Universalizing Resistance: To Fight Trump, Fight the System
In his new book, “Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance,” Prof. Charlie Derber says progressive movements must work together to confront interconnected hierarchies of power, because smaller issues are intertwined with a larger system; you can’t confront one problem without confronting them all
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. President Donald Trump just signed his main legislative achievement, a radical tax reform, and thereby gave corporate Americans and the top 1% a huge Christmas gift. It’s the most far reaching tax reform in decades and is predicted to further deepen the already massive inequality in the U.S. What can ordinary citizens who disagree with Trump’s policies, and more broadly with the directions the U.S. has been taking over the past several decades, do about all of this?
Well, one writer who is attempting to answer this question is Professor Charlie Derber. Charlie is Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of numerous books on political economy, political sociology, environmental sociology, and social change. His most recent book, just published by Routledge, is ‘Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Change and Democracy in Perilous Times.’ He joins us from Boston, Massachusetts today.
CHARLES DERBER: Hi Greg. Thanks for inviting me.
GREGORY WILPERT: Your book is divided into three main parts: an analysis of the system in which we live today, a proposal for how to overcome the system, and third, some concrete proposals on what people can do. Let’s go through each one of these step by step.
First, you call the system in which we currently live “militarized corporate capitalism.” What do you see as being the main features of this system?
CHARLES DERBER: Well, I think the most important point is that it is a system. I think the mainstream media and actually much of the liberal left, has lost sight of the idea that so many of the big problems we’re dealing with — whether we’re talking about war and militarism, or climate change, or racism, or economic inequality — have lost sight of the fact that we are dealing with an intertwined system in which all these different hierarchies of power based on class and race and gender and so forth — and which connect issues like climate and war and capitalism, has this way of connecting the dots — and recognizing that we have to confront a broader system, which is at the root of all these different problems, has been lost.
What is the nature of this system? First of all, it’s a system of enormously concentrated economic and political power where we have 1% of the population pretty much dominating politics and the political agenda and much of our social and economic life. I think what I’m trying to … If anybody has studied any social science, you might know the word “intersectionality,” which is just a way of talking about connecting the dots: realizing that climate, war, capitalism, racism, are historically, intertwined systems of power, and to deal with one of them you have to deal with all of them. I’m really talking about the system as a highly concentrated form of power in the political and economic system.
GREGORY WILPERT: One of the things that struck me is that you talk about it as being also universalizing, so I just first of all want to ask what does that mean? And secondly, why do you use the concept of universalization instead of perhaps something such as corporate globalization, which was once a pretty common concept that was used both in academia and in the alter-globalization movement. First of all, how is it universalizing, and how is that different perhaps from globalization?
CHARLES DERBER: Well, I’m talking about a much broader phenomenon than geographical globalization. I’m talking about a penetration of systemic institutions and values into every sphere of life. Into the environment, into the family, into our inner psyches, into outer space, into every sphere of our society. Religion, education, healthcare, they’re all being corporatized. They’re all being commodified. They’re all being subjected to power and domination in a violent form, including the environment that we depend on. The consequences are frightening because we’re dealing with the possibility of destruction of all life. We’re losing species. We’re losing the prospects of human life over just decades. I mean by “universalizing” to say the system is not only globalizing: It’s penetrating the outer and inner sinews of all aspects of our being in a way that’s very threatening and unprecedented, historically.
GREGORY WILPERT: I think that certainly makes sense, but one thing I’m wondering about is that on the one hand it sounds like there’s the process also of homogenization. If the military corporate complex or system is penetrating everything in this way, it sounds like it might be homogenizing us in a sense, and that kind of goes against some other trends that we might think about or talk about that specifically has to do with resistance, which is the trend also towards a fragmentation. That we’re losing kind of a sense of solidarity perhaps. How does that fit together?
In other words, on the one hand, this universalization, but on the other hand, are we becoming more fragmented? Which is kind of a theme that you also pick up in your book in terms of the identity politics movements and those kinds of things, and the fact that that resistance, so to speak, to the corporate military system tends to be rather in silos or fragmented. How does that go together, on the one hand the universalization and on the other hand this fragmentation?
