Thoughts One Can’t Do Without
Over the years, in the process of writing a book, I have remembered an experience from an earlier part of my life that is directly relevant to its topic. The memory often comes quite late in the writing process. Its suppression until that point suggests that the experience shaped the choice of the topic, and also that the delay ensured any such revelation would not jeopardize the narrative. The moment of recall typically comes as an epiphany, so it always invites some self-analysis. But I never found it useful to write about such a personal oddity—at least until now.
Without doubt, what I am referencing belongs to the psychopathology of writing, a field of investigation that has provided no end of fertile material for critical analysts of the creative process. In the fledging years of my career, I had a pronounced interest in psychoanalysis, and so there may have been more reason to reflect on such matters. But once I had learned my lessons from Freud, I decided to “forget” them so that I could see the world through another, less doctrinaire, lens. Of course, Freudians will point out that this is a very Freudian thing to do, since he, better than anyone, understood that repression is fundamental to our capacity to bring order and meaning to the world. We need to forget so much in order to get anything done. But before I go any further with this line of inquiry, let me provide an example of what I have been talking about.
The last book I published was about Palestinian construction workers in the West Bank. Like many of my books, it was a product of circumstances and not the result of any considered plan. Comrades in Decolonize This Place, my arts-activist affinity group, had invited me to help make a film on location in the West Bank. Some of the filming involved interviews with Palestinians crossing the Green Line to work in Israel. In the course of our shoots, I was struck by the spectacle of vast stone quarries on the West Bank’s rolling landscape, and inferred, correctly, that behind them lay a rich, regional history of artisanal stonemasonry. I would also come to learn that Palestine’s picture-book hills harboured some of the best limestone in the world and that the stone industry was a mainstay of the national economy.
In the book [Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel, Verso, 2019], I followed the path of the stone, and the workers, from the quarries through the factories and workshops and on to the construction sites, most of them inside Israel and the West Bank settlements. But I also try to reconstruct the history of Palestinian workers’ longstanding contribution to the built environment. They have had a decisive hand in building most of the assets on the lands “from the river to the sea” that today comprise Israel and the Occupied Territories. Many Middle Eastern countries also benefited from their masonic expertise. Indeed, Palestinians have built almost every state in the region, except, tragically, their own.
But of all the topics that might have attracted my interest in Palestine, what drew me in the first place to these particular workers and to their occupational labor? The revelation, when it came, shed some light on this question. Unlike with the previous epiphanies, I decided to acknowledge this one in the text itself, writing about how my interest in stone had developed during my own experience of construction work and concrete precasting while in school and college. I was able to recall the “sensuous” handling of the cement and crushed stone and noted that the workers I interviewed in Palestine and Israel were basically using the same materials and applying similar know-how on the job. Somehow this intimacy with their occupational labor had consciously escaped me, even though it had presumably helped to conceive the book.
The word I chose to describe the suppressed memory was “latent,” and its relationship to the book is defined as a “personal connection.” Although there are less banal ways of putting it, I decided to treat the revealed memory as mundane, and hoped it would then speak for itself. Why? Because I wanted to believe that solidarity with these workers, and the desire to amplify their voices in the world, were far greater drivers behind the writing of the book than my long-ago experience as a construction worker.
On reflection, however, I realized that these two impulses are not so far apart. Solidarity, at least in its most useful form, has to be earned; it cannot simply be declared, assumed, or adopted, and surely its weakest renderings—often labelled as virtue-signaling—come in the form of tweeting, or adding one’s name to a circulating letter or petition. Engaged writers, artists and intellectuals are routinely faced with this challenge, because we are in a position to amplify the voices of people who do not enjoy the same level of access to the oxygen of publicity. We may choose to take up the cause of the unheard, and become committed, even trusted, advocates of their cause, but, unless we have “skin in the game,” we typically do so with the understanding that we can always walk away. Guilt may leave a residual scar for writers of conscience who abandon a cause in this way, but there are also moral rewards on offer for those who do so. Why? Because the true strength of the open, liberal mind is supposed to lie in its principled capacity to “re-think” a commitment.
In this regard, it is worth distinguishing that kind of risk-free, or optional, advocacy from a deeper and more durable involvement in a cause. Consider the much-cited advisory, attributed to Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist from Queensland: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This kind of caveat is most often issued to well-intentioned “white saviors,” and it can have positive results—investigations of White privilege, for example, that are not merely self-indulgent but which lead to new kinds of relationships with those struggling for their rights and livelihoods. But the transformational spirit of the challenge—which is worth adopting as a general rule—is applicable to anyone who does political work and art.
