EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO, Spectre launched in the early days of a global pandemic. Little could we anticipate the convulsions it would wreak.
“Capitalism is the virus,” insisted placards, graffiti, and T-shirts as Covid–19 raged across the globe. That pandemic is, of course, a metonym for capitalism, the system which helped birth it and which drives its pell-mell proliferation through networks of differentiated suffering.
Existing imperial histories undergird this uneven global distribution of suffering. A single example encapsulates this imperial order. A year into the pandemic, the Wall Street Journal praised Israel for having the “world’s fastest coronavirus vaccine rollout to date.”11. Felicia Schwartz and Yaroslav Trofimov, “How Israel Delivered the World’s Fastest Vaccine Rollout,” Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2021. The news outlet conveniently elided the Israeli state’s refusal to vaccinate five million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Flaunting its apartheid regime, only those Palestinians who might come into physical contact with Israelis—the Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, and Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel or the illegal settlements—were given access to vaccines.
Israeli apartheid symbolizes a generalized imperial violence that marks the system as a whole. Almost half of all vaccine shots have gone to just sixteen rich countries, while countries of the Global South—Haiti, India, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, to name but a few—have seen the virus cut vast swathes of death and destruction. Across Africa, nearly 21 percent of the population is undernourished—double any other region of the world. This is not a map of chance and coincidence. It reflects the geography of race, class, and empire in late capitalism.
In the US, where a rush to reopen promises to deepen the gulf in outcomes, 34 percent of Covid deaths occurred among Black people, even though they comprise only 12 percent of the total population. But while Black and Latinx communities were hardest hit by the virus, they have also been left behind in the vaccination efforts. As of this writing, fewer than half of US states have vaccinated more than a third of their Black populations.22. “US Racial Violence Gaps are Bigger than We Thought: Covid–19 Tracker,” Bloomberg, September 16, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/us-vaccine-demographics.html. These disparities did not germinate during the pandemic. They merely express much deeper, longer-term processes of social organization. In the US, communities of color are systematically denied access to medical care, endure greater health disparities, and shoulder the disproportionate burden of being frontline workers hard-pressed to take time off for side effects from the vaccine.
Left Containment, Receding Struggle
Just when working class resistance is most needed, the rising tide of struggle following the global crisis in 2008—from the movements of the squares, including Occupy Wall Street, through the resurgence of an organized left and into the 2020 antiracist rebellions—appears to be receding. It is of course premature to reach any definitive assessment, but containment seems to be the watchword of the moment. As Spectre has argued many times, an overinvestment in electoral politics by large sections of the Left has severely constrained our movement-building capacities.
In the US, the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) appears to have stalled, with the organization too often floundering in the aftermath of the second defeat of Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many insist that the electoral route is key to mobilizing the American masses, and while it is clear that the Sanders campaign radicalized quite a few, it did so in a very particular way. Supporters were sent to the ballot box, not into the streets, and activists of the campaign were trained in getting the vote out, not in the arts of organizing unions, building mass marches, or launching housing occupations. The resultant political horizons and organizing skills are decidedly narrow.
The Sanders radicalization was articulated through the Democratic Party, where the demands that went beyond getting the candidate elected—Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—were disconnected from mass movement building outside the electoral arena. Without a viable strategy for struggle, the DSA appears to be adrift. We take no pleasure in seeing the stagnation of the largest organized formation of the US left in decades, and certainly there are still plenty of DSA members doing valuable political work. But the demobilization following Biden’s election is all too evident.
A similar argument might be made about the Left in Britain following the defeat which led to the removal of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. While center-right Democrats in the US are quick to tar the social democratic wing of their party, this pales in comparison to the persistent assault on Labour’s left wing by Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer. With the independent left in tatters and the Labour Party defaulting to a bland neoliberalism in the image of Tony Blair, the task of reconstituting a fighting left has become challenging in the extreme.
These dilemmas are starkly posed in South Africa, where the African National Congress remains the only electorally viable party of the Left at the national scale, and its politics have assumed an idiosyncratic form: the party’s neoliberal and patrimonialist wings are locked in irresolvable struggle, with President Cyril Ramaphosa and former President Jacob Zuma as their patron saints. Masses took to the streets in July, above all in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, but these were no ordinary protests. Following the jailing of Zuma for refusing to testify at his own corruption trial, his supporters looted hundreds of malls, burned cars, and attacked passersby, as the violence frequently assumed an ethno-nationalist and racialized form. All said and done, nearly three hundred and fifty people lay dead, making this the worst violence the country has experienced since the end of apartheid in 1994. Parties and organizations further to the left remained irrelevant to the current moment, or else, like the third largest party in Parliament (the self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist-Fanonians in the Economic Freedom Fighters), they were incapable of any strategy beyond fanning the flames.
