Security Politics, Anti-Capitalism, Student Activists, and the Left

I gave a lengthy interview to Margins, a progressive student magazine at Yale. We talked a lot about a lot of things.

We talked about the increasing securitization—terrible word, I know—of politics. But, as I said, what I think is most significant about that trend is the growing opposition to it. Compared to what was going on in the 90s, or the aughts, the movements on the ground against the security state are tremendous. The only question is: can they build and last? We’ve seen lots of blips of movements in the last 15 years: against the WTO, the Iraq War, Wall Street, debt, and now the police. Their half-lives seem to be getting shorter and shorter. In part because we’ve yet to devise an organizational form that can withstand the forces that are arrayed against the left. But, I conclude:

I also think social movements go through a learning process, and it may very well just take a while for people on the Left to begin to work through some of these issues. And you have to have some patience for that process, and not just think you can recreate a party structure or a this or a that, whatever may have worked 50 to 100 years ago, but you have to also have a certain amount of confidence or faith that people will figure out some kind of an organizational model or apparatus that can do that and can survive. This way, I hope some of what we see the national security state doing becomes a salutary lesson to people that really are serious about transforming this culture, and this economy, and this politics. If you really are serious about that, and if you really believe that there is a ruling class that is determined to stop you or at least to hold on to its power, well, you’re going to have to come up with forms of counterpower that can resist and ultimately overturn that. This came up, I remember, during the discussions after Occupy, people brought up, ‘Well, look, the state smashed it, and that’s what happened.’ And that’s true, but the state has always tried to do that, and it has oftentimes done it far more viciously and violently than it did, so you kind of have to accept that that’s part of the political reality that you need to figure out a way of overcoming.

We also talked about anti-capitalism and the left, and the impact that the collapse of communism had on the left:

Even though the Left has been many different things, the 20th century left was overwhelmingly dominated by this idea of the transformation of social relations under capitalism. That idea was a very much in bad odor in the 1990s, and it affected lots of different kinds of Lefts, because the whole idea of political transformation, the whole idea of political agency, and being able to intervene in social relations, became suspect, so you had much much more quietistic models of politics, and anybody who identified as an activist, or thought of themselves as on the Left, was automatically suspect.

We talked about solidarity, about taking local grievances and making them universal:

A whole philosophy of the Left—and I don’t mean just unions or people who are socialists, I mean, just generally, the whole philosophy of solidarity and what the Left stands for—is that you take a particular grievance and ultimately, through a process of political action, you come to see in that grievance a whole world of systemic injustice and inequality that needs to be taken on and overthrown. And then, when the Left is really doing its job, it’s enabling local citizens and local activists and actors to see the world in that grain of sand, to use a little Blake metaphor, and that’s when the Left is doing what it’s supposed to be doing: it’s getting people to act on their particular grievance or sense of injustice or whatever it may be, and to begin to see a wider pattern in it that needs to be taken on—and slowly but surely people start looking at a broader systemic problem in society and begin to understand their own situation in those terms. That’s what political transformation is all about.

And we talked about student activism:

Well, I was never big on the whole idea of student activists. In fact, I think that’s what kept me away from being involved in campus politics for a long time, but I think because the situation of students has actually changed so dramatically—I just think this debt issue is so foundational—if we use it as an opportunity and see it as an opening, I think students are very well-positioned, both because of the debt that they have accrued and because of the kind of economic opportunities or lack thereof that they’re facing, to start mounting mass movements around this issue. Trotsky was 25, and he led the St. Petersburg Soviet in the 1905 revolution. Martin Luther King was maybe 27 when he led the Montgomery Bus boycott. All these people, were extraordinarily young, so when you have that history on the one hand, and then the fact that students are really in the crux of all the economic transformations that we’re talking about in terms of the increasing assumption of debt, the privatization of public education, and then the disaster of an economy that they are facing, well, that’s an opportunity. I talked to somebody the other day, who was applying to graduate school, and he works as a freelancer, but he temps, doing word-processing at that age. So I said, “What do you get paid?” And he said, “You know, 15 to 16 dollars an hour,” and this is in New York City. I thought, when I graduated college in 1989, I moved out to the Bay Area for a year, and I was temping, I made 15 dollars an hour. So that tells me there’s been such an economic constriction that I do think students are very well placed to take a leadership role on some of these foundational issues of our time.