Over the last decade, I have tried to respond to that challenge by writing several books that break from the paradigm of optional advocacy that is sometimes characterized as parachute research. I think of these as “movement books” based on “militant research” with various groups (like the Gulf Labor Artists Coalition and Strike Debt) that I co-founded and have been active within. Writing of this kind carries risks and responsibilities that do not apply to the task of producing propaganda-style articles or communiques intended to promote movement goals. In documenting and analyzing a movement from a personal stance, accountability to fellow activists is key, as is discretion around details of organizing. But this genre also encourages critiques of internal decision-making and strategy, and these can rub colleagues the wrong way or fray relationships. Even if the goal is to help push the movement further down the road, a point of view that is not collectively endorsed can always expose the author to allegations of breaking ranks or other species of bad faith. But as long as the risk is worth taking, the responsibility to submit movement work to analysis is most authentic when undertaken by an active member.
Writing in this vein has been a way for me to try to live up to the long enduring challenge of integrating theory with practice. Every movement of action needs a movement of ideas to give it shape and political momentum. But they operate at different speeds. For intellectuals, the germination of ideas occurs more slowly and in a different continuum from that of activists who must always make demands on the unfolding present. The trick is to try to synchronize the two, and also to find a voice that is responsive and persuasive to both theory and practice.
Intellectuals and artists who want to be an integral part of a movement also face choices about where to invest our creative energies. It is one to thing to stoke an insurgency by generating graphics or text for organizers and agitators; it is quite another to help imagine how the protest phase of a rebellion can be carried over into a revolutionary reorganization of society.
Breakthroughs of the latter kind are rare, and often depend on the elusive element of good timing. Detroit legend Grace Lee Boggs, whose dialectical politics spoke to the interdependency of evolution and revolution, urged us to be conscious of our historical moment while ushering in a new one. As a prompt, she insisted on posing the question, “what time is it on the clock of the world?” All too often, she warned, the challenge of correcting injustices is met by re-treading old ideas about resistance and change, and the results are all too easily incorporated into structures of power. Because the takeover of power has often resulted in flawed versions of existing states, Boggs reasoned that the more genuinely revolutionary task is to try to live now as we would want to in a future society rather than waiting for it to be realized.1
Boggs’ lesson has resonated most with anarchists who create prefigurative spaces or communities for modelling the liberatory world they desire—in which care, mutuality, and consensus will be golden rules. Naturally, young people are usually better suited to this experimental life. They fear their future is already foreclosed—by student debt, environmental ruination, or total surveillance—and so are more inclined to rise to the challenge of living as they would want. As a result, these spaces tend not to be very transgenerational. As an educator and an ageing activist, I spend a lot of time with people much younger than myself, and so there are moments of Yeatsian wistfulness: “that is no country for old men, the young/ In one another’s arms ….” But to be a radical for life (rather than one who ages in place) means that we must always listen closely to young voices and ideas, and so my better guide in these moments is the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who once described young radicals as “exiles from the future.”
The promise of national liberation has soured so often that I hesitate to reference it in the same breath, but, as a lifelong loyalist to the cause of Scottish independence, I feel obliged to cite Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray’s kindred maxim, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” It is inscribed on the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall, both as an injunction to members of the political class who toil within the building but also to all who want to live the dream now. As a native Scot, I am aware that this recommendation for taking control of one’s historical destiny is steeped in a recognizably national sensibility about the virtues of labor and common sense. After all, hard work, in the Calvinist tradition, is a sign, though by no means a guarantee, of future salvation. Unable to wholly purge the Presbyterian mentalities of my childhood, I find it hard, as a result, to conceive of any program of emancipation that does not involve sustained toil and industry.
What Time Is It?
The most alluring propositions about the timeliness of our actions are less forthright, like the one I will now consider—we make history, but not under conditions of our choosing. Marx is the source of this insight, and it has had a busy career, especially when abstracted from the context in which he first offered it. For example, many people, myself included, have used some version of his maxim as a reassurance to those who see no way out of an oppressive circumstance. Though things are bad, comrades, consider how other people, throughout time, have transformed their hardship into a feat of liberation. But Marx presented the thought as a warning and not as an inspirational dictum. When it appears, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, it is the opening chord of a cautionary lesson about how authoritarians, like the last monarch of France, employ the theatrical exploitation of the past to seize state power:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”
This famous passage is a preface to Marx’s analysis of how a “grotesque mediocrity” like Louis Bonaparte was able to stage a coup d’état, in part, by invoking the memories and trappings of the revolutionary past. There is no shortage of commentary on the text itself—which is a remarkable application of Marx’s materialist method to explain historical events—and it is not my business to add to it here. But I do want to elaborate on some of the uses that I, and others, have made of those comments.
