Transcribed from the 4 May 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole episode:
Just swapping out one energy source for another doesn’t address the fact that capitalism as a system externalizes environmental and social costs and never pays the bill, and is always going to expand more than is doable within planetary limits.
Chuck Mertz: There is an ongoing debate on whether climate change can be addressed at the same time as the capitalism that caused it. Can we deal with both at the same time? While our guest believes both can be done with ecosocialism, she also warns us about leftist policies that are funded by climate change-causing extractive resources.
Here to talk ecosocialism and extractivism, political scientist Thea Riofrancos wrote the In These Times article “A Path to Democratic Socialism Means a Path to Climate Justice,” and she also posted the Dissent Magazine article “What Comes After Extractivism.”
Welcome to This is Hell!, Thea.
Thea Riofrancos: Thank you very much, happy to be here.
CM: Your article at In These Times a couple weeks ago was actually a response to another article at In These Times by Tobita Chow called “We Don’t Have Time to End Capitalism, But Growth Can Still Be Green.” The article by Tobita is subheadlined with the descriptor, “Growth, energy use, and emissions are historically linked, but this trend could end with mass investment in renewables and energy efficiency.”
You write in your responding story, “While the question of whether we should address capitalism first or climate change first is often posed in sequential terms, it is a false choice—though a compelling one.”
Why is addressing climate change first or capitalism first a false choice?
TR: It is a false choice because social movements are focusing on policies that can address both socioeconomic inequality and forms of domination and exploitation at the same time that they address climate emissions.
In the next ten years that we have to seriously change our energy systems, our entire ways of life, and our built environment in order to avoid further climate crisis, it seems quite compelling to argue that it’s not possible to undo an entire model of accumulation that’s been built over hundreds of years and is deeply entrenched across the globe. But it’s important not to view the matter as “ending capitalism before we address climate crisis,” but rather finding ways—and there are many ways—to address climate crisis that also begin to chip away at some of the core pillars of capitalism, whether that’s private property, or profit, or privatized forms of consumption.
Let’s think about demands that social movements can make, and then some of the policies that those demands might inspire, that chip away both at socioeconomic inequality and address mitigating and creating more resilience around the climate crisis that’s already unfolding and has been unfolding for a while now.
CM: We recently spoke with sustainability scholar Jem Bendell, and he was saying that sustainability is not sustainable, and we need to go to the next step, which is “deep adaptation.” Can capitalism adapt to climate change? Is that what you’re talking about when you’re saying that it is compelling? That we can adapt capitalism to climate change?
TR: The green capitalists and the “clean tech” industry, which is now a (hundreds of) billion-dollar industry that’s investing in “clean fuels” and “green technology,” do think that this is possible. And certainly forms of investment can take place within capitalism that begin to transition society to low- or no-carbon energy. It’s not only possible but it’s already happening, so to argue otherwise would be unempirical.
But those forms of transition, I agree, are not ultimately sustainable because just swapping out one energy source for another doesn’t address the fact that capitalism as a system externalizes environmental and social costs and never pays the bill, and is always going to expand more than is doable within planetary limits. While we can change the energy source and we can potentially lower emissions while not touching the capitalist model of accumulation, capitalism itself cannot be sustainable, at least not in the form that we’ve known it to exist over the past few hundred years.
Instead of thinking about how to adapt capitalism, we should think about reforms that are transformative in some way, that come out of longstanding social movements—environmental, ecological, and social justice movement demands that also get at some of the most oppressive aspects of capitalism.
Let me give some examples to make this a little bit more concrete. There are demands around the country for better mass transit systems. There are demands around the country for addressing the exorbitant costs of housing, which is one of the primary causes of the decline in working class material well being—it’s both stagnating wages and also the extremely high cost of rent. There are demands popping up that are very interesting for public, democratic, and community control over utilities, over the grid.
