“WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM.” This slogan of the Kurdish independence movement has echoed across Iran for months as millions of people joined street demonstrations, rallies, and strikes. The immediate cause of the protest wave was the murder last September of Mahsa (Jina) Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police. That brutal act was the catalyst for an uprising against state repression, austerity, gender oppression, the denial of worker’s rights, and more. The slogan is a fitting rallying cry for our times.
After all, so much of what faces us today in the form of economic, military, environmental, medical, racial, and political crises makes up one multifaceted crisis of human social reproduction. By social reproduction we refer to all those life-making practices—paid and unpaid—by which humans and their communities survive and grow to live and struggle, to laugh and cry, for another day. In our world, these life-making activities are highly gendered, with women shouldering the weight of the daily labors of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing and caring for young and old.
Under capitalism, these life-making practices are always subordinated to—and often imperiled by—capital’s quest for profit. This is why, as the protesters in Iran intimate, to defend women is to celebrate life and freedom. Today, life-making is imperiled by war, environmental collapse, racist policing, government austerity policies, a global pandemic, and corporate drives to contain wages and break union organizing.
It has become flavor of the month to describe all of this as a “polycrisis.” The attraction of the term is its recognition that people today are living—and dying—through a period of multiple kinds of crises in their lives. But the term is also deceptive as it suggests that a series of distinct crises have managed to coincide by happenstance, as if there were not an underlying logic to their disastrous combination.
The reality is that these crises are interwoven. In unique ways, they express the contradictions of a complex but unitary process: the crisis-ridden global accumulation of capital. It is this—the violent contradictions of capitalist accumulation—that connects the seemingly disconnected crises of our era, articulating them into what Antonio Gramsci called an organic crisis. Rather than multiple crises, therefore, we are witnessing jarring disturbances of the capitalist social order with effects in all spheres of social life.
Moments of organic crisis offer potential openings for progressive forces to make their mark. But they are equally a moment in which reaction can rear its odious head. These are moments of possibility to be sure, but also of danger.
Worker Resistance and Environmental Crisis: The Limits of Capital
Human beings and the natural environment always limit capital’s efforts to dominate, regulate, and control the world. Humans resist by way of fighting to slow down the pace of work and receive better compensation, organizing unions to assert their rights on the job, and fighting for community services—like healthcare, schools, and childcare—that make life a little easier.
And nature, in its complex diversity, regularly proves resistant to becoming a toxic dumping ground, or a playground for creating commodities that can be packaged, bought, and sold. Every attempt by corporations to treat nature as a mere means to turning a profit produces unseen consequences that impose limits on what capital can do. Climate change, for instance, is a direct product of the burning of fossil fuels to power capitalist industry.
The Covid–19 pandemic too is a virtually inevitable result of capitalist expansion encroaching on the environments of species that had previously been more distant from human habitation. This encroachment has facilitated interspecies transmission of disease. A medical crisis—in this case a worldwide pandemic—is thus a byproduct of the dynamics of capitalist expansion.1Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
While the limits set by people and the natural environment are distinct, they are interconnected. Each reflects capital’s incapacity to subject the whole of the world to the logic of commodification. When workers in France wage mass strikes to defend their retirement age as they did early this year, they put life before profit-making. When hundreds of thousands of workers in Britain—nurses, firefighters, teachers, rail workers, and more—struck for wage increases, they were proclaiming that their right to live in decent conditions should count more than financial balance sheets. They were affirming life in the face of government and corporate austerity.
Defund the Police, Refund Communities
To affirm life today is also to challenge the repressive forces that police, regulate, and control working class communities, especially those of color. After all, it is the police who routinely take the lives of poor people, Black and Brown people, queer and trans people. It is mindboggling to learn that killings by police have actually increased over the three years since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by a group of Memphis police in January of this year once more threw a spotlight on the ultra-violence that is policing in capitalist society. A month later, the mutilated body of Rasheem Carter was found in Mississippi.
Forty-five years ago, the authors of Policing the Crisis explained that police are not only an instrument to stamp down on poor and working class people. Equally crucial, they argued, policing is used to criminalize racialized groups of working class people, depicting them as the source of social instability, rather than the system of which they are a part. This is the “horror of police,” who work to actively divide worker from worker in the process of exercising social control.2Travis Linnemann, The Horror of Police (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022). The results are lethal: police in the United States alone kill three people every day.3Sharon Zhang, “Police Killed Nearly 100 People a Month in 2022, Data Shows,” Truthout, January 6, 2023. If we are to elevate life over death, we will need sweeping moves to defund the police in order to refund communities. Abolition isn’t a choice but a necessity. Our lives depend upon it.
