters #25 and #26 in reverse order.
By Michal Schatz
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by a new wave of articles predicting the retreat of globalization. Such articles have circulated periodically since the beginning of the pandemic, but Russia’s barbarous invasion was an acute reminder that our financialized global supply system has the structural integrity of a house of cards.
Prices have surged since February, fueled not only by the uncertainty and trade disruptions associated with the war alongside retaliatory sanctions against Russia, but also by COVID-related lockdowns in China. Among the many excellent aspects of this week’s interview with Rupert Russell and Isabella Weber is its focus not only on the immediate crisis, but on providing a long view of price chaos — its mechanisms and global impact over the last decades, and what might lie ahead.
Inflation and price chaos may be problems to which developed countries have not fallen victim in several decades, but Global South countries like Venezuela and Tunisia have become accustomed to their devastation throughout the twenty-first century. The Arab Spring was not, as Western media narrated, a revolution against tyranny, but a response to skyrocketing bread prices — a peripheral casualty of finance bros’ hubristic bets in the core. Now that price surging has come home, richer countries like the US want to insulate themselves from such shocks by reshoring production.
Listening to this week’s interview, I was reminded of Achal Prabhala’s observation in his discussion with Astra Taylor about the rise of a new form of ultranationalism. Most discussions of nationalism’s resurgence have focused on its political and rhetorical content, but its economic manifestations have inflicted some of the harshest blows, as COVID vaccine apartheid lays bare. The International Monetary Fund recently released a report warning that a manufacturing retreat may in fact leave countries more vulnerable to trade volatility. As Biden made clear in his State of the Union speech, however, the push to deglobalize is not merely a response to the current inflation crisis, but a crucial part of a mounting trade war with China. While these economic powers vie for supremacy, what happens to developing countries who abandoned their diversified domestic economies for international commodity production?
There’s no retreating back into Pandora’s box — deglobalization will not spell the end of neoliberalism. The logic that has structured our global trade system for a generation will not wither away, but adapt itself to these new conditions, as we have seen it do so many times before.
These trade realignments spell out the conditions under which we must combat the climate crisis. An ecofascist response to the climate crisis is not a distant specter lying in future’s wait — the time is now. The Left cannot fight national capitalism with national socialism, but must re-envision the platforms that underpinned its resurgence to local and national electoral politics as part of a global project in solidarity with working people beyond US borders. Earlier this week, Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò and Patrick Bigger published a report with the Climate and Community Project calling for climate reparations for the Global South through debt restructuring and cancellation. Internationalist proposals like Táíwò’s and Bigger’s are a good model for the types of policies the Left will need to adopt in order to advocate for a just climate transition, not only at home, but internationally.
If you want a more in-depth overview of price chaos and the financial crises of the last few decades, Rupert Russell’s book Price Wars is an ideal place to start. Check out Isabella Weber’s book, How China Escaped Shock Therapy to learn more about China’s economic development and marketization, as well as her first Dig interview. Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou explores how the speculation that dominates financial markets has filtered into our political structures and behavior in his book Speculative Communities.
There is no shortage of insightful writing on the supply change, climate crisis, and the Global South. Jayati Ghosh has warned that rich countries may exacerbate food crises in the Global South by limiting supply. Leonce Ndikumana and James Boyce’s recently published book On the Trail of Capital Flight from Africa traces how a network of individuals and institutions has enabled capital to leak out of African countries. Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò makes the case for climate reparations to Global South countries in his new book, Reconsidering Reparations.
Newsletter #25: Defund, Abolition, and Remaking Our World, with Mariame Kaba and Geo Maher
The Dig is releasing Newsletters #25 and #26 in reverse order.
Newsletter #24: How to End Global Vaccine Appartheid, with Achal Prabhala
By Michal Schatz
A few months into his presidency last year, Joe Biden issued a statement on global vaccine distribution proclaiming that “The United States will be the world’s arsenal of vaccines in our shared fight against this virus.” The US, of course, has not delivered on this pronouncement. Rapidly emerging new Covid variants have increased demand for mRNA vaccines among wealthy countries, delaying their distribution to those in the Global South while rendering vaccines made with traditional vaccine technology (e.g. Johnson&Johnson) insufficient to quelling Covid’s spread. But as Astra Taylor’s conversation with Achal Prabhala in this week’s Dig episode makes clear, Global South countries do not need charity from the world’s vaccine arsenal – they need the technical ability to manufacture mRNA vaccines themselves.
The vaccine apartheid currently prolonging the pandemic lies at the nexus of the philanthropy industrial complex, capitalist profit motive, and ultranationalism. I was surprised to learn in this episode that mRNA vaccines are actually easier to produce than traditional vaccines. It is neither production challenges nor lack of funds preventing poor countries across the world from manufacturing life-saving and (hopefully) pandemic-ending mRNA vaccines, but an artificial production blockade generated by pharmaceutical companies’ and Northern countries’ refusal to waive IP law to expand global manufacturing capacity. Meanwhile, misguided perceptions of US superiority alongside imperialist condescension – however well meaning – has led key US advocacy groups like PrEP for All to throw their weight behind Biden’s unsustainable charity model for global vaccine distribution.
Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.
In all of this, it would be easy to miss one of Prabhala’s key points in the interview: money is not the issue. Many developing countries’ governments have the funds to buy a license to produce mRNA vaccines. Yet, companies like Moderna are hesitant to sell manufacturing licenses to Global South countries for fear of profit loss under unpredictable conditions – for example, if a government like India decided to void the licensing contract during a state of emergency. Rather than waive IP rights or force these companies to license manufacturing rights, the US and other wealthy countries like the UK are protecting these companies by pouring money into vaccine donation plans that prolong the pandemic and force developing countries into a permanent state of dependency.