CHARLES DERBER: Well, thank you for that question. It’s really important. What I’m arguing is that one of the main problems of the resistance is that at the very moment that the system is universalizing, the contradiction that you point out is very important. The resistance is in many ways fragmented.
Ever since the late 1960s, which I think was the last period when progressive left resistance had a more universalizing character to it, where Martin Luther King finally said, “I need to connect the Civil Rights Movement with the anti-Vietnam War movement with the labor movement of the time, and so forth … Ever since that period, for reasons we can talk about if we have time, the left has fragmented, exactly as you said, largely into a kind of more diffuse and a siloed set of identity communities which don’t really talk to each other or coordinate with each other, nor do they see their particular problems as necessarily intertwined with the larger system.
So let’s take a third-wave feminist like Sheryl Sandberg, the person who’s written so much about “leaning in” as the third-wave feminist approach to liberation. Well, leaning in, meaning for women to break the glass ceiling and to get higher up in the corporation, is not exactly what a liberatory feminism from the left, or a progressive point of view, should be doing, because it’s basically saying each identity community is on its own, struggling to get a bigger piece of the current capitalist pie. And in that sense, it’s actually legitimating the very system that we need, the universalizing system, intersectional system, that we need to be confronting.
You’ve identified in your question, Greg, a major contradiction that I’m trying to confront in the book, which is that the universalizing of the system requires what Martin Luther King at the end of his life recognized, and he was killed after he made this clear, that these various movements had to understand the universalizing and the intersectionality of the system, and they had to reflect that in their own organization.
And the reason they don’t is complicated, but it’s partly because of funding issues. For example, the various left movements tend to be funded by liberal foundations that don’t want people to connect these various movements, so they’ll fund, say, an anti-racist group in their anti-racist work or prison work, but they won’t fund them to simultaneously work on climate or on capitalism itself of course.
The other thing is that the ideological conversation and the whole society has really abandoned this systemic conversation. For example, in the Gilded Age in the 1890s of Rockefeller and JPMorgan, and in the ’60s and to some degree in the New Deal in the ’30s, there was really a talk … There was systemic conversation. They were talking about “There’s something wrong with the whole financial, global capitalist order,” and how it was penetrating into all parts of society and affecting all communities.
Since the late ’60s, that connecting of the dots has been lost, and we have lost a mainstream conversation. How often do you turn on CNN, which is very anti-Trumpist, but never talks about the problems of capitalism … In fact in large part is critiquing Trump, because he seems to be threatening what is regarded as the democratic rubric, whether it’s the FBI and the … the institutional norms that they view as central to capitalism itself.
This is a long answer for simply saying you’re right, that the thrust of my book is to argue that if you’re dealing with an intersectional, universalizing, deadly system, the only way you can successfully resist it is if you connect the dots and try to build a movement that, first of all, understands the nature of these connected problems that they’re dealing with, and are able to coordinate with each other.
It doesn’t mean that you get rid of identity politics or that people won’t be able to work on issues of greatest urgency and passion to them, but that for this movement to really make a difference, particularly in the short time period we have facing us, we need to connect these dots and make clear that these different movements have shared systemic roots, and that if you’re gonna solve racism, you’re never gonna do that without dealing with the racialized history of capitalism in the United States.
The same would be true. You can’t stop climate change as long as we have a kind of extractive capitalist system that we have. You certainly cannot stop militarism and war if you don’t deal with the nature of our economy, which requires the kind of globalizing militarism that opens up markets and creates cheap labor and so forth.
So you’re absolutely … You put your finger on the central contradiction of the movement, and the book is an effort to sort of argue for universalizing the resistance, by which I mean, bringing together these different fragmented, siloed movements. Which, by the way, interviews with activists show something that activists themselves are now quite aware of, that they feel that the movement is jeopardized by failing to see the connections and work together on these interconnected hierarchies of power, so we deal with core of the problem at the heart of all of them.
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, that’s actually what I really want to dig into a little bit now, is specifically … And of course, it’s easy to say we should connect the dots and we should come together etc., but how do you do that? First of all, you mentioned already that some interviews that activists are seeing this, but do you see a trend or a movement in that direction that goes beyond, let’s say, individual activists, and I’m talking about movements that are coming together. Secondly, what would be the strategy specifically to get people to realize the need for connecting the dots and coming together in an intersectional kind of resistance as you call it?
