Photo Credit: YouTube screenshot
The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its release, opening in more theaters across the country. As the Movement for Black Lives continues to disrupt and challenge the status quo, it also worth noting that 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. This edited excerpt from Sohail Daulatzai’s new book on the legacy of the film reveal only part of the influence The Battle of Algiers had on the Black radical imagination. The excerpt is followed by William Klein’s 1971 documentary on former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the largest antiwar protest in history took place throughout the world. But to no avail. President Bush dismissed the protestors as “a focus group,” unleashing the bombing campaign that was known as “Shock and Awe.” Soon after the invasion, in late 2003, the Pentagon invited the military brass to a screening of The Battle of Algiers, and the teaser read: ”How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
Well before the Pentagon screening, both U.S. Army intelligence operatives and the F.B.I. also screened the film in 1970 to try to silence domestic and global threats to U.S. power. The film was used as a training tool by the U.S. military as part of “Operation Phoenix,” and its larger strategy for the “pacification of Vietnam,” while the FBI screened it at the height of its vicious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which included the destabilization of leftist groups in the United States through the use of targeted assassination, disinformation campaigns, false arrests and the imprisonment of Black Panther Party members, in particular.
While security states were screening the film throughout the world, The Battle of Algiers was also embraced by a range of different leftist groups including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers. In the United States, it was a favorite among the Weather Underground, Arab students organizing in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and later in the 1990s as Chicano activists in Los Angeles mobilized around the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. In the 1960s and ’70s, the film was required viewing for the Black Panther Party, whose liberationist politics were linked to the anticolonial Third Worldism of Vietnam, Palestine, Cuba, and elsewhere.
This embrace of the film by the Panthers was part of a longer history of Black radical solidarity with internationalist struggles in general, and Algeria in particular. As Stokely Carmichael said, “Black Power means that we see ourselves as part of the Third World; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggle around the world.” And he was far from the exception. Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver said, “From its inception, the Black Panther Party saw the condition of Blacks in an international context, recognizing that the same racist imperialism that people in Africa, Asia, Latin America were fighting against was victimizing Blacks in the United States.”
Writers and activists from Hoyt Fuller to Martin Luther King had expressed admiration and solidarity with the Algerian struggle, viewing Black struggles in the U.S. in the context of anti-colonial rebellion taking place worldwide. James Baldwin also commented on Algeria and France’s brutal colonial war. He made many trips to Paris, and he often made reference to the violent mistreatment of Algerians in Paris, including the infamous Papon Massacre in October 1961 in Paris. Baldwin would write, “Algeria was French only insofar as French power had decreed it to be French. It existed on the European map only insofar as European power had placed it there. It is power, not justice, which keeps rearranging the map, and the Algerians were not fighting the French for justice but for the power to determine their own destinies.”
Malcolm X would also weigh in when discussing policing of Black people in Harlem, “Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state, and that is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state, the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army. … The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort to terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Negro community.”
Theaters of War
The Battle of Algiers would screen at the New York Film Festival in September 1967, just after massive riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit had rocked the country. As the winds of Black Power began to gust, fanning the flames of urban unrest, Newsweek magazine reported, “Many young Negroes cheered or laughed knowingly at each terrorist attack on the French, as if The Battle of Algiers were a textbook and prophecy of urban guerrilla warfare to come.” Three years later, at a screening of the film at the Thalia on the Upper West Side, the New York Times reported that there was “laughter and applause when bombs planted by Algerian women destroyed restaurants frequented by the French,” and “at one point a cry of ‘the United States is next’ rang through the small movie house.”
The film would also be screened in 1969 at Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House in Newark, New Jersey, which was the unofficial mecca of the Black Arts Movement. Formed the day after the assassination of Malcolm X, and hoping to extend the legacy of his revolutionary spirit, Amiri Baraka and others saw the Black Arts Movement as a vehicle in which poetry, literature, theater, music, and film were central to Black liberation. The Battle of Algiers was part of a series of films and performances that also included the 1964 film The Dutchman (based on Baraka’s play) and the 1968 documentary on the Spirit House called The New-Ark, a triple feature of radical films that reflected the global sensibilities of the era.