During Trump’s presidency, and particularly at the onset of the pandemic, there was widespread speculation about the death of neoliberalism. Looking, in particular, at developed countries’ approach to vaccine distribution and production worldwide, it’s hard to disagree with Martijn Konings’ recent assessment that those speculations were premature. Indeed, encasing, to use Quinn Slobodian’s term, private companies from Third World sovereign interests in the world market was neoliberalism’s solution to decolonization in the twentieth century. In his recent book, Uncommon Wealth, Kojo Koram shows how the British government eroded newly independent states’ sovereignty in the Third World to protect private capital from nationalization efforts. Today’s vaccine apartheid is the latest manifestation of developed countries’ project to deny post-colonial states their sovereignty.
As Prabhala indicates, the global response to the pandemic, and particularly to vaccine distribution, has troubling implications for the climate crisis. Towards the end of the interview, he raises the urgent question of twenty-first century ultranationalism, suggesting that it is like “a deliberately illogical, counter-intuitive way of staging a kind of domestic political theater.” With neoliberalism’s imperial logic in mind, I’m inclined to disagree. The ultranationalism we’ve witnessed throughout the pandemic simply is not deliberately illogical, but rather obeying a different logic than that of the social good. Despite privileged access to mRNA vaccines, the pandemic is not over in the Global North either, but these countries have eliminated free testing and Covid-related restrictions and told their residents and citizens to get back into the economy as cases and deaths continue to rise. The US acting as the world’s “arsenal of vaccines” serves to further protect private capital from the risks of Global South states’ sovereignty. Accomplishing a cooperative, planetary response to the climate crisis will require breaking the global market’s casing in the name of global social survival.
Further Reading and Listening
Achal Prabhala has written extensively about vaccine apartheid in the Guardian. You can also check out Prabhala’s first Dig interview here.
For Jacobin, Aishu Balaji writes about how COVAX and the charity model for global vaccine distribution perpetuates developing countries’ subordination to those of the Global North, while Kevin Klyman argues that vaccine apartheid is bolstering US empire. To read more about neoliberal thought and decolonization, check out Quinn Slobodian’s book Globalists.
Newsletter #23: A New Age of Empire, with Ho-fung Hung
by William Harris
I lived in Shanghai for a few years during the decade following the 2008 financial crash. This was a time in which Western journalists approached China with their mouths open. They gawked over GDP rates, the rise of preposterously large cities, the statistical delirium of a rising economy of 1.5 billion people, and the gauche ways China’s nouveau riche brandished their wealth. They gawked over rumblings of protest, and they gawked over how precarious it all seemed — how the real estate market teetered on the brink, how likely it was that this fantastical economic engine would sputter into collapse.
It was hard for me, too, not to sometimes see China with those eyes. Every time I would fly into Shanghai, the view on my cab ride home would change: new high rises, whole neighborhoods transformed in a matter of months, intensifying clouds of smog that the poor breathed in and the rich magicked away with air purifiers. Perhaps things were precarious, but they also seemed like emblems of a new capitalist horizon. There was a brilliant elegance to the late political economist Giovanni Arrighi’s story of succeeding world hegemons, in which a once-dominant power like Britain grew indebted to an upstart nation like the US and thus helped along the new superpower’s rise, just as centuries before, Genoese merchant capitalists had grown indebted to Holland and made possible the Dutch empire’s ascendance. Arrighi’s final book, Adam Smith in Beijing, hinted that the same process might be underway again: the US as declining debtor-superpower on the verge of being surpassed by creditor-power China.
Yet as sociologist Ho-fung Hung explains in part two of his interview with The Dig, this hasn’t happened. Instead, China’s growth rate has fallen to more modest levels, and our era has become less one of geopolitical succession than one of confrontational geopolitical stalemate.
Listen to Ho-fung Hung’s interview with The Dig here.
So far, the effects of this new world have been bleak: ramped-up militarism, war. But might this geopolitical situation also provide openings? Hung suggests a Keynesian solution, where China and the US enact programs of domestic economic redistribution so growth can proceed internally, calming imperial battles over external markets. There are reasons to hope for this and reasons to remain skeptical: the imbalance of class forces, the environmental consequences of expanded consumption.
But Hung also mentions a second opening to watch out for. “Our analysis focuses too much on big powers and big empires without paying enough attention to smaller states,” Hung says. From Tanzania to the Philippines, nationalism is on the rise across the world, and multi-polarity provides small states the chance to play big powers against each other. This could just lead to exacerbated tensions — but it could lead, too, to more room for small left-leaning regimes, like the ones once again on the rise in Latin America.
For related Dig listening, check out our interview with Tobita Chow and Jake Werner on the China-US relationship and how it fits into today’s landscape of global capital. And if you want to read more on dollar supremacy in light of the war in Ukraine, read Dominik A. Leusder’s recent n+1 essay “The Art of Monetary War.”
Newsletter #22: Capitalist China, with Ho-fung Hung
By Mack Penner
What an episode: in a little over an hour, Ho-fung Hung, author of The China Boom, covers more than two centuries of political-economic development in China, all the while weaving in and out of Marxist accumulation theory, Immanuel Wallersteinian world-systems theory, and Annales historiography. What more could we ask for?