If we actually had mass transit, if we actually had a system of zero-carbon social housing, if we actually had democratically-controlled, decarbonized grids and utilities, we would be doing two things at once. We would be addressing some of the deep forms of exploitation and oppression that occur under capitalism that deny people the means of their own existence in housing and transit and other such things, and we would also be moving towards a more sustainable society that’s not just about switching out the energy source (though I don’t think that’s a small task or unimportant). It’s also about collectivizing and socializing the way that we consume.
One of the aspects of capitalism, especially in its American postwar mass-consumption guise, is the fact that we all consume privately, and we also consume things that are manufactured to be obsolete. We’re consuming individually, and we’re consuming as much as the market will sell us. Transitioning to social and collective forms of consumption is a much more rational use of resources. An electric bus is a better use of resources than all of us owning individual Teslas.
What I’m getting at is thinking about demands that simultaneously demand a different form of energy and decarbonization, but also thinking about reorganizing the ways that we relate to one another, in ways that little by little (hopefully rapidly enough to address the climate crisis) actually change our social relationships, actually change the way that we produce, consume, and work, as well as changing the energy source.
An ecosocialist low-carbon society would involve more forms of time spent with meaningful social relations rather than consuming junk that doesn’t actually make us happy.
CM: Just to reinforce what you said, I want to quote your article, where you say, “This is not to say that an ecosocialist strategy has no political tensions or challenges. There will necessarily be changes in habits of consumption, habits that are by no means confined to the affluent. We need to catalyze a change in social values wherein communal activities such as recreational sports, dancing, art projects, and book clubs—as well as collective consumption not only of transit and housing but of food, theater, film, and much more—become valorized.”
Will the biggest change be a societal change? Will it be one where we are collectively working together more, connected more? Will we have less time to ourselves as we will be dedicating more time to everyone else? The thing that I’m concerned about: you’ve heard these claims by conservatives that climate change is a socialist plot. I’m afraid that within this, they’ll see this as a plot against the individual.
How difficult will it be to have that societal change, going from individual-oriented to collectively oriented?
TR: It is a plot against the individual—at least the individual defined as a property-owning consumer, as we’ve defined it especially in the postwar period to the present in the United States. I want to reiterate, though—and the quote you read hopefully makes this clear—that my vision of ecosocialist utopia, the thing that gets me up in the morning when I think about what society I’m fighting for, is a profoundly pleasurable society. It’s a society of more time to socialize, and more time to engage in those activities that you just listed, of learning and dancing and eating together. These are the types of activities that already give me pleasure, when I have time to engage in them in our existing society. An ecosocialist low-carbon society would involve more forms of time spent with meaningful social relations rather than consuming junk that doesn’t actually make us happy.
There’s a recent article out in the Intercept by Kate Aronoff about how a Green New Deal might make us happier. The plot is against the individual defined as an overworked, overconsuming individual who really is not happy at the end of the day. We have a crisis in the US with forms of addiction, with increasing suicide rates. I don’t think that anyone could argue that the masses of working class people in the US are happy with their existence. Now is the moment to rethink what we value and think about ways a society that values more time together, more pleasurable activity, would also be a society that is better for the environment.
CM: You write, “We need to ensure that redistribution and the public provisioning of goods and services like transit and healthcare would offset the increased costs of some consumer items.” Is that the hardest message to convey to people who are skeptical about the near-term impact of climate change? That is, convincing them that public provisioning of goods and services like transit and healthcare would offset any increased costs, including taxes? Is that the most difficult thing to change people’s minds on, that taxes and public funding will be offset by lower costs?
TR: Some interesting new survey data by the organization Data For Progress shows, surprisingly to me, that Americans they surveyed are in favor of increasing taxes (on the wealthy—not on everybody, but on the ultra-rich) in order to fund a Green New Deal. It might not surprise someone on the left that people would support that, but we both know that there’s a very deep anti-tax sentiment in the US, and even when you make it clear that it won’t effect them but only the better-off, people are still hesitant to support tax increases. But this interesting new data shows that there is growing support for tax increases to fund a Green New Deal, so long as those tax increases are progressive in nature and affect the one percent. So attitudes on that are shifting a bit, in interesting ways, and a leftwing project around the Green New Deal could further shift that social opinion.
