Transcribed from the 5 August 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole episode:
A big part of a movement is the way you talk. And ever since the sixties, it’s been impossible to talk about capitalism, so the kind of discourse that is important for building a movement has been off the table.
Chuck Mertz: Militarized corporate capitalism has gone global. It’s everywhere. And if we’re going to stop the threat not only to ourselves but the entire planet, we’ve all got to get on board and work together. Here to tell us about universalized resistance, sociologist Charles Derber is author of Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Charles.
Charles Derber: Hi, Chuck, nice to be here.
CM: Great to have you on the show.
So we’ll get to the universalized system and the need for universalized resistance, but you start your book with what you call a personal prelude: “Dear reader, I don’t think I was born to be an activist. I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like anger. I don’t like asking for things or demanding things. And I’ve always been very busy in my career and with my friends and personal life. I don’t have a lot of time to be an activist. I’ve often been unsure if activism will produce results. Activism is a gamble. It may or may not create the democracy and social justice that I feel passionate about. The 1% may beat the rest of us. They seem to have all the cards and all the jokers. Despite all these doubts, I’ve been an activist all my life.”
What explains why all those doubts didn’t stop you from being an activist?
CD: To answer that in a personal way, the way you were just talking about work and vacation and your job (you love it and you hate it): activism is difficult. Most activists will tell you they love it because it connects them with exciting people, it gives their life meaning—and it’s also just something they almost feel they have to do, because the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and they feel like they owe it to themselves and to the rest of the world.
On the other hand, a lot of activists want to take a permanent vacation from activism, because activism is hard work. It’s very frustrating. There’s a lot of burnout. And a lot of social movements reflect the pathologies of the society they’re fighting against. There’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of status and ego issues.
But in the end, Chuck, I’ve never been able to get anywhere near a real, full vacation from activism. Partly because I was lucky in choosing a job, as you have done, where I can make activism an integral part of my work. I spend a lot of my time talking to students—who are very receptive given what’s going on in the world. They are not stupid about what’s happening in the world, and they know they are facing a planet that may burn out or blow up.
When you get discouraged, it’s interesting to look at some polling about the word capitalism and the word socialism. I had written some pieces on this long before Bernie Sanders came along. Even Gallup and Pew were polling those two words, and they were finding that large numbers of people were increasingly saying they thought capitalism, without defining it, had a bad sound to them, and socialism, especially among the young, was getting a majority good feeling. Sanders rode that wave. When he started talking about himself as a democratic socialist, the most googled word was socialism.
In the sixties—there’s a history here that is important—there was a sense that something was profoundly wrong with the militarism and the capitalism that meld together into the system that runs the world today. Since then, though, it’s not been something you can talk about without sounding like you’re a lunatic.
There have been historical periods, like during the Gilded Age, when that wasn’t the case: robber barons were called robber barons because people thought they were stealing everything. When John D. Rockefeller became the first billionaire in 1890, ninety percent of the country was poor. There was an occupy movement called the People’s Party: it was a populist movement that wanted to literally occupy and take over and have the public control all the big banks. That was a time when large numbers of people—farmers and urban immigrants and so forth—were beginning to come together and generate a challenge to capitalism. It failed for a number of reasons in the end, but it led to certain kinds of progressive changes.
And then there’s the New Deal under Roosevelt, which was not a fully anti-capitalist campaign, but it was generated out of a huge amount of activism, particularly among socialists and communists and other left-leaning folks (and the black labor movement and others that aren’t talked about as much as they should be). They, again, put the issue of capitalism on the agenda.
The sixties, of course, erupted around civil rights and Vietnam, and then Martin Luther King moved over to say, “I can’t live in this society where we’re running a violent war,” and he got shot in Memphis when he was joining a janitors’ strike. That is the kind of combination that I would call universalizing: he brought civil rights together with anti-capitalist and antiwar concerns—he brought issues together, and that really scared the ruling elites. They knew that as long as all these different movements were segmented into their own silos, they were likely to be contained. But when you bring them together…
A big part of a movement is the way you talk. And ever since the sixties, it’s been impossible to talk about capitalism. So the kind of discourse that is important for building a movement has been off the table. The Reagan revolution, the New Right, and then the Clintons played big roles in getting it off the table.
That is why it was so important when Trump and Bernie Sanders came along: for the first time, again, we’re beginning to see a resurgence of this sort of universalizing, where we can talk about class and class struggle, and we can talk about capitalism, and we can get a mainstream audience for it now. Of course it’s just in an early stage, and it’s got to be sustained. That’s why we can’t go on vacation from the revolution right now.