There are, importantly, two time-scales at work in the interview: a period of centuries over which China occupied a subordinate position in the workings of global capitalism; and a more recent period, only a couple of decades in existence, during which China has become a superpower. The forthcoming second episode with Hung, on the financial crisis of 2008 and more, delves further into the latter period.
China’s rise over recent decades has been dramatic, so it can seem novel. As former Dig guest Isabella Weber points out in her book, How China Escaped Shock Therapy, from 1990 to 2017, the Chinese share of global GDP went from hardly more than 2 percent to nearly 13 percent. Today, according to the World Bank, the Chinese share is well above 15 percent. If the Chinese Communist Party can meet its goals for economic growth, modest only by recent Chinese standards, China could represent fully one-fifth of world GDP.
These figures are stunning. But as we learn in the episode, China’s subordinate geoeconomic status in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the real historical anomaly. In the early modern period, and for centuries on-and-off beforehand, Chinese society was characterized by high living standards and flourishing commerce. As Hung notes in The China Boom, citing political scientist Joseph Nye, recent Chinese history is actually better understood as a “renaissance” than a “rise.”
The China Boom argues that despite growing Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical power, China is unlikely to fundamentally upend the global capitalist system in the long term — in part because it has benefitted from that system. This point rhymes with the analysis of some other observers: Branko Milanovic, for example, suggests that competition between China and the United States is a contest between versions of capitalism rather than a clash of fundamentally different systems. A China-dominated world system would still be a capitalist world system.
So what should we make of the China boom? We might get our bearings by keeping one eye on each of the time scales that feature in the episode. In the short term, we should remember that inter-imperial rivalry between large capitalist states doesn’t have a great track record, to say the least. Panning out, we might want to consider the final passages in The China Boom, where Hung calls it “unthinkable that the upcoming crises might be more daunting than the ones China has weathered over the centuries” and predicts that “its robust capitalist development will continue for a long time.”
But as we consider the possibility, in China and elsewhere, of further capitalist development over the long-term, the obvious question is: how long do we have? As Kate Aronoff has argued on The Dig, even if the end of capitalism is not likely to come for a long time, managing the climate crisis still urgently requires a “radical shift in our current economic order.” In the long run, however long it turns out to be, the battle over what that radical shift will look like is of the utmost importance.
Further Reading / Listening
Speaking of Isabella Weber, her interview with The Dig is a clear archival complement to Hung’s two-part interview. Hung’s new book, Clash of Empires, will be out shortly.
It’s springtime in the northern hemisphere, meaning that summer reading plans are being made. Hung’s references to debates in the theory and history of capitalism could make for inspiration. You might dabble in the capitalist transition debates via the “Brenner Debate.” Or you might read Immanuel Wallerstein’s introduction to world-systems analysis. The really good stuff, however, is Annales history and historiography. Summer 2022 as the summer of Fernand Braudel, anyone?
Newsletter #21: A Left Internationalist Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, with Sophie Pinkham and Nick Mulder
Newsletter #20: Slapping Back the Invisible Hand, with Kim Phillips-Fein
Newsletter #19: War in Ukraine on a Burning Planet, with Tony Wood
By Mack Penner
Developments from the war in Ukraine, ongoing for a week as I write this, are moving at a frenzied pace. Keeping up with the reporting seems to require hours of attention daily; keeping up with analysis of the war is at least equally challenging, as for every cogent and considered piece there are a great many more that are not worth the time of day. Which makes The Dig’s interview with Tony Wood, author of Russia Without Putin: Money, Power, and the Myths of the New Cold War, a welcome anchor.
Against the backdrop of war, there are few certainties, especially when it comes to matters of geopolitics. But as Wood discusses in the interview, current geopolitical uncertainty runs up against the very sure thing of climate change. Mitigating the worst outcomes of climate change requires concerted state action at the global level — and such action is nigh impossible to imagine in a warming world at war.
Accordingly, it’s worth highlighting the recent news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released the latest portion of its major report. The previous installment was big news at the end of last summer; this one appeared much more quietly, three days into the Russian invasion. The findings conclude that the consequences of climate change are likely to be worse than previously thought. And what was previously thought wasn’t exactly rosy.
The IPCC report is a litany of disasters both looming and already-arrived: destroyed ecosystems, rapidly rising seas, extreme weather, and trillions of dollars in damage and losses, to say nothing of the unquantifiable suffering that will be endured by living things. The “window of opportunity” in which human actions can intervene to stave off the worst and ensure the continuing habitability of the earth is closing.
War imperils our collective ability to address the climate crisis. So, with war ongoing (and not only in Ukraine), what is to be done? Clearly left internationalism, anti-war and anti-capitalist, is required by the moment. Solidarity with the people of Ukraine goes without saying.
Further Reading and Listening
On the war in Ukraine, be sure to have a look at the show notes. Otherwise, I recommend stepping out of the current discursive fervor and reading Jonathan Schell’s argument for the abolition of nuclear weapons, written more than twenty years ago and unfortunately still-relevant. For an understanding of Putin that you won’t get from the mainstream media, read Wood’s Russia Without Putin.
Read Andreas Malm’s opus, Fossil Capital, on the history of our current climate predicaments. Read Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan on where we might go from here. And The Dig has an extensive archive of climate episodes. Kate Aronoff’s interview would be a good place to start.
Newsletter #18: A Radical — and Popular — Feminism in Latin America and Around the World, with Verónica Gago
by Maia Silber
Left feminists in the Global North have long lamented the corporate cooptation of the movement’s mainstream, even as more radical visions of gender justice seem unable to reach beyond the academy. But in Argentina, an international feminist movement has emerged that is both massive in its popular reach and unabashed in its insistence on linking the struggle against patriarchy to struggles against colonialism and neoliberal capitalism. It offers a model for activists around the world who want to use feminist analysis and tactics not only to advance women’s status within the existing order, but to transform that order.