That’s one thing; another thing is that right now we (in the US and in many places in the world) are used to artificially cheap forms of consumption. Buying a new cellphone every year, or eating red meat that is super cheap, especially if you get it at a fast food place—that feels cheap to us, but there’s a whole system that makes it artificially cheap. Some of that has to do with the fact that corporations don’t ever pay the full bill for the social and environmental costs of, for example, the factory farm system. Some of it also has to do with the fact that our own tax dollars and government subsidies of industrial agriculture make it artificially cheap. There is a whole set of processes that make our consumption artificially cheap and allow us to consume even while wages are stagnating.
There’s a specific set of policy changes we need both to force corporations to pay the whole cost of their environmental and social harms and also to regulate those industries much more so there are fewer environmental and social harms. But then the issue comes up immediately of people who don’t make very much money and are used to being able to buy some of these things with their income and how prices might increase for food or other consumer goods. Food prices would increase if corporations actually embedded the full cost of their environmental and social impacts into the price.
In order to offset that, we need to think as much as possible about what some scholars call the “social wage,” and what we might call in the US “welfare” or “social provision.” Let’s think about how, with higher taxes on the wealthy, we could fund things like mass transit and social housing, so that each individual isn’t paying so much of their individual income for things that ensure their basic social reproduction, like their home and their transit to work and those sorts of things. As a society, if each individual were paying less because that was socialized, then people could afford to pay a little bit more for some consumer goods and food and things like that, and those consumer goods can reflect more the real social and environmental cost of their production.
CM: You mentioned built-in obsolescence earlier. You write, “We must eat less red meat and devalue the consumption of plastic junk and latest-model cellphones and other tech that not only contribute to social alienation but are tremendously destructive to the planet: manufactured for obsolescence, shipped across great distances in carbon-spewing ships and trucks, and relying on neocolonial patterns of cheapened nature and labor in the Global South.”
To you, what does planned, built-in obsolescence reveal to you about the nature of capitalism today?
TR: It picks up on some of the points that I was making before: that the definition of the individual is as a consumer, and that we are constantly being marketed the next model, and that our very deep identities and affects and ways of being in the world are structured around consuming the latest-model cellphone or the latest-model computer or clothing. Fashion is extremely cheap—artificially cheap for all the reasons I just said, because corporations never pay the full social and environmental cost of the production of this fashion, including the extremely cheapened labor (primarily in the Global South but also in the US) that is the enabling condition for this cheap consumption.
When we try to separate inequality and climate change in our policymaking, we get protest and rioting and disaffection among the public, who feel that they are being burdened by a problem that they did not individually create—if they are not well-off, they contributed basically nothing to this problem.
In this process, we have lost basic relationships and forms of control over the objects in our lives. I have a cellphone. I have no idea how to repair it if something went wrong with it. I wouldn’t even know (in the US at least) where to take it to repair it if the battery stopped working. Basically, we are told that if our thing breaks, we are to buy a new one. This is not the case everywhere in the world; I spent a lot of time in South America researching extractivism, which we’ll get to next, and there are many forms of repair shops that still exist for electronics. But there are fewer and fewer of those types of electronic repair shops in the US, partly because the phones (and tablets and all sorts of things) are designed to be very difficult to repair. They’re designed that way on purpose, in order to encourage people to buy new objects rather than repairing the ones that we have.
There’s an interesting environmental sustainability term, right to repair. Right to repair forces us to think about why we have no control over or relationship to or sense of care about the objects that we have. We throw them out as soon as they falter a little bit, and buy something new. That might be doable for us because of the artificial cheapness of consumer goods, but it’s contributing to mountains and mountains of discarded junk that is not being properly recycled, is not being reused, and is just contributing to global warming in a million ways.