Of course, Democrats are not going to support moves in this direction any more than Republicans will. The Democratic Party leadership at all levels worked overtime throughout 2020 to demonize abolitionists who called for defunding the police. A party of big business, the Democrats will never countenance policies that undermine capitalist social power. They are not coming to save us—nor are they even our allies in this struggle.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has repeatedly argued, abolitionists target police and prisons because they are crucial institutions blocking life-making activities. And they bleed vital resources that could be used to enhance life, such as publicly funded housing, health clinics, schools, mass transit, and so much more. To move against police and prisons is to open up an agenda designed to change everything. “Abolition,” says Gilmore, “is deliberately everything-ist; it’s about the entirety of human–environmental relations.”4Quoted by Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,” New York Times, April 17, 2019. See also Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2023).
Sadly, such a vision is often met with derision by naysayers on the Left, who insist that working with the dominant institutions of capitalism is the only way to change it. We shall come back to these sorts in a moment.
A Vision for Changing Everything
But for now, let us note that demands for radical and throughgoing changes in the organization of life are precisely what have emerged from the women-led uprising in Iran. Earlier this year, a feminist network inside that country issued an important political statement calling for “Housing, Books, and Food for All,” to be organized through a system of councils constructed on principles of “democracy from the bottom up.”55. See bidarzani.com, https://bidarzani.com/44374?fbclid=IwAR3ZveoaaiUqHTOjIGlhgei0RNtFJoXxPQhFtCvn9scpIiiUtR8uHb-B7eY. Their demands include:
- compulsory and free education based on a curriculum collectively produced by teachers, students, and parents;
- free meals and educational materials for all;
- the establishment of free women’s health clinics;
- legalized marriage for all adults: women, men, and “the rainbow community”;
- the creation of free public kitchens, laundry rooms, and childcare and elder care centers under the supervision of local councils;
- the formation of self-governing bodies and cooperatives at the local level to facilitate equal access to economic opportunities;
- and the criminalization of all forms of sexual harassment, rape, and violence against women, men, and “the rainbow community.”
We don’t claim that this is the perfect or even a complete socialist program. But it is suggestive of a radical socialist feminist vision that has emerged from intense mass struggles. Furthermore, the call to build councils resonates with the Resistance Committees formed in Sudan to carry forward the people’s resistance to the military. From both Iran and Sudan, then, we can see efforts to build people’s grassroots power as the alternative to all forces that repress life-making.6See Muzan Alneel, “A Revolutionary Way of Doing Politics is Taking Shape in Sudan,” New Politics 19, no. 2 (Winter 2023); and Sara Abbas and Shireen Akram-Boshar, “The Future of the Resistance Committees in Sudan: A Roundtable,” Spectre, April 14, 2022.
The Left in the Global North could certainly benefit from the revolutionary vision and energy these movements express. It’s not that the US left hasn’t experienced powerful grassroots upheavals—think of the Occupy protests and the Black Lives Matter insurgencies, especially the latter’s peak in the George Floyd uprising. But the dominant trend in the US has been toward left electoralism, and the results have not been uplifting.
To be clear, all here at Spectre were heartened to see the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America here in the US, and certainly the sudden prominence of socialism was a boon to organizers everywhere. But there has been an enormous lack of clarity about what we mean by “socialism,” and how it is to be achieved.
Never Cross a Picket Line
Socialism involves government by workers and government for workers, full stop. Social spending by governments is not in itself necessarily socialist. Democratic candidates who bear the label are not necessarily socialist either—especially when they aren’t accountable to any socialist organization, and when they consistently defer to the mainstream of their party. We saw this when Jamaal Bowman traveled to Israel with a Zionist organization and spoke at their townhall. We saw this when AOC and Rashida Tlaib voted to increase Pentagon spending to unprecedented levels. And we certainly saw this when all but one of the “Squad” and Congressional Progressive Caucus crossed the picket line and voted with the rest of their party to break the rail workers’ strike.