This week’s guest, Verónica Gago, is a political theorist, organizer, and member of Ni Una Menos (“Not One Less”), a Latin America–wide feminist collective that gained a global following in 2016 when it launched a women’s general strike following the rape and murder of sixteen-year-old Lucia Pérez. Gago’s work underscores the decades-old socialist-feminist argument that Ni Una Menos puts into practice: capitalism devalues “women’s work” by rendering it invisible as work, and insisting on naming it as such can powerfully expand the horizons of labor organizing beyond the conventional setting of the shop floor.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Verónica Gago here.
Ni Una Menos also inspired the International Women’s Strike (IWS) in 2017, which dovetailed in the United States with the resurgence of mainstream feminist activism following Donald Trump’s election. But while in Latin America, the IWS fed a growing movement that has subsequently launched mass protests against debt-fueling international monetary policy and austerity, the IWS in the United States was an isolated event with a disappointing turnout and negligible consequences. The contrast suggests that by linking women’s oppression to the broader erosion of social support under neoliberalism — rather than a narrow partisan agenda or a liberal demand for professional representation — US feminists might actually broaden their mass appeal.
Listening to Gago, I wondered if the pandemic might provide such an opportunity. While liberal feminists in the United States have occasionally lamented the pandemic’s consequences for women’s career opportunities, left feminists here might take a cue from Ni Una Menos to link increased care burdens for women to the state’s ongoing efforts to make private households responsible for collective health risks in the form of climate hazards, chronic disease, and occuupational dangers. Rather than simply attributing women’s pandemic woes to inequitable distributions of labor within the household, feminists taking aim at the neoliberal state might find common cause with existing pandemic campaigns against evictions, unsafe workplaces, and incarceration.
The feminist strike, as Gago envisions it, is a means of uniting community members in a shared process of both hardship and care. In Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, that strike has been used to connect violence against women to the seizure of indigenous land and the imposition of household debt; elsewhere, that could mean connecting the demands of waged workers to those of welfare recipients or the victims of climate disasters. The key to building a feminism of the masses might be identifying gender as a cornerstone of today’s capitalist order.
Gago discusses these subjects and more at length in her two books Feminist International: How to Change Everything and Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economics. Other excellent works using feminist analysis to examine the nature of labor and value under neoliberalism include Kathi Weeks’s The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries and Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (you can also listen to her discuss it on The Dig).
Check out previous episodes of The Dig, as well, for a discussion of feminism and labor in Chile with Alondra Carrillo and Pablo Abufom, and a conversation with Silvia Federici on her classic work Caliban and the Witch.
Newsletter #17: The Maladies of Colonial Capitalism, with Raj Patel and Rupa Marya
By Mack Penner
As The Dig’s interview with Raj Patel and Rupa Marya makes clear, there are countless ways capitalism and colonialism are detrimental to human health. Accordingly, the interview and the book on which it is based, Patel and Marya’s Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, is many things at once: a history of health regimes and food systems under capitalism, a critique of the modern medical system, and an argument for decolonized medicine, to mention a few.
Listening to the interview, I was thinking about the relationship between Patel and Marya’s arguments and the history of Canada. One of the key ideas in the interview is the notion that health is related to our “exposome,” or the totality of our encounters with the world around us and the histories and structural logics that make our world what it is. As Marya explains in the interview, trauma is one of the most damaging aspects of the exposome, especially because it is transmitted across generations. The history of the Canadian settler colony, particularly its ongoing brutalization of its indigenous population, stands as evidence.
On this point, a couple of recent works on Canadian colonialism and the health of indigenous peoples come to mind. In Clearing the Plain: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life, a widely noted and awarded work first published in 2014, James Daschuk explains the awful contemporary disparities in health outcomes between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous Canadians. To do this, Daschuk scans a period of centuries in which dispossession, disease, and famine, brought by settlers and its state agents, combined to impose and entrench ill health in indigenous communities.
The book is perhaps best known for the evidence it marshals to show that, in nineteenth-century western Canada, starvation was an intentionally imposed state policy used as a method of control to aid in settlement and the imposition of market capitalism in that region. It is common to acknowledge that Canadian settler colonialism entailed a form of “cultural genocide.” In fact, the qualifier is misleading. This history helps us understand the intergenerational toxicity of settler-colonial exposomes.
Further Reading and Listening
For Dig listeners interested in exploring these questions further, Daschuk’s book would be well-complemented by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry’s Structures of Indifference: An Indigenous Life and Death in a Canadian City, which is focused on the city of Winnipeg and the thirty-four hour period in 2008 during which Brian Sinclair, a non-status Anishinaabe man, was left neglected and untreated in an emergency room, eventually dying from a treatable infection. By historicizing Sinclair’s death, McCallum and Perry show how “structures of indifference” are core to the settler-colonial exposome and its very real, everyday effects in contemporary Canada.
Listeners with access might be interested in the article “Colonial Extractions: Oral Health Care and Indigenous Peoples in Canada, 1945-79” by historians Catherine Carstairs and Ian Mosby.
On the matter of capitalism and health care, Gabriel Winant’s recent episode is a must. From further back in the archive, you might want to revisit Leo Beletsky’s interview on the opioid crisis (also a brutal feature of the settler-colonial exposome in Canada).