The aphorism that opens the essay and directly precedes this passage is much more well-known; Marx responds to Hegel’s perception that historical events “occur, as it were, twice,” by adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” This adage has entered popular currency in the loose form of “history repeats itself” and is paraphrased for all sorts of humorous purposes. Those versions that mock the pretensions of would-be dictators are closest to Marx’s intent to vanquish any “faith in the superstitious past,” though any person with unrealistic aspirations is fair game.
It is not so easy to make a truism out of “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Yet the insight begs to be applied widely, and, while Marx’s lesson cannot be confined to figureheads of reactionary forces, there are many who fit the bill. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example, launched the modern conservative movement (and elevated neo-liberalism) by refashioning the neo-Maoist 1960s revolt against authority as a crusade against regulatory governmental power. They appropriated socialism’s appeal to the marginalized by promoting “people’s capitalism” and peddling stocks and home ownership to the working class. Their neo-Bonapartist followers went further, picking up the tutelary spirits of the post-war freedom movements, from the era of decolonization and civil rights, and transmuting these energies and sentiments into the doctrine of economic liberalization and its cult of the free market. Up until the 1970s, a libertarian was another name for an anti-authoritarian anarchist. By the turn of the millennium, in the public mind, a libertarian was a laissez- faire proponent of property and gun rights.
Marx’s adage has also been applied, with good reason, to radicals who harbor strong convictions about being on the right side of history. To reinforce our causes, leftists are able to draw on a rich archive of venerated icons, actions, and movements, and we do so to irradiate the present with the glory of the radical tradition. Consciously or not, we are all actors on a pre-built stage, as Marx rightly imagines, wantonly improvising on roles that are also largely pre-scripted. But how do these traditions “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living”? It is a matter of great pride to invoke the example and teachings of the “dead generations” of past rebels, and to know that our actions fall within a lineage of righteous struggle. As Boggs cautioned, however, the danger inherent in this homage lies in the rigid up- take of doctrine. Radical thought and action require constant renewal and innovation if they are to avoid being constrained by what Marx calls the “spirits of the past.” Imagining new ways of being free will yield more change, pound for pound, than looking to ancestors for instruction about present day conditions.
For all of these reasons, I have cherished and quoted Marx’s comment about history-making as a resourceful touchstone. Mostly, however, I adapt it for inspirational purposes—when the odds are stacked against a course of action, it is a useful reminder that the conditions for change are seldom opportune, and always far from ideal. What looks to be an unpromising circumstance is sometimes precisely the setting that yields the most potential.
Gramsci’s aphorism, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” is a spiritual sibling of my motivational version of Marx because it is often cited as a reminder that a repressive status quo always co-exists with liberatory energies. What circumstances could be less encouraging than to be incarcerated for almost a decade, as he was from 1926 to 1935, while watching the forces of Fascism flourish outside your prison walls? In tune with Marx’s analysis of Bonapartism in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Gramsci diagnosed Italian Fascism as a kind of “Caesarism,” which drew on the showy aesthetic spectacle of Rome’s imperial past and spoke directly to the impoverished urban and rural masses. But he was also able to see how Mussolini’s authoritarian populism was an opportunity for socialists to learn how to compete on the same terrain and with the same weapons in the battle over hegemony. For Gramsci, the key to winning popular consent for left-wing ideas from the general population lay in the contest over “national-popular culture.” The fascists had succeeded so well in molding popular cultural genres and folklore into militarist nationalist forms that, without their example, Gramsci’s intuitions about how to win hegemonic influence for the left might not have emerged.
Where do we look for contemporary illustrations of these insights into the “cunning of history”? There are few better examples than the mass outbreak of Black Lives Matter-inspired street protests and actions that spread across the United States and other countries, beginning in May 2020. The self-isolating circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown and the accompanying panic about social proximity suggested that this would be the least likely moment for people to assemble in large crowds and engage in close-encounter confrontations with armed police forces. Yet that is exactly what occurred. Nor did the Trump administration’s full-throated promotion of White nationalist sentiments give any reason to expect that the tide would turn so forcefully in the opposite direction, breaking down the dam of racist intransigence that had held it for so long. But that is also what happened.
