The importance of Regis Debray in relation to the Latin American revolution stems from several things. He has broken from the rigid confines of European Communism, even to the extent of rejecting the Communist Parties of Latin America as the automatic vanguard of the coming revolutions. He has taken from Che and Fidel and incorporated into his own thinking the fundamental conception of the Latin American revolution as an international revolution, that is, as a continental revolution. He has proven his own courage and devotion in the great risks he has taken to make personal contact with the guerrilla movements, risks which ultimately subjected him to the criminal vengeance of the Bolivian military and the CIA. He has seemed to be the theoretical embodiment of the Cuban Revolution and his writings are an attempt to develop a theory of the Latin American Revolution based on the Cuban Experience.
Andrew Joscelyne with slightly more temporal distance, wrote for an article in Wired in 1995:
Twenty-seven years ago, French radical theoretician Régis Debray was sentenced by a Bolivian military tribunal to 30 years in jail. He had been captured with the guerrilla band led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro’s legendary lieutenant. Released after three years, largely because of the intervention of compatriots such as President Charles de Gaulle, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Debray returned to writing. (His 1967 Revolution in the Revolution is considered a primer for guerrilla insurrection.)
I’m not sure it is a primer for guerilla insurrection, or at least not now. It is brilliant as something of its time — and who knows, perhaps its time will come again. But it has a few passages that I loved. Could anything ring truer than this?
Fidel once blamed certain failures of the guerillas on a purely intellectual attitude towards war. The reason is understandable: aside from his physical weakness and lack of adjustment to rural life, the intellectual will try to grasp the present through preconceived ideological constructs and live it through books. He will be less able than others to invent, improvise, make do with available resources, decide instantly on bold moves when he is in a tight spot. Thinking that he already knows, he will learn more slowly, display less flexibility (21).
He may well be right that it is an irony of history that in Latin America it was students and intellectuals ‘had to unleash, or rather initiate, the highest forms of class struggle‘ (21). There has a been a price.
Any line that claims to be revolutionary must give a concrete answer to the question: How to overthrow the power of the capitalist state? In other words, how to break its backbone, the army, continuously reinforced by North American military mission? (25)
He grapples with the issue of peasants, as massive for Latin America as for Russia or China even though people continue to flock to the city. Even today this ongoing somewhat artificial divide of urban and rural is perhaps the deeper and more relevant question. Debray looks to develop dual power between them and factory workers…and what a one-liner.
Today self-defence as a system and as a reality has been liquidated by the march of events (26)…Guerilla warfare is to peasant uprisings what Marx is to Sorel (28).
There is a little here on (neo)colonialism, and related to this my favourite bit was probably the brilliantly damning indictment of Trotskyism, which somehow comes close to nailing my own experience of it here in the UK in many ways:
At bottom Trotskeyism is a metaphysic paved with good intentions…In space–everywhere the same: the same analyses and perspectives serve equally well for Peru and Belgium. In time — immutable: Trotskeyism has nothing to learn from history. It already has the key to it: the proletariat, essentially wholesome and unfailingly socialist… (39) And they come not to participate in a liberation movement nor to serve it, but to lead and control it by using its weaknesses…An abstract metaphysic, a concept with no grasp of history…the Trotskyist ideology can only be applied from outside. Since it is not appropriate anywhere, it must be applied by force everywhere (40)
More on the limitations of the educated:
That an intellectual, especially if he is a bourgeois, should speak of strategy before all else, is normal. Unfortunately, however, the right road, the only feasible one, sets out from tactical data, rising gradually towards the definition of strategy (59)
Just a few other short notes. The key lesson he feels we can take from Bolivar? Tenacity. He notes the politicised used of the Peace Corps to infiltrate and spy. And because of his time in Bolivia, he writes with more detail about its struggle, mining in particular. I’ve been thinking a lot about mining lately, so will end with a rather long extract that few will find as interesting as I did.
Bolivia: an analogous situation in a workers’ milieu, takes on the aspects of tragedy. Twenty-six thousand miners in the big nationalized tin mines are spread over the entire altiplano, but the principal mining stronghold is concentrated in a belt of land some 91/2 miles long by 6 wide, where the “Siglo Veinte,” “Huanuni,” and “Catavi” mines are located. In 1952 the miners destroyed the oligarchy’s army, established a liberal government, received arms and a semblance of power. The revolution turned bourgeois; the miners gradually severed connections. They had arms, militias, radios, a strong union, dynamite and detonators – their everyday work tools-plus control of the country’s basic wealth, tin – “the devil’s metal.” In retreat, semi-impotent, apathetic, they allowed the national bourgeoisie to reconstitute an army, and they interrupted their reign of strikes, skirmishes, and battles: in short, they were surviving.Then, as is natural, the army swallowed up the national bourgeoisie which had created it; and the order arrived from the United States to crush the workers’ movement.The military junta provoked the workers in cold blood, arresting their old union leader Lechin. The unlimited general strike proposed by the Trotskyists was decreed in May, 1965. The army’s elite corps, the Rangers, special parachute troops, and the classic infantry surrounded the mines and unleashed a frontal attack against the miners’ militia. Its aviation bombed amine near La Paz and machine-gunned another. Result: hundreds of dead on the miners’ side and dozens among the soldiers; occupation of the mines by the army; doors broken down by soldiers, and families machine-gunned indiscriminately; union leaders and the more militant miners outlawed, jailed, killed. (33-34)
The mines are also cities, immense grey windowless barracks, located at some distance from the pits, where the families live. On a freezing high land plateau, with not a tree or a shrub, an expanse of red earth as far as the eye can see, an intense glare. The houses are laid out in rows, an easy and conspicuous target for the bombers. Bombardments threaten not production but population, since the mines are underground and surface installations few. The smelters are in England and the United States. Another weakness: the mines are ten or twenty or more miles apart.It is easy for the army to isolate them one by one, and difficult for the miners to get together to coordinate resistance: without a plan, without a centralized military command, without military training, without means of transport. Furthermore, the militia units can only move at night. (34)
Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason is like the mother of all books on populism. Partly in its difficulty (Sweet Christmas is difficult an understatement), but also, after much struggle for comprehension, its depth of understanding of populism and how exactly it works. It is thus quite a different book from those by Jan-Werner Müller or Marco Revelli. Luckily it is fairly unique.
That all goes to say this is a boring work in progress that should be read as such even more than all my other boring posts on books.
It is in argument with both work on populism and the masses as well as with thinking around class formation and revolution and agency within Marxism. As well as with Hegel and Zizek and others. I do not untangle all of these arguments. Could not. I love the concept of hegemony but hardly touch it as constituted here. I still can’t decide whether I even want to read Lacan. Life is short and I still wish people had gone with Fromm as their psychoanalyst of choice. But no.
Part I: The Denigration of the Masses
Just to give you a taste of the language:
As I argue there, the impossibility of fixing the unity of a social formation in any conceptually graspable object leads to the centrality of naming in constituting that unity, while the need for a social cement to assemble the heterogeneous elements once their logic of articulation (functionalist or structuralist) no longer gives this affect its centrality in social explanation. Freud had already clearly understood it: the social bond is a libidinal one… ‘Populism’ was always linked to a dangerous excess, which puts the clear-cut moulds of a rational community into question. So my task, as I conceived it was to bring to light the specific logics inherent in that excess, and to argue that, far from corresponding to marginal phenomena they are inscribed in the actual working of any communitarian space. (x)
But there is some clarity here as for Laclau, like Müller and others, it is not the content of struggle but the form of it that defines populism.
My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon but to a social logic whose effects cut across many phenomena. Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political. (xi)
His argument, as I understand it, is that within much of political theory populism cannot be well understood because of its own limits of how it understands people as social agents. In his words, the impasse is ‘rooted in the limitation of the ontological tools currently available to political analysis … the limits inherent in the ways in which Political Theory has approached the question of how social agents ‘totalize’ the ensemble of their political experience‘ (4).
This has happened in the way that it has been defined from the beginning ‘in terms of ‘vagueness’, ‘imprecision’, imprecision’, intellectual poverty’, purely transient’ as a phenomenon, manipulative’ in its procedures, and so on‘. It has been separated from ‘what is rational and conceptually apprehensible in political action from its dichotomic opposite: a populism conceived as irrational and undefinable‘ (16). If defined as irrational, how then can political theory understand its rationalities? This block comes from the longstanding academic distrust, fear and sometimes hatred of the masses, the bestowing of all rationality on the individual alone.