Right now I am studying lithium extraction in South America. Lithium is a key element that goes into all of our rechargeable batteries, whether cellphones or Teslas. Lithium will be a key extractive frontier in the renewable transition, because the more we electrify transit the more we’ll need batteries. There’s a bunch we can go into with regard to the ecological and social impacts of lithium mining. But for now I’ll just say that we could be building infrastructure to recycle batteries now, so that with the coming renewable transition we don’t just throw out these batteries as soon as they’re not working perfectly or holding a charge for as long as we would like, and we reuse them for some other application. This can certainly be done, and there’s a lot of interesting research on battery recycling. But right now, aside from China, most countries in the world don’t really have battery recycling infrastructures. This will create a huge amount of waste once we fully transition to electrified transit, for example.
CM: You write, “Neoliberal climate policy without social justice at the center is a political dead end.” Why is climate policy without social justice at its center a political dead end?
TR: We saw this with the ongoing Yellow Vest movement, which is continuing to protest what was originally a tax increase on fuel in France but has become a broader movement than just that. When policymakers implement things like a carbon price or carbon tax or fuel tax (to some extent with the good intention of incentivizing people to shift away from high carbon to lower or zero carbon forms of energy) without taking into account the unequal societies that already exist and therefore the fact that those costs will be borne unequally unless they are intentionally designed to mitigate that inequality, then people will riot. People will protest, and for good reason. The working class and economically precarious of the world are struggling to meet their day-to-day needs. So something like a carbon tax or a carbon price, without the taking inequality into account and without mitigating that inequality in the design of the policy, is going to elicit protests, or it’s just not going to work. It’s not going to pass as a policy.
This is the genius of the Green New Deal (not that I don’t have critiques of the current proposals contained in the Green New Deal vision). The most important part of the Green New Deal is the way that it explicitly connects climate crisis and climate change to social and economic inequality. I want to note: this is not an invention of the Green New Deal. Climate justice and environmental justice movements for decades have been saying that inequality and climate change are inextricably linked to one another.
The reasons for that are twofold. On the one hand, the most affluent within the US and in the world—both people and entire countries—emit the most carbon. Their lifestyles are the most carbon intensive. They consume the most. They have the most swimming pools, they have the most cars. By the same token, those who consume the least and who have contributed the least to global emissions are the most vulnerable to climate change for other reasons that are also rather obvious once you start to think about it.
There’s a deep relationship between inequality and climate change. That kind of insight also has its political-strategic corollary, which is that we need to address both of these at the same time in our social movement demands and in our public policies. We can’t separate them out, because they are inextricably linked. When we try to separate them out we get reasonable forms of protest and rioting and disaffection among the public who feel that they are being burdened by a problem that they did not individually create—if they are not well-off, they contributed basically nothing to this problem.
CM: You mentioned your work researching extractivism. You start your Dissent Magazine article by writing, “On December 14, 2016, leftist president Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency in the province of Morona Santiago in the Amazonian region of Ecuador, deploying hundreds of troops and national police. This marked the culmination of years of clashes at the site of an open-pit copper mine in the area of San Carlos which indigenous Shuar activists had occupied in protest against the expansion of mining and the threat posed to their territory and livelihoods.”
So local indigenous people were protesting mine expansion that would threaten their homes and lives. What explains why a leftist president would send in the troops? And was this action by Correa a surprise to his supporters, or unpopular?
TR: It was not a surprise. I don’t know if it was a surprise to his loyal base of supporters, but it wasn’t a surprise more broadly. Correa came to power in 2007; my first experience living in Ecuador was the year after that, so throughout my time in Ecuador I observed this process unfold. He was in power for ten years, totally democratically—he won multiple elections. From 2007 to 2017, Rafael Correa was in power along with many other leftwing governments throughout the region which together were called the “Pink Tide.” It’s called that because they weren’t state socialists or revolutionaries, so it’s not the “Red Tide.” They were moving policies in a leftward direction. During that time in Ecuador—and also in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Brazil, countries that currently have or did have leftwing governments—there erupted conflicts between Indigenous and environmental movements and the left in power over the question of the extractive model of development.