CM: How much do you think that willingness to have a conversation about capitalism today divides the right and the left, and how much do you think this resurgence of a discussion about capitalism is actually uniting the right and left?
CD: That’s a really interesting question. My friend Ralph Nader argues in several recent books that it’s uniting them. Of course the Trump movement came to power in part because he was raising questions not so much about capitalism in itself but about the nature of global corporate capitalism. He wants to go back to a very nationalist capitalism. Still, Nader argues that in fact the ties that unite the right and the left around capitalism are stronger than most people recognize.
Much of my book is devoted to looking at grassroots leftwing movements which have been very important, whether we’re talking about Black Lives Matter or 350 and the climate change movement—the whole range, the women’s movement and so forth. These sorts of movements have always been around, but by the late sixties, some young, white, male students were starting to take over much of the left (this is part of the pathology of the left that I mentioned earlier) and the result was a splintering of the left into identity silos. Women decided to say, “To hell with this. These young white leftists are not living up to their talk, and women are just there to be showcased.” The same with blacks, who were not getting leadership.
Since the New Deal and the end of the sixties, essentially up until really just now, a conversation about militarized capitalism has been to a large degree out of bounds in the mainstream press, within the Democratic Party, and even in significant parts of the identity movements of the left. However, we’re seeing the beginning of a new shift right now.
The end of the sixties and the early seventies was the beginning of a period where the more holistic, universalizing politics of the sixties began to self-destruct. And we got a very important new wave of leftism around identity movements that have done a lot of important and great things, but we moved away from raising the issue of capitalism as a significant theme, focusing more on race and gender and other very important issues. And these issues—race, gender, sexual orientation, even climate change—cannot be talked about without talking about capitalism.
These issues are structurally intertwined. Intersectionality is just a fancy word for talking about the intertwining of different structures of power. Capitalism is a set of intertwined pillars of hierarchy, and you’re not going to end racism, for example, within a highly militarized capitalist society. This is the realization that Martin Luther King came to, and increasingly we’ve come to understand it again as well.
Meanwhile, however, the right had been taking on this universalizing understanding itself, with the rise of the New Right and the Reagan revolution and so on. So back to your question about whether there is a tie between the right and the left today: the right began to universalize, in the early seventies and then with the Reagan revolution, more powerfully than the left did. They didn’t talk about capitalism exactly, but they talked about white workers being screwed, and how there was a liberal elite that was going global and abandoning American workers (this became the central theme of Trump: a combination of economic and cultural nationalism). And it had a very strong economic, class ring to it. It began to raise questions, at least, about the kind of capitalism that existed in the United States.
Hillary is the product of a very sad part of the Democratic Party’s history. In the nineties, the New Deal framework, which had allowed the Democratic Party to at least nibble at the edges of a conversation about capitalism and bring up economic issues in a serious way, was basically wiped out by the Clinton administration’s moves towards what they called the Third Way, a very centrist, incremental politics.
Bill Clinton’s first secretary of treasury was Robert Rubin from Citigroup, one of the biggest Wall Street banks. Under Clinton, the Democratic Party got increasingly tied to Wall Street; the major Democratic Party donors were very wealthy corporate and Wall Street people. That completely stripped away from the Democrats a conversation about class. So the Democratic Party, like the grassroots left movement, moved away from talking about capitalism, because it would upset their donors. Whoever your donors are tend to shape what you talk about. So some talked about gender and race and so forth, as well as very incremental changes in the economy—they did say, “It’s the economy, stupid!” after all—but it was not the kind of conversation of change that really raised the issue of the capitalist system.
Hillary Clinton was the worst possible candidate to run in a period when the debris and the ravages of capitalism were beginning to spread around the world and deeply into the United States, and more workers were feeling and realizing they were at the short end of the stick. Trump spoke to that feeling, whereas the Democrats—and Hillary in particular—really could not speak to it. She was too historically identified with the transformation of the Democratic Party from the New Deal framework into basically joining the Reagan revolution.
Since the New Deal and the end of the sixties, essentially up until really just now, we’ve had a history of the left that would make you want to take a vacation, because a conversation about militarized capitalism has been to a large degree out of bounds in the mainstream press, within the Democratic Party, and even in significant parts of the identity movements of the left. However: we’re seeing the beginning of a new shift right now.
Trump’s victory is partly responsible for that, because he’s so obviously threatening, and because people realize that he put his finger on something about capitalism that needed to be discussed. Also Bernie Sanders (who is now the most popular politician in the United States, according to most recent polls) explicitly raised the issue of capitalism and democratic socialism. His may not be the version of socialism that a lot of people on the left like, but he opened up a whole new arena of conversations about how to think about capitalism and socialism, and particularly the extractive, fossil fuel-driven, militarized form of capitalism that is blowing up the world right now.