…the rabble of the cities which was, for Taine, the real actor in the revolutionary process. Within this general decline, any group could degenerate into a crowd. Taine anticipates what will become the established wisdom among crowd theorists —namely; that rationality belongs to the individual, who loses many of his rational attributes when he participates in a crowd. He likes to compare crowd behaviour to inferior forms of life, like plants or animals, or to primitive forms of social organization. (34)
This distrust is still shaping how much of the discourse around populism forms today. Part of why I find Müller’s work helpful in defining precisely what is dangerous in the constructions of populism (the exclusivity of definition of ‘a people’ leaving those outside open to violence and repression) as opposed to this general distaste for mass movement. And of course, Laclau argues that there also exists psychology specific to popular identity:
Whatever its short-comings, crowd psychology had touched on some crucially important aspects in the construction of social and political identities — aspects which had not been properly addressed before. The relationship between words and images, the predominance of the ’emotive’ over the ‘rational’, the sense of omnipotence, the suggestibility and the identification with the leaders, and so on, are all too real features of collective behaviour. (39)
Part II: Constructing the ‘People’
The real usefulness of Laclau for my own thinking and work lies in this way of thinking through how ‘the people’ is constructed, though mostly written off by other authors — a single paragraph in Müller for example, that hardly does this work justice. But you have to work through a whole lot of difficult theoretical work to get there.
The two pejorative propositions to which I referred were: (1) that populism is vague and indeterminate in the audience to which it addresses itself, in its discourse, and in its political postulates; (2) that populism is mere rhetoric. To this I opposed two different possibilities: (1) that vagueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such; (2) that rhetoric is not epiphenomenal vis-a-vis a self-contained conceptual structure, for no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices. If this is so, the conclusion would be that populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such. (67)
Again, this highlights how Laclau sees this work contributing to how we understand politics much more broadly.
The categories he describes as central to his approach:
Discourse. Discourse is the primary terrain of the constitution of objectivity as such. By discourse, as I have attempted to make clear several times, I do not mean something that is essentially restricted to the areas of speech and writing, but any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role. This means that elements do not pre-exist the relational complex but are constituted through it. (68)
Empty signifiers and hegemony.
Given that we are dealing with purely differential identities, we have, in some way, to determine the whole within which those identities, as different, are constituted (the problem would not, obviously, arise if we were dealing with positive, only externally related, identities).
Since we are not postulating any necessary structural centre, endowed with an a priori ‘determination in the last instance’ capacity, `centring’ effects that manage to constitute a precarious totalizing horizon have to proceed from the interaction of the differences themselves. How is this possible?
Rhetoric. There is a rhetorical displacement whenever a literal term is substituted by a figural one. (70-71)
Where Müller defines as populism one group forming itself as ‘a people’ exclusionary to others and under a charismatic leader, he does not really go into how this happens. For Laclau, it is this how that is central to populism’s definition.
we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group [as opposed to the ideology or mobilization of an already constituted group]…’the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. (73)
Central to this is what Laclau terms the ‘internal frontier’, the dividing line between us and them. This resonates strongly with Revelli’s description of the importance of borders and internal segregation. This oppositional character is central to all definitions. I find Laclau’s language here quite difficult, but this conceptualisation really useful:
…we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands. The requests are turning into claims. … A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the `people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands —whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification (74).
This essentially means that multiple groups and multiple demands can be brought together (the equivalential chain or articulation) in a way that does not eliminate differences, merely connects them together in opposition. The existence of the internal or antagonistic frontier in one requirement for this, the second that all of these demands must be able to see themselves as represented by one central demand wide enough, vague enough, to allow their own issue to fit under it — what Laclau terms the ’empty signifier’.
I particularly like the initial requirement of ‘requests’ becoming ‘claims’ and demands, this is the moment individual discontent and resistance can become movement, right? But not necessarily a populist one.
Also required is crisis.
Without this initial break-down of something in the social order — however minimal that something could initially be — there is no possibility of antagonism, frontier, or, ultimately, ‘people’. (85)
And within this break down is needed both unfulfilled demands and unresponsive power. Where these occur, and there exists an internal frontier (the other side of which sits unresponsive power) and a growing ‘equivalential bond’ there remains the moment in which the links between these different groups and demands is forged,
… equivalential relations would not go beyond a vague feeling of solidarity if they did not crystallize in a certain discursive identity which no longer represents democratic demands as equivalent, but the equivalential link as such. It is only that moment of crystallization that constitutes the ‘people’ of populism. What was simply a mediation between demands now acquires a consistency of its own. Although the link was originally ancillary to the demands, it now reacts over them and, through an inversion of the relationship, starts behaving as their ground. Without this operation of inversion, there would be no populism. (93)
This link becomes in its way more prominent than the demands themselves. This happens when
…some kind of common denominator has to be found which embodies the totality of the series. Since this common denominator has to come from the series itself, it can only be an individual demand which, for a set of circumstantial reasons, acquires a certain centrality (Let us remember our Solidarnosc example, above.) This is the hegemonic operation, which I have already described. There is no hegemony without constructing a popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands. So let us locate the popular identity within the relational complex which explains the conditions of both its emergence and its dissolution.
Two aspects of the constitution of popular identities are important for us. First, the demand which the popular identity crystallizes is internally split: on the one hand, it remains a particular demand; on the other, its own particularity comes to signify something quite different from itself: the total chain of equivalential demands. While it remains a particular demand, it also becomes the signifier of a wider universality. (95)
It is thus not a question of ‘finding an abstract common feature underlying all social grievances, but with a performative operation constituting the chain as such’
It is like the process of condensation in dreams: an image does not express its own particularity, but a plurality of quite dissimilar currents of unconscious thought which find their expression in that single image. It is well known that Althusser used this notion of condensation to analyse the Russian Revolution: all the antagonisms within Russian society were condensed in a ruptural unity around demands for ‘bread, peace and land’. The moment of emptiness is decisive here: without empty terms such as ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, and so on being invested into the three demands, the latter would have remained closed in their particularism; but because of the radical character of the investment, something of the emptiness of ‘justice’ and `freedom’ was transmitted to the demands, which thus became the names of a universality that transcended their actual particular contents. (97)
This means that the ‘problem’ of the vagueness and imprecision of populist symbols as described in much of the literature is actually its key feature required for its existence.
On to the nature of populist leadership.
A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? The two most common types of explanation are ‘suggestion’ — a category taken from crowd theorists — and ‘manipulation’ — or, quite frequently, a combination of the two (a combination which presents no major problems since each shades easily into the other). In my view, this kind of explanation is useless. For even if we were going to accept the ‘manipulation’ argument, the most it would explain is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds — that is to say, we would know nothing about the kind of relation which is subsumed under the label of ‘manipulation’. (99)
Sometimes I think he is at his clearest when laying out quite how others are wrong. The leader is in some ways like the empty signifier. A necessary focus. As Laclau writes:
However, the symbolic unification of the group around a individuality — and here I agree with Freud — is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’. (100)
And on to the final attribute, and into the great world of affect. A world of theory I work with very little. This is a handy summary of how far we are though:
A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage – via equivalences – from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other – something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described. This qualitatively differentiated and irreducible moment is what I have called ‘radical investment’. … It is clear, however, that if an entity becomes the object of an investment – as in being in love, or in hatred – the investment belongs necessarily to the order of affect. (110)
An this is a more complex way to theorise how a part of ‘the people’ tries to constitute itself as the whole:
So we can conclude that any social whole results from an indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions. But in discussing the constitution of popular identities, we are dealing with a very particular type of whole: not one which is just composed of parts, but one in which a part functions as the whole (in our example: a plebs claiming to be identical with the populus). 111
That requires more thought perhaps. But finally we are ready to bring it all together. The three aspects then of populism:
First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. I see social logics as involving a rarefied system of statements — that is to say, a system of rules drawing a horizon within which some objects are representable while others are excluded. So we can talk about the logics of kinship, of the market — even of chess-playing (to use Wittgenstein’s example). A political logic, however, has something specific to it which is important to stress. While social logics consist in rule-following, political logics are related to the institution of the social. Such an institution, however, as we already know, is not an arbitrary fiat but proceeds out of social demands and is, in that sense, inherent to any process of social change. This change, as we also know, takes place through the variable articulation of equivalence and difference, and the equivalential moment presupposes the constitution of a global political subject bringing together a plurality of social demands. This in turn involves, as we have seen, the construction of internal frontiers and the identification of an institutionalized ‘other’. (117)
There are two other aspects from our previous discussion which have to come into our conceptual characterization of populism: those which concern naming and affect. … From this we can deduce that the language of a populist discourse — whether of Left or Right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating: not because of any cognitive failure, but because it tries to operate performatively within a social reality which is to a large extent heterogeneous and fluctuating. I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision — which, it should be clear, does not have any pejorative connotation for me — as an essential component of any populist operation. (118)
I’m no longer quoting Laclau but trying to put this into my words because this still seems unclear to me…There must be a particular demand unfulfilled that can in a sense stand in for multiple demands, or the equivalential chain in Laclau’s language. There is a tension between the differences among the multiple demands and the particular demand, but neither can fully stand in for the other so this tension must be present and balanced to create movement. These must be contained within ‘an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization, to ‘business as usual’…There is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation, and it is their presence we intuitively perceive when we call a discourse or a mobilization ‘populistic’. (123)
These charts defiinitely helped me understand this better…particularly thinking about the differences between domination and hegemony. So, domination:
He gives the example of the Russian Tsar on the one side of the dichotomic frontier, with multiple sectors of society standing in opposition each with their own demands, but uniting in an ‘equivalential chain’ behind the demands of D1 (which becomes the signifier).