This is not a surprise. This was the culmination, and one of the most intense instances, because the military was there and there was a state of emergency for three months, and the Shuar Indigenous people had reoccupied the land that had become a mining camp, so it was a particularly contentious, violent, and intense moment of conflict. But it was by no means the first one. I personally participated in and observed a two-week-long march that went from the Amazon all the way to Quito, seven hundred kilometers, that was sparked by anti-mining protests (although it also ended up involving other demands as well). There was ongoing protest during the Correa administration over this.
This became a real wedge within the left, among movements, among what we call the popular sectors of the marginalized and exploited and excluded in Ecuador. This became a wedge that divided some of those that did benefit during the boom (again, those benefits ended very dramatically once the boom ended) and those who were bearing the immediate social and environmental costs.
Why? I’ll just lay out a little bit of the broader conjuncture. On the one hand, the left was coming to power across Latin America in the Pink Tide. It started with Chávez coming to power in 1999, and for a decade and a half there were left governments ruling over much of the region. In 2009 or 2010, two thirds of the region’s population lived under left-of-center or pretty leftwing governments. That’s a historic change. For anyone familiar with the history of Latin America, in the seventies and eighties there were brutal rightwing dictatorships; in the eighties through the early 2000s in many parts of the region there were neoliberal governments. But it’s right around 2000 when the tide is turned to the left because people were just fed up with neoliberal policies that do not serve them.
So a lot of leftwing governments were elected. Interestingly, and by total historical coincidence, at the same time there was the beginning of what people referred to as the commodity boom. That was literally at the same time, from about 2000 until 2014 when it ended abruptly with the fall in the price of oil. For a decade and a half there were sustained high prices for commodities like soy, gas, gold, copper, oil, all of these primary commodities that also happen to be Latin America’s primary exports.
In a way, this is like a win-win situation. I’m going to put the environment and climate and Indigenous rights to the side for just a moment to explain some of the positive opportunities that this opened up for the left in power, and then I’ll get into the problems with it. There is this positive situation: leftwing governments come to power with tremendous popular support and broad popular mandates, and they have the fiscal resources—the taxes and royalties and rents that come from extractive and agribusiness sectors that are flooding their treasuries with money—to spend on social services, on public infrastructure, on all sorts of things that affect people’s material well-being in a very direct way. They’re able to make good on their economic justice promises, to pull the poor out of poverty, to reduce inequality, to address longstanding issues of joblessness, of sanitation, of education, all sorts of things.
There were really dramatic changes that even institutions we wouldn’t expect, like the World Bank, see positively. A great many people were pulled out of poverty by public policies that used these resource rents, this income from resource extraction, in order to benefit the majority of the population.
One more thing before getting into some of the the deep problems with this model: it wasn’t just the invention of these left governments. I don’t want to start the story of the Pink Tide with these governments coming to power. Before they came to power, there was a decade of social mobilization across the region protesting neoliberal policies. One of the demands (and these demands were really salient in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, countries that are dependent on these primary commodities) was that these resources have long served foreign capitalists and it’s time for them to serve us, it’s time to actually redistribute and democratize and have public ownership and state ownership over these resources so that we can actually benefit from them.
Full expropriation didn’t happen in most cases, but the governments did to a certain extent respond to those demands; instead of using resource rents to benefit or profit foreign corporations, they used them to actually fund social services. I want to note that this was a social movement demand initially.