The pandemic was expected to breed caution, distrust, and discretion, but it gave way to a public outpouring of righteous emotion and action. It delivered changes in laws, institutional culture, and everyday conduct that were unimaginable just months before. At the core of movement actions that summoned up vast, multiracial crowds were groups of young Black organizers, learning on the job, and flush with the knowledge that tipping points like this are rare, and in this case, so long overdue. Already aware of the coming backlash—because White America always delivers one, or, as Malcolm X once put it, “racism is like a Cadillac, they make a new model every year”—they were able to say, “This is Our Time,” while summoning up the spirit of Emancipation. This was a moment for expanding the political imagination, and so the call to “defund the police” had to be publicly explained as an abolitionist program that went far beyond the bureaucratic domain of budget cuts. In this context, abolition is conceived in the most wide-ranging sense of creating a society where policing and incarceration are no longer necessary. As the coronavirus recession triggered a wave of evictions and foreclosures, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown renters and homeowners, the movement’s energy flowed into housing justice, and, when the educational system began to implode under pandemic pressure, into the ongoing fight for student debt abolition.
But what made this moment so opportune? Why was it able to deliver a racial breakthrough that had been stonewalled so many times before? Ever since the 2003 mass global mobilization against the Iraq War, large-scale protests, occupations, and marches have proliferated in cities all over the world: the Color Revolutions, the Arab Spring and Winter, Occupy Wall Street, the 2017 Women’s March, the multi-year Hong Kong protests, School Strikes for Climate, the Gilet Jaunes, general strikes in India, Spain, and Brazil, mass student and anti-austerity protests, among countless others. Few of them generated palpable wins. May 2020 felt different, largely because of the geographical reach into mainstream America—more than 600 towns and cities saw protests—and its rolling impact on race relations in many other countries. So, too, the immediacy of the responses from centers of state authority was unprecedented. Some commentators, surprised and gratified by the reformist responses, looked to Martin Luther King’s reassuring words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Others, more inclined to seeing history as a constant struggle, saw the moment as only a first step toward a more radical reconfiguring of society, and proclaimed the need for the rebellion to turn into a revolution. In the United States, carrying through with that program would require confronting a national history that has consigned so many earlier efforts, including Reconstruction itself, to the graveyard. Would that long-deferred reckoning with the past mire the movement in reparative responses, however much needed? Or would it also fuel the momentum toward a more revolutionary future? Reparations would signal an end to the 400-year history of racial compromise on the part of US lawmakers. Abolishing White supremacy would require a more fundamental program of change.
All states are founded on acts of barbarism, driven by race hate, land greed, or religious revanchism. The origin of settler colonial states is a particularly toxic cocktail of harms. In many of these countries—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and Brazil—the events of May 2020 forced attention on the legacy of their “original sins.” In others, like Israel, where the debts owed to indigenous Palestinians were racked up within living memory, there was no decolonial reckoning. Indeed, at a time when the world was being rocked by the racial uprising, the Israeli government chose to see the rebellion, not as a challenge to its own apartheid policies, but as a distraction to be exploited. The Netanyahu bloc seized the opportunity to advance the Zionist goal of land maximization by declaring that the long-anticipated annexation of the West Bank would move ahead. The timing of the annexation threat at the height of the BLM insurgency inspired calls for a renewal of the pledge of solidarity included in the Movement for Black Lives 2016 platform.3
The transnational relationship dates to the 1960s, when Black Panthers and other Black liberation leaders established strong ties with Palestinian freedom fighters, and saw their struggle as part of the same, world-wide decolonial movement.4 That shared struggle continues today, in the face of US weaponry deployed by Israeli soldiers and American police alike.
At the same time that American officials were under pressure to defund US police forces, Congress approved an aid package of $38 billion (with no strings attached) to Israel and its military forces. Police aggression in the US is funded from the same purse as state violence in Occupied Palestine. West Bank victims of Israeli soldier brutality recognized the maneuver used by American cops when they saw video footage of the killing of George Floyd.5 Where was the political will to abolish these fatal alliances? And how many more would be bankrolled by that $38 billion? While US protesters caught a whiff of radical change, Palestinians were smelling more and more tear gas. The annexation effort, even a piecemeal version of it, was put on hold at the last minute, largely because of the disarray of the Trump administration, and the brokering of normalization deals between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel, but the fruition of Zionist desire to possess the West Bank was that much closer now, if not quite within grasp.
Note: The full text, from the “Thoughts One Can’t Do Without” series, is available from Juxta Press, Via Varese 17 , Milano, Italy. www.juxtapress.it. We are grateful to the editors for permission to publish this excerpt.