Hegemony is the process by which the group on the other side of the dichotomic frontier works to incorporate the demands of certain of these sectors to ‘interrupt’ the creation of an oppositional equivalential chain through creation of an equivalential chain of their own, blurring the lines of this frontier and ensure their hold on power. It looks more like this:
So what happens to the ‘signifier’ demand of D1 when their other interests are accommodated/co-opted and people change sides as it were? It has to be recast, a new signifier/symbol found and this is always what is at stake in moments of change and crisis when this signifier is suddenly ‘floating’, requiring redefinition after the break up of what was a stable formation. Laclau makes the really interesting observation here about how often it is not precisely the content of D1 that matters to individuals, but its form, ie its radicalism. This explains why so many of the left seemingly quite easily can swing to the right — the swing in support for the New Deal to New Conservativism for example. Laclau writes that for a very long time conservative populism would have been unthinkable in the US, as the conservative tradition was ‘centred on ‘defence of unregulated capitalism and the discouragement of any kind of grass-roots mobilization‘. This began to change with McCarthyism, and a shift in discourse shift from workers to ‘regular Joe’. This marked a break between populism and liberalism, witnessed the New Deal’s discourse in retreat and the moment it fell apart as middle America experience a great loss of power, stuck between Washington elites and demands of ‘minority’ groups. This is a pursuasive narrative to some degree, though I think the faultlines of race and gender cleave this in two just a little, force a more historic look at ‘conservatism’
There follows some arguments with Marxist ideas of the working class as the agents of social change and how this is now untenable. This is undoubtedly my favourite sentence for style and verve.
The ‘peoples without history’ have occupied centre stage to the point of shattering the very notion of a teleological historicity. So forget Hegel. (147-148)
Part III: Populist Variations
This is where all of the theory is brought somewhat to earth. Somewhat.
It is not just the idea of ‘the people’ that must be constructed, but also the antagonistic frontier. I do myself feel a desire to make this all a little more material here, root this in concrete oppressions. But this wider definition makes more sense of the rise of Trump and the revolt of the still-well-to-do-though-not-as-well-to-do-as-before masses. This is a political process and upends Habermas and Rawls who see representative democracy as politicians representing the will of the people presuming that to be pre-existing when in fact it must be constructed. This is why populism can fit within both totalitarian and liberal democratic regimes.
And again, it does not arise without crisis. This is so prescient of our current conjuncture.
populism never emerges from an absolute outside and advances in such a way that the previous state of affairs dissolves around it, but proceeds by articulating fragmented and dislocated demands around a new core. So some degree of crisis in the old structure is a necessary precondition of populism for, as we have seen, popular identities require equivalential chains of unfulfilled demands. Without the slump of the 1930s, Hitler would have remained a vociferous fringe ringleader. (177)
The possibilities for movement are three:
1. A largely self-structured institutional system which relegates to a marginal position any anti-institutional challenge — that is to sat; the latter’s ability to constitute equivalential chains is minimal (this would correspond to the first two situations within Schedler’s model).
2. The system is less well structured, and requires some kind of periodical recomposition. Here the possibility of populism in the Schedler/ Surel’s sense arises: the system can be challenged, but since its ability for self-structuration is still considerable, the populist forces have to operate both as ‘insiders’ and as ‘outsiders’.
3. The system has entered a period of ‘organic crisis’ in the Gramscian sense. In that case, the populist forces challenging it have to do more than engage themselves in the ambiguous position of subverting the system and, at the same time, being integrated into it: they have to reconstruct the nation around a new popular core. Here, the recon-structive task prevails over that of subversion. (178)
Key to remember (and perhaps quite usefully illustrated by Italy’s three different populist movements in the past few years)
there is nothing automatic about the emergence of a ‘people’. On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim. The reasons for this are clear: political identities are the result of the articulation (that tension) of the opposed logics of equivalence and difference, and the mere fact that the balance between these logics is broken by one of the two poles prevailing beyond a certain point over the other, is enough to cause the ‘people’ as a political actor to disintegrate. (200)
Laclau has all these lists and bullet points which usually serve to make things clearer but I am not entirely certain these do. I think they do. These refer to the ‘set of theoretical decisions necessary for something like a ‘people’ to become intelligible, then the historical conditions that make its emergence possible’
A first theoretical decision is to conceive of the ‘people’ as a political category, not as a datum of the social structure. This designates not a given group, but an act of institution that creates a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements. For this reason, I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis would not be the group, as a referent, but the socio-political demand.
It is in this contamination of the universality of the populus by the partality of the plebs that the peculiarity of the ‘people’ as a historical actor lies. The logic construction is what I have called ‘populist reason’. (224) On the universality of the partial: A popular demand is one that embodies the absent fullness of the community through a potentially endless chain of equivalences. That is why populist reason — which amounts, as we have seen, to political reason tout court breaks with two forms of rationality which herald the end of politics: a total revolutionary event that, bringing about the full reconciliation of society with itself, would make the political moment superfluous, or a mere gradualist practice that reduces politics to administration.
Let us move now to the other angle: the partiality of the universal. This is where the true ontological option underlying our analysis is to be found. Whatever ontic content we decide to privilege in an ontological investment, the traces of that investment cannot be entirely concealed. The partiality we privilege will also be the point that universality necessarily inhabits. The key question is: does this ‘inhabiting’ do away with the specificity of the particular, such that universality becomes the true medium for an unlimited logical mediation, and particularity the merely apparent field of expressive mediation? Or, rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque (non-)representative moment becomes constitutive? (225)
… the unity of the social agent is the result of a plurality of social demands coming together through equivalential (metonymic) relations of contiguity, the Contingent moment of naming has an absolutely central and constitutive role. The psychoanalytic category of overdetermination points in the same direction. In this respect, naming is the key moment in the constitution of a ‘people’, whose boundaries and equivalential components permanently fluctuate. Whether nationalism, for instance, is going to become a central signifier in the constitution of popular identities depends on a contingent history impossible to determine through a priori means. (227)
I copy at such length because I might not be understanding. The ‘people’ are constructed through politics, and do not pre-exist politics in some natural organic form to be discovered or tapped. This politics and process of construction centres around a socio-political demand. Through this a portion of the larger population articulated around this demand comes to argue it represents the whole — the universality of the partial. Number 3…whew. That demand, that partial population claiming to speak for the whole will shape future politics. There is more there I am not getting. And that finally for all of this to come together, it is the naming of that demand that is central, and this will be shaped by the particular history and circumstances of each ‘people’ so formed rather than necessarily by class a la Marx.
And to come to a finale:
We need to make a final point. The passage from one hegemonic formation, or popular configuration, to another will always involve a radical break, a creatio ex nihilo. It is not that all the elements of an emerging configuration have to be entirely new, but rather that the articulating point, the partial object around which the hegemonic formation is reconstituted as a new totality, does not derive its central role from any logic already operating within the preceding situation. Here we are close to Lacan’s passage a l’acte, which has been central in recent discussions concerning the ethics of the Real…As the equivalential/articulating moment does not proceed.from logical need for each demand to move into the others, what is crucial for the emergence of the ‘people’ as a new historical actor is that the unification of a plurality of demands in a new configuration is constitutive and not derivative. In other words, it constitutes an act in the strict sense for it does not have its source in anything external to itself. The emergence of the ‘people’ as a historical actor is thus always transgressive vis-a-vis the situation preceding it. (228)
And there we are. I am most familiar with the rise of the Alt Right, and this helps explain so much I think. That they are not the oppressed as Revelli writes, but the winners of a previous era now experiencing some loss. The insane multiplicity of agendas and conspiracy theories and religious congregations that have somehow come together (without agreeing with each other and even hating each other, the perfect equivalential chain really) around a billionaire and his claim to make America Great Again and to be cleaning out the swamp. The visible construction of these discourses through media. I like Revelli’s addition of the right-wing twist, with its need for evil elites and a third group as scapegoat — immigrants.
Laclau was writing long before this of course. He ends with some thoughts on the conjuncture he was writing within:
The question concerning historical conditions should therefore be: are we living in societies that tend to increase social homogeneity through immanent infrastructural mechanisms or, on the contrary do we inhabit a historical terrain where the proliferation of heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly political forms of social reaggregation…
the answer yes, and why?
globalized capitalism. By capitalism, of course, we should no longer understand a self-enclosed totality governed by movements derived from the contradictions of commodity as an elementary form. We can no longer understand capitalism as a purely economic reality, but as a complex in which economic, political, military, technological and other determinations — each endowed with its own logic and a certain autonomy — enter into the determination of the movement of the whole. In other terms, heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism, the partial stabilizations of which are hegemonic in nature. (230)
Let the crises and rise of populisms begin.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.
This is just a very short introduction the subject, and very clearly written. It has three goals: to help define what qualifies as populism, looks at some of the deeper causes, and what a successful response might look like.