But what happened was that as this model got intensified, and moved into more and more really environmentally damaging forms of extraction—I’m thinking particularly of large-scale mining, which as we know from the US history and present of mining removes mountaintops, removes entire communities, pollutes water systems. There’s no such thing as sustainable or responsible mining; that’s a corporate discourse. Mining always pollutes. It’s an extremely intensive extractive process. As it became clearer to local communities—oftentimes Indigenous but also campesino or small farmer, mestizo—what the social and environmental costs of this economic and redistributive boom were, they began to protest.
This started, little by little, to become a wedge between some of the very communities and movements that had supported the rise of the left and that had opened up the possibility through their protest of prior neoliberal governments. They began to protest the left. In several cases, but Ecuador is a particularly good example of this, it became very polarized very quickly.
Correa could have negotiated, or he could have decided to slow down the extractive process, or try to think through how to do it with more respect for Indigenous rights and actually consulting Indigenous communities according to international norms and law in Ecuador, and think about how to do this in a way that is less harmful, and less rapid. But that didn’t happen. It got very polarized. On the one hand there was a leftist government with a real wide base of support, because many poor and working class Ecuadorians really benefited from his policies. But there were many who didn’t: communities that because of being Indigenous and rural and peripheral already faced other forms of marginalization just had a new thing to contend with, which was the expansion of large-scale mining.
This became a real wedge within the left, among movements, among what we call the popular sectors of the marginalized and exploited and excluded in Ecuador. This became a wedge that divided some of those that did benefit during the boom (again, those benefits ended very dramatically once the boom ended) and those who were bearing the immediate social and environmental costs. Of course there are also broader planetary environmental costs, because resource extraction as a model of development also contributes to climate change through deforestation and building roads to export and extract primary commodities. So it has planetary effects, but the immediate environmental forms of contamination are what get people to mobilize.
CM: Do leftist governments like the one in Ecuador have a choice in the way they fund their leftist projects? How dependent are Latin American economies on extraction? And why? Does that say something about the colonial relationship?
TR: It does. It is absolutely rooted in colonialism. I teach Latin American politics, and our first week or two of classes is on the initial colonial encounter. That is when this model of rapacious resource extraction begins, first to fund the Spanish empire. But it doesn’t get dramatically changed at all by governments after independence from the Spanish empire. It stays in place.
At some moments in Latin American history, there have been interesting attempts to change this model. In the mid-twentieth century, there were attempts to shift away from primary resource extraction towards more industrialization, and that worked, to some extent in some places. Brazil stands out, maybe Argentina after Brazil in terms of countries that were able to build an industrial base (which has its own environmental costs, I don’t want to downplay that) and be less immediately dependent on the extraction of resources. But that was a short-lived moment of what is called “developmentalism” or state-led industrialization.
Without a healthy ecosystem of organization from below, I don’t think that even a very enlightened leftist state or person can accomplish very much on their own.
Then there were the brutal rightwing dictatorships that I mentioned, and then there was neoliberalism. It’s during the neoliberal moment that the resource extraction sectors were deregulated and foreign investment was courted, and that’s when the model of resource extraction, which has hundreds of years of history, going back to the silver mines of Potosí which funded the Spanish empire, gets really re-entrenched.
It has a longer history, but there are conjunctural changes, and as of the neoliberal period we’re in a period of re-entrenchment. This unfortunately got further deepened while the left was in power because of the very high prices for commodities. It’s understandable that it was hard to resist funding social programs (which again were part of their mandate to come to power) with these commodities that had extraordinarily, unusually high prices.
What could the left have done differently? I want to note that it wasn’t as if no one tried to do anything different. Correa himself (and I he doesn’t get enough attention for this among those who are critical of his extractivist policies) actually did implement some changes to the tax code that made the tax system more progressive and specifically taxed the wealth and capital of the very rich in Ecuador, and also tried to close some of the loopholes that had allowed for evasion of taxes.