Newsletter #16: The Real Story of What’s Happening in Ukraine, with Volodymyr Ishchenko
by William Harris
You could be forgiven for being confused about what’s happening in Ukraine. On the one hand, unless you have an admirable ability to tune out the mainstream US press, you have heard that Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed troops somewhere in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border, and that a Russian invasion is now imminent. On the other hand, if you have been able to escape the insular punditry of these media narratives, you have perhaps heard the Ukrainian president say not only that war is not imminent, but also that the Biden administration should stop needlessly inciting tension and hysteria.
What is happening? What motivates the Biden administration to inflate the likelihood of war? What motivates Putin to escalate conflict with Ukraine? And what, amid all this trumped-up war talk, do Ukraine’s own very different and competing political constituencies want?
This week’s Dig episode features Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, a brilliant analyst of social movements, revolutions, and the crises of the post-Soviet world, who contextualizes all these questions and more by placing the current conflict in a long history that reaches back to World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 2014 Maidan Revolution.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Volodymyr Ishchenko here.
In 2014, Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych reneged at the last minute on a free-trade agreement with the European Union, accepting instead a different agreement with Russia. Small crowds protested in Kiev’s main square, or “maidan.” In a strange episode still shrouded in mystery — did Yanukovvych order it? was it a false flag? — the crowds were violently dispersed, a needless act of aggression that swelled the protests and eventually led to revolution.
In the ensuing years, Ukrainian politics have grown sharply polarized between a liberal and nationalist camp, boasting an uneasy alliance of West-looking neoliberals and far-right extremists; and a Russia-aligned camp that plays up Ukraine’s deep cultural, linguistic, and economic ties to the massive power to its north and east.
Yet as Ishchenko argues, this culturally inflected, identitarian hyper-polarization — spurred along by large influxes of US military aid on the one hand and Putin’s propaganda machine on the other — leaves out the vast majority of Ukrainians, who remain depoliticized, culturally bound to both Russia and Ukrainian nationalism, and faced with the economic pressures of life in a poor country that has greatly accelerated neoliberal austerity since 2014.
Ishchenko argues the Left has room to break out of this impasse — though for reasons of leftist historical fragility, all that currently appears on the horizon is depoliticization and polarization on the domestic front, and saber-rattling and propaganda internationally.
Further Reading and Listening
For more in-depth analysis of Ukraine, Putin, and the West, check out Perry Anderson’s masterful overview of Putin’s Russia in New Left Review, as well as n+1’s 2016 supplement on Ukraine, introduced here by Keith Gessen and featuring Tony Wood on neoliberal shock therapy, Sophie Pinkham on de-Communization, and Nina Potarskaya on the Ukrainian Left, among others.
For more Dig listening, revisit our interview with Tony Wood on the West’s obsession with and miscomprehension of Putin.
Newsletter #15: Joe Biden Has Failed in His Fight Against Coronavirus, with Justin Feldman
by Benjamin Feldman
Last January, Joe Biden entered office promising to win the war against coronavirus. Four months later, Center for Disease Control director Rachelle Wolensky announced that vaccinated Americans could take off their masks, and on July 4, Biden declared something like victory over the pandemic, telling the nation that “while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, … it no longer controls our lives, it no longer paralyzes our nation, and it’s within our power to make sure it never does so again.” In the months since that victory speech, tens of millions of Americans have been infected with the virus, and more than 250,000 have died.
Though the extent of Delta’s pathogenicity or Omicron’s immune evasiveness were not predicted, epidemiologists have long insisted that until the rest of the world is vaccinated, new variants will keep coming. Why, then, was the Biden administration so unprepared? And why have they barely deviated from a vaccine-only response, which, though it may have made sense in January 2021, has been wholly inadequate to January 2022?
These are the questions that social epidemiologist Justin Feldman tackles in his recent overview of Biden’s pandemic response and in his conversation with The Dig.
Feldman argues that, led by Jeffrey Zients — a consultant who helped the Obama administration “streamline processes [and] cut costs,” in between stints on the boards of Sirius XM and Facebook — the White House bet on avoiding politically risky non-pharmaceutical interventions — contact tracing, mass testing, temporary closures of non-essential businesses, and any policy that would irk business by impeding proftimaking — and keep the economy humming while we marched toward herd immunity. Though they lost this bet, the administration has largely refused to reverse course, even as infections soared above 800,000 each day.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Justin Feldman here.
Rather than using state resources to fight and minimize infections, Biden has treated the socialized risks of life in a pandemic as matters of personal responsibility, and the administration has taken to lashing out at those it sees as standing in the way of a return to normalcy. Teachers are demonized for not wanting to return to schools, despite those schools being transformed into little more than holding pens for both sick and not-yet-sick children so their parents can get back to work. Those who have yet to get their first shot are treated as an undifferentiated mass of intransigent MAGA supporters — even though, Feldman writes, “the unvaccinated are largely low-income, uninsured, pregnant, incarcerated, and children” (to say nothing of the immunocompromised for whom vaccination provides insufficient protection).
By dragging their feet on distributing masks, undermining rapid tests, failing to provide better air filtration, and telling people to return to work while still potentially infectious, the administration has contributed mightily to the chaos and suffering of the last few weeks. As Feldman makes clear, these failures were not inevitable and must not be treated as such. They are failures of a Democratic administration’s policy and personnel, of individual people unable to learn from their mistakes and unwilling to prioritize people over profits.
There’s no shortage of pandemic coverage out there, of course. But you can read Feldman’s recent Medium post here. For more on the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic, check out Astra Taylor and Achal Prabhala’s discussion on vaccine apartheid.