  1. graccibros August 28, 2015 at 5:43 pm | #

    I wish us all good luck in the work Corey describes. I happen to be in the home stretch of “The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973,” by Mark Greif and he’s been capturing the implications of the dissolution of “universal Man,” by early feminists (person, humankind, he/she), “The Man” by black militants, and by gay men “what does manliness mean”? I had earlier in the day been talking “across the fence” with an evangelical minister neighbor and we were speaking of the great difficulty in “translating” across the many islands and archipelagos of present day American culture, and just now I had been thinking, before reading your posting, also in very contemporary tension terms within the Democratic Party: blacks, Hispanics, women, lgbts, enviros, labor (and Wall Street/health insurers/green entrepreneurs/Silicon Valley)…who may or may not agree on the same candidate, but that’s only the beginning…can they agree on a common agenda? And many still debating the class/race divides, as I see in some good “Jacobin” articles…

    I was also thinking back to Christopher Benfey’s review of Greif’s book – “The Case of the Skeptical Pragmatist” (in the NYRBooks) and his very penetrating observation that before we got to the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, and the twin totalitarianisms, atomic weapons, ostensibly the triggers for the the post World War II “crisis of man,” the West faced 1929 and the Great Depression… it suggests the primacy of economic trauma in uniting the fragments I just listed; but ask yourself, honestly as you have encountered various representatives of each group, and Bernie Sanders recent stage tribulations…can the economic conditions serve as the unifying force? Even as we blend them in a green New Deal…one coat no longer covers…(if Mr. Ellison will forgive me).

  2. gstally August 28, 2015 at 9:47 pm | #

    “I was young , hotblooded, sincere, but not stupid; I loved, hated, believed, worked as hard and hoped as much as ten people. I charged against windmills, beat my head against alls. I did ot measure my strength, did not pause and consider. not knowing life, I assumed at once a burden so heavy that it crippled my back and my sinews. But this is how the life with which I fought takes revenge. After thirty years, already a hangover; I am old , I have put on my housecoat.” – Anton Chekhov

    Don’t you dare think about, not that you were saying, putting on that damn housecoat yet! What kind of example to the Academic republic, let alone the American one, would you make? Again, not saying you, or others, are making any such statement. As usual loved the essay.

    • gstally August 28, 2015 at 9:48 pm | #

      typed that al up myself, obviously 🙁

      • gstally August 28, 2015 at 10:00 pm | #

        and good job too

  3. graccibros August 28, 2015 at 10:41 pm | #

    Two follow up thoughts. First, that the two greatest “universals” within reach of the left are the enactment of part or all of FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” from 1944, the first of which is a right to a job; and protection of the common environment, not just stopping global warming but cleaning up the mess humankind has created so far in our “pursuits.” I think this is an eminently reasonable conclusion; at the same time, it’s pretty clear to me that it would not answer the most important issues facing good parts of the six major “movements” which make up the Democratic Party. (Leaving the business interests inside the party aside for the moment.), Black Lives Matter and “Immigration” (for Hispanics) being two examples which don’t quite fit…

    I also asked myself, wondered aloud, if there were a great American muralist, like Diego Rivera, commissioned to represent in a grand unifying mural all the six great branches of the Democratic left, how would he/she go about it? Have a “Pantheon” of great historical figures from each movement ranked like Greek gods on a temple pediment, descending in importance, in each direction out from the center? Or something much less hierarchical, but what, how would anyone portray the movement, common themes…origin and future direction? Perhaps someone has already done it, but if so, it’s a secret kept from me…and maybe it is stating something to note no one inside art has undertaken it…a Hegalian task, if there ever was one, to synthesize…these elements. And in some sense, the flow of Greif’s book, 1933-1973 is trying to explain why no one tries anymore. At least the reviewer, at the conclusion, puts the question of climate to Greif; is that just another “naïve universalism?” If it is, if that cannot be a common denominator for action, what can be? Right to a job? Neither the lands sending immigrants to the West, Europe, not just the US, nor the receiving countries, dare frame it up in the way I am here, a universalism condemnation of neoliberalism’s failure to supply enough work…and vastly skewing the rewards within those lucky enough to have a drawn a winning ticket in the “job lottery.”

    • Graham Clark August 30, 2015 at 11:19 am | #

      Michael Lind imagined that mural in detail about 20 years ago, albeit to damn it:

    • Bill Wolfe (@WolfeNotes) August 30, 2015 at 4:14 pm | #

      That Grand mural would provide numerous panels of everyday life, unfold historically, have no center or origin, and wrap around a central place with a spire to the sky.

      That mural exists, and can be found in Coit Tower in San Francisco.

      • Bill Wolfe (@WolfeNotes) August 30, 2015 at 4:15 pm | #

        meant to emphasize a central PUBLIC space.