Emory Douglas, who was minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, and whose graphic artwork was the basis of the official newspaper The Black Panther, traveled to Algeria in 1969 and was there when Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver emerged in Algiers for the first annual Pan-African Cultural Festival. In my conversation with Douglas, he said that, at the time, The Battle of Algierswas the most influential film in his life, helping to shape his artistic and political vision “because it did what I was trying to do with the Panthers—create a culture of resistance through art.” Not surprisingly, the Panthers would use Algiers as the site to open the first International Section of the Black Panther Party due to their admiration of Frantz Fanon and the Algerian struggle of which he was a part, while in 1970, Francee Covington would write an essay titled “Are the Revolutionary Techniques Employed in The Battle of Algiers Applicable in Harlem?” in the seminal anthology The Black Woman.
The film would also emerge as part of a much covered and controversial 1971 trial in New York City of what was known as the Panther 21, one of whom was Afeni Shakur, mother of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, with whom she was pregnant at the time. Charged—and acquitted—of conspiring to explode bombs at department stores, police stations, and other locations throughout the city, the Panthers had reportedly drawn their inspiration for this plot from the film. During the trial, the prosecutor, in an attempt to sway the jury toward a conviction, showed the film to the jurors. Twice during the courtroom screening, when the French offered an Algerian rebel a fair trial, several Panthers laughed at what could only be assumed was the deep irony and parallel nature of their respective predicaments. For some of the jurors, the responses were equally striking. For juror Joe Rainato, this would be his fourth viewing. Another juror, Ben Giles, said the showing “saved me $3.50 because I was going to see it after the trial anyway,” and juror Ed Kennebeck, who was now seeing the film for a third time, said, “The film did more to help me see things from the defense point of view than the D.A. suspected.”
Many Black activists saw in Ali La Pointe a mirror of Malcolm X—both were street hustler who were radicalized in prison and went on to become revolutionary heroes. Lerone Bennett, who was a vocal critic of Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for what he saw as the film’s troubling and confusing political impulses, said “some will say: ‘you are criticizing the man (Van Peebles) for not filming The Battle of Algiers. How could he film The Battle of Algiers when there had been no battle of Algiers in America?” But that is precisely the point. There has been a Battle of Watts in America, and a Battle of Newark, and a Battle of Detroit. A Malcolm lived in Harlem, a King in Atlanta, and Angela Davis is in a California prison. And it is impossible to make a revolutionary black film in America without taking these realities into consideration.”
This brief alternative history to the film is vital if we are to grasp any lessons from it for today. The screening of the film at the Pentagon in 2003 and the racial logic of the “War on Terror” have sought to control the memory of The Battle of Algiers and, at the same time, have negated the central questions and concerns that decolonization, Black Power and the Third World Project sought to address: structural global inequality, racial capitalism resulting in wealth and resource exploitation of the non-white world; the policing and containment of Black life, continued military interventions into and destabilization of the Third World; and deeply entrenched asymmetries in diplomatic, political, and economic power between the West and the Global South. It is these structural violences that now sit at the heart of the “War on Terror,” and it is their systematic silencing of which The Battle of Algiers continues to be a haunting reminder.
Excerpt reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Press from Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue by Sohail Daulatzai (Forerunners: Ideas First series). Copyright 2016 by Sohail Daulatzai.
21 October 2016
In the aftermath of the final presidential debate on Wednesday, the US media is in an uproar over statements made by Republican candidate Donald Trump that he might not recognize the result of the November 8 election.
Asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace from Fox News whether he would “absolutely accept the result of this election,” Trump replied that he would “look at it at the time,” and would “keep you in suspense.” On Thursday, Trump climbed down on his remarks somewhat, saying that he would “accept a clear election result.” However, arguing that Clinton “is the most corrupt and dishonest person ever to seek office,” he added that he would reserve the right “to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.”
Trump’s comments at the debate are in line with previous statements that the election is rigged by the media in favor of Clinton, and his assertions, which clearly have racist overtones, that millions of Americans, particularly in urban centers, are voting illegally. He is pitching his appeal to conditions that will develop after the elections, seeking to channel social anger and hostility to the entire political system in an extremely right-wing direction.
From the media and dominant sections of the political establishment, the response has been universal condemnation of Trump for besmirching the purity of American democracy. The Washington Post proclaimed that “respecting the will of the voters has since the end of the Civil War allowed for a peaceful transition of power that has made this country the envy of the world.” The New York Times added that Trump has turned from “insulting the intelligence of the American voter to insulting American democracy itself.”
Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement declaring that a concession to the victor in an election is “an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility.” And Vice President Joe Biden, donning the mantle of sanctimonious outrage, said in a speech on Thursday, “If you question, if you assert that a democratic election is fixed, you are attacking the very essence of the notion of whether we have a democratic system.”
These statements from newspaper editorial boards and leading politicians reek of hypocrisy. They also express a nervousness whose causes extend far beyond the comments of Mr. Trump. The political representatives of the ruling class are rushing to the defense of a political system that is increasingly seen as illegitimate by broad sections of the population.
From a historical standpoint, it must first of all be pointed out that until the middle of the 20th century every election in the United States was “fixed,” insofar as large portions of the population were barred from voting. Women were only given the right to vote in 1920. The systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South—through poll taxes, Jim Crow segregation and other measures—was only ended in the mid-1960s, a byproduct of the immense social struggles of that period. And it was only in 1971 that the age of eligibility for the franchise was lowered from 21 to 18. Until then, young men could be drafted to fight and die in wars at the order of a commander-in-chief they could not vote for.
For the past four decades, democratic forms of rule have been under systematic attack, in line with the extreme growth of social inequality. A turning point came with the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton over a sex scandal in 1998 and 1999, followed by the theft of the election in 2000. To the extent that the 2000 elections are mentioned at all in the present discussion over Trump’s comments, it is to praise Al Gore’s “respect for the process” in accepting the Supreme Court decision to hand the election to George W. Bush.
In fact, the 5-4 decision by the highest court in the country to halt the recounting of ballots in Florida installed in office an individual who lost the popular vote and, if all the ballots had been fairly counted, the electoral vote as well. In one of the decisions culminating in this travesty of democracy, the Supreme Court asserted that the American people have no constitutional right to vote for the president of the United States. The rigging of the 2000 election was carried out, not in the back room of a county courthouse, but by the highest court in the land.
In early December 2000, in advance of the decision in Bush v. Gore, WSWS editorial board chairman David North noted that the decision would reveal “how far the American ruling class is prepared to go in breaking with traditional bourgeois-democratic and constitutional norms.” In the end, the blatantly political action by Supreme Court was met with no serious opposition from the Democratic Party and Gore, or from the media and political establishment as a whole. The outcome, as the WSWS wrote at the time, “revealed the lack of any significant constituency within the ruling elite for a democratic adjudication of the presidential election.”
The ruling class has demonstrated its contempt for democracy through its actions over the past decade and a half. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were followed, under Bush and then Obama, by a raft of anti-democratic measures justified by the “war on terror”: the Patriot Act; warrantless mass surveillance; indefinite detention without trial; torture and “extraordinary rendition”; drone assassination, including of US citizens; the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the Northern Command, a military jurisdiction to oversee the increasing domestic use of the military. To this list must be added a militarized police force that kills more than 1,000 Americans every year.
As for the electoral process, Supreme Court decisions have undermined the Voting Rights Act and sanctioned state laws requiring photo IDs and other restrictions aimed at disenfranchising poor, elderly and minority voters. Some 6 million citizens (one out of every 40 eligible voters) are barred from voting due to previous felony convictions. The Citizens United decision in 2010 abolished restrictions on big business financing of candidates and their political action committees. It is estimated that more than $7 billion has been spent on the 2016 elections, all told, twice what was spent in 2012.
Everything is done to prevent independent and third-party candidates from having their names appear on the ballot, including requirements that they gather tens or even hundreds of thousands of signatures. Many states will not even count write-in votes. Meanwhile, the media works to ensure that the official “debate” remains safely confined to the narrow framework acceptable to the ruling class.
“American democracy” is a hollowed-out shell, overseen by two parties that are controlled by the financial oligarchy and the military. The experience of the Obama administration—which came to power promising “change you can believe in”—has only demonstrated to millions of people that their vote has no impact on the policies of the ruling class.
The protracted decay of American democracy has culminated in the election of 2016, a contest between a millionaire scion of the Clinton dynasty and a billionaire real estate speculator and reality television star.
Trump himself is a product of a diseased social and political system, the legitimate heir of the “war on terror.” As for Clinton, she is merely another expression of the same disease, running her campaign on the basis of the same scandal-mongering used by the Republicans against her husband, combined with McCarthyite smears that have a long and noxious history.