Newsletter #14: Building Left Power in Disorienting Times, with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown
by William Harris
What sort of times are we living through? As legal scholar Aziz Rana puts it in a blockbuster new Dig interview that also features fellow Dig superguests Nikhil Pal Singh, a historian, and Wendy Brown, a political philosopher, we live in a moment “consumed by history.” Nostalgia suffuses our politics. Myths of a vanished world of white, male breadwinners benignly lording over devout nuclear families propel an ever-zanier series of endless culture wars. “Critical Race Theory,” trans people using bathrooms, the politics of mask-wearing and vaccine mandates — the Right has become incredibly adept at politicizing manufactured controversies to strip away or capture the institutions of representative democracy, from local school boards to the Supreme Court, the gerrymandering of electoral districts to draconian voter ID laws.
These particular culture wars are at once, as Singh reminds us, “ruptural,” or genuinely new political phenomena, and “continuous,” part of a long American postwar story. With this in mind, our guests try to figure out how exactly to conceive of our moment. Does the Right have a positive political project, or is it now merely destructive? How should the Left respond to a disorienting culture war terrain in which the stage seems always set by the Right? And in a time of ecological devastation, US imperial decadence, and democratic erosion, the age-old question still presents itself: how can the Left build power?
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Aziz Rana, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Wendy Brown here.
Building Left institutional power requires taking stock of the existing institutional landscape. Our guests map the major institutions within the broad left-of-center field and debate which ones, if any, might allow us to push forward socialist politics. Real disagreements arise — over how much primacy to afford the labor movement, and over how the Left can organize the unorganized — and we end up without “easy answers,” as Singh wrote on Twitter. But two takeaways stand out.
We come away with a rare synthetic view of the present, equally attendant to the longue durée of neoliberalism and the insane rush of the day’s news cycle. We come away, too, with a rare sense of hope. We live in a time “consumed by history,” to quote Rana again, when the “past order has broken down, and yet we don’t really have an idea of what’s going to come next.” This can open the door to useless and even reactionary nostalgia, but it can also invite us to learn anew from the dreams and achievements of past Left movements — and to feel our own time, despite its bleakness, as up for grabs.
Two recent essays discuss complementary issues. As Dan references in the interview, a new New York Times essay by Corey Robin analyzes why Biden’s presidency has left us with “a sense of stuckness . . . that no amount of social spending or policy innovation can seem to dislodge.” At Tribune, Anton Jäger explores how we traveled from the post-political years of neoliberalism’s heyday to a new age of “hyper-politics,” in which everything is politicized but very little leads to political organization.
For related Dig listening, check out Wendy Brown’s interview on her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism and Nikhil Pal Singh and Joe Lowndes’s debate on the US right.
Newsletter #13: A Path Forward for Workers in Rust Belt America, with Gabriel Winant
by Benjamin Feldman
Between the recognition of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1937 and their 116-day strike in 1959, Pittsburgh’s steelworkers fought for — and won — health and disability insurance, pensions, consistent wage increases, and a slice of decency and dignity on the job. Sixty years later, steel is only Pittsburgh’s sixteenth largest employer, and roughly one out of every five workers in the Steel City works in health care or social assistance.
That service work has eclipsed manufacturing across the Rust Belt is well-understood. Less understood is the argument at the center of Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America: that the industrial economy created the care economy. Reconstructing the “social world” that Pittsburgh steel made, Winant shows that “as the industrial basis of this world began to collapse, its inhabitants … drew on the resources they had, embedded in the relationships and identities they had already built. …Their world was melted down and recast,” Winant writes, “but it was still made from the same materials.”
Pittsburgh’s economy was built and maintained through a series of compromises, which temporarily defended the economic citizenship of a mostly white and male cohort of union workers in part (but only in part) through the exclusion of large numbers of women and African Americans. Winant shows that, as manufacturing crumbled, these excluded workers found jobs in the area’s rapidly expanding network of hospitals and nursing homes — an expansion made possible by financialization and necessitated by the increasing health care needs of a mid-century labor force prematurely aged by the ravages of a lifetime in the mills. The low wages paid to this mostly non-union, and disproportionately Black and female, workforce have led to Pittsburgh having one of the highest African-American poverty rates in the United States.
Beyond untangling the roots of the increasingly precarious, contingent, and uncertain economy of the twenty-first century, Winant suggests a possible path forward — one that does not rely on nostalgia for the mid-twentieth century’s industrial labor force. Instead, Winant offers a vision of a shared politics wherein both those receiving care and the essential workers providing that care unite in struggle for a more inclusive social citizenship.
Winant has written on the relationships between labor, political economy, and care work in the age of COVID for n+1, and The Intercept. You can hear him discussing these and related essays on The Dig.
For a deeper investigation into the Strike of 1959, see “Conflict and Consensus: The Steel Strike of 1959 and the Anatomy of the New Deal Order,” written by Winant and historians Kristoffer Smemo and Samir Sonti. Both this article and The Next Shift draw on Jack Metzger’s classic memoir Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered. Serving as guest host for The Dig, Winant recently interviewed Alex Press, Jonah Furman, and Victor P. Bouzi here on the upsurge in labor militancy during the fall and winter of 2020.
Newsletter #12: Money Is Inherently Political, with Stefan Eich
By Mack Penner
For the truest believers, cryptocurrency promises utopia. Following Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto, their central claim is that decentralized currency beyond the control of states and banks promises a utopian economic life beyond politics. This is, of course, entirely false — and not just in the sense that crypto actually functions as yet another instrument for financial speculation.