So I think we’re on the threshold of a new period again. I once wrote a book called Regime Change Begins at Home. History goes through these regime changes; this history I’ve been talking about is a series of regime changes, when you can and cannot talk about capitalism, and when the left or the Democratic Party or some coordination between them allows us to really start talking seriously about structural changes to society.
CM: You write, “Trump’s presidency may actually help to universalize the progressive, grassroots movements by helping them mobilize far more members and bringing together a far larger and more unified life-and-death struggle against Trumpism and the larger authoritarian and bullying corporate system that assisted in creating him.”
I’m concerned about this anti-Trumpism, because David Broder (a translator and member of the Historical Materialism editorial board who lives in Rome) told us back in February that anti-Berlusconism wasn’t enough in Italy. In fact, the title of his article in Jacobin at the time was “Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough: Silvio Berlusconi’s tenure reminds us that the left needs to attack the neoliberal center, not just the populist right.”
CD: I’m so glad you raised that. Notice I do not have the word Trump in the title of my book—it is for that exact reason. Trump is very dangerous. His ascension and what he’s doing is really dangerous and scary, and people ought to be focused on that. But there is something very dangerous about the American anti-Trump movement in the mainstream media. The way that they’re going after Trump is basically just saying the man is a dangerous child and he is not listening to the adults in the room. Well, who are the adults? The CIA, the FBI, the generals who are in his cabinet, and his billionaire friends who gave us the current form of corporate capitalism.
The Trump agenda is really just the frosting on the cake of where the Republican Party has been going for the last thirty years, since the end of the seventies and the New Right. It is a neoliberal kind of capitalism. It’s denialist about climate change. It talks about workers and “bringing American jobs back” through various changes to trade, but what it’s really doing is implementing a form of what the IMF used to do with structural adjustment programs. We’re going to deregulate our corporations; we’re going to get wages as low as they can be; we’re going to deregulate around the environment.
We’re beginning to move from a conversation about the incremental reformism and identity issues that the Democratic Party has promoted to the beginnings of a conversation about capitalism and militarism and imperialism. That conversation needs to happen, and it needs to happen not just in insular left groups but everywhere around the country.
What I’m trying to say is: in the name of anti-Trumpism, much of the media and the Democratic Party is actually legitimating as “adults” the generals and the billionaires who brought us this toxic form of capitalism that we’ve been living with in the first place. They are saying (without fully understanding it) that we’ve got to go back to this toxic capitalism, which maybe we can make better in some way. This is a misapprehension of the system that Trump is currently sitting on top of as a presumed rogue, but which he is actually administering in a harsher way. If Trump were impeached and we had Mike Pence, there wouldn’t be that much difference in policy. The Republican Party is such an extreme neoliberal toxic capitalist party right now, there would be no fundamental change. Some of the worst autocracy and dictatorship trends under Trump might be alleviated a little bit, but we wouldn’t be changing the fundamental system.
What we need is a full-blown, coordinated, unified movement in which people take on this system of militarized capitalism. We have a whole array of grassroots movements fighting now on a silo basis. People are fighting climate change heroically; they’re fighting police violence; they’re fighting all these different parts of the elephant, so to speak. But now we are beginning to talk more. For example, Black Lives Matter has said that they are socialist. There are a lot of people in so-called identity politics who are talking more about capitalism, because they realize they can’t separate racism and mass incarceration from it.
Michelle Alexander wrote a wonderful article in the Nation [in 2013] in which she said she had been driving in one lane, focused on mass incarceration, but that she’d never “stay in her lane” again. She realized that, after all those years of studying it, she could not really help issues of racism and mass incarceration if she didn’t deal with some of the larger economic and structural forces that give rise to it. I think that’s a metaphor for the whole argument that I’m making, what Naomi Klein has talked about as a “movement of movements.”
It also has to do with ties to a mainstream party, though, which has always been a subject of great controversy on the left. The Democrats, since Clinton and their Third Way, have been so centrist and so removed that the left has not wanted to have anything to do with them. Now, this is dangerous. The left needs united fronts, particularly in periods of authoritarianism. In Germany in the late twenties and early thirties, there were actually strong grassroots movements—there was a Social Democratic Party and a Communist Party that were strong—but none of them wanted to have anything to do with each other. They were very, very fragmented. Hitler had pretty much Trump’s vote share: mid-thirties to forty percent. He never, ever had more than that. But he came to power because the left could not get its act together.