To be sure, there are glimmers of hope in Latin America, with populist social democrats at the helm in Mexico and Peru, and Workers Party candidate (and former president) Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva poised to defeat the proto-fascist incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s October elections. In Chile, a wave of popular uprisings and mass strikes culminated in victory for a new constitution, as this year’s Constitutional Convention elections put the final nail in the coffin of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, and independent candidates triumphed across the board against old-time party hacks. But these victories are the culmination of years of popular rebellions, feminist and student uprisings, and mass strikes. While intervening on the electoral front, feminist, labor, and student movements in Chile have prioritized mass mobilization and insurgency. In so doing, they have highlighted the limits of electoralism.33. See David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists, and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals,” Spectre 1 (Spring 2020): 12-37. And what is true for Chile also applies to feminist movements in Argentina and Mexico, which have won a number of important victories over the past year—not least the legalization of abortion in Argentina and its decriminalization in Mexico, both Catholic strongholds.
But in much of the rest of the world, things appear far bleaker for the organized left. The Arab Spring’s only success story, Tunisia, has again reverted to authoritarian rule, with Kais Saied suspending parliament, consolidating presidential powers, and extraditing his chief rival from Algeria. The tying of struggles for democratization to this or that leader or electoral campaign was the prevailing form in which left politics were articulated. While the temporary success of left-wing candidates, however much it gave organized left formations a boost, has too often placed their activists in a state of despair and disorientation when electoral politics hit a dead end. It has also rendered left forces susceptible to containment by the state. Considerable popular support for calls to “defund the police” in the US during the most recent Black Lives Matter upsurge has dissipated amid a chorus of denunciations of the demand and boosts to police budgets by Democratic Party officials in city after city.44. J. David Goodman, “A Year After ‘Defund,’ Police Departments Get Their Money Back,” New York Times, October 10, 2021By tying their political prospects to Democratic candidates, the most significant left forces in the US find themselves contained by those very commitments. The problem of containment is discussed in a review of Revolutionary Rehearsals in this issue by Amanda Armstrong-Price.
Too often, the lessons of this cycle of struggle seem to be ignored: as much as an electoral campaign may catapult formerly marginal left groups into the spotlight, the failure of such a campaign inevitably leads to a period of demoralization, which, ultimately, means two steps back. Put another way, the campaign giveth and the campaign taketh away. Meanwhile, the lessons of mass mobilization in Chile, Argentina, Mexico—and indeed in the Spring 2021 uprising in Palestine discussed in this issue by Shireen Akram-Boshar and brian bean—seem to barely register among those setting their course by an electoral compass.
Uprising? What Uprising?
As capitalism continues to reproduce its murderous logic through the pandemic, the US has entered an era of magical hope for the system. Eviction moratoriums are under siege, hospitals are repeatedly being stretched to their limits, and meager unemployment benefits are being wound down despite, or perhaps because of, the number of people refusing to work for a pittance.
Any sustained focus on mitigating further spread of the coronavirus seems politically unpalatable to the powers that be. Schools at every level are reopening—despite the compelling scientific guidance that informed closures a year earlier. Transmission and serious health consequences for younger people are on the rise, meaning those with intergenerational housing arrangements, already suffering the most, will be hit hardest again. Not only have the advanced capitalist countries refused to waive patent rights on Covid vaccines, but countries like China, which did share its vaccines, did so with versions less effective against recent variants.
With the Democrats in power in Washington, and at least some gestures toward enhanced social spending, left-liberals who could, to a certain degree, be counted on to support social movements under Trump, have largely abandoned the political playing field. Yet the rise of right-wing populism, accompanied as it is by small but dangerous fascist gangs, as well as the underlying conditions that gave rise to them, continue largely apace.