For Müller, there are three conditions to a movement to qualify as populism:
it must be critical of elites.
it must be antipluralist. ‘Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. Populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist)’ (3). It is exclusionary, leaving some outside the boundaries, and therein lies its danger (4)
it represents a particular form of governance: attempts to hijack the state apparatus; corruption and ‘mass clientelism’; efforts systematically to suppress civil society
Chapter 1: What Populists Say
Notes through 60s and 70s, the ‘spectre’ of populism as identified by Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner was that of the 3rd world anticolonial struggles. Ah, the glory days. This was a time where populism, he argues, was often understood as ‘progressive’ or ‘grassroots’ across the Americas, if not in Europe with its ties to fascism. Like Laclau and Revelli he critiques the efforts to define populism by the content of the struggle, and looks rather to its form, as is made clear in the definition above and this:
Populism…is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified–but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional–people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (19-20)
The critique of elites is not in itself enough for populism to exist, it is rather that in opposition there is a ‘claim that a part of the people is the people–and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people‘ (22). It is not the content of the moral critique, but the existence of this moral authentic people in opposition to those who are immoral and outside.
Content is of course required, and usually consists of a ‘singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy‘ (25).
Just how this content comes to stand in for a multitude of demands among a multitude of groups to construct a unified opposition is, of course, a massive part of Laclau’s work. For Müller, this combination of belief in ‘the people’ and belief in the chosen representative are seen as above democratic politics, leading to passive participation and power invested in the leader. He doesn’t engage in the same kind of critique in the current form of our democratic system itself as a cause of passivity and goad towards this kind of populism as Revelli does.
He notes the rise of the internet as giving a new sense of direct democracy and communication, where everyday Americans can have direct contact with those in power that no longer require intermediary institutions and democratic forms. That’s quite an interesting thing to think about, particularly in relation to the US’s alt right.
Chapter 2: What Populists Do
I won’t get into his arguments around Chavez, surely it is the violent and well-funded attempts to depose a leader that do more to define their response than ‘populism’ per se? But anyway, he explores ‘three populist techniques for governing and their moral justification’. Again, they attempt to ‘colonize’ or ‘occupy’ the state, transforming civil services. They openly trade mass material and immaterial favours for support. The act harshly to critics in the 3rd sector and elsewhere
Müller usefully ends with 7 theses on populism summarising his argument:
Populism is neither the authentic part of modern democratic politics nor a kind of pathology caused by irrational citizens. It is the permanent shadow of representative politics. There is always the possibility for an actor to speak in the name of the “real people” as a way of contesting currently powerful elites. There was no populism in ancient Athens; demagoguery perhaps, but no populism, since the latter exists only in representative systems. Populists are not against the principle of political representation; they just insist that only they themselves are legitimate representatives.
Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. In addition to being antielitist, populists are antipluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.
it can often seem. that populists claim to represent the common good as willed by the people. On closer inspection, it turns out that what matters for populists is less the product of a genuine process of will-formation or a common good that anyone with common sense can glean than a symbolic representation of the “real people” from which the correct policy is then deduced. This renders the political position of a populist immune to empirical refutation. Populists can always play off the “real people” or “silent majority” against elected representatives and the official outcome of a vote.
While populists often call for referenda, such exercises are not about initiating open-ended processes of democratic will-formation among citizens. Populists simply wish to be confirmed in what they have already determined the will of the real people to be. Populism is not a path to more participation in politics.
Populists can govern, and they are likely to do so in line with their basic commitment to the idea that only they represent the people. Concretely, they will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. These practices find an explicit moral justification in the populist political imagination and hence can be avowed openly Populists can also write constitutions; these will be partisan or “exclusive” constitutions designed to keep populists in power in the name of perpetuating some supposed original and authentic popular will. They are likely to lead to serious constitutional conflict at some point or other.
populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy (and not lot to “liberalism”). But that does not mean that one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
Populism is not a corrective to liberal democracy in the sense of bringing politics “closer to the people” or even reasserting popular sovereignty, as is sometimes claimed. But it can be useful in making it clear that parts of the population really are unrepresented (the lack of representation might concern interests or identity, or both). This does not justify the populist claim that only their supporters are the real people and that they are the sole legitimate representatives. Populism, then, should force defenders of liberal democracy to think harder about what current failures of representation might be. It should also push them to address more general moral questions. What are the criteria for belonging to the polity? Why exactly is pluralism worth preserving? And how can one address the concerns of populist voters understood as free and equal citizens, not as pathological cases of men and women driven by frustration, anger, and resentment? The hope is that this book has suggested at least some preliminary answers to these questions. (101-103)
Writing an article — very behind on an article — for an issue on populism and trying to get my head around what it is, where we are in this current moment. Because of course, as a community organiser looking to the Global South and particularly Latin America for inspiration and examples of massive and transformative social movement, populism did not seem a terrible thing. Europe, of course, might be another matter. And here we are today, Revelli captures quite nicely the discourse — and realities — we are facing:
“one government after another has been conquered by political forces that can be classified – or in any case, have been classified – as ‘populists’. And, here, this means a ‘populism’ riddled with xenophobia and strongly hostile to the last generation of civil rights measures.
Everywhere in the West, political systems have been shaken.”
And of course it is this brand of populism that raises huge challenges for anyone who believes in the slogan ‘all power to the people’ and direct democracy.
“The truth is that democracy and populism are interlinked by an unbreakable connection….we will discuss populism first of all as a ‘symptom’ of a deeper illness – even if one we are too often silent about – of democracy itself. It is the outward manifestation of a sickness in the contemporary form of democracy – the only one that has established itself in modernity, erected over the ruins of participatory utopias – that is, representative democracy. Whenever some part of ‘the people’, or an entire people, does not feel represented, it returns to one or another kind of reaction that takes the name ‘populism’…Today, it manifests itself as a ‘senile disorder of democracy’. For the thinning-out of democratic processes and the return of oligarchic dynamics at the heart of the mature democracies marginalise or betray the mandate of a people whose ‘sceptre’ of power has been taken away. Post-twentieth-century populism is, in a sense, a ‘revolt of the included’ who have now been pushed to the margins. In both cases, what we might call the ‘populist syndrome’ is the product of a deficit of representation. For this reason, one recent scholar of populism used a particularly felicitous expression when he defined it as ‘something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy’.4”
I like this. The problem is not democracy or the evil nature of the masses, but a broken system that has betrayed its promise. Populism as symptom…but what actually is it?
“It is not an ‘ism’ like the others that we have scattered over the course of modern history, in the manner of socialism, communism, liberalism, fascism and so on, which we either identified with (through belonging) or fought against (through opposition). It is a much more impalpable entity, less identifiable within specific confines or labels. It is a mood. It is the formless form that social malaise and impulses to protest take on in societies that have been pulverised and reworked by globalisation and total finance – what Luciano Gallino has called ‘finance-capitalism’ – in the era in which there is a lack of voice or organisation. Which is to say, in the vacuum produced by the dissolution of what was once ‘the Left’, and of its capacity to articulate protest as a proposal for change and an alternative to the present state of things.
This demands a focus on what this book defines as a ‘populism-as-context’. This constitutes, so to speak, a problematic defined by the ‘zeitgeist’: the political-cultural climate of our time, which impresses its own changing pattern upon the political life of whole national or even transnational communities…Then we will seek to define the other level of populism, what we could consider its – less generic, better-delimited – ‘inner circle’. This is what we could define as ‘populism-as-project’: the populism embodied in a more recognisable ‘political subject’ endowed with its own ‘political culture’ and which works not only to give voice to protest, but also to contend for government (and the exercise of power).”
This is a beginning that will be fleshed out further through the book. Populism as mood and as context, and then populism as project. I like this distinction, this allows attention to be paid to broad social forces as well as to those who work powerfully to shape and channel popular discontent into very specific forms. With the shifting of mass and social media, this is a visible process.
Characteristics of Populism
Revelli identifies three characteristics by which populism is defined: 1) idea of an entity known as ‘the people’, 2) who stand in opposition to the abuse or betrayal of a ‘them’, 3) who are working for an upheaval, a levelling to restore the will of ‘the people’.
A little more on each of these. First:
the supreme, paramount centrality assumed therein by the reference to the people, understood in its ‘warm’ dimension as a living community, almost a sort of pre-political and pre-civic entity, a Rousseauian ‘natural state’. An organic entity, which thus does not allow distinctions within its ranks – for they would be seen as damaging and reprehensible divisions. … a vertical one in which the logic of ‘above and below’ instead prevails. Indeed, in this spatiality, the protagonists in the conflict belong to different levels and, in some senses, opposed and self-referential life-worlds.
the idea of betrayal: with some abuse, some undue misappropriation, some conspiracy organised at the expense of the honest citizens. This conforms to a style of thinking that reframes conflict not only in political or social terms but also, primarily, in ethical’ ones: as the moral counterposition of the righteous and the ungodly, the honest and the corrupt, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’… “connected to some moral construction of the antithetical ‘other’, in the conflict in which the constitutive values of the community of reference are ultimately revealed.”
the imaginary of upheaval: chasing out the usurper-oligarchy – i.e., removing the ‘foreign body’ – and restoring a popular sovereignty that is finally recognised. This sovereignty is no longer exercised through the mediation of the old representative institutions, but thanks to the action of the leader (who tends to be a charismatic leader or in any case emotionally linked to ‘ordinary folks”
Where these three characteristics exist, there continued to be the distinction made earlier between populism as context and populism as project:
populism as a generic (and generalised) mood – attached to a still-vague attitude of distance from, and hostility toward, institutional actors and the establishment – and, on the other hand, populism as a true and proper political culture unto itself, determined to seek power in a strategic manner, on the basis of a specific political programme. With this second, less generic sense of populism, awareness has grown of the sharp divergence in the various ‘souls’ of this phenomenon. Or, if you prefer, between ‘political families’ that are so distant from one another (and essentially, counterposed) that they can no longer be brought together under the same term.”