CHARLES DERBER: Well, great question again. A few different quick things.
One is, I’m thinking of the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York, which was a really good model of kind of a universalizing resistance. That was … I don’t know if you were there, Greg, but there were about 400,000 people marching in New York City against climate change. But there were segments of that march which were walking under the banner of feminism, and others that were marching under the banner of labor, that had been organized by unions and so forth. There were segments marching under anti-war and peace organizations and so forth.
I think climate is a great example. If you look at Standing Rock, where indigenous cultures really put together a lot of cultural and economic anti-corporate oil and pipeline industries and so forth, there’s something about the climate movement that’s naturally more intersectional and universalizing. I see the climate justice movement and the environmental justice movement as an example of a promising development of the kind I’m trying to argue for in the book.
Just one personal example, that I live in a suburb of Boston called Dedham, and some Texan big pipeline companies have been trying to go from the middle part of the country and put a new infrastructure of natural gas pipelines through very densely populated Boston and other big, East Coast cities and so forth. My neighbors … I live in a pretty dense suburb, but there are a lot of people, schools, old-age homes and that sort of thing.
These pipelines companies were building these … These are not small, little gas pipelines. They’re huge natural gas pipeline. The gas goes very fast. It’s very explosive. It leaks methane and it’s very explosive. About a mile and a half from my house, there’s a part of the pipeline which is the most vulnerable part of the pipeline to leaks and explosions. It’s right by a quarry in the town.
My neighbors, scared for their kids and scared for their own property values and all that, and they were not very political people, they went out just to protest the pipelines. Then as they got into it more, they realized that the ultimate decisions about siting the pipeline and deciding whether it could be built or not were resting with FERC, which is the F-E-R-C, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is a completely oligarchic commission. Not even the president can interfere with the decisions being made by these regulators, who are all people at the top of these big oil and gas and pipeline companies.
My neighbors started out in a very siloed, narrow view of just saying, “Get these pipelines the hell out of our front yards,” or backyards, or whatever, and then they kinda spontaneously came to understand that to deal with these pipelines and the larger environmental issue, you had to deal with corporate power and the extreme concentration of political and economic power in Washington in agencies like FERC.
I think there is a natural tendency for people as they get involved, they’re very passionate about a particular cause, and I think that’s a reason why people will continue to work on single issues that are really important to them, and I think that’s okay. But they will recognize that if they really want to make progress and they want to build the movement and they want to understand the root causes, which is necessary if you’re gonna solve the problem, that you can’t just work on symptoms. You don’t just wanna … I just had bronchitis. I took antibiotics, but you know, you want to work on the underlying problem.
This is certainly true with any major political issue like climate change or war or economic injustice. You have to deal with the underlying problem. So because activists are aware … I was referring to a 2011 study by two black community activists called Ear to the Ground, where they studied several hundred community activists, and many of them said they were really scared because the movement was doing many good things, but it was burning them out because they felt they weren’t reaching enough people, and they weren’t digging deep enough into the — these are really dedicated activists in the community, many people of color — they felt that they just were not reaching in to enough people and connecting on the issues in a way that resonated to all kinds of people.
I think this is a … I agree with you, it’s a very difficult problem to solve, and I don’t think my book gives some magic bullet for doing so. But it kind of lays out the entire range of issues that activists are now facing as they try to confront this problem. I think people are more aware of it, and I don’t think there’s a simple, dogmatic formula. I’m not arguing against identity politics. I’m just saying we need a broader conversation about capitalism as a system which has pretty much been abandoned, as I said, since the late ’60s, and try to find ways that we can make these connections.
It doesn’t mean you completely merge, because there is a danger, as many people will say, that, well, if you merge all these movements into one big movement, then lots of these other issues get subordinated, and you get centralized power. I’m very sensitive to that, so I’m not arguing for people abandoning for their issues or their movements. I’m just arguing for a broader consciousness.
This has become now, on the left, a very central set of concerns as people look at how Trump got elected, and they see that overwhelmingly, a lot of white people, and particularly white working people, or middle to lower-income whites, not both workers and small-business people and so forth who were also hurt by the system, are voting Republican and supporting Trump. That’s another way in which I think there may be a unifying … You asked “How can this unify?” I’ve written about some of the dangers of anti-Trumpism, because it sort of tends to often legitimate the Republican system that preceded Trump and sort of created Trump.