We were talking earlier about taxes in the US and people’s anti-tax attitude—this is a big deal in South America as well, and even more so because the states are historically weak and have low institutional capacity in terms of actually collecting taxes, and the rich have never wanted to pay taxes in South America. This is another thing that dates to the early independence era I was just mentioning. There has been a longstanding issue with a lack of a sustainable fiscal base, meaning a lack of income for the state that comes from property and income taxes. This is more sustainable because you know how much property there is and you know how much to tax it and you know how much you’re going to get each year—whereas if your fiscal base is based on the export of primary commodities, each year they might have a different price. They’re very volatile. That decade and a half of high prices was very unusual, and since then we’ve been back to a more normal price volatility for primary commodities.
The trick is to make the income of the state more dependent on taxing the rich. These are extremely unequal societies, so that would also have another benefit, which is reducing the political power of the rich by taking some of their wealth away. But making the fiscal basis of the state more based on taxes rather than based on commodity exports is extremely difficult, just as difficult as the bureaucratic task of building up state capacity to tax the wealthy and make sure that they don’t evade it.
Still, moving in that direction, even if it’s through incremental policy reforms, is extremely important for having an actual pool of money that can be used to spend on the needs of the least well-off and that doesn’t further entrench extractivism.
CM: You write, “When the left is in power, both governments and movements claim the mantle of representing the people and pursuing greater equality. As a result, the left is marked by a dilemma from the position of governance: how do you occupy the state at the same time that you seek to transform it?”
How do you do that? How do you occupy the state at the same time that you seek to transform it? We’ve had recent guests suggest that by fixing capitalism, by reforming it, you’re making an unfair system more powerful; any reform or fix is a re-entrenchment of capitalism; you’re actually enabling the system of oppression that you are fighting against. So, to what extent can the state transform the state, no matter how far left the state is?
TR: The best way to think about this question is to reframe it slightly. I don’t think the state can do anything on its own. Not even with the “best” person in power, with the best party in power and with the best intentions and the best policy plans. Those might have some positive effect, but without a broader ecosystem of social mobilization, of disruptive capacity, of collective power of what we call the 99%, or the popular sectors or the grassroots—without that form of social mobilization and organization, there are many limitations to what the state or a left political party or leader can do on their own. They will inevitably run up against limitations: the power of investors, the power of the ruling class, the power of the powerful.
Even with good intentions, there are limitations. Without having a grassroots movement that has some autonomy from the state—this is important—and some critical distance from the state, that can pressure the state to be as radical as possible but which can also defend left policy advances against the inevitable reaction of the ruling class; without a healthy ecosystem of organization from below, I don’t think that even a very enlightened leftist state or person can accomplish very much on their own.
I agree that there are serious pitfalls and limitations to thinking solely in terms of the state or government or legislative reforms, but I don’t think that that makes those irrelevant. What is important is a difficult-to-achieve dynamic of popular mobilization that has autonomy from the state, isn’t co-opted or an arm of the state, and can therefore push the state to be more radical, can keep the state accountable.
What if Bernie were to come to power? We don’t know, but what if? Or what if a leftwing president, whoever it is in the future, were to come to power in the US? I don’t think that means left movements are no longer necessary. They become even more necessary to keep those politicians accountable, and also to defend gains, when they happen, against the inevitable reaction of the ruling class.
So I would reframe that question slightly and think more broadly in terms of state-society relations, forms of non-state disruptive political activity from below that is pushing the state and is simultaneously defending left gains. When we look back into history and look at experiences of the left in power, whether it’s the recent Pink Tide in Latin America or Allende in Chile in the 1970s or Syriza in Greece—whenever we see examples of the left in power, if we don’t have social movements from below holding politicians accountable and defending the gains that are made, we see that the left is weakened in the state: it’s isolated, and it’s prone to being co-opted or totally limited by the ruling class…or worse, what happened to Allende. We see that coups and military interventions take place.
That dynamic of movements, of the left in resistance and the left in power, is really key to understanding how left projects can be sustainable and transformative over time.
CM: Thea, thank you so much for being on the show.
TR: Thank you.