The Democrats’ stock response to any question about leaked emails exposing Clinton’s ties to Wall Street is to change the subject to the completely unsubstantiated claim that it is all the handiwork of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Trump has said that he might not accept the election as legitimate, if Clinton is defeated the Democrats will declare that it is the result of Russia’s interference in the electoral process.
Behind the whole rotten process, the fundamental issues are covered up or ignored. The reality of American “democracy” can perhaps be summed up in the fact that, three weeks before November 8, the American military has launched a massive military escalation in the Middle East, and there is no significant discussion about the consequences in an election that is supposedly the principal means through which the population can affect policy.
The crisis of democracy is a product of the decay of American capitalism, overseen by a ruling class that is determined to advance a policy of war abroad and austerity at home—a policy that requires ever greater attacks on democratic forms of rule. Whatever happens on November 8, it will resolve nothing, and only set the stage for a protracted political crisis that can be resolved only through the independent intervention of the working class on the basis of a revolutionary socialist program.
“This is not my natural habitat”
Street art in Bali, Indonesia,
by artist Kas Art.
Photo by Kas Art.
Donald Trump is so despicable that no one is paying attention to what Hillary Clinton actually stands for.think that should stop.
DONALD TRUMP proved once again in the final presidential debate that he’s the secret weapon…of the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
The nominee of what was once the leading party of American capitalism again went out of his way to piss off even Republicans who haven’t retracted their endorsement of him.
His own running mate repudiated his unhinged nonsense about the election being rigged against him–so Trump insisted Wednesday night that he couldn’t promise to abide by the results of the election. The audiotape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women has repulsed women voters especially, so Trump sneered about every allegation–and nonchalantly acknowledged that as president, he would pack the U.S. Supreme Court with right-wing justices who would overturn legal abortion.
We’re in uncharted territory–it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will do worse on November 8 than any major-party candidate in modern political history.
But maybe even more incredible is the fact that the other major-party candidate on the ballot in three weeks’ time could be setting records herself if her opponent wasn’t Donald Trump.
As repellant as he is, lots of people seem ready to choose interstellar catastrophe over voting for Hillary Clinton. A recent poll of 18- to 35-year-olds inspired by the Twitter hashtag #GiantMeteor2016 found that one in four young respondents would rather a giant meteor destroy the Earth than see either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the White House.
The public demonstrations of hatred toward Trump are heartening–anti-sexist protesters in New York City and Chicago chanting “Pussy grabs back!” outside Trump skyscrapers, and culinary workers building their own “wall” of taco trucks at a Trump hotel near the debate site in Las Vegas.
But at the same time, every new outrage involving Trump means people pay less attention to the outrages of a Democratic presidential nominee whose top staff responded to the critique of a Black Lives Matter activist with the single word “Yuck,” as we know thanks to WikiLeaks.
The Democrats have happily stood silent while Trump’s gross behavior sets the terms of the debate. Clinton could easily take over the spotlight from Trump and challenge his reactionary bluster. But she’s infinitely more confortable with a campaign centered on how much she’s not like her opponent, rather than what she stands for.
You’ve probably heard from any number of Clinton supporters–your friends, your family, fellow unionists, members of the feminist organization you support–that this election isn’t about voting for what you believe in, but against what you definitely don’t believe in.
But each time the Trump campaign lurches and careens to the right, it takes the heat off the Clinton campaign to defend its candidate’s agenda.
So let’s take a break from the regularly scheduled Trump train wreck and talk about what Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party ought to be held accountable for. You heard about some of it in the debate last night, but if the Clinton campaign has its way, you won’t hear much more before November 8–as long as Trump cooperates with his ongoing horror show.
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A Friend of Immigrants in the White House?
Immigration came up in the debate last night, but for anyone who cares about the issue, it wasn’t much of a discussion–especially after Hillary Clinton avoided a question about free trade and borders by blaming the Russkies for hacking her e-mails again.
Clinton could have called out Trump’s deplorable racism. He began his campaign by calling Mexicans immigrants “rapists” and vowing to build a border wall. His latest xenophobia includes a promise to institute “extreme vetting” on Muslims who want to enter the U.S.
But let’s stick to our theme today: What about Clinton?