      • graccibros August 30, 2015 at 5:15 pm | #

        Mr. Wolfe:

        Well, that’s the one and only nomination, one I had forgotten, in checking, Googling it now sounds vaguely familiar but how often does it surface in even the art world?

        Maybe the nominations have to be held open until the NY Art “World,” of course, the “deciders” from the museums, return from their vacations…which will be when, this Tuesday, or 8th of September, the day after official “Labor Day”…?

        I did check in with Barbara Haskell’s Volume I, “The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-1950, and didn’t find a reference in the Index, nor in re-thumbing the “America in Crisis Chapter.” (1930-1939).. This volume, which I hesitate just short of calling “definitive,” was, after all, “organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art & Presented by Intel Corporation.”

        Let’s wait for the “return” before making the call, which can only be done by those who live within New York City.

  4. graccibros August 30, 2015 at 11:49 am | #


    thanks for that on target note and reference; I notice Lind mentions the “Rainbow” coalition, and I had thought of the same reality, and the flag, but that really reflects multiculturalism, doesn’t it, and is too abstract and generalized to get at all the causes and issues represented by the components of the left I’ve mentioned.

    Let me toss this out for you. I just sent a note to a friend who had asked me for a “reading list,” and I sent her Chris Hedges’ and some of the literary criticisms written by Morris Dickstein, so that she could pick and choose from the whole range of his writing, which covers so much of American literature since the 1930’s. And manages to keep the broader intellectual and political landscape in the picture without sacrificing depth in covering the “works” themselves. And then I remembered: how could I have left out Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”? In refreshing my memory of how he came to write the book in the first place, (and Wikipedia’s does a pretty good job here) Bradbury recalls being stopped late one night as a solitary walker by a police car, giving a sarcastic answer to what he was doing (“putting one foot in front of the other”); he also recounted in LA encountering a couple walking with the woman (this was the 1950’s) with an early transistor radio and earplug – making her oblivious to her husband and other pedestrians…

    Combined, it made me think of an early version of police encounters with “the others” and the coming distractions which may now stand in the way of building any sturdy new solidarity or “universalisms.”

    And isn’t the “task” of recommending books – a list – a fraught task today…bricks will be coming your way from six different directions…

    I’m having enough trouble writing my next essay on the great difficulty that economics has in integrating ecological thought into it’s texts, policy analysis…into the very interior methods of its workings (see Richard Smith’s great challenge to orthodoxy, “Green Capitalism: The God that Failed”…and listen carefully to all the current ruminating on the causes of the China troubles and stock markets swooning over the past 10 days, and damned if I could find anyone mentioning global warming and the terrible environmental conditions in China…a China which, it seems to me, has exhausted all the conventional Keynesian options of road, rail and housing “stimulus,” but not taking head on all their fantastic environmental destructiveness…and it’s not as if they can’t afford it, they can if anyone could…the Greek left also apparently had no Green “go it alone” strategy for leaving the Eurozone…despite the terrible realities of where the Greeks get their old fossil fuels and the promise of sun, wind and ocean current all around them…

    Look at the trouble I’ve run into in just trying to integrate two components of a logical left…

  5. graccibros August 30, 2015 at 2:39 pm | #

    I know it’s late August, readers, but I don’t have vacations anymore, so please indulge me a bit. I mentioned I was in the home stretches of M. Greif’s “The Age of the Crisis of Man,” so please chew over the relevance of this passage for what we are discussing above, from its last chapter, ‘Universal Philosophy and Antihumanist Theory’:

    “Levi-Straussian structuralism championed difference and differentiation as a structuring principle of thought and expression, but also praised it and valued its preservation socially, in the separate ethnographic constitution of difference as cultural ‘diversity,’ esteemed as the very core of human value. The relevant universality in structuralism is difference. Finally, the critique of ethnocentrism as a premier obstacle to true critical and humane thought gave strength to many of structuralism’s American heirs: the anticentricisms (logocentrism, phallogocentrism), and the estranging maneuvers of anti-neocolonial and postcolonial critique. Levi-Strauss helped restore the interpretation of symbols to the human sciences, along with cultural relativism.”

    In addition to a lot of relevant content just in this passage, I think it is also a pretty good summary of what readers face if they venture into Greif’s work: at times it is lucid even through the most difficult subject matter, is quite good in fidelity to the nuances across a wide range of tough American literature (especially I enjoyed his Chapter on Thomas Pynchon and Technology), but there are times when it is thoroughly bogged down in academic jargon.

    That paragraph which I quoted is not a bad summary of some of the most important intellectual history leading up to the fragmentation of the left into the components I cited, and how hard it will be to construct new satisfactory “universalisms.”

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