The anti-political utopian claims made on behalf of cryptocurrency, political theorist Stefan Eich argues, are rhetorical cover for what is ultimately just a recent episode in a long history of ideological battles over money, which is always political.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Stefan Eich here.
Contemporary debates over crypto can be traced back, at least, to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. Bretton Woods was a system of international monetary arrangements and financial regulations that included stringent capital controls and “fixed but flexible” exchange rates where currencies were pegged to the dollar and the dollar was tied to gold. This system effectively ceased to function in 1971 and formally ended in 1973 as a result of the inflation crisis. To tame that crisis, Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker jacked interest rates sky high — a shift that, among other things, helped break the power of American unions and usher in decades’ worth of skyrocketing inequality. The “moderate” fiscal policy ushered in by Volcker lasted until the 2008 financial crisis. Within weeks of the crash, Nakamoto published the initial proposal for Bitcoin.
Between the end of Bretton Woods and 2008, intense political battles over money played out. As a precursor to crypto, Eich focuses on the proposals of neoliberal paragon Friedrich Hayek for a “denationalized” private money that would liberate money markets from the influence of states. The monetary policies that emerged after Bretton Woods, influenced by thinkers like Hayek, clearly worked in the interests of wealthy capitalist states at the forefront of neoliberalism; structural adjustment programs imposed on poorer countries by the International Monetary Fund, which made loans conditional upon their implementing neoliberal policies, proved devastating.
Leftists today should recognize the interests that are served by schemes for anti-political money, to effectively counter them. In rejecting cryptocurrency, we have an opportunity to confront the deeply unjust post-Bretton Woods order — and build a left politics of democratic money.
Eich’s interview is the second in a two-part series on cryptocurrency. Listen to the first episode in the series, with Edward Ongweso, Jr. and Jacob Silverman, here.
The book chapter on which Eich’s interview is based can be read here. The collection it appears in, Regulating Blockchain, is published by The Dig sponsor Oxford University Press. Eich’s book, The Currency of Politics, will be out in 2022.
Historian Tim Barker’s interview on inflation is excellent accompanying listening, as are past interviews with Adom Getachew (whose book Worldmaking After Empire comes up in Eich’s interview) and Quinn Slobodian. Also mentioned in the interview is Greta Krippner’s Capitalizing on Crisis, the best book out there on the relationship between the crises of the 1970s and the rise of financialization.
For an expansive resource on all things crypto, check out the Crypto Syllabus. For a brief primer on the myriad problems with crypto-politics, read this entry in Adam Tooze’s Chartbook. Finally, in the spirit of knowing the enemy, Friedrich Hayek’s Denationalisation of Money is available from (shudder) the Mises Institute.
Newsletter #11: The False Promises of Cryptocurrency with Edward Ongweso, Jr. and Jacob Silverman
Newsletter #10: How Neoliberalism Creates Right-Wing Reaction, with Rodrigo Nunes
By Mack Penner
As far-right movements have proliferated across the globe, often on the strength of popular support significant enough to win elections, the relationship between neoliberalism and the politics of reaction has become an urgent problem for the Left. Decades of neoliberal governance, deeply undemocratic in their own right, have helped create an openly anti-democratic politics that is often hateful and violent.
The second of back-to-back episodes on Brazil (you can listen to the first, with historian Andre Pagliarini and sociologist Sabrina Fernandes, here), The Dig’s interview with Rodrigo Nunes takes the politics of Bolsonarismo as a case study for assessing these developments. In a pair of essays published last year, Nunes argues that core to neoliberalism’s creation of widespread right-wing reaction is a kind of “denialism.”
While neoliberalism has created increasing political and economic dissatisfaction among large groups of people, that dissatisfaction has not exclusively or even primarily led to the emergence of a new anti-capitalist common sense around which left movements can readily mobilize. Instead, politicians like Jair Bolsonaro and other reactionary populists have capitalized on popular discontent and directed it towards reactionary ends.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Rodrigo Nunes here.
The denialist sword is double-edged: people in an unconscious denial about the causes of their problems become eager consumers of conscious denial, happily supplied by reactionaries like Bolsonaro. As Nunes puts it at the conclusion of an essay in Radical Philosophy, denialism “seals an alliance between those gearing up for surviving in worsening conditions and an elite increasingly at ease with the idea that ‘the earth no longer has enough room for them and for everyone else.’”
Nunes’s interview with The Dig is the latest entry in a series of episodes about neoliberalism, democracy, and the social politics of the Right. Previously, political theorist Wendy Brown has discussed her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, about how neoliberalism has legitimized anti-democratic politics. Historian Quinn Slobodian was interviewed about his book Globalists, which traces the fear of democracy through the intellectual history of neoliberalism. And in a classic episode, sociologist Melinda Cooper talks about her book Family Values, on the symbiotic relationship between neoliberals and social conservatives.
If you’d like a general and wide-ranging introduction to the thought and practice of neoliberalism, you can hardly do better than the edited collection The Nine Lives of Neoliberalism, an e-version of which is available for free from Verso.
In addition to the suggestions on Brazil that you can find in Newsletter #9 and the books mentioned above, you might read Aldo Madariaga’s or Daniel Zamora and Niklas Olsen’s recent pieces in Jacobin.