This isn’t a question of differing visions of socialism, but rather the most elementary point in left politics: never cross a picket line. Never undermine the collective activity of workers acting to improve their lives. Yet last fall, we witnessed just that: the socialist candidates who were supposed to be our saviors voted (under an allegedly pro-union Democratic president no less!) to crush a strike, despite the clear demands of workers.
This is a dire time for the Left in the Global North, and in the US in particular. We don’t fault activists for making immediate demands: access to decent healthcare, housing, an actually livable wage, and so forth. These are essential. But these are demands that must be organized for and fought for from the grassroots.
We can certainly push representatives to make these demands in public forums, but this isn’t what happened in the aftermath of Bernie-mania. Rather, we were instructed by many prominent left outlets in the US that we should follow elected representatives of a capitalist party. We were told that this is how the Left can achieve power, or at least some semblance of influence.
Instead, we’ve reaped the disastrous rewards of compromise: increased military spending, strike-breaking, and tacit support for Israeli apartheid. And worse, putting all our strategic eggs in the electoral basket, as far too many have done since 2016, has promoted demobilization. The insurgencies that have boosted the Left elsewhere—millions in the streets and on strike for reproductive rights in Latin America, mass strikes in France and Britain against austerity, and inspiring popular movements of resistance in Iran and Sudan—have been overwhelmingly absent with a US left looking to electoralism. As one elected “leftist” after another broke basic principles, a mood of demoralization took hold in many quarters.
The alternative? We don’t purport to have a formula, though we would do well to seek strategic inspiration from the activists demanding full system change in Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere. What we do know is that quick fixes are never an alternative to the slow, careful work of building up our revolutionary forces. Otherwise, we risk selling our comrades shortcuts that never pan out. And when the electoral alternative fails, the result is disastrous.
Beyond demoralization, we are witnessing an exodus of erstwhile socialists who are either leaving politics altogether, or worse: becoming straightforward liberals. We risk the moment of socialist resurgence being squandered.
But as we’ve seen time and again, revolutionary openings are unpredictable. As C.L.R. James said, “the revolution comes like a thief in the night.” None of us was prepared for Occupy or the first wave of BLM here in the US, let alone the unprecedented explosion of the George Floyd Uprising of 2020.
This is why Spectre has dedicated itself to nurturing the traditions of insurgent, grassroots socialism. In this issue, we look at queer anticapitalism, the meaning of imperialism today, lessons from labor organizing in the 1940s, and the significance, one hundred years later, of Georg Lukács’s momentous work, History and Class Consciousness.
Ultimately that project—of building an antiracist, feminist, pro-queer, pro-trans, eco-socialist class consciousness—is the burning issue of our times. The road ahead is long. We will need revolutionary theory and mass insurgencies to traverse it. But there is no shortcut.
“Woman, Life, Freedom,” say the rebels in Iran. They are posing all the great issues of our time, including the need for council democracy if things are to be changed. Really changed. In a world of multiplying crises, they are blazing a trail. However long that trail may be, we must hold to it.
We close this statement with the words of the late, great radical socialist, Mike Davis, whom we commemorate in this issue: “The important thing is being able to say that you punched the time clock every day. You did your tiny bit for social justice.”7Gustavo Arellano, “Mike Davis has Terminal Cancer. But His Big Worry is What is Happening to Our World,” LA Times, July 22, 2022.
- Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
- Travis Linnemann, The Horror of Police (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
- Sharon Zhang, “Police Killed Nearly 100 People a Month in 2022, Data Shows,” Truthout, January 6, 2023.
- Quoted by Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,” New York Times, April 17, 2019. See also Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2023).
- See bidarzani.com, https://bidarzani.com/44374?fbclid=IwAR3ZveoaaiUqHTOjIGlhgei0RNtFJoXxPQhFtCvn9scpIiiUtR8uHb-B7eY.
- See Muzan Alneel, “A Revolutionary Way of Doing Politics is Taking Shape in Sudan,” New Politics 19, no. 2 (Winter 2023); and Sara Abbas and Shireen Akram-Boshar, “The Future of the Resistance Committees in Sudan: A Roundtable,” Spectre, April 14, 2022.
- Gustavo Arellano, “Mike Davis has Terminal Cancer. But His Big Worry is What is Happening to Our World,” LA Times, July 22, 2022.