At the same time, Trump, because he is a scary guy, he is helping to create a certain kind of unity. After all, the day after he was inaugurated, the Women’s March was the biggest day of protest in history as far as we know. Several million people around the world. Since then, we’ve had, whether it’s related to taking away healthcare or whether it’s related to leaving the Paris climate agreements or whether it’s related to the travel ban and the anti-Muslim, anti-racist stuff, Trump is, despite my critique of some of the anti-Trumpist movement as diverting attention in some ways from the system or even legitimating the system, I do think that Trump is also a unifying force in universalizing the system.
GREGORY WILPERT: Right. That’s actually something that I wanted to get into a little bit kind of as a last point, because like you say, Trump in a way attracts all the attention on him. I’m wondering how do we get people to look beyond Trump? It is such an easy target in many ways, at least for progressives. Trump is an easy target because he’s so outrageous. Then you also have for example all the different comedy late night talk show hosts criticizing Trump every single day, and it’s just a huge target. How do you go beyond that to raise the systemic issues? This is certainly of course something you’ve already kind of addressed, but I’m thinking specifically in the example of Trump. How do we do that?
CHARLES DERBER: Well, first recognizing that Trump is playing us, in a way, because the more negative attention he gets from MSNBC and Rachel Maddow and these very creative, mainstream liberal journalists, the more his base … This is tribalism that he cultivates. It’s important to recognize that when you just put his face on TV, which offers a lot of revenue to these TV stations — even though his base is beginning to erode in certain ways because of the Mueller investigation — you’re doing what he wants you to do, which is to focus on him.
I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding that the Republican party, and the corporate donors who really sort of have created the party, have also created Trump. After all, Trump is a billionaire. Maybe not as rich as he says he is, but he’s a very wealthy corporate guy, and he comes out of the corporate elite. There’s been this sort of mythology that we should focus on Trump as somehow separate from or apart from this Republican and corporate system that we started talking about at the beginning. I think this has been very misleading and dangerous, because then the focus becomes, “Well, if we can simply sort of do away with Trump, then the system will go back to normal,” as if normal is where we want to be, but we don’t want …
I remember being in an anti-Trump march which said, “Normal is not normal,” meaning we want to deal with Trump. He’s dangerous. But the people who are now sitting on MSNBC or CNN and using CIA or FBI officials to say this guy’s terrible because he’s critiquing the CIA or the FBI, well the CIA has been running coups and anti-democratic coups around the world to spread this system, and the FBI tried to undermine the Civil Rights movement and the antiwar movement, and it still infiltrates the left.
So we’ve gotta be very careful that the anti-Trumpist movement keeps its eye on the ball, that it keeps its eye on the real systemic issues that are threatening survival. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be dealing with the real dangers that Trump represents, because they’re real and they’re scary and they’re important, but I do think that a lot of the anti-Trump — particularly on the cable TV shows and the more liberal parts of that anti-Trump movement — are actually paradoxically serving to legitimate the corporate, universalizing system that created Trump in some ways.
You see now the Republican party, which my friend Noam Chomsky calls the most dangerous institution in world history because it’s such a climate denier and a militarist kind of thing. It’s somehow as if, if we get rid of Trump, then we can just go back to the normalcy of that system that the CIA and the FBI and the military and the capitalist system perpetrate, and that’s itself very dangerous.
That’s another part of my book and my thinking, which is that it’s very important to challenge Trump, but we’ve gotta keep our eye on the ball and recognize we’re dealing with this interconnected system, of which Trump really is a very central part.
GREGORY WILPERT: Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there. There’s so much more we could dig into on this very important topic. I was joined by Charlie Derber, Professor of Sociology at Boston College. We were talking about his just-released book, “Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times.” Thanks Charlie for having joined us today.
CHARLES DERBER: Great to talk to you Greg. Thank you so much.
GREGORY WILPERT: My pleasure, and then thank you also, our audience, for having joined us and for watching the Real News, and if you like news and analysis that we provide, please don’t forget to donate to the Real News Network this holiday season.