I quite like this distinction between left and right wing populism drawn from John B. Judis – The Populist Explosion — he’s not often cited among references to Müller, Mudde, Kazin and Laclau on populism but from reading this he sounds quite interesting:
“Left-wing populists’, Judis writes ‘champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top.’ Conversely, ‘rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.”
More from Judis (via Revelli of course) on the ‘family of the Right’, the entanglement of race and borders and segregation…exactly what I have been working on for so long:
that component which…constructs the unity of the people conceived ‘as a whole’ using techniques that are particularly dear to organicist and, in general, nationalist political cultures. These latter tend to favour an ethnic, racial or in any case strongly identitarian connotation of ‘people’ and its ring-fencing or ‘spatialisation’ within societies that are enclosed behind strongly drawn borders and boundaries. This connotation does apply to political phenomena like Trump in the United States; Orbán in Hungary and the political formations on the rise in the Visegrad region more generally; Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; and the AfD in Germany – but certainly not to movements like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. This book will focus especially on this former group, those in which what we have called ‘populism-as-project’ is most evident.
While he focuses on populism-as-project, which I confess I also find most interesting, the context cannot be forgotten. He describes the changes between today’s populisms — what he calls the ‘populism of the new millennium’ — and those of earlier periods in terms of the new post-2008 financial crash (discussed also by both Judis and Müller). That moment we thought everything might come down but instead things have been shakily taped together even as this swing to right (and left) has intensified. The difference is
its ‘genetic’ relationship with an unprecedented systemic crisis. This is a crisis of representation and, at the same time, a crisis of the legitimation of contemporary political systems, which have suddenly been left without any ideology to justify them. They seem incapable of keeping faith with their own promises or remaining true to the fundamentals that convinced their respective citizenries to trust in their mechanisms of government, beginning with the first foundation of ‘democratic government’: popular sovereignty.
For Revelli, Andrew Jackson was the first US populist as founder of the Democratic party and known by the nickname of ‘King Mob’. There is a lot more to be thought through here connecting his project of genocide to open up lands for the poor and rebellious whites of the colonies with current populism, but I will think that through later. Or maybe return to Roediger who details all of this so beautifully in relation to the formation of white and working class identities. The forms populism takes surely follow some of these ruts laid down over the centuries. But the actual populist movement in the late 1800s offered some hope for a little while.
Anyway, like for Laclau, there is needed an antagonistic frontier, a struggle between two Americas. For Ravelli on the one side is Trump’s countryside, of peripheries and old industrial towns, rust belt, abandoned by the Left. These aren’t perhaps explored as much as I would like — what are these geographies, how does class and privilege work within them now? The numbers show, and Revelli states very clearly, that this is not a revolt of the poor. Instead it is a revolt of the middle and upper classes of whites, who feel not just loss, but that others have actively divested them of key aspects of their lives and identities: male privilege, income, social status, recognition of work, respect for faith and country, their place in the world. Lumped together as ‘them’ are the worlds of finance and banks, the forces of globalisation, the swamp of Washington, LGBT activists, Hollywood celebrities, people of color. As Revelli writes, those who mobilised for Trump the winners of the previous era now increasingly facing hard times. This curious collection of ‘others’ along with more traditional cleavages of race and gender help explain what I still find slightly hard to understand.
The fact that the rage of the deprived could identify with a billionaire – his wealth built on rent – is in a sense the watershed between the original populism and the populism that follows the end of the twentieth century. Such is the oxymoronic clash between ‘on top’ and ‘down below’ that has risen from the ashes of the twentieth-century Left/Right pairing.
I know far more about the US of course than the UK, an next to nothing about the populism now rising in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere. This was a great introduction to these even if I still need to do more reading to see whether I fully agree. But he is pursuasive that most of these follow much of the same pattern with their own historical and geographical constellations of factors. The geographies of Brexit show the strength of feeling within the same industrial heartland, rural periphery and areas of greatest social suffering. Immigration is, of course, a key politics in both.
What is interesting for the UK is that the most important indicator in terms of the distribution of the vote turned out to be the provision of public services and policies for balancing the public accounts. In UK, where cuts had come the hardest, the vote for Brexit was strongest.
What lay behind the polarisation of the British referendum, then, was not ‘political cultures’ that had already clustered together. It was not driven by hardened and stable identitarian blocs, or by loyal electorates massed in solid political containers. No: there was a diffuse mood and a generalised sense of discontent (or instability). Above all, there was a fragmented society that struggled to find the words, the language, to express and identify itself.
As a geographer I couldn’t fail to love this:
“It provides further confirmation of the fact that if we want to ‘read’ the populist phenomenon in the new millennium, maps are more eloquent than tables of statistics: not only the socio-economic map, but also the historical one. As we already saw in the American and British cases, the longue durée dynamics tend to re-emerge over the ruins of the political cultures of the twentieth century, revealing older dividing lines. Revealing, in the Polish case, is one such dividing line that dates back to the period immediately subsequent to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the territorial partition of Poland among the Empires.”
A brief look at Italy, which is perhaps the most fascinating:
“In fact, in Italy, populism appeared not in one variant but three, which followed one after the other in (relatively quick) succession. We could call these three ‘forms’ and three ‘figures’ of neo-populism by the names of their eponymous ‘heroes’: Berlusconism, Grillism and Renzism. The three differ in terms of the timing of their ‘rise’ and their ‘period of hegemony’, as well as in terms of their ‘political culture’ – if such a weighty term can be applied to such phenomena. But they are also united by certain traits they have in common, and not only at a formal level.
With Grillo’s M5S to the left and ‘encouraging participative citizen democracy, defending a universalist welfare state, and protecting and championing common and/or public goods (citizens’ income and standing for investment in school and public healthcare)’ while the other two are very different indeed. Yet all populist, and all with another characteristic:
All three of these political experiences are characterised by a strong personalisation.
So to summarise. The geographies of populism:
This map of malaise, which takes account of the reduction in both ‘disposible income’ and ‘market income’, can almost entirely be traced onto the map of the insurgent political phenomena classified as ‘populism’. And this malaise applies to both ‘capital’s side’ (in particular financial investment and productive activities) and ‘labour’s side’. The former was hit by the conjunctural effects of the crisis and the latter was already heavily penalised relative to capital by structural transformations which had been taking place during the long gestation period that preceded the subprime explosion.
Altogether, they form a multitude of the dissatisfied and enraged – above all, the ‘betrayed’, or those who consider themselves as such – transversally distributed across Western societies, extraneous to the traditional political cultures since none of them still represent the new conditions of the masses. These latter are themselves out of place, as they find themselves in the unprecedented condition of the politically homeless. Humiliated by the distance that they see growing between themselves and the few who stand at the top of the pyramid (despite their small numbers, the only ones visible in the media space that has replaced all previous public spaces). Lacking in a language suitable for communicating their own stories, or even to structure an account of themselves, they are thus consigned to resentment and rancour.
It is these characteristics, and perhaps that across the board this is emerging from those who were ‘winners of the previous era’, that characterises what still for me remains so paradoxical:
Almost everywhere, the neo-populist agitation from below is openly exploited by those who in fact stand up above, without any seeming contradiction. And perhaps this explains the reason why Europe’s governing elites, and with them the greater part of the ‘system’s information system’, in fact dedicate themselves much more energetically and effectively to fighting and destabilising the only experiences that have proven a convincing and credible factor for combating this type of contagion.”
That would be the left and its alternatives.
[Revelli, Marco. (2019) The New Populism: Democracy Stares into the Abyss. London and New York: Verso]
The housing struggle is alive and well in Göttingen, it cheered my heart.
Bitches against borders! I laughed out loud.
A sadly folded view of Lisa Simpson, also in protest
Paint splattered bank, that also happened to be home to August Herzog von Sussex (!) and Adolf Friedrich Herzog von Cambridge (!)
And Rock’n Roll Revolution
After the nauseas of Bavaria I was worried, yet Göttingen was quite lovely, This was not just because of its banners, though they set a tone. It is full of lovely old homes with their carved painted wood and names of illustrious men of past ages drawn here by the University (Bismarck, Coleridge, Humboldt) and a most wonderful bear. Also, people who smiled despite my terrible grasp of the German language.
I love From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster provide such a great introduction to environmental racism and the spirit and struggle of the environmental justice movement in From the Ground Up. I wish I had read it while I was organising, but it rings so true from the first page. Look at this preface.