On enforcement, Clinton joins Republican and Democratic politicians alike in calling for tougher border controls. In 2013, she supported legislation that included a path to citizenship, as she said in the debate–but on the condition that billions of dollars be devoted to new surveillance equipment and fencing (otherwise known as a wall) along the Mexican border, along with 20,000 more border agents.
The consequences of these policies are deadly. Since January, officials say that fewer people attempted to illegally cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but more have died trying to make the journey. According to the Pima County medical examiner in Arizona, 117 bodies have been recovered along migration routes in southern Arizona so far this year, an increase over last year.
This is the true face of Clinton’s promise to “protect our borders”–death and misery for people fleeing persecution and poverty.
Clinton supporters focus on the nightmare of a Trump presidency for immigrants. But the nightmare is already happening. Trump may have blustered about the actual number, but it’s true that Barack Obama has presided over the deportation of well over 2 million people, more than all the presidents of the 20th century combined.
And forfeiting immigrant lives in the name of border security is hardly unique to the latest Democrat in the White House. It was Bill Clinton who imposed “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, pandering to the right wing by pouring more millions into border enforcement and, yes, wall-building.
With friends like these…well, you know the rest.
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What Clinton Told Goldman Sachs
Okay, okay, the real news story is how WikiLeaks got hold of e-mails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and transcripts of Clinton’s paid speeches, not what was in them. Clinton herself said the most important question of the final debate was whether Trump would condemn Russian espionage to hack her e-mails.
But hey, bear with us.
It’s not news that Clinton has deep ties to Corporate America going back decades. But with Clinton touring the country and telling her supporters that America is “already great,” it’s worth remembering who America is really great for.
In a speech at Goldman Sachs three years ago, Clinton did everything but apologize for the weak banking regulations imposed in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. “More thought has to be given to the process and transactions and regulations so that we don’t kill or maim what works, but we concentrate on the most effective way of moving forward with the brainpower and the financial power that exists here,” Clinton pandered to an audience of banksters.
Explaining that Dodd-Frank bill was passed for “political” reasons, Clinton assured the investment bank aptly referred to in 2010 as “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” that she believes the best overseers of Wall Street are…wait for it…Wall Street itself.
“There’s nothing magic about regulations–too much is bad, too little is bad,” Clinton said, and one assumes that she emphasized the “too much is bad” part.
For all the working-class families who bore the burden of underwater mortgages during the housing crisis, Clinton has signaled, if anyone was still wondering, whose side she’s on–the parasites on Wall Street.
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The Return of Roe
Remember reproductive rights? It was pretty shocking to hear the words “abortion” or “Roe” and “Wade” uttered in last night’s debate. So far this election, we’ve heard precious little about this essential health care question for women.
It’s not for a lack of things to talk about–Texas shuttering its clinics becaue of punitive legislative restrictions, an Indiana woman facing murder charges for having a miscarriage, congressional Republicans smearing Planned Parenthood with fabricated video.
But you wouldn’t know about any of that from the two presidential candidates, including the Democrat who says she supports a woman’s right to choose.
Last night, Trump admitted that he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would, without doubt, overturn legal abortion. By comparison, Clinton seemed, well, actually human. But as a result, the limitations of her defense of the right to legal abortion, now and in the past, were overshadowed.
Clinton helped perfect the modern-day Democratic strategy of searching for “common ground” with conservatives on the issue of abortion–an issue on which any sincere defender of women’s rights shouldn’t find common anything with the right. She helped coin the slogan of “safe, legal and rare” as the goal of pro-choice Democrats.
The “common ground” arguments haven’t saved reproductive rights–instead, they’ve given up ideological ground to the right and made the pro-choice side weaker.
If you want to know how important reproductive rights are to Hillary Clinton, look at her vice presidential choice Tim Kaine. In 2005, he ran for Virginia governor promising to lower the number of abortions in the state by promoting abstinence-only education. The state’s chapter of NARAL withheld their endorsement because he “embraces many of the restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.”
But of course, nothing is getting in the way of the mainstream women’s organizations backing the Clinton-Kaine ticket to the hilt this year. They don’t care if reproductive rights are part of the debate. But a lot of women out there do–and many of them are fed up with the way the Democrats take them for granted at election time, and don’t lift a finger to stem the attacks when they come.
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Remember the $15 Minimum Wage and All That Socialist Stuff?