The radical energies around the resurgent Black Lives Matter uprisings, during which burning down a police precinct was briefly more popular than the president, have all but disappeared. Not only have demands to defund the police been displaced, but the clarion call of “no kids in cages” has been replaced by scenes of the Biden administration deporting Haitians back to the poorest country in the western hemisphere—one whose prospects have been repeatedly destroyed by the US and its allies.55. Eileen Sullivan and Miriam Jordan, “Biden Administration to Deport Haitians in Del Rio, Texas,” New York Times, September 30, 2021. On the imperial oppression of Haiti see Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso Books, 2010). The brunch-souring awkwardness of Vice President Kamala Harris telling Guatemalans not to come north sums up Democratic policy. Kids are still in cages, the US border regime deepens as key elements are outsourced southward, and the vice president has the gall to admonish Latin Americans seeking a better life. All of these issues—along with strategies for migrant justice—are powerfully tackled in this issue of Spectre in a full-length interview with Justin Akers Chacón.
Without adequate institutional forms and the cultures and practices of radical insurgence, the Left today will remain unprepared for an age of proliferating crises—environmental, social, economic, and imperial. Ours is an era in which we cannot afford to forfeit the popular, internationalist, class-wide anti-imperialism necessary to confront global capital.
We take heart in knowing that radical energies persist, even if in subterranean form. BLM first emerged under Obama, and more recently, mass protest movements ballooned, sometimes overnight, under conditions that were far from ideal. The mass outrage against ICE, not to mention the spontaneous occupation of airports in Trump’s first weeks, also occurred as flashes under hostile conditions. Though the US lags far behind other capitalist countries in union density, new organizing and a spike in militant strikes, including in the private sector, is taking place before our eyes.
The latest forms of the global slump that began in 2008–09 will provide new opportunities for popular resistance. As Marxist economist Michael Roberts points out in his contribution to this issue, the world economy had entered a recession before the pandemic, and the half-hearted shifts toward imperial Keynesianism by capitalist governments will not resolve the underlying crisis of profitability. Biden’s infrastructure plan, with or without the meager expansion of social spending is, at best, going to fuel a “K-shaped” recovery that may leave accumulation even weaker than before. The spectre of a return to 1970s-style stagflation may quickly scuttle these half-steps away from neoliberalism.
There is then something of a disjuncture between the (at least potentially) radical energies that emerge in this period and the reality of their disorganized and underdeveloped form. A hallmark of this moment is increasing openness to socialism, especially among the young, as poll after poll has demonstrated. A growing number are acknowledging problems with conservative union leadership and the need for more than the typical pastime of writing to one’s congress-person, phone-banking, and canvassing for strident reformers.
The recent uprising in Palestine, which had us momentarily envisioning a third intifada, provides a valuable model. Relying on neither the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, the people of Palestine—led by youth—rose up against brutal evictions, deeply racist limits on access to holy sites, and apartheid conditions in general. For weeks, the racialized working class, both formal and informal, refused to be controlled or shunted out of view. In taking matters into their own hands, their uprising made another kind of politics visible, as brian bean and Shireen Akram-Boshar explain.
The hopes for a resurgent left from Palestine to South Africa, from the US to Britain and beyond will be dashed through the forms of political organization and expression that want calibrated bits of organized anger against worsening conditions—and never one iota more. Like the Palestinian uprising and the hot antiracist summer in the US that preceded it, we recognize the need for a movement of the dispossessed by the dispossessed for a world beyond all dispossession.
The agents of such insurgencies against dispossession will be entire working classes in all their diversity. Helping us to think through struggles around different kinds of labor in late capitalism, Paula Varela explores in this issue different interpretations of social reproduction, drawing heavily on Marx’s value theory, in an important full-length intervention. Ho-fung Hung reminds us of the context of inter-imperial rivalry in arguing for the enduring relevance of Lenin’s theory of imperialism in his analysis of the ongoing US–China tension. And Sara Matthiesen rounds out this issue with a double book review, arguing that from porn-workers to extractive labor time, control over our work forms a liberatory horizon broader than traditional workplace struggles.
Across all these contributions, readers will discern an insistence on mapping the fault lines of the system the better to illuminate the prospects for mass insurgence from below.
- Felicia Schwartz and Yaroslav Trofimov, “How Israel Delivered the World’s Fastest Vaccine Rollout,” Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2021.
- “US Racial Violence Gaps are Bigger than We Thought: Covid–19 Tracker,” Bloomberg, September 16, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/us-vaccine-demographics.html.
- See David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists, and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals,” Spectre 1 (Spring 2020): 12-37.
- David Goodman, “A Year After ‘Defund,’ Police Departments Get Their Money Back,” New York Times, October 10, 2021.
- Eileen Sullivan and Miriam Jordan, “Biden Administration to Deport Haitians in Del Rio, Texas,” New York Times, September 30, 2021. On the imperial oppression of Haiti see Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso Books, 2010).