Preface: We Speak for Ourselves.
Stories are one way we transmit our history, share our successes, and learn from our losses. Stories are also an important part of the movement for environmental justice, which has as one of its central tenets the idea “We speak for ourselves.” This book tells the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary roles as community leaders, grassroots experts, and national policymakers. (1)
They open with the battle in Kettlement City against a toxic waste dump, the finding of the Cerrell Report done for the California Waster Management board in 1984, which
suggested to companies and localities that were seeking to site garbage incinerators that the communities that would offer the least resistance to such incinerators were rural communities, poor communities, communities whose residents had low education levels, communities that were highly catholic, communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, and communities whose residents were employed in resource-extractive jobs like mining, timber, or agriculture. (3)
Can what we’re up against be clearer than that?
So to start with the basics.
Environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in the United States, with poor people and people of color bearing a greater share of pollution than richer people and white people. This intuitive idea…has been borne out by dozens of studies completed over the past two decades. The disparate impact documented in studies has given birth to the term “environmental racism.” (10)
So how do we approach this as communities, as allies, as academics? They talk about their approach as internal and external — from the point of view of communities themselves and from the ground up — and the external view looking at the political economy of environmental degradation. They describe the need for both perspectives.
The internal perspective, they argue, is that of grassroots accounts, which tell a crucial narrative that — and they have a great quote from Iris Young here, pulled from Democracy and Difference — “reveals the particular experiences of those in social locations, experiences that cannot be shared by those situated differently but that they must understand in order to do justice to others.” (12) Thus
This book contains stories, collective insights, legal understandings, and a political economy that ‘examines the relationship among economic, political/legal, and social forces as they influence environmental decision-making processes and environmental outcomes. (11)
I love too the broader vision of social and environmental change that this kind of engaged scholarship can support and help develop.
This broader analysis, in turn, forces us to go beyond framing the problem as merely a distributive one–certain communities get an unfair environmental burden–and to reconceptualize grassroots activism as more than an attempt to disrupt the decisions of private corporations and state agencies. Instead grassroots struggles are a crucial arena in which to restructure social relations through systems of localized environmental decision making. (13)
This is what transformative politics looks like, right? Where the Environmental Justice Movement
is not the “elevated environmental consciousness” of its members but the ways that it transforms the possibilities for fundamental social and environmental change through redefinition, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices. … This transformation takes place on a number of levels–the individual, the group, the community–and ultimately influences institutions, government, and social structure. (14)
This has to start with the individual and the community, but it cannot end there…it has to grow, engage, have a sense of a broader coalitional politics.
The other thing?
Words have power.
Just that. What a movement is called, the words it uses, are important. They use environmental justice
because it both expresses our aspiration and encompasses the political economy of environmental decision making. That is, environmental justice requires democratic decision making, community empowerment, and the incorporation of social structure. (16)
They also broadens definition of environment to be ‘where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn.’ Environmentalism is linked to material environment and community through long decades of struggle. It also encompasses both home and community. (16) It is fought on multiple fronts, both fighting toxic land uses as well as working to improve lives through clean jobs, sustainable economy, affordable housing, achieving social and racial justice.
A History of the Environmental Justice Movement
This movement is firmly rooted in past justice movements. There is no single date or event that launched it, but a collection of key points. 1982 struggle of African American community against toxic dump in Warren County, NC. The drowning death of an 8-year-old in a garbage dump in Houston, 1967. MLK’s work in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers, 1968. UFW’s fight against pesticides through the 1960s. Native American struggles since European’s arrived.
They describe it as a river with many tributaries — the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Toxics Movement. Academic work identifying its structural, systemic nature. Native American struggles. The Labor Movement. And to a small extent, traditional environmentalism. All coming together at the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Those amazing resolutions they put forward that are so powerful still today (see them along with a brilliant article by Dana Alston here).
Cole and Foster describe three characteristics uniting the many tributaries, key for those who believe movement and social change must be driven by those experiencing oppression:
Motives: ‘Environmental justice activists usually have an immediate and material stake in solving the environmental problems they confront’ are being made sick, dying, have a personal stake (33)
Background: ‘largely, though not entirely, poor or working-class people. Many are people of color…’ (33)
Perspective: have a social justice orientation, seeing environmental degradation as just one of many way their communities are under attack…seek remedies that are more fundamental…view the need for broader, structural reforms… (33)
The Political Economy of Environmental Racism (Chester residents Concerned for Quality of Life) — a case study on what can go right and wrong. I used to tutor kids in Chester, working class white kid parachuted into a neighbourhood via an elite College program, earning some extra money driving the van back and forth. Wish I’d been a little more woke back then. I still think about those kids sometimes.
Anyway, there are some lessons here about the dangers of relying entirely on legal action — now that is so so familiar. But Chester is also used to look ‘Beyond the Distributive Paradigm’. It helps open up the unequal distribution of toxic waste and industry shaped by structural factors — deindustrialization, white flight, segregation. Incinerators become an opening point for exploring these processes and patterns, and recognizing that despite the clear intersections of race and class, the US reality is that race is better correlated to exposure to environmental dangers. Only by ignoring the structural causes can these injustices be blamed on simple market dynamics and choice, or on lifestyle. But of course, that happens all the time.
There is also a need to examine the definition of racism — this has been steadily narrowed over the years through the courts, constructed as simply “race discrimination” or intentional, purposeful conduct. Under such a limited view, environmental racism requires a bad actor making very conscious decisions. Instead, Cole and Foster argue that
Understanding environmental racism thus requires a conceptual framework that (1) retains a structural view of economic and social forces as they influence discriminatory outcomes, (2) isolates the dynamics within environmental decision-making processes that further contribute to such outcomes, and (3) normatively evaluates social forces and environmental decision-making processes which contribute to disparities in environmental hazard distribution. (65)
And of course, you can trace so much of this back to segregation, deeply, historically embedded into America’s geographies. There’s a nice quote from Richard Ford: “race-neutral policy could be expected to entrench segregation and socio-economic stratification in a society with a history of racism.” (67)
The stories of specific campaigns are so powerful, opening a number of windows into the nature of struggle over time. Buttonwillow is a rural town in California, which is host to CA’s three toxic waste dumps. They give a powerful quote from Lupe Martinez, who had been working with residents on loan from UFW — but I think this is the fear of all organizers:
My fear, when it came down that I had mixed feelings of whether I was going to leave or not, was that it was going to die. That’s the organizer’s nightmare. That everything that you did might not be there at all. Maybe what you did was not what you thought you had done. And so when I left, when I was about to leave, I felt that “what if I didn’t do it right? What if all of a sudden I’m gone and it’s dead , and nothing is going to happen? So, everything that I did was for nothing then.’ (87)
Over time much has been won, but…there has been no clear victory here. Cole and Foster write
On another level, however, the struggle has been a failure: not only is the dump expansion moving forward, but many Padres members have been demoralized by the seven-year struggle. “I feel like I’m throwing rocks at the moon,” sighs Paco Beltran, “and catching them on my head.” (102)
This seems familiar, I have never been so poetic about it though. Despite the losses, there has been a rise in political consciousness, this is also familiar:
The activism of community groups like the Padres in Buttonwillow often begins as a reaction to the impact of increasing numbers of polluting facilities on the community residents’ health and quality of life. However, their activism quickly becomes as struggle over the legitimacy of decision-making processes, the exclusion from and the marginalization of disaffected residents during those processes, and the structural forces that constrain individuals in these communities from fully participating in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. (103)
I love these stories — and I suppose I often feel more is to be learned where things falter and fail. This one highlights how important the relationship between individual organizer and community members is to these struggles — it’s curious that the whole point of organizing is not to be central to struggle, and yet I think it takes a certain kind of person to create a process where consciousness is raised, people do learn and grow collectively. That may be a different kind of person in different circumstances depending on the mix of personalities. Alinksy writes a lot about this, and it’s a conundrum I turn over in my head — the role of the individual in collective action. It’s why I think spaces like Highlander are so important, and it is happiness to see Highlander appear here, hosting workshops and providing space for discussion and reflection and growth in support of the process of struggle.
Processes of Struggle
It’s all about this:
the grassroots organizations created in the midst of struggles for environmental justice are crucial in creating an ongoing role for community participation in all decisions that fundamentally affect the participants’ lives. When local groups are able to link their victories in the environmental realm to broader political and economic struggles, the potential exists to redefine existing power relations, to unsettle cultural assumptions about race and class, and to create new political possibilities for historically marginalized communities… (105)
This comes through taking power, through redefining power relations. It means that communities must always speak for themselves, ‘that those who must bear the brunt of a decision should have an equal and influential role in making the decision’. (106)
This is not your liberal pluralism though. ‘Pluralism, in practice, tends to exclude those lacking the material prerequisites to equal participation.‘ (109) Instead we see a beginning look at the creation of a deliberative process, where ‘citizens thus create the common good through discourse, as opposed to discovering it through prexisting preferences.’ (113) I quite like this way of thinking of these conflictual and deliberative public conversations, not as public school debates but as collective endeavours to grow and learn and reach a decision. This is–or could be–the essence of what Freire describes in his work on pedagogy, much different than the European body of work around discourse gets to (though perhaps Nancy Fraser and Iris Young bring it closest).