It’s almost obliterated from our memory, thanks to the monstrosity that is Donald Trump, but during the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton had to talk about some of the issues that supporters of the Democratic Party care about
The socialist message of the Bernie Sanders campaign put these questions in the spotlight and forced the most corporate of Democrats to address them–and also answer for her own terrible record on a number of things that didn’t come up at the debate. For a time, the brewing anger at corporate greed and the corrupt political status quo–given expression in grassroots movements like the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter–found a voice in the political mainstream.
With a few weeks to go before the election, that seems like a long time ago.
Part of the reason is Hillary Clinton, but another part is Bernie Sanders. He’s stopped his sharp criticisms of Clinton and tells his supporters that now is the time to stop Trump, not make demands on Clinton. In the debate, when Trump repeated one of his routine sound bites about Sanders saying Clinton had “bad judgment,” Clinton smiled smugly and pointed out that Sanders was campaigning and urging a vote for her.
There were many issues that Clinton had to address this year only because people mobilized to make sure they couldn’t be ignored–like anti-racist activists who made sure she was reminded of her support for Bill Clinton’s crime bills, or Palestinian rights supporters who confronted her support for Israeli apartheid.
Those issues were invisible at the October 19 debate, but so were many others that people care about. They don’t come up within the narrow confines of mainstream politics in the U.S.–where the politics of fear of what’s worse forces voters to settle for what’s hopefully less bad.
The two-party duopoly is organized to squash political debate and dissent outside the mainstream–which is why it’s up to us to raise both, before the election between Clinton and Trump is decided, and especially after.
In 1946, George Orwell pondered the fragility of the capitalist order.
Reviewing the work of the influential theorist James Burnham, Orwell presaged several concepts that would later form the groundwork for his best-known novel, 1984.
“Not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.”
In his book The Managerial Revolution, Burnham envisioned, as Orwell put it, “a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production.”
“The real question,” Orwell adds, “is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.”
While Orwell was wary of Burnham’s worldview and of his more specific predictions, he agreed that the relationship between capitalism and democracy has always been, and always will be, a precarious one.
“For quite fifty years past,” Orwell noted, “the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy.”
Pointing to the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few and acknowledging “the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state,” Orwell was far from optimistic about the future — but he was quite certain that the economic status quo would eventually give way.
Recent events, and the material circumstances of much of the world’s population, have prompted serious examinations of the same questions Orwell was considering seven decades ago. And though it appears as if rumors of capitalism’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated, there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.
Widespread discontent over stagnant incomes and the uneven prosperity brought about by neoliberal globalization has, in 2016, come to a head in striking fashion; Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe have many questioning previously sacred assumptions.
“Is the marriage between liberal democracy and global capitalism an enduring one?” asked Martin Wolf, a formidable commentator in one of the world’s leading business papers, the Financial Times.
This was no rhetorical softball; Wolf is genuinely concerned that the winners of globalization have grown complacent, that they have “taken for granted” a couple that was only tenuously compatible to begin with. He also worries, rightly, that they have downplayed the concerns of the “losers.”
Wolf concludes that “if the legitimacy of our democratic political systems is to be maintained, economic policy must be orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few; in the first place would be the citizenry, to whom the politicians are accountable.”
Not all members of the commentariat share Wolf’s willingness to engage with these cherished assumptions, however. Indeed, many analysts have reserved their ire not for failing institutions or policies but for the public, reviving Walter Lippmann’s characterization of the masses as a “bewildered herd” that, if left to its own devices, is sure to usher in a regime of chaos.
Apologists like Traub and Barro — just two among many — speak and write as if the leash previously restraining the “herd” has been loosened, and that the resulting freedom has laid bare what elitists have long believed to be the case: To use Barro’s infamous words, “Elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person.” They point to the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of an intolerable democratic surplus — evidence, in short, of what the masses will do if granted a loud enough voice.
Aside from being conveniently self-serving, this narrative is also false.
Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to an unprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions. The resulting concentration of wealth and political power is jarring, and it puts the lie to the farcical notion that elites are a persecuted minority.
But, in the midst of these anti-democratic diatribes, fascinating and important critiques of a rather different nature have emerged.
“Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to anunprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions.”
Instead of urging us to align Against Democracy, to use the name of a recent book by the libertarian political philosopher Jason Brennan, many are arguing that it is capitalism, and not the excesses of the democratic process, that has provided figures like Trump a launching pad.