Newsletter #9: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro Is a “Major Threat to Life on the Planet”
By Micah Uetricht
Observing Brazil from the United States, especially during the Trump years, it was hard not to be struck with a sense of déjà vu. Watching populist far-right president Jair Bolsonaro often feels similar to watching former president Donald Trump: the corruption is so unabashed and complete, the incompetence so absurd, leftists often have remind themselves not to be distracted from the actual substance of their governance, a horror show of cruelty and misery that both men have inflicted upon their respective countries and the entire world.
But in Brazil, these horrors have come after some of the greatest advances for the poor and working class that any society on the planet has seen in the past half century or more, carried out under wildly popular Workers Party leader and former (and possibly future) Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In 2011, historian Perry Anderson called Lula “the most successful politician of his time.”
But the series of events that played out in Latin America’s largest country over the next few years were dizzying: Lula’s successor Dilma Roussef was impeached in what many deemed a “constitutional coup”; Bolsonaro won the presidency, producing a cavalcade of anti-working-class, homophobic and misogynist, ecological, and public-health disasters; and Lula was imprisoned for a year and a half on bogus corruption charges, a victim of a supposed anti-corruption campaign that was later revealed to be simply a tool of right-wing political warfare.
Brazil’s politics can be difficult for outsiders to understand. Luckily, for this episode, we have two Brazil scholars as our guides: Andre Pagliarini, a historian at Hampden-Sydney College, columnist at Brazilian Report, and author of a forthcoming book on Brazilian nationalism; and Sabrina Fernandes, a sociologist, postdoctoral fellow at the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies through the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and lead editor for Jacobin Brasil.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Pagliarini and Fernandes here.
Fernandes sums up Bolsonaro’s presidency succinctly: “He’s a major threat to life in the country and, if we consider geopolitical issues and ecological issues, to life on the planet,”
This episode is the first of two Dig episodes on Brazil and Bolsonaro. You can listen to the next episode on Bolsonarismo with Brazilian leftist scholar Rodrigo Nunes here.
Jacobin has covered Brazilian politics and history closely over the years. Subscribers can explore this vast archive here, and everyone can read Sabrina Fernandes’s piece “Bolsonaro Is Criminalizing the Brazilian Left.” If you read Portuguese, you can also examine Jacobin Brasil. Andre Pagliarini’s most recent article for Brazilian Report is “Climate Negotiations With Bolsonaro a Lost Cause.”
For another Dig interview on Brazil, check out this 2018 interview with Alfredo Saad-Filho. And for those in search of a concise introduction to Brazilian history since the 1964 dictatorship, including the rise and fall of Lula and the ascent of Bolsonaro, you can’t do much better than Perry Anderson’s Brazil Apart: 1964-2019.
Newsletter #8: Cuba’s Key Role in Fighting Apartheid in Angola Is All but Forgotten Today
By Michal Schatz
The term “Cold War” is a misnomer. While open conflict never broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union directly in the roughly four decades after World War II, the two superpowers fought bloody proxy wars across the Global South, from Korea and Vietnam to Ethiopia and Southern Africa. Recent scholarship on decolonization in the twentieth century has shown that, contrary to conventional narratives which depict countries like Cuba as pawns working towards the Soviet Union’s ends in the Third World, the reality on the ground was far more complex.
In The Dig’s most recent two-part interview, Piero Gleijeses discusses this complexity in examining Cuba’s role in the Angolan War, based on extensive interviews and archival research he conducted for Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991.
The protracted war in Angola became the key battleground for influence in Southern Africa between the US and the Soviet Union from the mid-1970s until just before the Soviet government’s collapse in 1991. Cuba, too, deployed troops to Angola in 1975 — the country’s largest overseas military deployment in its history — at the invitation of the Angolan government, then controlled by the socialist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). This was not Cuba’s first time supporting revolutionary forces in a decolonizing African country: Cuba had provided support to the Front National de Liberation (FLN) in Algeria in the early 1960s, as well as sent troops to the Congo.
Drawing on sources from US, South African, and Cuban archives, Gleijeses argues that Cuban involvement in these African conflicts was motivated, above all, by a commitment to anti-imperialism, revolutionary internationalism, and, in the case of Angola, what Fidel Castro referred to as “the most beautiful cause”: anti-apartheid.
Listen to The Dig’s two-part interview with Piero Gleijeses here and here. You can also check out these maps as a visual reference.
Having learned from their experience in the Congo, which they entered unprepared in their attempt to support revolutionary forces there, the Cubans understood the political situation in Angola far better than the Soviet Union and frequently disagreed with the Soviets on strategy and action. Gleijeses demonstrates how the Cubans did not make the same mistake again: Cuba played a crucial role in preventing US-backed apartheid South Africa from conquering Angola.
This Dig interview also invites a discussion on socialist internationalism today. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of an international socialist project has waned. Despite periodic outcries against US imperialism, the resurgence of today’s US left has overwhelmingly focused on domestic politics. Gleijeses’s work asks some key questions for today’s leftists: What should a global socialist movement look like? And what types of material commitments and sacrifices might it take from those of us in the heart of empire?
Cuba’s history and present are often wildly misrepresented in US popular media. For an accessible overview of Cuban history, read this interview with historian Antoni Kapcia or listen to it here. While Gleijeses’ book Visions of Freedom focuses specifically on Cuba’s foreign policy in relation to Angola, his previous book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, tells the story of the country’s revolutionary internationalism in the first fifteen years after the revolution. To learn more about imperialism and foreign policy, past and present, check out The Dig’s vast interview archives
Newsletter #7: The Immense Possibilities at the Heart of Our Past and Present, with David Wengrow
Newsletter #6: US Workers Are Pissed Off and Striking Back
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.
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 Future — and 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.
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
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.
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.
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.