There are challenges here too of course. This is hard. But they are trying to move towards a transformative politics. The ways in which moving from bystander to participant in struggle is transformative, but also at the community level ‘a collective emergence of solidarity, action and rebelliousness that builds on itself in an organic manner’ (156). They draw on Gaventa’s study of power and silences and struggle in Appalachia, which I love so much. They also gave this idea of institutional transformation developing through the EJ movement:
the important power building that is occurring between the Environmental Justice Movement and other social justice activism, what we call “movement fusion”: the coming together of two (or more) different social movements in a way that expands the base of support for both movements by developing a common agenda. (164)
This fusion continues, and EJ principles and learning are so clearly foundational for so much of what is coming out of the Right to the City Alliance, the Movement for Black Lives…there is so much brilliance in the US at this level.
[Cole, Luke W. and Foster, Sheila R. (2001) From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York and London: New York University Press.]
I found Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World such an extraordinary book. I love particularly how it stretches to understand and theorise complexity in a way closely tied to justice struggles, that includes but is hardly limited to political economy and ecology.
It opens with this idea of entanglement, and its challenges to more traditional theorising around capitalism, nature, knowledge. I love her language, her style and the way it in turn allows such an intense grappling-with-things-as-they-are. She talks about enabling entanglements, all that this allows us to think through:
Ever since the enlightenment, western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature. It was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human. Several things have happened to undermine this division of labor. First, all that taming and mastering has made such a mess that it is unclear whether life on earth can continue. Second, interspecies entanglements that once seemed the stuff of fables are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings. Humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others. Third, women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature. The time has come for new ways of telling true stories beyond civilizational first principles.
There is no question of what the stakes are — this wonderful idea of riotous presence. She continues
Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of a parochially imagined rationality. (vii)
My book then offers “third nature,” that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead…Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them, this books sketches open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms. (viii)
This ‘crippling assumption’ of linear progress is critiqued again and again, as is the reduction of theory:
While I refuse to reduce either economy or ecology to the other, there is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into re-sources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter.’ Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.’ This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut: the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere. Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production. Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. (5-6)
Again this is creating theory able to think in new ways about an all-pervasive precarity, all-pervasive spaces of abandonment and ruin (at the same as possible spaces of life and hope), and the entanglements that are part of this in complex ways. On precarity:
Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. (20)
On assemblage, which she draws on a great deal and I confess I’ve never much cared for… but I love the idea stretched to be wielded in this way, these lifeways.
The concept of assemblage is helpful. Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible: still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making. For my purposes, however, I need something other than organisms as the elements that gather. I need to see lifeways—and non-living ways of being as well—coming together. Nonhuman ways of being, like human ones, shift historically. For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters. Thinking about humans makes this clear. Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life—but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?
Patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies. Assemblages drag political economy inside them, and not just for humans. Plantation crops have lives different from those of their free-living siblings; cart horses and hunter steeds share species but not lifeways. Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works. If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition. (23)
I love how for her this fits into the landscape — a term with immense baggage in the world of geography, but still very useful I think. It moves into questions of methodology, where I also find so much to think about here, draw into my own work.
Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)
The concept of salvage, something I also find really useful:
‘taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control…”Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works. (63)
On supply chains, commodities, what a mushroom can teach us about the contemporary nature of capitalism, the idea of translation:
A supply chain is a particular kind of commodity chain: one in which lead firms direct commodity traffic.’ Throughout this part, I explore the supply chain linking matsutake pickers in the forests of Oregon with those who eat the mushrooms in Japan. The chain is surprising and full of cultural variety. The factory work through which we know capitalism is mainly missing. But the chain illuminates something important about capitalism today: Amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials. Instead, it requires acts of translation across varied social and political spaces, which, borrowing from ecologists’ usage, I call “patches.” Translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s sense, is the drawing of one world-making project into another.2 While the term draws attention to language, it can also refer to other forms of partial attunement. Translations across sites of difference are capitalism: they make it possible for investors to accumulate wealth. (62)
Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm: commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world. (110)
She continues with what helped out allow the global shift to outsourcing but following the commodity chain of the matsutake — this is a long quote but traces this way of unraveling how things work, fit together, of seeing absences as well as presences, of bringing together multiple ways of understanding how a thing works and how assemblage might be a useful concept along more traditional concepts used in looking at capitalism like alienation:
…I let the thread of the story unroll quite far from matsutake. Yet at each step I need the chain’s reminders to resist the lull of current erasures. This is not just a story, then, but also a method: big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details.
In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements. turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended. An army of technicians and managers stand by to remove offending parts—and they have the power of courts and guns. This does not mean that the machine has a static form. As I argued in tracing the history of Japanese-U.S. trade relations, new forms of capitalist translation come into being all the time. Indeterminate encounters matter in shaping capitalism. Yet it is not a wild profusion. Some commitments are sustained, through force.
Two have been particularly important for my thinking in this book. First, alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets. Capitalist commodities are removed from their life-worlds to serve as counters in the making of further investments. Infinite needs are one result; there is no limit on how many assets investors want. Thus, too, alienation makes possible accumulation—the amassing of investment capital, and this is the second of my concerns. Accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies. Meanwhile, because capitalism is a system of commensuration, capitalist value forms flourish even across great circuits of difference. Money becomes investment capital, which can produce more money. Capitalism is a translation machine for producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human. (133)
Gives examples of children reclaiming precious and dangerous metals from cell phones as another example of salvage — not anything thought of as capitalist labour, yet important to more traditional forms of labour such as the making of new phones.
However, there is something peculiar and frightening in this dedication salvage, as if everyone were taking advantage of the end of the world to gather up riches before the last bits are destroyed. (274)
These different forms of exploitation alongside each other makes theorising and organising for a better world difficult, but it is the task before us. Salvage is perhaps a term that can help get us where we need to go:
The challenges are enormous. Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is “representative,” no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism. Yet this is not the end of politics. Assemblages, in their diversity, show us what later I call the `latent commons,” that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions—and not just for humans. The business of progress depended on conquering an infinitely rich nature through alienation and scalability. If nature has turned finite, and even fragile, no wonder entrepreneurs have rushed to get what they can before the goods run out, while conservationists desperately contrive to save scraps. The next part of this book offers an alternative politics of more-than-human entanglements. (134-35)
And so we return to methods, to storytelling, to knowing place:
Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)
History is central to this, but what is it exactly? What does it need to be?
“History” is both a human storytelling practice and that set of remainders from the past that we turn into stories. Conventionally, historians look only at human remainders, such as archives and diaries, but there is no reason not to spread our attention to the tracks and traces of nonhumans, as these contribute to our common landscapes. Such tracks and traces speak to cross-species entanglements in contingency and con-juncture, the components of “historical” time. To participate in such entanglement, one does not have to make history in just one way.’ Whether or not other organisms “tell stories,” they contribute to the overlapping tracks and traces that we grasp as history.2 History, then, is the record of many trajectories of world making, human and not human. (168)
Just two other tidbits to end:
Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value. That is the secret of property’s continuing theft–but also its vulnerability. (271)
I just need to sit and think about that. And this, which perhaps is the real challenge this book seeks to address, the need for these new ways of thinking, studying, understanding:
Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. The problem is that progress stopped making sense. (25)
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
There may be loads written on this, but very little of it is available in English in anything resembling an affordable edition. Almost nothing. The book I most wanted by Eve Blau The Architecture of “Red Vienna” 1919-1934 starts at £130, still, I found a lovely article by her which this pulls from a bit en masse. But the lack of literature is an immense frustration.
After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. Housing was only one of the things they did, they looked at education and health as well. But more on that is here. The new government under mayors Jakob Reumann and Karl Seitz worked to build as much housing as quickly as they could. And it is splendid. It was ‘organised communally and jointly on a community aid basis‘, designed by architects like Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Margarete Lihotzky and Franz Schuster and the whole advised by others like Otto Neurath.
The settlers’ collectives and cooperatives were in most cases sub-organisations of the SDAPÖ, which was a guarantee that neither anarchy nor a proprietary bourgeois ownership mentality prevailed, but above all that party-political and unified action was encouraged and reinforced, through educational and community-oriented organisational forms such as political and cultural education courses (adult education programme, adult education centres), libraries, clubs, workers’ clubs (Schutzbund) and youth groups (Wiener Kinderfreunde, Rote Falken, Naturfreunde),
From a present-day viewpoint, the formal achievements of “Red Vienna” are of less importance than its social achievements, because the allocation of housing according to the determination of need, i.e. objective urgency, rather than through interest or purse, the instilling of a spirit of community and shared responsibility in a longed-for democratic welfare state by means of architecture and improved living conditions, the demand for healthier, decent housing with local infrastructure, not at the cost of the weak, are (still) real-socialist goals which remain to be achieved today. (Zednicek 11-12)
I found a slightly different take here, from Eve Blau in an article on an earlier exhibition touring the US ‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st Century City’ (would have loved that…)
To begin, it is important to emphasize that the municipal project of Red Vienna was not a housing program, but an urban program. It was a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living. The building program – which involved the construction of 400 buildings known as Gemeindebauten, in which housing, social services and cultural institutions were distributed throughout the city – was the primary instrument of that project. By 1934, when Red Vienna itself came to a violent end with the Austrofascist rout of the socialist administration by Dollfuss and the Heimwehr, 200,000 people – one-tenth of the population of Vienna – had been rehoused, and the city provided with a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.