One of the virtues of Sanders is that he’s bringing a revival, as in the New Deal, to the possibility of unified action, or at least some kind of coordination and building, between the Democratic Party and all these hitherto fragmented movements. Parties are never going to make the revolution we need. We know that. But we need to get more traction within these mainstream parties and push them. Our Revolution is one of multiple organizations (like Indivisible as well) that are not historically part of the left grassroots movement but are beginning to build a bridge between the truly transformative movements and the Democratic Party. And we’re finding that within the Democratic Party there are progressive, black, and other caucuses which are beginning to look to the street and actually join. We’ve had demonstrations, starting with the Women’s March and then with the Muslim ban and so forth, where leading members of the Democratic Party have gone out on the streets.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the Democratic Party is going to lead us into the promised land. But I am suggesting that it’s risky for the left to distance itself so much from electoral politics, while the right is concentrating all its firepower and all its money on taking over congressional houses and governorships and all these centers of electoral power, and has taken over the levers of power in the country. That is significant. A lot of people in the movements on the left say that you’re wasting your time dealing with the Democratic Party or dealing with any mainstream politics; we’ve just got to make a revolution on the streets. But I think history will show that we do the best when we maintain the autonomy of our grassroots movements—not the purity; nothing is ever pure—and the fiery anti-systemic universalizing impulse of grassroots energy, but also leech this energy into the thinking of the Democratic Party, which at least opens the door to the larger conversation.
We’re beginning to move from a conversation about the incremental reformism and the identity issues that the Democratic Party has promoted to the beginnings of a conversation about capitalism and militarism and imperialism. That conversation needs to happen, and it needs to happen not just in insular left groups but everywhere around the country and in the mass media.
CM: You see in this resistance to the militarized corporate capitalist system, as you call it, a wave of grassroots democracy and justice movements, unified black, brown, and white people building a “shared vision and infrastructure of popular power to move beyond isolation, joblessness, and extreme inequality, militarism, and planetary peril, and create a new democratic economy and society. It’s ordinary people working together in their neighborhoods and workplaces and local governments and moving forward in large organizations and movements to stop our growing police state and create a new loving and inclusive society. We are seeing the seeds of this universalizing resistance in the Trump era.”
But how much is this universalized resistance hurt by blaming the “white working class” for Trump, condescending to them and talking about a “hillbilly problem”? Historian Elizabethe Catte was recently on the show to discuss the “hillbilly problem” in the media, citing Frank Rich’s March 19 essay for New York Magazine, “No More Sympathy for Hillbillies,” in which Rich argued that the presence of Trumpists in Appalachia and the Rust Belt justifies cutting off these regions and individuals from the body politic.
So how much is any universalization—in this case with the white working class—that might be needed to challenge power upended by this kind of “hillbilly problem” analysis?
CD: That’s a wonderful question. My book gets into that in considerable detail. That is, in the last twenty or thirty years, the white working class, and whites in general, have moved heavily towards the Republican Party. And the anti-Trump movement in many ways has done what you are fearing: it’s basically washing its hands of the white working class, particularly industrial workers, who are mainly in good union positions which have not been dispersed across the population by gender or race. There is a significant segment of the anti-Trump movement which says, “Look, we’ve got a majority.” Which is true. The industrial working class is now only 25% of the working class. Most of the working class is now black, female, brown; service sector or high tech.
It’s not like if we were able to kick him out, by impeachment or a vote, we could then rest on what’s left. What’s left will still be this capitalist system that we say has to be the center of the conversation. And you can’t have a serious conversation about the meaning of capitalism without talking with all kinds of workers.
In the book, I have a conversation with Noam Chomsky that’s very interesting because it traces a little bit of his own political development. Originally, his father was a pretty religious Jew, and he said he spent a lot of time dealing with more orthodox Christians and others, so his whole early life was about trying to cross cultural barriers and find common interests. And there are many other interviews, for example with a black leader in the United Steelworkers named Fred Redmond, who has devoted his life to looking at the relationship between the Steelworkers, a mainly white industrial union, with civil rights and black organizations and black workers.
The thrust of all this is that we’ve got to help people find connection across economic interests. Chomsky makes a very strong point about his fervent belief that it’s possible to have dialogue with people who are in the Trump camp. He cites the people in the Louisiana bayou area who were profiled in Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild. She gave them respect, and tried to understand the internal emotional and political logics that were leading them to Trump. Yes, much of anti-Trumpism is driving progressive people away from this group of people and workers, but while it’s true that some will never be reached, a significant number of these same people voted for Obama in 2008, and they supported Sanders. Sanders found all kinds of support among the same demographics that Trump was appealing to.