In his book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason argues that the rapid emergence of information technology has corroded the boundaries of the market; “capitalism,” he insists, “has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” And its attempts to reach beyond these limits have fostered an economic environment defined by instability, crippling austerity for the many, and rapid accumulation of wealth for the few.
According to Oxfam, the global 1 percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. CEO pay has continued to soar. And though post-crisis reforms have carried soaring promises of stability, the financial sector is still far too large, and many of the banks harmed by the crash they created are back and nearly as powerful as ever.
Mason summarizes: “According to the OECD, growth in the developed world will be ‘weak’ for the next fifty years. Inequality will rise by 40 per cent. Even in the developing countries, the current dynamism will be exhausted by 2060.”
“The OECD’s economists were too polite to say it,” he adds, “so let’s spell it out: for the developed world the best of capitalism is behind us, and for the rest it will be over in our lifetime.”
Sociologist Peter Frase, in his new book Four Futures, implicitly agrees with many of Mason’s key points, but he then takes up the task of looking further ahead, of contemplating possible futures that hinge largely upon how we respond to the crises we are likely to face in the coming years.
For Frase, not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.
Central to Four Futures are what Frase calls the “[t]wo specters…haunting Earth in the twenty-first century” — “the specters of environmental catastrophe and automation.”
Rather than attempting to predict the future, Frase — guided by Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” — lays out potential, contingent scenarios. And while Mason’s book exudes optimism about the advancement of information technology and automation, Frase is more cautious.
“To the extent that the rich are able to maintain their power,” Frase writes, “we will live in a world where they enjoy the benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction—if we can survive at all.” And, “To the extent that we can move toward a world of greater equality, then the future will be characterized by some combination of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity, depending on where we are on the other, ecological dimension.”
It comes down, in short, to who wins the class struggle. “I am a very old-fashioned Marxist in that way,” Frase remarked in a recent interview.
None of the futures Frase maps out are inevitable, the result of historical forces that are beyond our control. He is contemptuous of those who cling to “secular eschatology”; capitalism’s collapse, he notes, will not likely be the result of a single, revolutionary moment.
In expressing this view he aligns with Wolfgang Streeck, who has argued that capitalism is “a social system in chronic disrepair,” and that while “we cannot know when and how exactly capitalism will disappear and what will succeed it,” we can know that a system that depends on endless growth and the elimination of all restraints will eventually self-destruct.
The disappearance of capitalism, though, as Orwell understood, does not necessarily imply the emergence of an egalitarian society, one in which resources are shared for the benefit of the many. But while few agree on precisely how to establish the framework for such a society, there are, Mason and Frase argue, policies that can move us in the right direction.
Both, for instance, support the idea of a universal basic income, which, in Frase’s words, would “create a situation in which it possible to survive without depending on selling your labor to anyone who will pay for it,” making automation a path to liberation, not destitution. And Mason rightly argues that, in order to avert catastrophic warming, we must radically reduce carbon emissions.
But the usual political obstacles remain, as does the fact that the “winners” are not likely to hand over their gains, or their positions of power and influence, without a fight. We cannot, then, passively rely on amoral forces like technology to bring about the necessary change.
“Technological developments give a context for social transformations,” Frase writes, “but they never determine them directly; change is always mediated by the power struggles between organized masses of people.”
The future is necessarily disobedient; it rarely conforms to even the most meticulous theoretical anticipations, to say nothing of our deepest desires or fears.
But one thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined. The health of the latter depends on our ability to dismantle the former, and on our ability to construct an alternative that radically alters our course, which is at present leading us toward catastrophe.
“One thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined.”
Whether the path to which we are ultimately confined is one that leads to a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare is contingent upon our ability to connect the struggles that currently occupy the left — those fighting for the right to organize are confronting, at bottom, the same forces as those working to prevent the plunder of sacred land.
There are reasons to be both hopeful and pessimistic about the prospects of these struggles.
The campaign of Bernie Sanders, and the movements that emerged before it and alongside it, revealed that there is a large base of support for social democratic changes that, if enacted, would move us in the right direction.
The obstacles, however, are immense, as is the arithmetic: As Bill McKibben has noted, “The future of humanity depends on math,” and the climate math we face is “ominous.”
But, as Noam Chomsky has argued, the debate over the choice between pessimism and optimism is really no debate at all.
“We have two choices,” he concludes. “We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.”