When the first socialist mayor of Vienna was elected in 1919, the Social Democrats determined to make Red Vienna a model of municipal socialism. “Capitalism,” Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna declared, “cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful installments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.” Red Vienna, in other words, was a project to change society by changing the city (Blau).
Most of the flats built were modest, all had an internal toilet (revolutionary!) but many were lacking other amenities now considered necessary. But they held so much more, and embodied a vision of social transformation:
The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the “social condensers” of Red Vienna, the vehicles for transforming the city. They contained housing, but also the Social Democrats’ extensive new infrastructure of social and cultural institutions that were embedded in them. They therefore created a new network of socio-cultural nodes throughout Vienna. It is important to note that the Social Democrats could not have focused on housing and social infrastructure if the previous Christian Social administration of mayor Karl Lueger (1844-1910) had not put in place the extensive network of technical infrastructure – electricity, gas, drinking water, sewage, tramlines, and a new metropolitan railway – in Vienna a generation earlier. The Social Democrats not only profited, but also learned a great deal from that earlier program (Blau).
Look how much they managed before this brilliant moment was crushed by fascism. Small wonder they campaigned around it.
A striking feature of all “Red Vienna” municipal housing projects is the inscription in red metal lettering: “Built by the Viennese municipal authorities from funds raised through the housing construction tax in the years …” Notwithstanding their stylistic similarities, the municipal developments are characterised by a wide range of architectural solutions and building typologies, whereby, with the typology of the “superblock”, for the first time in urban development morphology both a new building typology in housing construction and a change in scale in Vienna’s urban landscape appear. The homogeneous giant blocks containing over 800 individual flats, but also some big estate settlements with between 400 and 800 settler’s holdings, burst asunder the traditional architectural and structural fabric of the city. The new, unfamiliar “colossal” scale of the municipal developments gave rise to new problems both in terms of urban the planning and also in the way the dimensions of the buildings rage and were handled architecturally. The monumental-emotional excesses of the “superblocks”, which because of their size and mass dominated the urban space, were perceived as a unified “Red Front” against bourgeois-conservative Vienna. (Zednicek 35)
Eve Blau brings out more nuance in this, partly by describing the traditions of architecture, planning and transport design they drew from as well as their goal. I wouldn’t have said they felt all that much like a front, with perhaps the exception of Karl-Marx Hof. They fit the fabric of the city quite well.
At first glance the Gemeindebauten appear to be traditional Central European perimeter blocks that have been monumentalized and provided with large garden courtyards so that they often occupy an entire urban block and sometimes several. Because of their seeming conventionality, the Gemeindebauten were sharply criticized at the time by architects of the modernist avant-garde and by architectural historians later, most notably, Manfredo Tafuri, who criticized them for their apparent lack of typological innovation.
But in fact, they did represent innovation:
By bringing the public space of the city into the interior (and traditionally private space) of the block, the Gemeindebauten effectively turned the traditional urban block of the Central European city inside out. In so doing, they created hybrid spaces that were both part of the public domain of the city and part of the private and communal space of the new housing blocks.
The buildings themselves also challenge traditional concepts of boundary and type. Part dwelling space, part institutional space, part commercial space; they are multi-functional, multi-use structures that operate as both housing and urban infrastructural nodes, distributing the social services and cultural facilities provided by the Social Democratic municipality across the city. In short, they reproduced the city while reallocating its spaces and amenities.
In short, the Gemeindebauten not only appropriated what would normally have been private space in the city (the interiors of the city blocks) for public use, but also created a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city. And they did this without destroying the existing scale and fabric. Today, this kind of commonly owned space has more or less disappeared from the city.
A display from the exhibition:
We headed to the Ringstrasse of the Proletariat — I mean, we heard that such was its name once upon a time and so of course we did. Not all the buildings we saw are on this map but this is the key grouping:
We start from the top, walking down from the Margaretengürtel station. We found these nowhere clearly mapped, so had no idea quite what we were looking for, or how much we would find (and missed one with crazy balconies right across the street).
Ernst Hinterberger Hof
This was impressive — nine stories in the center flanked by two smaller blocks of seven stories. The courtyards they hold and the different levels are wonderful, as is the welcoming garden in front of the center building. It was meant to be impressive, ‘since it reflected in idealised form the ideological power-political and cultural reality right at the beginning of “municipal socialism’ (Zednicek54) .
Architects Hubert Gessner/Josef Bittner, built 1924-26
This feels both subdued and ornate alongside Reumann Hof
There is clearly another in the curve of the road, I thought Matteotti was the end…but we had the biggest yet to come. Still, I appreciated seeing these more I think, one alongside each other you get a real sense of how they are each distinctive yet the characteristics they share.
Karl Marx Hof
This monstrous flagship of the social democratic administration and building ideology bears all the hallmarks of a built political manifesto. The grand gesture already expressly demanded by the municipal planning department when inviting competitive design proposals required a distinctly “triumphal architecture”, which the official town hall architect Karl Ehn implemented in ideal form with his colossal design. The gigantic housing complex of, originally, 1,300 flats with exemplary infrastructural amenities has a facade almost one kilometre in length which gave rise to how the problem of how to deal with the structural dimensions and divide them harmonically… solved through the effective scaling of the structure in individual blocks. The prestige project with its plainly designed and divided blocks was consciously conceived as an antithesis to the otherwise preferred pathos of the “people’s palaces”. (Zednicek 14)
It was built in 3 stages as part of the 2nd 5-year plan of housing constrcution, first occupied in 1930 and completed in 1933. Such an incredible thing after July 1927, the burning of the Palace of Justice and bloody street fighting — which cannot but be connected to the civil war of July 1934.
Pictures from the Red Vienna exhibit website of when it was first built — and by whom!
This is another settlement all together, but gives a sense of the cooperative building.
And these the books used to track people’s labour:
A model building of a settlement house by Adolf Loos. Splendid
There is a map of course, but it is large and we saw it at the Red Vienna exhibition but could not take it with us…
This was splendid, how lucky we were. There was loads here about housing, but more on that later, but it was amazing. Red Vienna was amazing. After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. There was a moment of reactionary violence in 1927. Then in 1934 civil war, Red Vienna crushed beneath violence and bloodshed by the Nazis and I had never heard of a civil war…I know I keep discovering my own ignorance.
But the exhibition is a moment to look at all they dreamed and all they accomplished, and their bravery in the struggle to keep it.
This was perhaps one of my favourite concrete things:
A one piece cast-concrete kitchen scullery designed by Margarete Lihotzky to conserve as much space as possible for the new housing units. She did it based on observation of how women worked and what they needed — something that had not been done before (surprise surprise). She would go on to design the Frankfurt kitchen (which I will get to see in Berlin!), and then fight Nazis and she still lived to 100. She is marvelous, I will be writing more about her I think (but more is here). Her plans are below.
She is one new hero, there were others on these walls.
Marie Jahoda, psychologist, fighter for freedom, incarcerated by the fascists, set free in 1937 and left for Britain. I found her career interests here (how cool is she):
Career Focus: Unemployment; positive mental health; anti-semitism and prejudice; psychoanalysis; non-reductionistic social psychology; field methods.
Her study of the effects of long-term unemployment on mental health:
Adelheid Popp, feminist and socialist.
Käthe Leichter, feminist, economist, journalist. Murdered by Nazis. Her women’s network:
Otto Neurath again — I’ve written about his work developing isotypes, making knowledge visual — the photographs and charts covering all of these walls are the results of his work. Splendid.
But perhaps most splendid this little elephant that he often used instead of a signature to sign all of his letters.
But he is one of teh driving forces behind these amazing infographics, this one exploring everything that goes into the building of a home. Damn. Awesome.
A selection from their library, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Ship of Fools by B. Traven.
Paul Robeson needs no introduction, this is one of the best covers ever.
Otto Neurath’s efforts to visualise and make intelligible data continues on in current illustrations — I love these social network diagrams.
It’s possibly this book that was my favourite non-concrete thing. More precisely the fact that there exists a book on the riots in Vienna which has been stamped with the word lies. I think I would like such a stamp myself.
There was also an array of brilliant political posters.
Inspiring. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna before next January, go see it.
I’ve not been well at all, have had no time no heart for writing much. But I’m off for a while, find this soothing. It’s 21st of June and I am only now able to look back, put up some thoughts about these amazing few days. And so I am following the timeline of memory creation, not of its documentation…
In periods of frenzied haste towards wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodelling of the system of property ownership, of production, or exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.
‘The Spirit of Revolt’ 1880
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.