It’s not to say that you’ve got to win every single Trump voter—a lot of them are country club Republicans or small business people who will never be particularly sympathetic to progressivism. But there are a large number of workers who are facing early mortality and the end of the American Dream as they understood it (that is, their children are going to do less well than they are). They are facing terrible choices about their jobs—like these people in Louisiana, in cancer alley—and there is a way of responding, reaching out to them, and at least starting a respectful conversation.
We need a very robust anti-Trumpist movement. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be extremely focused in our critique. He’s starting to go after the media; he’s a dangerous guy the way Hitler was a dangerous guy. But it’s not like if we were able to kick him out, by impeachment or a vote, we could then rest on what’s left. What’s left will still be this capitalist system that we say has to be the center of the conversation. And you can’t have a serious anti-capitalist conversation or a conversation about the meaning of capitalism without talking with all kinds of workers. So I really part ways with the mode of anti-Trumpism that essentially says we should let go of the Midwest’s workers or the Southern workers. I think there’s good evidence already that these people are open to a different way of thinking.
That’s where we really have to have a really honest and open and full conversation about the nature of the economy and economic interests and what’s driving the way companies operate: whether the expansion of corporations into your neighborhood really creates more jobs, and what kinds of jobs will be created, and all that sort of stuff. We need a big conversation, and it’s crazy to think that we can have that kind of conversation about class when a large part of the working class feels alienated from the people they’re talking to.
CM: You write, “Progressive universalizing resistance is nonviolent and loving, but it refuses to let the system continue business as usual. It aims to create a new system that can sustain a just democratic order and the environment we all depend upon. And, as a nonviolent democracy movement, it aims for a new society that moves beyond corporate oligarchy, authoritarianism, militarism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequality in all forms.”
There are those, Charles, however, who argue that peace and love and nonviolence do not work in the face of fascism, that in fact there is a time for violence. Can nonviolence beat the violence of fascism?
CD: The very first articles I wrote in the sixties when I was a graduate student, in the Monthly Review, which is a very leftwing journal, were about violence. It’s interesting, because I was teaching at Brandeis at the time, and I went away in the summer and two of my students helped rob a bank and killed a police officer. And the only reason I didn’t go to jail like one of my colleagues (because these people had been working in our offices), was because I had written this very strong article about why the left had turned to violence.
This is a personal story: my very strong commitment to nonviolence started very early on. I had been in Mississippi in the sixties and had seen a lot of violence against black people; I myself had been threatened and almost shot several times when I was working there. And going back to something I said to you at the very beginning: the left is always is in danger of taking on the pathologies of the system it is confronting. In my view, the economic and physical violence—and the violence against the environment—of the kind of capitalism that we’re operating under is sociopathic and destructive and is the core of what we’re fighting.
If the left takes on violence: first, it’s going to get crushed very quickly. Trump would love that, and so would the Republican Party, and maybe even the centrist Democratic Party. If we act violently, we essentially legitimate it as a tool of response, and certainly there are millions of people who support Trump who would love to get to turn this into a violent struggle. Number two, it would boomerang in terms of efficacy. We want to withdraw support from power. But we do that gently, respectfully, and try to maintain and build a culture that speaks to the values that we’re trying to bring.
To say that we’re nonviolent, however, is not to say that we’re not disruptive. When a system is in crisis, you should be disruptive. I’ve been in jail hundreds of times. There are many ways of being disruptive without being physically violent. You can do it by sitting in the street. You can do it by civil disobedience. You can do it by not paying taxes. You can do it by walking out—there are just a million ways to keep the system from operating. You can wrap your body around pipeline equipment like they did up at the Dakota Access pipeline. You can lie in the trenches. In my neighborhood, there’s a big gas line being built, and people just put their bodies inside the trenches and would not let the pipe get laid. During Vietnam, you could lie in front of the trains carrying munitions over to the west coast. All of that is very important to a movement.
The system is hurtling so quickly towards destruction that we might need to use destructive means—I’m not doubting that at all. But when it comes to actual violence—shooting people, starting fights, all that kind of stuff—in the context of incipient fascism, we’re just pouring fuel on the fire. You’re just making it much more likely that the violence that is already endemic in the system we’re fighting is going to spill over in a much more overt way, and it’s going to crush our movement and lead to the kind of stuff that we saw under Nazism.
CM: Charles, I really appreciate you being on the show. Thank you very much.
CD: Thank you so much, Chuck.